In 2015, at the beginning of Holy Week, I had the privilege of preaching to the Dominican community of Saint Saviour’s in Dublin. It was rather a daunting task for a monk to preach to Preachers, but I was happy to do it as I have an immense debt of gratitude to the Order of Preachers for all that I have received from its members in the course of my life.
The First Conference
Reverend Fathers, dear brothers, having listened to the Passion today, we are, or should be, reduced to silence. The Word has been silenced. Only a fool would dare speak. Anything less than a word out of silence is unworthy of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ; anything more is superfluous. If I am so foolish as to preach this evening to you, Preachers, it is for the sake of silence: a word out of silence, a word into silence. Like Saint Paul, “I am with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). We should perhaps sing the Canticum de Passione Domini of your Saint Catherine de Ricci, and leave it at that. If this evening, and tomorrow again, I offer you words, their only purpose is to guide you into the harbour of an immense and solemn stillness.
‘The word’, says Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘is dark’. Rabbi Heschel is speaking here of the word that is the sung prayer of the synagogal liturgy, but what he says concerning the chant of the Jews is equally true of holy preaching.
This is the task of him who prays: to kindle a light in the word. Humbly we must approach both the word and the chant. We must never forget that the word is deeper than our thought, that the song is more sublime than our voice.
So long as the word lies cold and lifeless on the page, it is dark. The grace of holy preaching is so to spend one’s breath that the spark concealed within the letter begins to glow, and this until the preacher himself becomes like John the Forerunner, lucerna ardens et lucens, ‘a burning and shining light’ (John 5:35). Not for nothing is your father Saint Dominic depicted with a kind of radiance about his brow. Rabbi Heschel goes on to say:
Words die of routine. The cantor’s task is to bring them to life. A cantor is a person who knows the secret of the resurrection of the words. The art of giving life to the words of our liturgy requires not only the personal involvement of the cantor but also the power contained in the piety of the ages. Our liturgy contains incomparably more than what our hearts are ready to feel. . . . There is a written and an unwritten liturgy. There is the liturgy but there is also an inner approach and response to it, a way of giving life to the words, a style in which the words become a personal and unique utterance.
All that Rabbi Heschel says concerning the cantor in the synagogue can be said and, in effect, must be said of the preacher in medio ecclesiae. Allow me to repeat what Heschel says, putting ‘preacher’ where he says ‘cantor’:
Words die of routine. The preacher’s task is to bring them to life. A preacher is a person who knows the secret of the resurrection of the words. The art of giving life to the words of our liturgy requires not only the personal involvement of the preacher but also the power contained in the piety of the ages. Our liturgy contains incomparably more than what our hearts are ready to feel. . . . There is a written and an unwritten liturgy. There is the liturgy but there is also an inner approach and response to it, a way of giving life to the words, a style in which the words become a personal and unique utterance.
Consider then, that the Passion of Christ is but a single protracted word, a divine utterance to which the liturgy of Holy Week gives maximal resonance: the one verbum crucis carried along in a melisma that leaves no depth unexplored and no height untouched. (What better example of this than the chant of the Christus factus est with its descent into the depths of the mystery and its triumphant soaring into its heights?) Every year I take delight in re–reading a Holy Week entry from the 1910 diary of Pieter van der Meer de Walcheren. It was written while the author was yet an unbeliever, and it attests to the impact of the Holy Week liturgy as a mysterious preaching of the verbum crucis.
The liturgy is a holy magnificence. I am well aware that it is absurd to speak words of admiration. All too evident is the beauty of this worship that expresses the inexpressible and causes the pure splendor of a flame to burn upright and bright in life’s blackness. Art is so superficial and poor; it appears so empty next to these sublime chants, next to these biblical words chanted, next to these holy texts, next to these prayers of mourning, these poems of extreme joy! I still hear the chant of the end of Lauds: Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis; to which is added on the third night; propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum et dedit illi nomen quod est super omne nomen. The music of it, the slow, plaintive, desperate music laden with every sorrow and with every mystery! How shall I ever forget the Lamentations of Jeremiah at the first Nocturn of Tenebrae? And the Ecce lignum crucis of Friday . . . ? And the Reproaches, divine reproaches of a crucified God to his people?
