The XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops opens today in an atmosphere of confusion, wrangling, and disquiet that, far from being confined to the New Synod Hall in Rome, seems to have spread throughout the Church, principally, we must admit, through the social media. Before going down to Vespers last evening, I remarked to Father Benedict that I was far more interested in what the Magnificat Antiphon would be than in the latest tweets about the Synod. I was not disappointed. When we opened our antiphonals to the Magnificat Antiphon last evening, what did we see?
Adaperiat Dominus cor vestrum in lege sua, et in praeceptis suis, et faciat pacem Dominus Deus noster.
The Lord open your hearts in His law and commandments, and may the Lord our God send peace. (2 Machabees 1:4)
This antiphon, given us on the eve of the opening of the Synod, is the very prayer that the Holy Ghost would have us say for the Synod and, indeed, for the whole Church: “The Lord open your hearts in His law and commandments, and may the Lord our God send peace”.
There is, I have always believed, a liturgical providence of God. By this I mean that “amidst the changes and chances of this mortal life” we can be certain of finding in the liturgy of the Church the word that casts a divine light over what is happening, the word that makes sense of what to us appears inscrutable and obscure, the word by which we can be certain of praying the prayer that God wants to hear and intends to answer.
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; when we do not know what prayer to offer, to pray as we ought, the Spirit himself intercedes for us, with groans beyond all utterance: and God, who can read our hearts, knows well what the Spirit’s intent is; for indeed it is according to the mind of God that he makes intercession for the saints. (Romans 8:26–27)
I have never been led astray by relying on this liturgical providence of God. The sacred liturgy is always this: God Himself giving us the very prayers and petitions that, in His ineffable wisdom, He already wills to grant. The simple fact that we were given this Magnificat Antiphon and not another on the eve of the Synod, reveals, I think, much of what God intends for His Church. Did you recognise the source of the antiphon? It comes from the first chapter of the Second Book of the Machabees:
God speed you well, the covenant he made with his true worshippers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, never forgetting; reverent hearts may he give to all of you, brave and generous to perform his will; with law and precept of his enlarge your thoughts, and send you happiness; may he listen to your prayer, and be gracious, and in the hour of peril never forsake you! Take courage, then; we in this land are praying for you.. (2 Machabees 1:2–6)
And what is the book of Second Machabees about? It is the account of the power of God deployed in the midst of frightfully difficult circumstances. It is a story fraught with bloodshed and martyrdom. In the end, the story of the Machabees demonstrates that obedience to God passes before obedience to men. Stormclouds may loom dark on the horizon, dangers may threaten from every side, but God will never forsake His own in the evil time.
The interventions of God are not like the interventions of men. God, in his operations, is as still as the Sacred Host on the corporal, as silent as the Sacred Host in the hands of the priest, as hidden as the Sacred Host in the tabernacle. We would, I suppose, prefer a more compelling mode of presence, a more spectacular intervention. We would, like the psalmist of old, summon God to crush our enemies:
Lord, espouse my quarrel; disarm the enemies who rise in arms against me; grip target and shield, bestir thyself in my defence. With poised lance, bar the way against my pursuers; whisper in my heart, I am here to save thee. (Psalm 34:1–3)
But God answers, saying:
Not mine . . . to think as you think, deal as you deal; by the full height of heaven above earth, my dealings are higher than your dealings, my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaias 55:8–9)
We are not naturally attuned to the ways of God nor do we easily adjust to them, even after Baptism, and Confirmation, and hundreds upon hundreds of Holy Communions for, as Jeremias says, “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?” (Jeremias 17:9).
Do I find the machinations surrounding the Synod in Rome disconcerting. Indeed, I do. Do I not sympathise with those who are frightened and destabilised by the dissension that has been unmasked at the highest levels of the hierarchy of the Church? Indeed, I do. Have I not read the chilling prophecies: “The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops”? Indeed, I have.
In the face of all of this, I have recourse to the liturgical providence of God. I prefer the Breviary and Missal, the Antiphonal and the Gradual, to Facebook, Twitter, and the blogs. Did you not hear the Introit of today’s Holy Mass? It was God Himself who spoke to us, saying:
I am the salvation of the people, says the Lord; in whatever tribulation they shall cry to Me, I will hear them; and I will be their Lord forever.
Are you afraid of misfortune? Do you feel hampered and held back? Is your mind troubled by dark forebodings? Pray the Collect of today’s Holy Mass:
Almighty and merciful God, graciously keep away from us all misfortune, that, unhampered in soul and body, we may perform with peaceful minds the works that are Thine.
Do you need clear direction? Have you been saying to God, “Tell me what to do”. Take to heart the words of today’s Epistle:
Let everyone speak out the truth to his neighbour; membership of the body binds us to one another. Do not let resentment lead you into sin; the sunset must not find you still angry. Do not give the devil his opportunity. (Ephesians 4:25–27)
Are you puzzled by the mysterious dealings of God who summons all to his banquet and yet casts out the man who slips in without the wedding garment required? Learn from the Gospel that “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). He who requires the wedding garment also supplies it, perfectly fitted to each soul, for the Apostle tells us that the Father “has chosen us out, in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be saints, to be blameless in his sight, for love of him” (Ephesians 1:4)
Do you need a prayer to get you through this first week of the Synod? The liturgical providence of God supplies you with exactly what you need in the Offertory Antiphon:
Though affliction surround my path, thou dost preserve me; it is thy power that confronts my enemies’ malice, thy right hand that rescues me. . (Psalm 137:7)
Do you fear your own weakness? Have you too long and too frequent an experience of sin to go forward securely. Pray the Communion Antiphon. It expresses all that you need to need to say:
Thou hast commanded that thy precepts be diligently kept. Oh, that I might be firm in the ways of keeping thy statutes! (Psalm 118:4–5)
Finally, the Postcommunion is, by the liturgical providence of God, a prayer not only for ourselves, but for the Fathers of the Synod assembled in Rome. The accepted translation renders the text rather mild:
May Thy healing power, O Lord, mercifully deliver us from our waywardness and make us ever keep Thy commandments.
A more literal translation drives home the acuity of the prayer:
May Thy medicinal operations, O Lord, mercifully disengage us from our perversities, and make us ever cleave to Thy commandments.
Who among us would dare formulate such a prayer by his own authority? It asks for things so incisive that, of ourselves, and by ourselves, we would not risk asking for them. The sacred liturgy makes us ask not so much for what we want, or think we ought to have, as for the things God knows we need, the very things that, in His wisdom and love, God already intends to give us.
There is no need to become all distraught and harried over the doings and undoings in Rome as transmitted and amplified by Facebook, Twitter, and the blogs. Rely rather on the liturgical providence of God to give you, at precisely the right moment, words and wedding garment, medicine and shelter, food and drink.
Of this I am fully persuaded; neither death nor life, no angels or principalities or powers, neither what is present nor what is to come, no force whatever, neither the height above us nor the depth beneath us, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which comes to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)