Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent
Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Iacta cogitatum tuum, GR, 92.
Matthew 23: 1-12
Sighs Too Deep for Words
Today’s Collect articulates for us those “sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26) by which the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with the Father from the heart of the Church. What do we pray today?
Keep Thy Church, we beseech Thee, O Lord, in Thy unfailing grace; and since without Thee mortal flesh cannot but fall, help us ever to withdraw from hurtful things and guide us towards those which are wholesome.
Keep your Church
The Latin text begins with the word, “Custodi.” It means to watch over, to keep in sight, to safeguard, to hold close. The versicle at Compline uses the same verb: Custodi nos, Domine, ut pupillam oculi, “Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of Thine eye” (Ps 16:8). We ask God to hold us close, to keep us safe in a grace that never fails, a grace for every weakness, every sin, every circumstance, every moment in life.
We beg God to keep his Church in his unfailing grace. The Latin word here is not gratia but propitiatio. Propitiation means mercy, clemency, favour, or even atonement. We speak of being in someone’s good graces. Grace is the favour of God, the assurance of his mercy and atonement. Christ is our atoning Victim, the priest of the sacrifice of propitiation. Christ, our “high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Heb 7:26) is the propitiation of God. “Therefore we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus”(Heb 10:19). “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).
Saint Paul calls Christ the “propitiation” set forth by God (cf. Rm 3:25). Christ is “a merciful and faithful high priest before God, that he might be a propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). The deeper meaning of today’s Collect is revealed in the mystery of the perpetual propitiation renewed in every Mass: the atoning sacrifice of Christ, Priest and Victim.
Lapses and Relapses
The Collect goes on to say something about us: “since without Thee mortal flesh cannot but fall. . . .” The Latin word labitur translated as fall means to lapse or to relapse. It means to go wrong, to slip down or slide back. Is that being unduly pessimistic? It seems to me, in the light of my own experience of human frailty, of mortalitas, to be perfectly realistic. The spiritual journey is marked by lapses and relapses, and sometimes by re-relapses.
The Toxic and the Noxious
Then the Collect makes a second double petition: “help us ever to withdraw from hurtful things and guide us toward those which are wholesome.” Hurtful things: the Latin text calls them something closer to toxic, or noxious, meaning poisonous! It is hard sometimes for us to pull away from the very things that threaten to poison us.
The Saint Benedict Medal
There is an inscription on the medal of Saint Benedict that signifies, “Begone Satan! Suggest not to me vain things. The cup you offer me is evil; drink the poison yourself!” (Vade retro, Satana: numquam suade mihi vana. Sunt mala quae libas; ipse venenum bibas.) The text on the Saint Benedict medal reflects his own struggle against temptation and his energetic refusal of things toxic to the soul. It is an exclamation of faith against the vain and hurtful things that present themselves to all of us at different times. This may account for the astonishing popularity of the Saint Benedict medal: it addresses the real life situations of people struggling to pull away from various forms of spiritual toxicity. The tricky part is that the very things that are hurtful to us often have an attractive, fascinating side to them. Poison can come served to us in a golden goblet.
The Healing and the Wholesome
The second part of the petition is: “guide us towards those things which are wholesome.” It is not enough to withdraw from hurtful, poisonous things; we have to move towards things which are good for us. The Latin calls them salutaria. The word has a rich meaning: wholesome things, health-giving things, things that heal, save, and restore. We ask God to guide us toward those things.
The salutaria in our life are manifold. They are the persons, relationships, places, books, music, art, and other things that contribute to making us whole persons, that foster our health of mind, soul, and body. We ask God to guide us towards such people, to direct us into such relationships, to show us where such things can be found. He does so by the inward workings of the Holy Spirit. “Those who live by the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit . . . to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rm 8:5-6).
We can discern our attractions by observing what they produce in us. If a particular attraction leaves me feeling sad, unsettled, and troubled, it does not come from the Holy Spirit. If, on the other hand, it leaves me with a feeling of hope, of peace, of joy, it is salutary, it is wholesome and health-giving. The salutaria of God restore and refresh the sin sick soul.
Christ, the Salutaris Hostia
Our response has to be one of humble trust in the Giver of all good things. “Thou dost ever create all these good things, O Lord, Thou makest them holy and fillest them with life, dost sanctify, quicken, bless, and bestow them upon us” (Roman Canon). We go to the altar today full of thanksgiving for the salutaria sent to us by God. We go to the altar to offer and to receive the Salutaris Hostia, the Health-Giving Victim, Christ our God, the Priest and Physician of our souls and bodies.