Tonight, in the strangest of circumstances, the universal Church keeps vigil in anticipation and celebration of the Resurrection of her Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. At a time when the world seems cloaked in darkness, when every-day life is curtailed, tonight we commemorate the greatest hope there ever was, or could ever be. Our celebrations have a familiarity marked by the usual symbols of our liturgical faith. Yet at the same time they are characterized this year by something unfamiliar, even frightening. I want to reflect briefly on both.
Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid!
It is tempting to think that in these peculiar times, somehow the mission and work of the Church is put on hold; that we are unable to go about our daily business. Many of us rightly feel sad that our churches are closed, and that the usual round of divine worship and pastoral activity has been forced to grind to an uncomfortable halt. Some may even feel resentment toward those who have made these decisions, whether priests and bishops, or politicians and those in civil authority. Tonight Saint Joseph comes into our midst to offer a different narrative.
Several weeks ago a news story carried a medical warning that people, young and old, are beginning to experience chronic back and neck pain earlier and earlier in life, due to the amount of time spent on their phone. Another article described increased reports of carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects the hands, wrists, and arms, due to the repetitive nature of phone use, like texting. When I was having trouble sleeping earlier this year, someone suggested to me using a special app which plays natural sounds to produce a calming effect and help send you off to sleep. Many of us, I am sure, wake up to a radio alarm clock, or sit in the car on the way to work with music playing, or even have the television or radio on in the background at home, even when we are nowhere near it. If you go on the train or the bus, almost everyone will have headphones on, listening away in their own little world whilst the scenery passes them.
At the start of every celebration of the Mass we hear a short passage from scripture called the Introit, or Entrance Antiphon. The word “antiphon” is a combination of two Greek words: anti and phone, as in “gramophone.” “Anti-phone” literally means a sound in return to another sound; a kind-of call and response, and it is why the antiphons we have in the liturgy are supposed to be sung; they are responsorial texts given us by the Church in the Sacred Liturgy, to which we to make a response. That response is heard here at the Sung Mass on Sundays when we respond in a literal way by singing our response. We do something similar even when we say the Responsorial Psalm. But that outward, audible, and physical response to the text—one that often involves repeating the text over and over in order to affirm its meaning—is only part of the story. In fact, the response we are called to make to these antiphons, as with all liturgical texts, is not simply one made with our lips, but with our whole selves, with our lives. We can say that just as we sing our response, joining in our worship in the context of the liturgy, so also all that are is also called to resound with that response as a lived, real expression of what we believe and who we are in Jesus Christ. As the ancient saying goes, the law of prayer is the law belief; in other words, what we do in worship shows forth our faith.
Since about September this year, at the start of the Sung Mass on Sundays here at Holy Family we have replaced the opening hymn with a chant that changes each week. If you come to Mass on a weekday you will hear, even before the Priest says “In the Name of the Father,” a similar short text very often taken from the psalms or some other part of scripture. This text, whether sung or said, very often presents the ‘theme’ of the Mass. For instance at a Mass for the Dead we sing, “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.” And on Christmas Day, “Today Christ is born, today the Saviour has appeared.” The text is called the Entrance Antiphon or Introit, because it is supposed to be sung as the Sacred Ministers enter the church for the start of the Mass.
This homily was given at a Mass preceding the final act in the 33 Day Consecration of Saint Louis Grignon de Montfort, on the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In the life of the Church there are many things which go by different names. We talk about the Sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation, or Confession. And in a similar way there are times when we describe different things with the same word. We know, for instance, that the blessing invoked by us over our breakfast cereal is different from that given by the Priest at the end of the Mass.
During the season of Advent we fix our minds on the two “comings” of Christ. First, and most obviously His coming amongst us as the Word made Flesh in His Nativity. Even the world outside the Church acknowledges this. Despite its best efforts to sanitise Christmas and to denude it of its essential message, even the world sees that there is something that speaks to the heart of what it means to be a human being in that little baby in a stable stall. So, first of all, Advent is about our journey toward Christ in His first coming at Bethlehem in Judaea. Secondly, and perhaps less popularly, the season of Advent looks towards the coming of Christ again at the end of time. This is far less comforting (for believers and non-believers alike) but Christians profess: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” And so He will; Christ will return and will expose the hidden places of our hearts, to judge us and all of mankind according to our deeds. He will come to sort the sheep from the goats (Mt 25:32).
At the back of our church is a very large and very striking stained glass window. It is often the first thing that visitors remark upon when they come through the door, but it is also something that many of us perhaps take for granted. The window is a rich tapestry of light and of colour, but much more than that it is a tapestry of theological truth. Through its forms and design the glass depicts for us a theme that is essential not just to the Christian life, but the entire human experience. This is of course the story of our creation, the covenants between God and Man, and the salvation offered us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in His passion, death, and resurrection.
Today the Church begins a new liturgical year with the start of the season of Advent. The First Sunday of Advent is of course not just the Church’s “New Year’s Day” but the opening of our preparations for the celebration of the Nativity, the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ according the flesh, when God comes to make His home with us at Christmas. As we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, in this season we also recall that, as we affirm in the words of the Creed, “[Christ] will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Just as we look forward to His first coming in the manger at Bethlehem, so also our minds are also fixed on His second coming at the end of time “to achieve the definitive triumph of good over evil which, like the wheat and the tares, have grown up together in the course of history” (CCC 680). It is for this reason that the gospel for this first Sunday of the season of Advent presents to us those alarming words of the Lord to His disciples from the Gospel according to Saint Mark: “Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come” (Mk 13:33).