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.
The Sunday next before Lent, or Quinquagesima, is celebrated at the start of the week in which the Church keeps Ash Wednesday, and so begins her fasting preparation for Easter. Although the Eastern Churches mark this Sunday by further abstaining from dairy, in the Latin Church the character of the pre-Lent season continues to be articulated by a purely liturgical penitence. Due to this, the days that follow Quinquagesima are associated with celebrations such as Mardi Gras—the last moments of celebration before the rigours of Lent properly ensue. In England, particularly in the north, the Monday following Quinquagesima has historically been referred to as Collop Monday, because it saw the eating-up of leftover slices of meat, particularly bacon. The following day continues to be known as Shrove Tuesday, and aside from the eating of pancakes—a further means of enjoying the last moments before Ash Wednesday—the day is set aside for the practice of confession (shriving) before the start of Lent. In a sermon for Quinquagesima, Ælfric of Eynsham encourages his people in this practice, saying: “Now a pure and holy time draws near, in which we should atone for our neglect. Every Christian, therefore, should come to his confession and confess his hidden sins, and amend according to the guidance of his teacher.” Continue reading
Through the sacramental cleansing of the waters of baptism the festering wound in our soul, the uncleanness caused by original sin, is healed, and we are restored to the life given to our first parents, Adam and Eve, before the fall. Those reborn by water and the Holy Spirit at the font are made new creatures, adopted children of God, partakers of the divine nature, members of Christ and co-heirs with him, temples of that same Holy Spirit (CCC 1265). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, through baptism nothing remains in us that impedes our entrance into heaven, the Kingdom of God (CCC 1263). And yet, as we know, the pure and spotless baptismal garment which is draped around the newly-baptized does not remain so for very long. Even though original sin is forgiven in baptism, we nevertheless remain subject to the consequences of the fall, and continue to struggle against our inclination to sin; choosing our way over that of the Lord. When we sin after baptism the relationship we share with God is attacked and is either wounded (by what we call venial sin) or destroyed (by what we call mortal sin, because it puts to death the bond with enjoy with God). Thus the disfiguration of our soul—the muddying of our baptismal robe, we might say—separates us from the spotless perfection of God.
This homily was given at Old Saint John’s, Silver Spring, Maryland, at a Missa Cantata in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite:
This third Sunday of Lent focusses somewhat on the spiritual warfare, of which we first spoke on Ash Wednesday. In the offertory antiphon at that Mass we recalled the words of Psalm 29, ‘Thou hast taken me under thy protection, and baulked my enemies of their will’. Today, we assess the progress of our campaign against sin and the devil, as we hear of the miracle of the Lord and his mastery over evil.
In presenting these readings the Church guides both those preparing for baptism at Easter, and those – already initiated into her life – who are called in this holy season to return to God’s friendship. Each of us, in these forty days, is challenged to bring ourselves into a deeper and more profound relationship with the Lord and his holy Church, by relying more and more on his grace, and less on our own strength. We are to turn away from our own desires, and desire only the life of Christ for ourselves and the world, in order that we might be made ready for the life of the world to come.
The past few weeks have seen a number of pretty vocal criticisms of a handful of public figures in Church life. Many of these criticisms are entirely justified, and only a fool would try to defend the actions of those few individuals who have fallen short of the call to holiness. Often these public reprimands are bound up with a call for Church reform. The Church is, in fact, permanently in the business of reform, though we might more usefully speak about ‘conversion’. Of course, this might not be the ‘conversion’ that society wants, but reform and renewal and conversion, are not alien to the life of the Church – in fact, they are central to it. Christians undergo a constant and continual conversion deeper into a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, and so with the Church and each other, because that is the life to which we are called by our baptism.
Part of that continuing conversion is the growing towards Christ which takes place through the recognition, admission, contrition, and absolution of sin. In this, the Christian is restored to the grace of baptism through God’s forgiveness in the sacramental action of Confession. When we Christians do something wrong, we don’t only have vocabulary to describe it – e.g. sin – but we also have a clear moral code by which we are able to judge the act. ‘Wrong’ and ‘Sin’ are not only fluid terms in the Western secular mindset, but they are always applied subjectively because no moral code exists independently of the Judeo-Christian moral law which undergirds the very fibre of society. Thus we have the analogous situation of a senior Churchman being decried for doing something which secular society encourages and promotes, and the cries of hypocrisy from certain quarters begin to ring hollow.
Given at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, on the third Sunday of Lent:
The season of Lent this year takes on a particular character as we begin now to pray for the election of a new successor to Saint Peter as the Bishop of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. In Pope Benedict XVI we saw a man whose own personal holiness and sincere pursuit of the truth was an example to us all in the Christian life, but of particular significance in understanding the spiritual purpose of this great season: a renewal of our sense of reliance on the very person of Jesus Christ whose passion, death, and resurrection we strive to proclaim in every word, thought, and deed. During Lent, we turn to the Lord with a sense of urgency, fixing our eyes on the one who saves: Oculi mei semper ad Dominum. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, because it is the Lord who set us free (cf. Introit, Third Sunday of Lent; Ps. 24: 15-16).
That reliance on Christ, that need we have for his mercy and his grace, is reflected in this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Saint Luke. In his telling of the parable of the fig tree, the Lord tells the gathered people of their need to repent: ‘Unless you repent’, he says, ‘you will all perish’. If, like the fig tree, we cease to bear fruit – that is we cease to show signs of the life which God has implanted in us through our baptism – then our lives have very little purpose at all. It’s not simply that we may as well not live without that intrinsic purpose, it’s that, like the fig tree, life without fruit is barren and perfunctory. Without the life which God has given us – the life of grace – we risk bearing no fruit, giving nothing to the world, and being – if anything at all – a sign of death and lifelessness.