Preaching to Preachers: Part II

crucifixion-with-the-virgin-mary-magdalene-and-st-dominic-1442The Second Conference

The bright eighth mode intervals of last evening’s Magnificat Antiphon — as we had it in our Benedictine antiphonal — are still echoing in my heart: ‘It is therefore written: I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock shall be dispersed; but after I shall be risen, I will go before you into Galilee. There you shall see me, says Lord.’ Over the words, postquam autem resurrexero — ‘but after I shall be risen’ the eighth mode melody leaps upward in an uncontainable burst of paschal triumph, ringing out an irrepressible joy.

Your Dominican Antiphonal gives an entirely different Magnificat Antiphon with regard to both the text (Luke 19:37–38) and the melody. It is fascinating little piece of liturgical theology given to prepare us for the liturgical deployment of this whole week:

Coeperunt omnes turbae descendentium gaudentes laudare Deum voce magna super omnibus quas viderant, virtutibus, dicentes, Benedictus qui venit rex in nomine Domini: pax in caelo et gloria in excelsis.

The whole crowd who went down with him began to rejoice and to praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the highest’.

At one level this antiphon is no more than the last in the series given for the Little Hours, wherein it functions as part of the whole narrative. At another level, however, it is a prophecy, encompassing and expressing the whole mystery of Christ played out in the sacramental life of the Church, and this, from the abasements of his Passion and Death to the triumph of his Ascension. It is this, I think, that the liturgy would have us understand.

‘The whole crowd who went down with him’: Who is this crowd if not all of us who, in the mystery of Holy Baptism, have already gone down with Christ into the depths of his death, and burial? Again, who is this crowd if not all of us who, by means of the liturgy of these Days of Awe, will descend with Christ into the self–emptying, the exinanitio — en–nothingment — of the Cross? The key phrase is ‘who went down with him’ — descendentium.

This ‘going down’ refers to utter self–emptying of the Christus Passus. It will find musical expression later in the week in the chant of the Christus factus est pro nobis, specifically in the treatment the word crucis, where the melody will descend into lowest notes of its range: the mystery of the kenosis translated, as it were, not into mere words, but into words wedded to neums. This is the liturgy’s sancta predicatio of the Word of the Cross, revealing the mystery verbo et exemplo, that is by means of the word and by the example of the melody that discloses its meaning.

A Friar Preacher’s preaching comes to him, it seems to me, first of all in his choir stall and in the service of the altar. This is the original sancta predicatio: the deployment of the choral liturgy. This is the Church’s theologia prima. The Friar Preacher takes to study the theologia prima that has penetrated him through every pore of his sensate being in choir and in the service of the altar and there, at his desk and in the lecture hall, he questions, he ponders, and he wrestles with the poverty of human language, straining all the while to articulate in reasonable words what ‘eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him’ (2 Corinthians 2:9). Herein lies the Friar Preacher’s signal contribution to the life of the Church in every age: the theologia secunda, and the transmission of it.

 The liturgy is, first of all, the experience of ’things hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed to the little ones’ (Matthew 11:25). These are the things that your tradition calls the contemplata, and it is of these things that you, Friars Preachers, are emboldened by the capital grace of Saint Dominic to say from the rooftops: ‘But to us God hath revealed them, by this Spirit. For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:10).

I beg your pardon for the excursus into theologia prima and theologia secunda, but the argument goes directly to what I was saying about last evening’s Magnificat Antiphon. As members of Christ’s Body sacramentally conjoined to him as to our Head, we follow him wheresoever he goes. We descend with him, not by a clever trick of the imagination, but really, by means of the sacramental order of things, into the bloody prayer of Gethsemani. We descend with him into the depths of humiliation that mark the via dolorosa. We descend with him into the sufferings of the Cross and into the prayer wrung from his agonizing Heart: ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ (Psalm 21:2). We descend with him into the silence of the tomb.

Saint Paul says:

Know you not that all we, who are baptized in Christ Jesus, are baptized in his death? For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4)

And a few verses later in the same sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, he says:

For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer. For he that is dead is justified from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall live also together with Christ. (Romans 6:5–7)

All of this Pauline theology is packed into the first phrase of last evening’s Magnificat Antiphon and into its twelve neums: ‘The whole crowd who went down with him’. I suppose that one might want to take this first phrase of the antiphon and bring it to one’s rosary. What are the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary if not a spelling out, a re–telling, a rememoration with Our Lady of her Son’s going down, through his Passion and Cross, into the tomb, and even into the depths of hades?

