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).
In five days’ time the Church will once again take up the joy and festivity that is characteristic of her annual celebration of the Lord’s first coming in his nativity. After four weeks of intense spiritual preparation, we will have the chance to recognize the advent of our Messiah—Christ, the true God and true Man—and to keep festival with our brothers and sisters across the world, and indeed throughout the ages, as we mark once more that birth which is at once like any other, and yet unlike any other at all. At the threshold of so great a feast, the Church pauses one last time to catch her breath that, arriving at the manger, our hearts may be truly ready to offer the worship and adoration that is due our incarnate God, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. As she comes to rest on this fourth Sunday of our Advent journey, the Church’s liturgical texts present us with the person of Our Blessed Lady, she who embodies—in a most literal way—the journey to the nativity of the Lord; she who did not simply prepare for this moment by the nine months of her pregnancy, but was prepared before time for this noble task, by God himself. As the seventeenth-century divine, Thomas Ken, put it: “The Holy Ghost His temple in her built, / Cleansed from congenial, kept from mortal guilt; /And from the moment that her blood was fired, / Into her heart Celestial Love inspired.”
In the traditional ceremony for the opening of the Holy Door at the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, the Holy Father struck the sealed door three times with a small silver hammer. Having been walled shut since the conclusion of the previous Holy Year, the masonry was then removed in one go, by means of an elaborate pulley system, before the door frame itself was sprinkled with lustral water. Only then would the pilgrims, led by the Holy Father, pass through the door and into the Basilica Church, often on their knees and kissing the door on the way.
This homily was preached at Mass on the Sixth Sunday of Easter and was followed by a May procession and devotions in honour of Our Lady.
This season of Easter, which stretches fifty days from the first glimpses of Easter Sunday to its close at Pentecost, is perhaps most vividly characterized by joy. In the light of the resurrection and Christ’s victory over sin and death the Church exercises an unbridled fervour as she proclaims, “Alleluia! Christ our passover is sacrificed for us”. We see and hear this joy all around us, particularly in the sacred liturgy. Here in the magnificence of the Eucharistic celebration we see the splendour of fine vestments, the sacred ministers clad in white to represent the pure life of grace imparted to us through the Lord’s sacrifice of love; here we hear over and over again that great word, “Alleluia”, buried from our sight from Septuagesima until its bursting from the tomb at the gospel of the resurrection in the holy night of Easter; and with our hearts raised to God in honour of his triumph over evil we sing with a new appreciation the words of the psalmist as we are reminded of our baptism in the Rite of Sprinkling: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious: his mercy endureth forever”.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady is well-placed in the course of the Church’s liturgical year. As we continue through the season of Advent, today our eyes are fixed on heaven as we rejoice in the unique participation of the Mother of God in the redemption of mankind, in and through the saving actions of her beloved Son. The collect for this feast begins thus, ‘O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin didst prepare a worthy dwelling-place for thy Son’. Today, then, we rejoice in the ‘worthy dwelling-place’ which is the Virgin Mother of God, whom scripture tells us Almighty God possessed ‘before he made anything from the beginning’ (Wis. 8).
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.
Tomorrow afternoon around 100 musicians will gather in Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian church – my resident parish here in Washington, D.C. – to rehearse and perform Thomas Tallis’s epic forty part motet, Spem in alium. The performance is at 3.30 p.m., and is free and open to the general public. You are very warmly invited and welcome! More details are available here.
Composed around 1570, the text of the work is a Sarum Rite responsory for Mattins adapted from the deuterocanonical book of Judith. It was Judith whose great beauty enabled her to ingratiate herself with the enemy leader, Holophernes, get him inebriated, and then behead him and return to the Israelite camp with her trophy. She was praised by the Jewish princes as a courageous and somewhat tenacious woman. A striking depiction of the decollation of Holophernes was painted by Carravagio between 1598-99, and now hangs in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome (the painting, that is, not the head).
This homily was given at Old Saint John, Silver Spring, Maryland:
The thirteenth century text of ‘The Golden Legend’ tells a beautiful story about today. A noblewoman was distraught, being unable to celebrate the feast by attending Holy Mass. As she went into her chapel, simply to pray before the altar, she fell asleep and witnessed a vision of “a Priest, a Deacon and a Subdeacon, all revested, going to the altar as for to say Mass”. As the angels, also present, began to sing the Introit of the Mass, she realized that the Deacon and Subdeacon were in fact Saint Laurence and Saint Vincent, and the Priest was Christ himself. As she was given her candle – as you were this morning but, in her case, by an angel – she awoke to find herself still holding it as a memento of the Mass offered, in order that she need not go without. The Legend recounts that, “all the days of her life after she kept that piece of that candle much preciously, like an holy relic, and all they that were touched therewith were guerished and healed of their maladies and sicknesses”.
This homily was given on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Old Saint John’s, Silver Spring, Maryland:
There is a profound beauty in our celebration of this feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady in the midst of the season of advent. Nine months before her birth, which the Church celebrates on 8th September, there is a deeper and richer spiritual truth being communicated to us by the Church’s calendar than simply the physical growth of Our Lady in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. What might this be?
One of the principle themes of the season of advent is prophecy. We hear the prophet Isaiah, for example, quoted extensively in the readings and propers at Mass, and we see his language and analogies drawn on, to show Christ as the fulfillment of all that is foretold by the old testament. Just as during Holy Week we see Christ in the suffering servant of Isaiah, so in this season we see the babe in the manger in the anticipated king of the prophets. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Isaiah’s prophecy is referred to by the fathers as ‘the fifth gospel’. Indeed, Saint Jerome attributed the title ‘evangelist’ to Isaiah because, he said, “he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come” (Nn. 1.2: CCL 73, 1-3).