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Through the Gate of Septuagesima

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Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.jpg

The image -- it is by Michelangelo and is found in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican -- depicts that most sorrowful mystery of Septuagesima Sunday: our first parents cast out of paradise. It is the visual complement to the sobering Magnificat Antiphon at First Vespers: "The Lord said unto Adam, Of the tree which is in the midst of paradise thou shalt not eat, for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die of death."

Chased out of paradise by the angel wielding a flaming sword, a naked Adam and Eve make their way toward death, toward the very death that the New Adam, naked upon the tree of the Cross will undo. There, the Cherub's flaming sword will be replaced by the soldier's lance, and the gate of paradise will be opened in the Saviour's side. Michelangelo's magnificent crucifix in the sacristy of the Church of Santo Spirito in Florence illustrates the mystery towards which points the Cherub's flaming sword.


The Pre-Lenten Season of the Church

Influenced, no doubt, by the practice of Greek Christians living in Rome and observing the Eastern preparation for Great Lent, Pope Saint Gregory the Great instituted the season of Septuagesima: three weeks of preparation for the Great Fast marked by solemn stations at the patriarchal basilicas of Saint Lawrence, Saint Paul, and Saint Peter. In this way the Roman Church prepared her Lenten observance under the auspices of the Eternal City's glorious patrons. Dame Aemiliana Löhr, O.S.B. reflects on Septuagesima as the beginning of our passage through death into life:

A Beginning
More clearly than the First Sunday of Advent, Septuagesima forms a point of division. Not unreasonably, it has been questioned from time to time whether one ought to look here for the real beginning of the liturgical year. Today's liturgy differs sharply from the Sundays just past. Contrasted with the joyous liturgy of Epiphany with its shining glance towards the fulfilment of Easter, Septuagesima seems almost gloomy. In every respect it carries the mark of a beginning, and that in the sense of of a laborious, sorrowful one, the character of every earthly as opposed to divine beginning. It is as if the Church had suddenly dropped down from the bright and festive upper storey of her house into the darkness of a low, vaulted crypt, into the earth's womb, the tombs; prepared, now that she has celebrated the glorious feast of life at Epiphany, to seek out the dark and difficult beginnings of that life.
Farewell to the Alleluia
With a last cry of joy, which both gives a final occasion for the glory of Epiphany to shine amd anticipates the joy of Easter, the Church leaves behind her at the First Vespers of Sunday that song of heavenly joy, the alleluia.
Between Epiphany and Pascha
The Christmas and Epiphany season taught us again and again that it is not only God's appearance in this world, but also, and most important, his saving work in and upon it which the Church wills to see present in her ritual; only in prospect of Easter does the feast of the Epiphany become for her fully a mystery. Her whole liturgy, as we shall soon see, turns about Easter, and the feast of Epiphany is only a prelude, or one might have it, a short play . . . which takes its meaning from the vision of salvation and glory completed. It does not exclude the way to salvation, but, so to speak, reduces it to a single point.
Pascha and Transitus
Easter contains both aspects: in an extended prelude it follows the whole way, and in the equally rich solemnity of a single night it rejoices in the glory it has won. The decisive point lies between the two: neither preparation nor celebration, but passage, pascha, in the sense of the typical pascha of the Old Testament which the Fathers translate with the word transitus: the passage out of the land of slavery to sin and living death, into God's Canaan, the promised land of freedom in grace and of life for God's children.
A True Beginning of Salvation
The annual return of Septuagesima Sunday is not merely an occasion for worship -- and this is true of the whole liturgy -- but a true beginning of salvation, which can only be brought to its completion by the common act of God and man; it is a moment as serious as ever can arise for man's moral consciousness: decision for the Pasch of Christ, for the mystical death with Him in liturgy, which can only be carried out through the daily and hourly death of man, through turning away from sin and passing up to God. Today is the beginning of salvation, and the decision to seek salvation.
A Serious Joy
We have nothing to fear: the serious of this road [to salvation] is joined to a high joy, and to the certainty that death's course ends in life. This joy, as well, is woven into the liturgy of the weeks to come, and it us under this double motif of seriousness and joy that the Church leads us through the gate of Septuagesima on to Christ's road of death.
(Dame Aemiliana Löhr, O.S.B., The Mass Through the Year)


Among the beautiful Votive Masses of the Passion, found in some missals for certain weekdays after Septuagesima and through Lent, is that of The Prayer of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemani.


My heart is troubled within me;
the fear of death stands over me;
fear and trembling are come upon me (Ps 54:5-6).
V. O God, save me;
see how the waters close about me,
threatening my very life (Ps 68:2).
V. Glory.


