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.”
In case you ever needed an excuse, today is a particularly fitting day to find time to listen to the complete Rosary Sonatas (or Mystery Sonatas) of Heinrich Biber, the Bohemian and Austrian composer who died in 1704. Biber composed the sonatas in the mid-1670s and dedicated them to then Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Maximilian Gandolf von Kuenberg.
The first Sunday of the month of October is known in many places as Rosary Sunday, in part marking the victory of the Holy League over the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Pope Saint Pius V attributed this success to the many prayers offered through the rosary, and instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victories as a result.
Biber’s fifteen sonatas trace the mysteries of the rosary, which themselves help us to focus more profoundly on the life of Christ – a pilgrimage through a little “liturgical year,” marking the mysteries of the Lord’s life. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us:
The Holy Rosary is not a pious practice banished to the past, like prayers of other times thought of with nostalgia … In the current world, so dispersive, this prayer helps to put Christ at the centre, as the Virgin did, who meditated within all that was said about her Son, and also what he did and said. When reciting the Rosary, the important and meaningful moments of salvation history are relived. The various steps of Christ’s mission are traced. With Mary the heart is oriented toward the mystery of Jesus. Christ is put at the centre of our life, of our time, of our city, through the contemplation and meditation of his holy mysteries of joy, light, sorrow and glory.
In the original score of Biber’s work each sonata is accompanied by a small depiction of the mystery of the rosary which the music represents. A final sixteenth movement, also included in the original score, is a passacaglia for solo violin. Above this is an image, not of a mystery of the rosary, but of a small child with his guardian angel (see above). The English musicologist Peter Holman has noted that the bass line of the passacaglia is based on the opening phrase of a popular German hymn to the guardian angels, Einen Engel Gott mir geben.
Today, apart from being Rosary Sunday, is also 2 October and thus traditionally the feast of the guardian angels. These angels pray for us, protect and guide us, and offer our prayers, good works and desires to God. Perhaps this is a little opportunity for grace today: finding God anew in the beauty of sacred music, asking once more for the prayers of his blessed Mother, and receiving again the reassurance of his protection.
You can listen to a complete recording of the Rosary Sonatas here:
For the Priest there is a strong link between the office to which he is consecrated and the person of Our Lady. At the foot of the Cross, as we heard in today’s gospel, Our Lady was given by Christ to Saint John so that mankind might be afforded an intercessor of inestimable efficacy. In a particular way the Priest, who stands at the Cross with a foot on either side of the divide between heaven and earth, rejoices in the motherhood of the Blessed Mother. He knows that as much as he shares in the priestly office of Christ, even acting in his very person, he shares also in the maternal care of the Lord’s mother.
This homily was given at a Votive Mass of Our Lady of Sorrows at Saint Mary’s, Alexandria VA.
It is fitting that in the month of September, dedicated as it is to Our Lady of Sorrows, and following the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we offer this Votive Mass of Our Lady of Sorrows, and so honour She who is at once the Mother of Christ and our mother also. That we do so in a church dedicated to Our Lady, and at an altar placed so precisely at the foot of a great and beautiful crucifix, is all the more poignant. Truly we have come to Calvary; to participate in the one, full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. As the Council of Trent taught, and as the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: ‘The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different’” (§ 1367).
On Tuesday morning many of us awoke to news of the brutal murder of Father Jacques Hamel in an attack on his church near Rouen, at some point during the celebration of Holy Mass. Just after reading those first reports, I was myself vesting for the morning Mass, very conscious of the similarities between his situation that morning and my own: Père Hamel no doubt began his day with no expectation of the horror that would befall him. Of course, our first response to this atrocity must be to ask the Lord to look with mercy on his servant and to grant him “the abode of refreshing, of light, and of peace,” for which we pray in the Canon of the Mass. But even as we do so, we can already benefit from the witness of Père Hamel’s life and, indeed, his death. As the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras has said, “Martyrdom is the supreme canon of the Church’s life . . . The martyrs of the Church embody the truth of the Church, the truth of the true life which is communion and relationship with God.” Thus, even though his death has not been declared as martyrdom, nevertheless his example—like so many others—is worthy of our contemplation.