I Am the Health of My People

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent
Station at the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian

I am the health of My people, says the Lord,
in whatever trouble they shall cry to me,
I will hear them,
and I will be their Lord forever.

Very often in the liturgy of Lent, the antiphons, readings, and prayers of the Mass are linked to the day’s stational church. Today just such a link strikes us in the first word of the Introit: salus, health. The Church goes in procession to the house of the Holy Physicians Cosmas and Damian and, as she crosses the threshold, she sings, or rather repeats for all to hear, what her Lord sings to her: “I am the health of My people, says the Lord, in whatever trouble they shall cry to Me, I will hear them, and I will be their Lord forever.” The initial letters of the first four Latin words of today’s Introit are an acrostric forming SPES, the Latin word for hope.

Opening the Roman Gradual we see that the Church has chosen the antiphon’s accompanying verse from Psalm 77: “Attend, My people, to My law: turn your ears to the word of my mouth” (Ps 77:1).
Dame Aemiliana Löhr, O.S.B. gives a brilliant commentary on today’s Introit. Listen to what she says:

Attend, My people, to my law, turn your ears to the word of My mouth’ (Ps 77:1). This gives the grand theme of the Mass; the healthy man, in God’s sense and the Church’s, is the obedient man. The reason for this is very simple, as the Introit expresses it: God is the sole source of life, the ‘fountain of life,’ the health and healing of man. He nourishes and protects the life which he has made. He enlivens what has grown slack in battle, He heals what is sick, and He makes this healing an abiding and eternal one by His mysteries. . . . The health and salvation of the man who is knit to God is . . . something in the realm of being, it is God’s own life filling him. Therefore it is something that he cannot give himself; it must be a free gift and the operation of God. The working and the gift take place in the form of the mysterium . . . the liturgy. This is where the health-giving air of God blows. All that a man can do towards restoring his own health is to bring himself into this healing atmosphere and allow it to work upon him. This is what it means to seek salvation beneath His wing. The helpfulness of those Holy Physicians whose house the praying Church visits today at Rome can also consist only in their bringing the sick man into contact with God and His action.

We humbly implore Your majesty, O Lord,
that, as the days of the festival of our salvation draw closer,
we may, with greater devotion,
advance toward the celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

Although I keenly regret that the 1970 Missal does not keep the ancient Collect of today’s Mass, Magnificet, with its allusion to Saints Cosmas and Damian, the new Collect does have the merit of calling Pascha, “the health-bearing festival,”dies salutiferae festivitatis. It asks that we may advance with greater devotion toward the celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

The underlying idea is one of picking up speed, of haste, alacrity, joy. It is very close to what Holy Father Benedict says in Chapter 49 of the Rule: ” . . . and so with the joy of spiritual desire, look forward to holy Pascha.” The closer we get to the Cross and Resurrection, the more quickly we advance, drawn on by Love. The words of the Bride in the Canticle become the prayer of the Church in this second half of Lent: “Draw me: we will run after Thee in the odour of Thy ointments” (Ct 31:3).

Offertory Antiphon
Though I walk in the midst of troubles
You will give me life, O Lord;
and You will stretch out Your hand against the wrath of My enemies,
and Your right hand shall save me (Ps 137:7).

The Offertory Antiphon is realistic. Even when we are drawn forward by love, we will find ourselves “walking in the midst of troubles.” This is to make our confidence in God increase. The liturgy tells us exactly what to say to God when we feel as if the darkness is closing in on us, and the troubles we have to bear are going to crush us: “You will give me life, O Lord; and You will stretch out Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand shall save me (Ps 137:7).

Prayer Over the Oblations
So that the gifts of Your people
may be acceptable to You, O Lord,
we beseech You,
cleanse them from the contagion of evil,
and permit not that those to whom You promise
the rewards of Your truth
should cling to false joys.

Again, the 1970 Prayer Over the Oblations does not mention Saints Cosmas and Damian as does the ancient Secret of the day. It speaks, however, of the contagio perversitatis — the contagion of perversity, the contagion of evil. Sin is contagious. Evil spreads. Sin engenders sin, not only in us, but also around us. One angry brother in a community, one brother holding onto a resentment, one brother nourishing hateful thoughts, one brother being disobedient, poisons the whole environment. He becomes toxic not only to herself but to those around him. The same thing happens in families: “the fathers have eaten unripe grapes,” says Scripture, “and the teeth of the children are set on edge.” All sin is social. All sin has corporate effects.

But holiness too is contagious. Saints always grow in clusters. The virtue of one calls forth virtue from another. The saints, by helping one another, resist becoming toxic with bitterness and instead breathe forth generosity, charity, peace, and patience.

The liturgy remains soberly realistic: and so we ask in the Prayer Over the Offerings that we be cleansed from the contagio perversitatis — the contagion of perversity. This means that each of us carries within the contagious germ of evil. The Most Holy Eucharist is given us to remove that contagious germ lest the whole Body become sick.

Communion Antiphon
You have ordered that we should keep Your commandments
with the greatest care.
May my ways be guided
so that I may keep Your righteousness (Ps 118:4-5).

The Communion Antiphon, a true processional, hearkens back to the Collect with its image of advancing toward the Paschal solemnity. We pray to be guided in our ways so as to keep the righteousness of the Lord, that is, holiness, with the greatest care.

The ways of holiness, though they be many, all converge into the one royal way of the Via Crucis. “Enter by the narrow gate,” says the Lord, “for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14). By receiving the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Christ, one passes through the narrow gate. The way is not something exterior to ourselves; it is Christ who said, “I am the Way” (Jn 14:6), living out the mysteries of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection within us. “Christ in you,” says Saint Paul: “the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).

Lift up by your gracious help, O Lord,
those whom you have refreshed by your sacraments,
that we may lay hold of the effect of your salvation
by these mysteries and by the way we live.

After Holy Communion we pray to be “lifted up.” Those who follow Christ in the way of the Cross will fall beneath its weight. They will fall because of weakness, fatigue, and the weight of crushing sorrows. Not every fall is sin. There are falls permitted by God in order to make us grow in confidence. “My soul cleaves to the dust,” says the psalmist; “revive me according to Thy word” (Ps 118:25).

Prayer Over the People
Trusting in your mercy,
we implore your clemency, O Lord,
so that, as we hold what we are from you,
we may by your grace become what you would have us be
and be able to do the good things you will.

The Prayer Over the People insists on the mercy and of clemency of God. Its petition is that we, by grace, may become what God would have us be and be able to do the good things He wills. One of my favourite personal prayers in some way echoes today’s Prayer Over the People. It is a petition of the French Augustinian mystic, Mother Yvonne-Aimée of Malestroit.

Y-Aimee.jpgTrès Sainte Trinité,
faites en moi ce que vous voulez trouver
afin de tirer de mon néant
tout l’amour et toute la gloire que vous aviez en vue
quand vous m’avez créé.

Most Holy Trinity,
do in me whatsoever you want to find in me,
so as to draw out of my nothingness
all the love and all the glory which you had in view
when you created me.

To become by grace what God would have us be: is not that what every life is about?