Preaching to Preachers: Part III

Fra_Angelico_012Homily at Holy Mass
We are, all of us, crushed reeds and wavering flames. We are all of us blind, captive, and in darkness. Our own experience of struggle and of wrestling with evil allows us to enter into the prayer of Christ given us in the Propers of today’s Mass, not as spectators looking on from the sidelines, but as participants. Today’s Officium in the Graduale of the Order of Preachers is taken from Psalm 34, a passionate appeal for vindication. “Judge, O Lord, those that wrong me, fight against those that fight against me: take hold of arms and shield, and arise to help me, O Lord, the strength of my salvation” (Ps 34:1-2). This is the prayer of the suffering Christ to the Father; because it is his prayer, it is ours. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Hebrews 5:7). It is precisely this prayer of Christ, his costly, agonizing prayer “out of the depths” (Psalm 129:1), that is given us in the psalms.

The psalms are given us as a kind of sacrament of the prayer of the prayer of Christ. I find this immensely comforting and wonderfully reassuring: that I can receive within my soul, and offer from my heart, and utter with my lips the very prayer of Christ to the Father.

By giving us the prayer of the Christus Passus in the psalms, the Church offers us a holy communion with him. The substance of the prayer of Christ is given us under the humble species of human language in the words of the psalms. The psalms of the suffering Christ are for us a holy communion with His passion, a way of entering deeply into the sentiments and sorrows of his heart, a way of allowing ourselves to be inhabited by the power of his prayer to the Father.

The Missal gives a Communion Antiphon from Psalm 101. It is Christ Who lifts his voice to the Father, saying, “Turn not your face from me in the day of my distress. Turn your ear towards me and in the day when I cry out to you, answer me quickly” (Ps 101:3). This is the prayer of Christ the Head; it is also the prayer of every suffering and tempted member of his Mystical Body, the prayer of every soul crushed beneath the weight of evil, wrestling with the enemies of God, and fearful of her own weakness.

There is a marvelous grace attached to saying one’s psalms as the Church appoints them to be said; it is very much akin to the grace of saying one’s beads. Almost imperceptibly the narrowness of one’s own prayer gives way to the vastness of the prayer of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, of the Church. One begins to submit, not out of any sense of legal obligation or constraint, but willingly and freely to the discipline of the psalter. Over time, one finds oneself immersed in a prayer that encompasses and expresses the most intimate and secret needs of every member of the Mystical Body. One is carried along in a stream of prayer that issues forth from God and returns to God, for the psalms were inspired by the Holy Spirit and given to Israel in view of the day when Christ would stand in need of them in order to express in human language that ineffable dialogue with the Father that was from all eternity. It was in the psalter — in his psalter — that the Crucified found words perfectly adapted to all that his Heart needed and wanted to say to the Father, in the hearing of his Mother, of Saint John, and of Mary Magdalene, that is to say, in the hearing of the Church. When Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit, he bequeathed to the Church all that constituted his prayer to the Father during his life on earth. This inheritance — enshrined in the psalter — the Church has always treasured: it is the sacrament of the substance of his prayer in her. The psalter is a kind of ciborium containing the mystical manna destined to be placed in the mouth of the Church.

The past forty years have seen a regrettable falling away from attention to the Propers of the Mass, but this timeless element of the Church’s is being recovered and rediscovered, and with this the filial and priest prayer of Christ is beginning again to resound in the Church and in the hearts of those who bend to the sweet discipline of her liturgy. Psalmus in ore, Christus in corde.

The hours that you Preachers and that we monks “waste” or “lose” in choir constitute our daily pound of very costly ointment poured out over the feet of Jesus; the whole house of the Church is filled with its fragrance. Should, which God forbid, the tragedy of bare, ruined choirs ever prevail, the Church will be filled with the odour of their decay.

Your Dominican Graduale gives another Communion Antiphon taken, like the Introit, from Psalm 34: “Let them be shamed and brought to disgrace those who rejoice at my misfortune: let them be put to shame and fear, those who speak wicked things against me” (Psalm 34:26). This is the prayer of a man brought low, of a man caught in the grip of a mortal terror; it is the prayer of the suffering Christ — of the whole suffering Christ. Paul entered into this prayer: “We do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:7). The Head Who suffered once, suffers still in his members. The prayer made once by the Head becomes each day the prayer of the members “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11).

The sacrament of the Word gives us the prayer of Christ. We, by ingesting the words of the psalms, allow Christ’s prayer to indwell us as it indwells the whole Church who breathes it forth again and again in the power of the Holy Spirit. The sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood gives us the whole mystery of Christ’s blessed Passion and glorious Resurrection; it gives us Christ himself. He comes to live out his once-and-for-all Mystery again and again in us, uniting us in one Spirit to himself. Take, then, his Body to your body; take his Blood to your blood; take his Heart to your heart; take all that he is to all that you are. Christ gives you today the pledge of the glorious outcome of every bitter struggle of ours with sin and death.