Lord Jesus Christ,
whose word and example in the garden taught us to pray,
and thereby to overcome the perils of temptation,
grant us grace ever to be intent upon prayer,
and so to earn its abundant reward.
Thou who art God.

Epistle (Hebrews 5:5-10)

Brethren, Christ did not raise himself to the dignity of the high priesthood; it was God that raised him to it, when he said, you are my Son, I have begotten you this day, and so, elsewhere, You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchisedech. Christ, during his earthly life, offered prayer and entreaty to God who could save him from death, not without a piercing cry, not without tears; yet with such piety as won him a hearing. Son of God though he was, he learned obedience in the school of suffering, and now, his full achievement reached, he wins eternal salvation for all those who render obedience to him. A high priest in the line of Melchisedech, so God has called him.


My heart is full of trouble, my life sinks ever closer to the grave.
V. I count as one of those who go down into the abyss,
a man past all help (Ps 87:4-5)


Listen to me, Lord, of thy gracious mercy,
look down upon me in the abundance of thy pity.
V. Do not turn thy face away from thy servant in this time of trouble,
give a speedy answer to my prayer (Ps 68:17-18).
V. Do not leave me now, when trouble is close at hand,
when I have none to help me (Ps 21:12).

Gospel (Luke 22:39-44)

At this time, Jesus went out, as his custom was, to mount Olivet, his disciples following him. When he reached the place, he said to them, Pray that you may not enter into temptation. Then he parted from them, going a stone's throw off, and knelt down to pray; Father, he said, if it pleases you, take away this chalice from before me; only as your will is, not as mine is. And he had sight of an angel from heaven, encouraging him. And now he was in an agony, and prayed still more earnestly; his sweat fell to the ground like thick drops of blood.


O God, save me;
see how the waters close about me,
threatening my very life (Ps 68:2).


Lord, by the merits of this holy sacrifice,
we beseech thee, cause us, who are schooled by thy divine instruction,
to spend ourselves so effectively in prayer,
that thy Son, Jesus Christ,
may find us at the hour of death,
watchful and free from sin.
Who with thee.

Communion (Matthew 26:41)

Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation:
the spirit is willing enough,
but the flesh is weak.


Refreshed with heavenly food,
we humbly beseech thee, Almighty Father,
that by virtue of the prayer of thy only-begotten Son,
we who are set amidst such dangers to body and soul
may be held worthy to come safely to the kingdom of heaven
Through the same.

Vespers Homily on Psalm 111

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Homily at Vespers

Sunday, 31 January 2010
Septuagesima Sunday
Cathedral of the Holy Family
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Preaching on the Psalms

The last time I had the privilege of preaching at these Sunday Vespers, I proposed that we meditate on Psalm 109, the glorious psalm of Our Lord's divinity, of His kingship, and of His priesthood, the psalm that the Church places on our lips and in our hearts every Sunday evening, and on every great festival of the year. This evening, I propose that we consider together the second psalm of Vespers: Psalm 111.

A Beatitude Expanded

Psalm 111 is a song about blessedness. It is, in its own way, a beatitude expanded. Like Psalm 1 at the head of the Psalter, Psalm 111 begins with the pregnant phrase: Beatus vir . . . Blessed is the man. Who, we must ask, is the man in question? This Man is none other than the One who called Himself "the Son of Man" (Jn 8:28). The Man in question is a true Man, born of the Virgin's womb, and nailed in His flesh to the tree of the Cross. He is also true God, eternally begotten of the Father, the Son in whom the Father takes delight, the Son to whom the Father said in this evening's first psalm, "Sit Thou on My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool" (Ps 109:1).

Christ in the Psalms

Before trying to understand Psalm 111 as a program for moral integrity, as a guide to godly living, we are to see it, I would suggest, as a portrait, an icon, of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The entire Psalter is about Christ, and this from the first page to the last. One who scrutinizes the psalms with the eyes of faith begins to see between the lines. His gaze goes through the text to the mysterious presence that illuminates it and gives it life from within. The prayer of the psalms becomes a kind of spiritual communion with Jesus, the Beloved Son, with Jesus, the Eternal Priest, who, in the glory of heaven, engages in a ceaseless exchange with His Father. The Psalter is a sacrament crafted of human language that makes us partakers of a divine conversation. The Psalter opens our hearts to all that rises from the Heart of Jesus in the presence of His Father. The Psalter is a vessel of living water. One who prays the psalms drinks deeply of the Holy Spirit.

