The season of Lent and the three Sundays of Septuagesimatide that precede it are marked by a certain liturgical character of restraint. Certainly, in Lent itself we intensify our individual practice of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, but the sacred liturgy itself is also affected by this penitence, in perhaps a more communal and ecclesial way, most markedly by the omission of the Gloria in excelsis on Sundays, and the insertion of a Tract in place of the usual meditative chant before the Gospel. The texts of all of the propers are intrinsically linked to the music to which they have been set, and vice versa. They are a form of cantillation: “a song which arises from the text, a song which is essentially a heightened proclamation of a verbal message.” The promotion of, and principled use of the propers given for every Eucharistic celebration was a central tenet of the twentieth century liturgical movement, together with the restoration of the chant as the musical language of the Church’s song of praise. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, even stated: “Gregorian chant [is] specially suited to the Roman liturgy . . . it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). Thus the propers, by which we mean principally the text, but also the music that serves it, is part of the Church’s law of prayer, the lex orandi, that informs and articulates her law of faith, the lex credendi.
In the twenty-third chapter of the book of Leviticus the Lord God instructs the people of Israel to build temporary homes in which they are to live once a year, for seven days (Lev. 23: 33 ff). These dwellings are to act as a reminder of their itinerant forty year exodus, from captivity in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. The annual commemoration of these events is known as the feast of tabernacles, and we read that it was a time appointed for the gathering together as the People of God, to offer sacrifices to the Lord in thanksgiving for his saving acts. Two important themes bear attention: first, the thanksgiving sacrifice of a covenanted people for their salvation from bondage to freedom as children of God; secondly, the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to his people, giving to them a land of their own inheritance.
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.
Through incorporation into the Church in the sacrament of baptism, Christians come to share in the victories won by the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. At the font, which is both the tomb of our former selves and the womb of our birth into new life, we come to die and rise with Christ, and so share with him in eternity. By becoming reconciled children of God, restored to the relationship forfeited at the fall, we are made for the glory of heaven, and so strive in our earthly lives to live with faces turned toward eternity.