If you have ever felt desolate, needy, or fragile, you will have found in today’s Introit the perfect expression, in prayer to God, of such states. Even the chant melody, with its opening plea, soars upward: it is a prayer originating in the depths of human misery, and stretching, soaring aloft on the wings of faith and of hope: “Incline Thy ear, O Lord, to me and hear me: Save Thy servant, O my God, that trusteth in Thee: have mercy on me, O Lord, for I have cried to Thee all day”.
The text of the Introit is from Psalm 85, a psalm shot through with sentiments of confidence and trust in God, even as the one praying it is acutely, painfully aware of his frailty and utter indigence.
“Give joy to the soul of Thy servant; for to Thee, O Lord, I have lifted up my soul”. The psalm verse that accompanies the antiphon asks for spiritual joy: Laetifica animam servi tui, Make joyful the soul of Thy servant. Spiritual joy, like peace of heart, cannot be produced by a mere effort to be cheerful, to put on a happy face. Spiritual joy is one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost. It is a gift of God. It blossoms and comes to fruition on the branches of that mystical tree planted within the soul, the roots of which are faith, hope, and charity.
Prayer of the Church: Prayer of the Soul
The Collect of today’s Mass continues the motif of supplication given by the Introit on the threshold of the celebration. In the Collect, appealing to God’s abiding compassion, we ask him to cleanse His Church and to defend her. Cleansing pertains to the filth within; defense pertains to attacks from without. Whenever, in the liturgy, we pray for the Church, we are, by the same token, praying for our own souls. Personalized, if you will, the sense of the first part of the Collect is this: “In thy abiding compassion, O Lord, cleanse Thou my soul of the accumulated filth within, and defend me against attacks from without.”
The Collect reminds us that the Christian stands, at every moment, on a battlefield. The invisible enemies of our souls — those who would rob us of inner joy and of trust in God’s abiding compassion — are forever strategising to bring us down. That is why we ask God to defend us in the Collect.
Governed by God’s Protecting Gift
The prayer goes on to say that, without God, the Church cannot hold her ground in the face of a world at enmity with all that she represents and teaches. Therefore, we pray that the Church may be governed — gubernatur— by God’s protecting gift. The idea of gubernatur is related to the rudder that steers the course of a ship at sea. The rudder of Peter’s fragile bark — the ship of the Church tossed about on history’s stormy seas — is, we can be confident, in the hand of one made strong by the gift of God.
Life in the Spirit
In the Epistle, Saint Paul speaks to us of life in the Church, of our relations with one another. “Brethren, if we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” One cannot claim to live in the Holy Ghost, that is, in a state of sanctifying grace, if the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are not operative in us, and if the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost are meagre or paltry.
If, in a community (understand, here, family, or marriage, or parish, or monastic community), one finds envy, harshness, and rash judgment, that community is not giving evidence of the presence of the Holy Ghost. Quite to the contrary, another spirit is at work.
Bearing One Another’s Burdens
Saint Paul would have us bear one another’s burdens. Saint Benedict says something similar in Chapter 72 of the Holy Rule: “Let them most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind.” Each of us, he says, has his own burden to carry. We are not to judge why such and such a burden has been laid upon one and not on another; we have only to do everything in our power to lighten a brother’s burden by taking upon ourselves something of the load that crushes him beneath its weight.
Transmission of the Faith
Saint Paul, moreover, considers it vital that the community of the Church be a place of ongoing instruction in the faith. A monastery, like a Catholic marriage, family, or parish, cannot function healthily on pious sentiments and half-baked opinions. Some form of systematic, objective teaching of the faith is indispensable. The sacred liturgy provides the framework and the substance for such teaching.
Praise and Adoration
Instruction – even the best liturgical catechesis – is not enough by itself. The Gradual tells us that ” it is sweet to praise the Lord, to sing unto the Name of the Most High.” The instruction that leads not to praise, to adoration, to thanksgiving, is sterile and vain. When Blessed Columba Marmion taught dogmatic theology to his Benedictine students in Louvain, they would, after his classes, go immediately from the lecture hall to the church, compelled to fall down in adoration and to give praise for what they had learned.
The Gospel we are given today has been the subject of innumerable commentaries by the Fathers. Saint Luke presents the scene with a consummate artistry. He is very good at depicting scenes from real life. (This, I think, is part of what contributed to his reputation as an artist, an iconographer, and to his role as the patron saint of painters.) There are two groups in movement. The first of these — I see it moving from left to right, or from west to east, that is, out of darkness into light — is assembled around the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of Life. The second group — I see it moving from right to left, or from east to west, that is, out of light into darkness — is assembled around the corpse of a young man, and the shattered profile of his widowed mother, groaning and weeping.
The Heart of Jesus Moved to Pity
The two groups come together. Here Saint Luke uses a very beautiful phrase describing Jesus’ reaction to the widow’s grieving. In the Latin it is, Quam cum vidisset Dominus, misericordia motus super eam; “When the Lord saw her, he was moved to heartfelt pity over her.” This is the core of the story: a revelation of the Heart of Jesus.
Return to Life
What follows is a simple expression: Noli flere. Do not weep. Jesus stops the movement of the bier; he stops the movement westward into the regions of darkness and night. He addresses the young man who, in response to the word of Jesus, sits up and begins to speak. Jesus gives him back to his mother.
An Outburst of PraiseWhat happened then? Saint Luke tells us only that the two groups were overcome with awe, and that there was a great outburst of praise to God. I should think that, then, both groups joined to form a single procession from west to east, out of darkness into light. Therein, we have an image of the pilgrim Church, of the Church ever in movement: out of what is old, decaying, and marked by weeping and groans into newness of life, into what is fresh, and fragrant with a sweetness not of this world, and marked by praise and by awe in the presence of God.
The Offertory Antiphon continues the Gospel story, for it gives us the very prayer of the young man raised to life: “Waiting, I waited for Lord, and and at last he turned his face towards me, and listened to my plea. He has put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (Psalm 39:2-4).
The Secret Prayer will return to the motif of spiritual battle evoked already in the Collect: we will pray to be guarded by the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist, and defended from diabolical onslaughts.
The Communion Antiphon, which is really meant to be chanted during the procession of the faithful to receive the Holy Mysteries, is nothing less than Our Lord Himself addressing those who approach to receive His Sacred Body: “The bread which I am to give, is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:52). In other words, “What I did for the son of the widow of Naim, I will also do for you, and this, by giving you my own resurrected and glorious Body, the seed of eternal life in you.”
Finally, the Postcommunion will be very practical today. Even after participating fully, consciously, and actually in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, there remains the danger of returning to the humdrum world of ordinary concerns, and of acting and make choices based, not on the splendour of the truth that has been given us here, but on our subjective impressions and emotional responses. “May the operation of this heavenly gift take hold, O Lord, of our minds and bodies, so that its effect may forestall our feelings.”
Towards the Light Eternal
The procession must go on, from west to east, out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of mourning and weeping into chants of joy and cries of gladness. The rhythm of the march is marked by the liturgy of the Church. One who walks with the Church is walking towards the light eternal. Of this, there can be no doubt.