Permit me here to make another little excursus on how, in my experience, the rosary draws upon the givenness of the liturgy, the theologia prima, and prolongs it, once one has left the service of the altar and one’s choir stall, into spaces and times of daily life where it would not otherwise penetrate. Study, the work of articulating the theologia secunda, unless it be moistened by the dew distilled from the rosary, quickly becomes dry and sterile. As for preaching, it seems to get stuck in one’s throat or, if it does come out, it is wanting in that supernatural penetrating quality that the ancients called unction, unless it be sweetened by the humble telling of one’s beads before and after going into the pulpit. How can I not allude to the anecdote concerning the laybrother who, crouched under Père Lacordaire’s pulpit, would tell his beads while the great man preached? Some would dismiss this anecdote as pious legend, forgetting that legend is the account of something which, while it may not have happened as told, is altogether true nonetheless.

It is all of a piece, isn’t it? The theologia prima of altar and choir, the theologia secunda of study, and the transmission of it in preaching are fitted together in a kind of organic continuum by the underlying ebb and flow of the Aves over the meditatio of the rosary. You must think it very cheeky of me to speak to Friars Preachers of the rosary. I speak to you, nonetheless, from my own monastic experience in which the rosary has always been a unifying element. The rosary holds it all together. The rosary sustains the impetus given in the choir Office and quietly introduces the particular graces of each day’s liturgy into all the corners and crannies of life. A monk, no more than a friar, cannot (and ought not) be continuously at the altar or in his choir stall; the beads, however, are a simple way of tapping into the grace of the liturgy wherever one may be, and at any hour of the day or night, and this through Our Lady’s gracious mediation.

Returning to our Magnificat Antiphon, then, we have: ‘The whole crowd who went down with him began to rejoice and to praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen’. Those who go down with Christ — down into the waters of Baptism; down into the mystic tomb of religious profession; down into penitence; down into the humble acceptance of one’s own moral infirmities and physical decrepitude; down into the mucky bits of fraternal life — will also go up with Christ — up into the life of grace; up into the bosom of the Father; up into what Saint Benedict calls the deificum lumen, the deifying light; up into the anticipation and foretaste of what will be ours eternally, by inheritance, in heaven.

Our Magnificat Antiphon evokes already, on Palm Sunday, the very life of the post–Resurrection Church that Saint Luke describes in the last sentence of his Gospel: ‘And they adoring went back into Jerusalem with great joy. And they were always in the temple, praising and blessing God’ (Luke 24:52–53). This, it seems to me, is all very Dominican — Laudare, benedicere, praedicare — and it accounts for something that has always struck me about the piety of the Friars Preachers: it is utterly realistic and supernaturally optimistic.

What makes Dominican spirituality (if I may be forgiven the use of a term that I do not particularly like or find adequate) so supernaturally optimistic? Grace! Grace before grace; grace while receiving grace; grace after grace; grace upon grace! All of this simply spells out what Saint John says in the last phrase of the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel: ‘And of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace’ (John 1:16).

Wisely, even in this great and solemn week when the Passion of Christ (his going down) is kept before our eyes, the Church never loses sight of the joy of his exaltation (his going up) and never stops praising the Father for the works wrought by the Son, and for the way in which the Father has heard the prayer of the Son. ‘Father, the hour is come, glorify thy Son, that thy Son may glorify thee’ (John 17:1). While the various moments of the one mystery of the Christus Passus are played out sequentially in the liturgy, the whole reality of it is efficaciously present throughout.

This is why the Church has us sing at Holy Mass already on Holy Tuesday and then again on Maundy Thursday the magnificent Introit — you Dominicans call it the OfficiumNos autem.

Nos autem gloriari oportet in cruce Domini nostri Iesu Christi: in quo est salus, vita, et resurrectio nostra: per quem salvati, et liberati sumus.

But it behoves us to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection: by whom we are saved and delivered. (Galatians 6:14)

Here is no mere liturgical convention; we are presented, rather, with a very concrete application of  the mystery to all of life. If you need salus (healing, health, wholeness), you will find it in the cross of Christ. If you need vita (life, grace, sustenance), you will find it in the cross of Christ. If you need resurrectio (being put on your feet again, restoration to the glory of filial adoption, a new life facing God, you will find it in the cross of Christ.

If you want to be salvati (not just saved in the way that Protestant Evangelicals use the term, but in the way Saint Thomas uses the word to mean healed of the wounds inflicted by sin, made whole again, justified from the inside out), you have only to avail yourself of the Passion of Christ. If you want to be liberati (not in the way that Marxists and certain proponents of Liberation Theology use the term, but in the way the Fathers use it when they show the Exodus as a type of the journey out of bondage to sin effected by the sacraments), you have only to avail yourself of the Passion of Christ, ‘Who his own self bore our sins in his body upon the tree: that we, being dead to sins, should live to justice: by whose stripes you were healed’ (1 Peter 2:24).

Moved by prevenient grace, we avail ourselves of the Passion of Christ, not by magic, nor by a trick of the imagination, nor by a mere effort of the will, but by submitting to the means established by Christ to extend the virtus of his Passion to every member of his Mystical Body: the sacraments. Holy Week, then, is really all about the sacraments.