It is a tremendous revelation when one wakes up one fine day and realizes that the psalms are all about Christ, that the Psalter is a kind of tabernacle containing the Hidden Manna, and just waiting to be opened so that, from it, we might be fed with the living bread of the Word.

Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who greatly delights in His commands (Ps 111:1).

The fear of the Lord is the reverence of the Son who prays facing His Father. Thus do we read in the Letter to the Hebrews that, "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" (Heb 5:7). The Church, by binding her bishops and priests and deacons to the daily prayer of the psalms, enrolls them in a school of reverence. By praying through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, one enters into the dispositions of His Heart, one begins to grasp something of the reverence that imbued His whole being so often as He pronounced the name "Father."

" . . . Who greatly delights in His commands" (Ps 111:1).

The Son greatly delights in the commands of the Father. This is the whole message of the Fourth Gospel. "My food," says Jesus, "is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work" (Jn 4:34). "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me" (Jn 6:38). "I do as the Father has commanded Me, so that the world may know that I love the Father" (Jn 14:31). The Psalter is not only a school of reverence; it is a school of obedience. In it we learn not the mercenary obedience of the hired-hand, no the servile obedience of the slave, but rather the loving obedience of the Son who says, "He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I do always what is pleasing to Him" (Jn 8:29).

His descendents will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in his house;
and his righteousness endures forever (Ps 111:2-3).

Who, you may ask, are the descendents of Christ? Saint John explains: "But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave the power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (Jn 1:12-13). Christ is the New Adam, "full of grace and truth," "and from His fullness have we all received, grace upon grace" (Jn 1:16).

David prophesies concerning the wealth and riches that are in His house, and what are these if not what Saint Paul reveals when he says, "To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things" (Eph 3:8-9). These "unsearchable" riches are "the inheritance of the saints in light" (Col 1:12), "the wealth and riches" (Ps 111:2) that are stored up for us in, and dispensed to us from, the household of Christ that is the Church.

Light rises in the darkness for the upright;
the Lord is gracious, and merciful, and righteous (Ps 111:4).

Today, in the Church's traditional calendar is Septuagesima Sunday. Pope Saint Gregory the Great, inspired and spurred by the edifying example of the Greeks living in Rome, who kept a pre-Lenten season, decided that the Latins should do no less. And so, he instituted a three week preparation for Lent, roughly corresponding to the Sundays that mark the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days before Easter. The season of Septuagesima is one of those precious elements of our Catholic tradition that belong to the period of the undivided Church, to the first thousand years of Christianity. It is one of the liturgical practices that we hold in common with the Orthodox Churches of the East and, as such, merits high consideration and dutiful observance. One of the aims of Pope Benedict XVI is to invite the whole Church of the Latin Rite to draw freely from her own liturgical inheritance in such a way as to close the false gap in continuity that some wrongly believe was opened by the Second Vatican Council.

All of that is a round about way of saying that the "light rising in the darkness" of Psalm 111 is the Lumen Christi of the Paschal Vigil. In seventy days time, this cathedral will be all in darkness and as a flickering flame pierces the shadows of the night, the deacon's voice will announce the fulfillment of what this evening's second psalm prophesies: "Light rises in the darkness for the upright; the Lord is gracious, merciful, and righteous" (Ps 111:4).

It is well with the man who deals generously and lends,
who conducts his affairs with justice;
For the righteous will never be moved;
he will be remembered forever (Ps 111:5-6)

The next two verses of Psalm 111 point to the generosity of Christ. Who gives with open hand to the poor, if not Our Lord Jesus Christ? And what does He give?
His own Body and Blood. "This is my Body which is for you. . . . This cup is the new covenant in My Blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me" (1 Cor 11:24-25). The psalm says that "the just man shall be in everlasting remembrance" (Ps 111:6), and the Apostle tells us that, "as often as you eat this Bread and drink the Cup you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Cor 11:26).

He is not afraid of evil tidings;
his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
His heart is steady, he will not be afraid,
until he sees his desire on his adversaries (Ps 111:7-8).

The final portion of Psalm 111 reveals to us the brave and generous Heart of Christ. Anointed by the Holy Spirit, Our Lord went into His Passion as a fearless warrior into battle. The anguish of Gethsemani was not a prelude to the battle; it was, I would venture to say, its cruelest hour. It was before going across the Kedron Valley to the Garden of Olives that Jesus said, "I do as the Father has commanded Me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go hence" (Jn 14:31). Thus did "death and life contend in the combat stupendous." Thus did "the Prince of Life reign immortal," "conquering by death by death."