On Holy Saturday the new fire is kindled. The priest, advancing slowly towards the altar, sings the thrice-repeated words at equal intervals: Lumen Christi, each time on a higher tone; and the light increases until it becomes an immense interior fire. One senses in one’s soul a tangible deliverance. Where can one find a thing more lovely, more sublime than the chant of the Exultet jam angelica turba caelorum, in which, by the words and by the music, the desire of an incommensurable joy lifts itself up and erects a kind of rainbow stretching from earth to heaven? And the Preface that follows, with its sublime cries: O certe necessarium Adae peccatum!. . . O felix culpa!. . . Oh, to be able to believe, to be unshakably certain that this is not an empty spectacle, not a beautiful dream, but signs and symbols which are but the reflection of an inexpressible divine reality. I am shaken in the very depths of my soul. Illusion and appearance could never make me weep like this. I sense that behind all that I see and hear are luminous roads leading towards God.
I am reminded of a beautiful story about a certain hasidic rabbi in Galicia. This grand Rebbe had, among his disciples, many hazzanim, cantors. Their custom was to gather at the Rebbe’s court for the Sabbath which precedes Rosh Hashanah. At the end of their stay, they would enter the Rebbe’s chamber and ask for his blessing that their singing on Rosh Hashanah be accepted in heaven. Once, the story goes, one of the cantors entered the Rebbe’s chamber immediately after the Sabbath to take leave of the rabbi. When the Rebbe asked him why he was in such a hurry to leave, the cantor replied, ‘Master, I must return home in order to review the liturgy for the Days of Awe and to take a look at the notes’. Thereupon the Rebbe looked at him and replied, ‘Why should you go through the texts and the notes? They are the same as last year. It is more important to go through your own life, and take a look at your own deeds. For you are not the same as you were a year ago’. The cantor was no longer in a hurry to leave.
As it was with the cantor making ready for the liturgy of the Days of Awe, so is it with us, dear brethren, who, once again, drawn on by the Christus Passus, cross the threshold of these, our great and holy Days of Awe. ‘Draw me’, says the Spouse of the Canticle, ‘we will run after thee to the odour of thy ointments’ (Canticle 1:3). Your Dominican Graduale gives you, if I am not mistaken, the sublime Introit (Officium) Nos Autem for both Holy Tuesday and Maundy Thursday. In the ordering of the liturgy no repetition is without significance. Things are done and said twice and thrice not only for pedagogical and ascetical reasons but also because it is by dint of repetition that mere notions in the head descend into the heart, there to be set ablaze by the action of the Holy Spirit. ‘And they said one to the other: Was not our heart burning within us, whilst he spoke in this way, and opened to us the scriptures?’ (Luke 24:32).
Everything a Friar Preacher could ever want to preach is in that Introit: ‘It is for us to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom is our health, life, and resurrection: through whom we have been saved and set free’ (Galatians 6:14). Open your Graduale . . . or its modern equivalent. The texts have not changed; the neums are the same. ‘Why should you go through the texts and the notes? They are the same as last year. It is more important to go through your own life . . . . For you are not the same as you were a year ago’.
The sacred liturgy, unchanging from year to year, bears repetition, needs repetition, begs for repetition — even over a lifetime — precisely because we change. The self that we pour into every syllable of every word, the self that is, in some way, liquified to mingle with other selves and to be carried to God in a stream of neums, that self has changed.
Dare I say it? I can only hope that the chants of these great and holy Days of Awe will find us all more broken than we were last year. Yes, more broken, for the psalm says, ‘a broken and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise’. (Psalm 50:19). Are we weaker this year than last? The word of Christ to the apostle is unambiguous, almost shocking, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). The power of the Cross is deployed precisely where our weakness is greatest. Are we poorer than last year? The Pasch of the Lord is the kingdom of God flowing from the pierced Heart, harrowing Hades’ murky depths, exploding the chilly narrowness of the tomb, filling all creation with a new song, but only the poor can receive it, for they advance with empty hands. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’(Matthew 5:3).