Maundy Thursday is astonishingly dense in this regard; it would include, in the morning, a synaxis for the reconciliation of penitents; then the consecration of the holy oils for Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick; finally there is the Evening Mass In Coena Domini, a sober jubilation for the gifts of the Most Holy Eucharist and of the Priesthood that is, at the same time, something akin to a First Vespers of Good Friday for, in the Cenacle, the sacrifice of the Cross was already sacramentally consummated and the Lamb already immolated, although in an unbloody manner.

I shall never forget the luminous teaching of Father Urban Mullaney, O.P., P.G. on this very point: already, in the Cenacle at the Last Supper, the sacrifice of the Cross was consummated, albeit in an unbloody manner, and this by the consecration of the bread separately from the consecration of the chalice. Christ the priest made his immolated Body and Blood and the whole mystery of his sacrifice present in advance, just as today, in the Mass, his immolated Body and Blood and the whole mystery of his sacrifice are made present after the completion of the same reality, in a bloody manner, in time.

Although the Synaxis of the Passion on Good Friday, in the present usage, culminates in the reception of the Divine Fruit of the Cross, it manifests the principle of the whole sacramental economy most vividly in the rite of the ‘creeping to the Cross’. The kiss given to the Cross signifies one’s adhesion to the whole mystery of the Christus Passus, a ‘Yes’ to redeeming Love. It is the Church, as as a spousal Body, making herself over, member by member, to Christ, the Bridegroom, stretched out on the marriage bed of the Cross. Seeing the ‘creeping to the Cross’ one is, I think, immediately put in mind of that word of the Angel in the Apocalypse: ‘Come, and I will shew thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb’ (Apocalypse 21:9). 

The kiss given to the Cross — the place of the Church’s union with the Lamb and the source of her fecundity — discloses the meaning of the marital embrace as God saw it from the beginning. It is a kind of ‘mystery play’ in which husbands and wives see revealed the sacramental drama of their own marriage covenant. ‘This is a great sacrament’, says Saint Paul, ‘but I speak in Christ and in the church’ (Ephesians 5:32).

In the great Paschal Vigil, the Mother of All Vigils, the Church takes up all that her Bridegroom has given her — the freshly consecrated oil; the bread and the wine of the Cenacle; and the water flowing from his pierced side — and, in succession of divine works wrought by the very doing of the sacramental deeds (ex opere operato), she displays his triumph over death and, at the same time, the inexhaustible fecundity that is hers by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. These are the mighty works to which your Dominican Magnificat Antiphon points:

The whole crowd who went down with him began to rejoice and to praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ’Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the highest’.

It remains for us to consider, if only for a moment, the last phrase of the antiphon: ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the highest’. It is an eschatological cry. It seems to reach us as an echo from heaven. It is the cry of the Church who, through the celebration of the mysteries, finds herself, after days of obscurity and mourning, face–to–face with her Bridegroom. ‘For a, small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a moment of indignation have I hid my face a little while from thee, but with everlasting kindness have I had mercy on thee, said the Lord thy Redeemer’ (Isaias 54:7–8).

It is at once curious and profound that your Magnificat Antiphon, crafted out of Luke 19:37–38, should in some way echo the words intoned by the Angels at the birth of the Lord and also change them. In the text of our antiphon, it is no longer a question of singing, Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus after Luke 2:14, but rather of singing, Pax in caelo et gloria in excelsis as found in Luke 19:38. It is no longer a question of earth, but of heaven, even as in the Epistle of the Mass of the Day on Easter:

If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)

The Rex Pacificus of whom we, Dominicans and Benedictines alike, sing in the first antiphon of First Vespers of Christmas, has descended to earth, revealing the human face of God. ‘And I,’ he said, ‘if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself’ (John 12:32). In ascending to the altar of the Cross he descended into the depths of sin. ‘him, who knew no sin’ says Saint Paul, ‘God hath made sin for us, that we might be made the justice of God in him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus does he draw up after him the great body of the redeemed. Pax in caelo et gloria in excelsis.

All who belong to Christ are with him, according to his own priestly prayer to the Father on the night before he suffered: ‘Father, I will that where I am, they also whom thou hast given me may be with me; that they may see my glory which thou hast given me, because thou hast loved me before the creation of the world’ (John 17:24). Pax in caelo et gloria in excelsis.

Your Magnificat Antiphon contains much more than meets the eye or strikes the listening ear. Ultimately it points to the glorious triumph of the Ascension, and beyond. It is not only the song of the Church on earth, but also the song of the heavenly choirs of Angels welcoming the Prince of Life who returns triumphant from his bloody combat: ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the highest’. Reverend Fathers, dear Brothers, as you go forward into this Great Week, oriented as we are by last evening’s Magnificat Antiphon, I can say to you only what the Apostle said to the Colossians:

Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:2–4)

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