The tradition of hearing the account of the transfiguration of the Lord on this second Sunday of the season of Lent is a venerable one. In the midst of the disciplines and penances of this sacred time, Christ comes to us in the words of the holy gospel to encourage us in our pilgrimage through the wilderness, journeying as we are from slavery to sin to the freedom of the promised land of our heavenly inheritance. By revealing his glory to his apostles, the Lord impresses on them the reality of his divine person that it might, as Dom Prosper Guéranger puts it, “keep up their faith in that trying time, when the outward eye would see nothing in his person but weakness and humiliation”. As it is with the apostles preparing to witness the passion and death of Christ, so it is with us who draw closer and closer now to the unsettling events of Holy Week, when we will again become participants in the mystery of the Lord’s sacrifice.
Some weeks ago now, in the days following the feast of the Lord’s nativity, the Church celebrated the Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan by Saint John the Baptist. It is a surprising event because Christ, whose divine person is possessed of no sin, has no need of the sacramental washing that results from baptism; the effect which that sacred action has on us cannot have the same effect on him. Rather, the baptism of Christ does not sanctify him, but the water which we in turn receive, and which opens for us the portal of the sacred font as the way to our salvation. As Saint Gregory Nazianzen writes that by his baptism Christ buries the whole of the old Adam in the water, thus putting to death the sin of our first parents—the original sin of the Garden of Eden—and preparing for us a new and living way to be united with Almighty God for all eternity (Or 39, 14-16.20). So through baptism in Christ nothing remains in us to impede our entry into the heavenly kingdom (CCC 1263).
In his meditations on the liturgical year the saintly Bishop Richard Challoner recalls an important lesson found in the texts of today’s Mass. In the reading from the prophet Joel the Lord God calls us to conversion: Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning; the ashes we receive are a sign of that—‘an emblem of contrition and humility’— and thus an exterior reminder of an interior disposition. To receive the ashes is to give expression to a spiritual reality which is presumed to exist in us; by bearing the mark of the ashes we affirm something that (at least in theory) is already present in our lives.
In her wisdom, however, the Church knows that we fall short of this ideal and so recalls us to the standard demanded of us by baptism through the stark character of this Lenten season. The ash we receive, which Bishop Challoner calls ‘a remembrance of our mortality, of our frail composition, and of our hasty return to our mother earth’, is a sign of the death we deserve; a reminder of the result of sin and the vacuum that exists by our rejection of the Lord’s grace. Yet we receive those ashes in the sign of the cross. They are a bitter warning, but by them is also revealed the means of our salvation. As the baptismal font is both the tomb of our death to sin and the place of our birth into eternal life, so by accepting these ashes as a memento mori we are enjoined to embrace that which itself kills sin and returns us to the Lord, and to the unending life he offers.
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.
One of the distinctive elements of our life in the personal ordinariates is the calendar which regulates our celebration of the liturgical year as a particular community within the wider Catholic Church. For the next three weeks will we differ from the celebrations in many diocesan parishes, where they continue with the Sundays of the year or Ordinary Time, and ourselves embark on the pre-Lenten season of Septuagesimatide. The apostolic constitution Anglicanorum cœtibus indicates that the liturgical books approved for our use by the Apostolic See are amongst the principal means by which legitimate elements of our Anglican patrimony are to be retained in the Catholic Church, both ‘as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared’ (AC III). As we begin this distinctive season, then, it is worth asking how this treasure might offer us (and, perhaps, others) that nourishment of faith, and so bring us to a deeper, more sincere knowledge of the mystery of our salvation in Christ.
Our Blessed Lady in the Cathedral Church of Mary our Queen, Baltimore, MD
The second reading for the Office of Readings on the Saturday before Advent may seem a little out of place. From a sermon of Saint Augustine of Hippo, it contains these words: “Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security”.
The season of Advent is often seen in parallel with that of Lent. Certainly, both are marked by a sombre and somewhat penitential tone. They are both times of preparation; both periods of self-denial; both marked by a certain restraint in the liturgical life of the Church, in her outward vesture and sacred texts. Both Advent and Lent draw heavily on the prophecy of Isaiah, seeing in that Old Testament book a foretaste of what is to come at the coming feast, be it Christmas or Easter. In this sense they are times of shadows and images, which are only dispelled and fully realized by the light of the Christ whose Radiant Dawn we see in the ‘dayspring from on high’ (Lk. 1:78) of his Nativity and the ‘morning star that never sets’ of his Paschal triumph (cf. Exsultet).
