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Detail from the Church of Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, Richmond

 

It is always a very great pleasure for me to come to this parish and to visit a place that has such a wonderful and rich liturgical life. Your Pastor has helped to create for you here a place in which we can truly experience what a mediæval English carol called “heaven and earth in little space.” In the beauty and reverence of the Sacred Liturgy we come into the realm of the natural and peer into the realm of the supernatural. We catch a glimpse of the reality of heaven through the signs and symbols of the liturgical celebration on earth, and so understand more and more what it is to be members of the mystical Body of Christ, joined as we are in our worship to the worship of the saints in the kingdom of heaven. We experience in the “little space” of our church building the worship of heaven here on earth.

The first Sunday of the season of Advent, and thus the start of a new liturgical year, is a natural time for us to reflect on the treasure that is the Sacred Liturgy, and to seek to enter more deeply into its riches. As we set out once again on the cycle of the Church’s life we are presented with the chance to make certain new year’s resolutions; not as we might do at the turn of the calendar year—going to the gym, giving up smoking, or whatever it happens to be—but resolutions to become more faithful to Christ through our participation in his life in the liturgical worship of his mystical body, the Church.

We might be tempted to see other aspects of the Christian life as more important, more pressing than this liturgical worship, but the Catechism teaches us that the Sacred Liturgy is the action of the Christus totus—the whole Christ—and is thus essential to our relationship with him which, through our baptismal incorporation, is given shape in the Church. In his newly published interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI, describing his upbringing, speaks movingly about the importance of the liturgy in his own formation: “To participate in the liturgy,” he says, “really was from the very beginning a constitutive and noble experience.” Thus we can say that all actions of the Christian life—charity, justice, mercy, generosity, all of which are important—in fact find their origin in the totus Christus, the whole Christ, who is most present and most accessible in the action of the Sacred Liturgy.

It is in the rites and ceremonies of the liturgy, too, that we come to understand more fully the faith we profess. If the liturgical celebration is the primary locus or place of our encounter with Christ, it is also here that we are formed in his life and given the pattern by which we are to live. And so nothing in the liturgical celebration is ever accidental. Each gesture, sign, symbol, and word of the Sacred Liturgy is loaded with meaning waiting to be unpacked. And at the opening of the new liturgical year there is no exception. In fact the very first words that we hear as this new cycle of the Church’s life of worship begins are enough for a sermon in themselves. As we heard in the words of the Introit: Ad te levavi animam meam: Deus meus in te confido—Unto thee, O Lord, lift I up my soul; O my God, in thee have I trusted. The original Latin text begins with the letter “A,” the first letter of the alphabet, and so as we begin the new liturgical year we are presented by the Sacred Liturgy with a new start. Christ is the new day; the rising sun toward which, during these weeks of Advent, we journey. Yet at the same time the melody that accompanies these words, given us by the rich and ancient musical heritage of the Church, goes further.

Listen to the incipit; the opening phrase of the entire liturgical year:

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Perhaps in this simple phrase we hear notes that are familiar to us. Listen again:

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or simplified:

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We might recognize them more easily with these words:

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And so just as the beginning of the year is presented to us and we are reminded that Christ is the “A,” as it were, so also we are reminded that he is the culmination of all things. He is, as we will repeat over and over again throughout the season of Advent, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the A to Z of all creation: throughout all ages, world without end. As we begin our journey through the Advent season this simple but poignant opening lights the way as we recall Christ’s first coming in the humility of the Bethlehem stable, and at once look forward also in joyful hope to his second coming in dreadful majesty to judge both the living and the dead.

Now, if the essence of the great mystery of the incarnation and the redemption of the world can be found in just a handful of notes and a single letter of the alphabet in the context of the Sacred Liturgy, we should be encouraged to plunge ourselves more and more into the liturgical life of the Church, and to discover its endless rewards as it helps to conform our lives to the pattern established already in our native homeland: the kingdom of heaven. The season of Advent is the time par excellence in which to do this, and it is perhaps easier for you in this parish than in many places. So I encourage you to use these weeks of Advent as a time to read and meditate upon the texts of the Mass, on the particular symbols and elements of the Church’s worship in this liturgical season, and to be attentive to them. If we truly seek the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, in the silence of the manger and in the majesty of his coming-again at the end of time, it is here, dear brothers and sisters, in the context of the Sacred Liturgy, that we already find him.