The Pasch of the Lord is the pasch of the broken, the pasch of the weak, the pasch of the poor. Saint Thérèse was right to say, Qui perd gagne, ‘Whosoever loses, wins’, and at no time is this more true for us than at the beginning of this Great and Holy Week. Here, all our winnings are losses. Here, all our losses are redeemed, given back as winnings. ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”, God has revealed to us through the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 2:8-10). The mystery of the Christus Passus is the revelation of a God who spends Himself utterly doing for us.
Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins’ (Isaias 53:3–5).
You know, I am sure, the poignant strophe from the Dies Irae:
Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
redemisti crucem passus:
tantus labor non sit cassus.
The text says something like this: ‘Thou didst go in search of me and, all weary, thou didst take thy seat’ — the allusion is to Jesus sitting at Jacob’s well in conversation with the Samaritan woman, but also to Jesus taking his seat on the cathedra of the Cross — ‘let not so great a labour be in vain’.
The liturgy of these days will echo and re-echo with the phrase pro nobis. Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem (Philippians 2:8), ‘Christ became for us obedient unto death’. For us, pro nobis. The Communion Antiphon given in the Dominican Graduale for Passion Sunday had you sing, Hoc corpus quod pro vobis tradetur (1 Corinthians 11:24), ‘This body which for you is given’. For you, pro vobis.
There are those, even in the religious life, who, in their desire to do something for God, pass by the God who, in his humility and silence, waits to do, not just something, but everything for us. There is a peculiar kind of spiritual busyness that fails to grasp the silence of bread and wine laid out on the corporal, the immobility of Cross and of nails, the stillness of the tomb. ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful’ (Luke 10:41). There is an instinct of self-sufficiency that causes us to recoil from a God who would kneel at our feet to wash and to dry them. ‘Peter said, ‘Lord, you shall never wash my feet’. Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you,you have no part in me’ (John 13:8). We know the rest. The obstinacy of Peter gives way to the humility of Mary. This is the Marian conversion of Peter: ‘Let it be done unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38). ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head’ (John 13:9)
The humility of God in Christ is the undoing of every doer, that by which all our deeds are outdone, leaving us all with empty hands. From these Days of Awe the rich will be sent empty away, while the hungry will be filled with good things (cf. Lk 1:53). ‘Strong lions suffer want and go hungry but those who seek the Lord lack no blessing’ (Psalm 33:11). The humble love of God in Christ is the outdoing, the undoing of the religion of calculations, quantifications, weights and measures. The Gospel inaugurates the religion of the lavish, the excessive, the foolish, the superabundant, and the risky. What is inaugurated in the preaching of the Gospel is fulfilled, realized, and delivered in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. All preaching has a Eucharistic finality. The Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar is humble Love’s ultimate extravagance, God’s incomparable risk. The God who, kneeling, looked up at Peter, humbles himself yet more in the Most Holy Eucharist. ‘He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”’ (1 Corinthians 11:24). ‘My body which is for you’ (1 Corinthians 11:24).
Hear the whisper of the Bridegroom in the night: ‘for you’. Pro vobis. Pro nobis. The Church will never tire of singing these two phrases. She sings them facing the mystery of the Body of Christ given up in the unbloody immolation of the Mass, and handed over in Holy Communion. There he waits to do for us. There he waits to be for us. There he waits to accomplish in us the very things that we, of ourselves, cannot do. Christ at our feet. Christ in our hands. Christ on the altar. Christ in our mouths. Christ on the tree. Christ in the tomb. Christ in our midst. Christ in glory. The question put to the disciples on the night before He suffered already hangs in the air. ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’ (John 13:12). The Days of Awe are upon us.