Given on Good Friday 2014 at Saint John the Evangelist, Calgary
There is perhaps no single day when the Church’s rites and ceremonies speak more profoundly and clearly of the faith she professes, than this. In every solemn gesture and action, she expresses in ritual form today the very essence of her life in a sacramental way: an exterior sign of an interior reality. The purpose of the sacred liturgy is never to teach the Christian faithful, but to shape them by their participation in the very life of the Blessed Trinity. By the worship that we offer here we are formed and conformed in a physical way to the via crucis, the way of the cross, along which we tentatively tread. We are united to the passion of Our Lord so intimately and so completely, that we share in his sufferings in a more than merely figurative way.
As today’s collect reflects, by tradition the Friday before Holy Week is kept in honour of the seven sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These are seven ways, described in sacred scripture, in which Our Lady comes to share in the sufferings of her beloved son. Depictions of Our Lady of Sorrows (see above) often show seven swords piercing her heart, recalling the words of the prophet Simeon in the temple, ‘A sword shall pierce your own heart’ (Lk. 2:35).
This revelation of Simeon to Our Lady is the first sorrow, followed by the flight into Egypt (Mt. 2:13-14) and the finding of the Lord in the temple (Lk. 3:43-45). In these three moments, Our Lady suffers with and through her divine son because of her unflinching obedience to God’s will. The four remaining scenes: the meeting of Our Lord and the women of Jerusalem on the road to Calvary (usually understood to include Our Lady), the crucifixion, the deposition (from which we get the beautiful image of the pieta), and the burial of the Lord, each show a more obvious tie with the events of the passion itself.
As Our Lady stood by the cross of her son, so the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows now (in the ordinary form) follows that of the Holy Cross, in September. And yet, we are right to reflect in these days before Holy Week on these sufferings of the Mother of the Lord, because by them we are taught how our own lives can more closely reflect Christ’s passion, filled as they often are with disappointment, with anxiety, and with unpleasantness at the hands of others. It is for this reason that we make the Church’s hymn, Stabat Mater, our own today: ‘O thou Mother! fount of love! touch my spirit from above, make my heart with thine accord: make me feel as thou hast felt; make my soul to glow and melt with the love of Christ my Lord’.
O God, who in this season
give your Church the grace
to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary
in contemplating the Passion of Christ,
grant, we pray, through her intercession,
that we may cling more firmly each day
to your Only Begotten Son
and come at last to the fullness of his grace.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Alternative collect in the 2002 Missale Romanum.
The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (known colloquially as, The Bird and Baby) is frequented as much by tourists keen to follow in the steps of Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, as undergraduates seeking a warming pint of good beer on a frosty November evening. Tolkein and Lewis are still very much present in the atmosphere of Oxford, and it is to C. S. Lewis that our minds might understandably turn in hearing today’s gospel. His trilemma: lunatic, liar, or Lord, is a simple way of saying that either Jesus Christ was and is who he claimed, or else he is a lunatic ‘on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg’, or the devil himself.
It is a stark but real choice. In today’s gospel the Lord makes this claim; not to be a prophet or great leader, but God himself. Even the great Abraham, we are told, ‘rejoiced to see my day’. And he further invokes the memory of Moses, who led the people from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, when he proclaims, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM’. Just as the Lord revealed himself to the Moses in the burning bush – ‘I AM that I AM’ – so Christ here claims to share in the same title – that of God.
This morning’s old testament reading from the book of Numbers (21: 4-9) describes a scenario that should resonate in the Christian mind. The children of Israel, passing through the Red Sea waters and escaping slavery in Egypt, are on their forty year pilgrimage to the Promised Land. They have been liberated from bondage by God, and yet they complain to Moses, ‘Why have you brought us from Egypt to die in this desert?’. In return the Lord sends snakes as punishment – the bites of which prove lethal to the Israelites, who in turn beg Moses, ‘Pray the Lord to take the serpents away from us’. The Lord commands Moses, ‘Make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole, and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live’. We are told, ‘Whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived’.