Santa Maria Maggiore
One of the graces that comes with living in Rome is the opportunity to go often to the basilica of Saint Mary Major, Santa Maria Maggiore, the stational church of this Ember Wednesday in Lent. The basilica was erected under the patronage of Pope Sixtus III in the wake of the Council Ephesus (431) at which the Immaculate Virgin was solemnly proclaimed Theotókos, that is, Mother of God. The Holy Roman Church expresses her devotion to the Mother of God most notably in the place given to the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in the sacred liturgy. Traditionally, the scrutinies for ordination to the priesthood that take place on the Ember Saturday were held on this day in the basilica dedicated to the Most Holy Virgin of whom Saint Proclus of Constantinople wrote:
O temple, in which God became a priest, not changing our nature, but reclothing it, in his mercy, with that which he is, according to the order of Melchizedek.
Ad Te Levavi
The Introit Psalm is the same one intoned on the First Sunday of Advent in the same stational Church of Saint Mary Major: “To thee, O Lord, have I lifted up my soul. In thee, O my God, I put my trust; let me not be ashamed” (Psalm 24: 1–2).
Moses on Sinai
The First Lesson presents, in the account of Moses entering into the midst of the cloud on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12–18), an image of the priesthood, for every priest is, effectively, called to go apart from the people, to ascend the mountain, and to disappear into the cloud. The same sequence appears in the rites of Holy Mass when the priest, entering the sanctuary, separates himself from the people, ascends the altar steps, and, then, at the beginning of the Canon, disappears into the mystery.
Elias Comforted by an Angel
The Second Lesson gives another image of the priesthood in the prophet Elias. Profoundly discouraged and weary, he sleeps in sorrow. Twice, he is awakened by an angel who says to him: “Arise, eat: for thou hast yet a great way to go” (3 Kings 19:7). “And he arose, and ate, and drank, and walked in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights, unto the mount of God, Horeb” (3 Kings 19:8) The Tract that follows, continuing the psalm of the Introit, is the prayer of every priest who says to God, “See my abjection and my labour, and forgive me all my sins”.
Jonas Preaches Penance
The Gospel recounts the preaching of Jonas, a type of every priest of Jesus Christ: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Prayer and penance go together: the Ninivites represent the works of penance, whereas the Queen of the South, come from afar to hear the wisdom of Solomon, represents the Ecclesia audiens, the listening Church who, in imitation of the Virgo audiens, Mary Most Holy, who “kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
With the Virgo Audiens
Our Lady appears explicitly in the Gospel when Our Lord is told that His mother and brethren were standing outside, seeking to speak with Him. Stretching forth His hands to the disciples who were listening to Him, He said: “Behold my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, that is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:49–50). The imitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, even in the life of the priests, consists in humble listening to the Word, and in obedience to the will of the Father. For this reason, the Offertory Antiphon, which continues the Gospel, has the priest say, in imitation of the Virgin:
I will meditate on thy commandments, which I have loved exceedingly, and I will lift up my hands to thy commandments, which I have loved. (Psalm 118:47–48)
The Secret alludes to the drama of every man’s wavering heart, asking God to correct the inclinations of the heart that make one inconstant and subject to fluctuations. The Communion Antiphon completes the cry of the wavering heart, and develops the prayer already voiced in the Offertory Antiphon:
Give ear, O Lord, to my words, understand my cry. Hearken to the voice of my prayer, O my King and my God. For to thee will I pray: O Lord. (Psalm 5:2–4)
Light to See and Strength to Do
The Prayer Over the People is the petition of a people who, dwelling in darkness, but having heard the call to penance, want to change their lives effectively so as to live in the light:
Enlighten our minds, we beseech Thee, O Lord, with the light of Thy brightness: that we may be able to see what we ought to do, and have strength to do what is right.