For forty days and nights we have journeyed through the desert of the Season of Lent. Tonight we have reached our Promised Land. In the splendour and joy of this holy night the Church is incapable of restraint any longer, crying out Alleluia over and over again as she rejoices in the salvation brought to us by Christ her Lord. We, the Christian faithful united to Christ through a covenant sealed in his Precious Blood, are filled with that joy as we rejoice with the saints of every age and generation that Christ has saved us from ourselves. In him death is put to death; sin is itself crucified; we are freed from the slavery of our former lives and given eternal life by Christ in the kingdom of his beloved Father.
At the start of these three sacred days, known through the centuries as the Triduum Sacrum, the Church commemorates the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Priesthood. Each time we come to the Mass we hear in the words of consecration uttered by the Priest of how “on the day before he was to suffer” the Lord took bread and wine, and offered it to his eternal Father before sharing it with his disciples. “In pronouncing the blessing over the bread and wine, [the Lord] anticipated the sacrifice of the Cross and expressed the intention of perpetuating his presence among his disciples” in his Real Presence in the Most Holy Eucharist. In the liturgy of this night we hear more specifically: “On the day before he was to suffer for our salvation and the salvation of all, that is today.” Today is thus the pre-eminent feast of the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of unity in which we find not only our vocation to holiness—what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls “a pledge of future glory”—but also the very meaning of what it is to be the Church. As Christians we are baptised into the Mystical Body of Christ. We are, quite literally, incorporated in Christ. In the Most Holy Eucharist it is that one and the same Body that is offered and received. As Pope Benedict XVI put it: “The Eucharist is the mystery of the profound closeness and communion of each individual with the Lord and, at the same time, of visible unity between all.”
Almost 40 days ago we began our Lenten pilgrimage toward the great feast of Easter. We began with the dust and ash of Ash Wednesday, and we shall end with the living water and rebirth of Easter Sunday. This is a journey from death to life; from slavery to sin to true freedom in the perpetual light and beatitude—blessedness—of the heavenly kingdom. In walking this way we have followed the example of the Israelite people, who travelled for forty years through the desert from slavery to the Egyptians in a foreign land, to liberation in the Promised Land. Our journey does not take us from physical place to physical place, but it does bring us out from exile to the true Promised Land—our native land; the kingdom of heaven.
Over these weeks the gospel reading at our Sunday Mass has reflected on Christ’s ministry of healing, albeit in a variety ways. Two weeks ago we heard of the Samaritan woman at the well, offered the living water of life by Christ as the antidote to her life of sin. Last week we heard of the recovery of the sight of the man born blind; an analogy for our own cleansing from original sin. And this week we hear the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are each rich with the narrative of the life and works of Christ. Together they make up what are known as the “synoptic gospels,” and over the course of a three year cycle the Church nourishes us with these narratives in the readings at Mass. In them we hear described in detail, and from various perspectives, the events of the life of Christ. Alongside these texts we often find ourselves diverted by a reading from the gospel according to Saint John. This gospel not only reinforces the narratives presented by the other three gospels, but also offers a mystical tone that demands a special effort in reading. Little in the text of the gospel according to Saint John is coincidental. Whereas the Matthew, Mark, and Luke provide a storyline for us to follow, John also uses specific words and ideas, in the context of retelling that narrative, to proclaim the great truths of our faith and in particular those regarding the person of Christ.
Given at a Solemn Mass celebrated according to Divine Worship: The Missal on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas), in thanksgiving for the successful completion of the Doctorate in Canon Law.
We are gathered here this evening to celebrate the great event of the presentation of the Lord in the temple. Christ, the lumen ad revelationem gentium, has come to fulfil the promise of his Father. The narrative of his nativity comes to a close as we ourselves see the purpose of his condescension; his coming into our midst from the glories of heaven to bring salvation to man. That this takes place in the temple is itself a further sign: God continues to reveal himself to man in divine worship—the worship, ultimately, of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, in which we are invited to participate here in earth.
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 recent presidential election here in the United States happily coincided with the start of a new television programme entitled The Crown, which traces the life of Queen Elizabeth II at the time of her marriage, the death of her father, King George VI, and her subsequent accession, as well as the early years of her reign. Themes of duty, honour, and fidelity, are very present and the character of Sir Winston Churchill, then serving his second term as Prime Minister, is at pains to instill in the young sovereign these laudable traits; characteristics that ensure the Crown remains greater than the crowned.
The Missa pro defunctis of the Roman rite is a particularly eloquent expression of that idea first found in the writings of Saint Prosper of Aquitaine: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. To paraphrase: the law of prayer establishes the law of belief. The proper texts and rituals of the Requiem Mass, a part of the law of prayer, point to Christian doctrine (that is, the law of belief) and in particular what the Church believes about those who have died. Each word and action this way of celebrating the Mass, offered this evening in its solemn form, beautifully demonstrates what we believe to be our role as the Church militant with respect to our deceased brethren, the Church expectant. There is no doubting that in this somewhat stark and precise liturgical rite we discover a fulsome and rich theology of the dead. By it, echoing the words of the Introit, we offer a true hymn of praise to God, and in particular do so on behalf of our beloved dead: “Thou, O God, art praised in Sion, and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem: thou that hearest the prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come” (Ps. 65). In union with the supreme Eucharistic oblation, then, we here present ourselves and our prayers for those “who have gone before us sealed with the seal of faith, and who sleep the sleep of peace,” beseeching the Lord God to grant them “the abode of refreshing, of light, and of peace;” an abode that is found and offered to the faithful in Sion; the heavenly Jerusalem.
As we come to the end the great swathes of green Sundays of the Year, over the course of the past few weeks the Church has begun to hint at the arrival of a new liturgical season. Next Sunday she will celebrate the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and the following Sunday she will be clothed in violet as she begins that majestic season of Advent; the time when those who are one with Christ in baptism celebrate his threefold coming. As Saint Bernard says: “In the first coming he comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, he comes in spirit and in power; in the third, he comes in glory and in majesty.”