He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures for ever;
his horn is exalted in honor (Ps 111:9).

This verse is nothing less than a prophecy of the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord. "Therefore it is said, 'When He ascended on high, He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men'" (Eph 4:8). "Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:9-11).

The wicked man sees it and is angry;
he gnashes his teeth and melts away;
the desire of the wicked man comes to nought (Ps 111:10).

The remainder of the psalm deals not with The Blessed Man, but with The Wicked Man, the one about whom Jesus says, "He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him" (Jn 8:44). The very last line of Psalm 111 is wondrously comforting: "the desire of the wicked man comes to nought" (Ps 111:10).

Psalm 111 gives us, then, reason to rejoice in hope as we make our way toward the Light that rises in the darkness. We can enter this pre-Lenten season, and Lent itself, fully confident in the prayer, and in the strength, and mercy, and triumph of the Blessed One in whom we are all blessed: Our Lord Jesus Christ to whom be all glory and praise now and always and unto the ages of ages.

I know that my Redeemer liveth

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In the traditional liturgy today is Septuagesima Sunday; the Office focuses on the first chapters of Genesis, and Mass on the passing of time from "the morning of the world" to the eleventh hour when the last labourers are hired. The reformed liturgy continues the lectio continua of Saint Mark's Gospel and relates today's passage to the sufferings of the prophet Job.

Even in the reformed liturgy one can and should allude to the traditional observance of Septuagesima. Without this pre-Lenten season, one arrives at Ash Wednesday unprepared; the transition into the Great Fast requires, even from the purely psychological point of view, a time of transition. There is enormous wisdom in the traditional practice of the Church.

Fifth Sunday of the Year B

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 146: 12, 3-4, 5-6
1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23
Mark 1:29-39

The Woes of Job

"I am allotted months of emptiness and nights of misery are apportioned to me" (Jb 7:3), says Job: the utterance of a man for whom life has lost all meaning. Job was a prosperous citizen, a man content with himself: comfortable in his religion, secure in his possessions, happy with his family. In a single day, he lost everything (Jb 1:14-16). A tornado struck the house where all his children were gathered for a dinner party, and all perished (Jb 1:18-19). Later he was stricken with a terrible illness; he was covered with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head" (Jb 2:7). His wife (hardly sympathetic and encouraging) tells him to curse God, and die (Jb 2:9). His friends come for visits, but their conversation brings no comfort and their company no solace.

My eye will never again see good

In only six verses, the First Reading reveals the bleakness and intensity of Job's suffering. His torment is more interior than exterior: restlessness, sleepless nights, and the total eclipse of hope. God is conspicuously absent from the text. God is not even mentioned. Listening to the reading, I was moved by the images of despondency that, one after the other, bare for us the depths of Job's pain. "Months of emptiness and nights of misery" (Jb 7:3). "The night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn" (Jb 7:4). Job has the fearful experience of seeing his life rush past him into an impenetrable obscurity. "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and come to their end without hope" (Jb 7:6). The last line of the reading leaves one with the impression of an indefinable and tragic emptiness. "My eye will never again see good" (Jb 7:7) or, in the lectionary translation, "I shall not see happiness again."

Job finds an extraordinarily poignant echo in a poem by W. H. Auden.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Respect for Suffering

"For nothing now can ever come to any good." Auden is quoting Job. How do we leap from this into the Responsorial Psalm, "Praise the Lord, who heals the broken-hearted" (Ps 147:3). I'm not even sure that a leap is appropriate. The reality of human suffering, of the gnawing sense of hopelessness cannot, and should not, be treated dismissively. The pain of the human heart deserves the respect that only a speechless and attentive presence can offer. In any case, the leap into the Responsorial Psalm, however long it is respectfully delayed, cannot be attempted alone. We respond together to the glimmers of light that it holds out. God, conspicuously absent from the text of Job, comes out of hiding in the psalm to "gather the outcasts of Israel, to heal the brokenhearted, and bind up their wounds, to lift up the downtrodden" (Ps 147:2-3, 6).


As a rule, the Second Reading is not related to the other texts of the Sunday liturgy. Today, however, Saint Paul says something that brings him close to Job, and to us. "To the weak, I became weak, that I might win the weak" (1 Cor 9:22). Here, the Apostle reflects his Lord and Master, the Suffering Servant. Before Paul, Christ Himself, "despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Is 53:3), became as weak to the weak, that He might win the weak. The weak Christ -- like the weak Job, and the weak Paul -- speaks, I think, to the weakness in all of us, drawing us to Himself humbly and gently. Virtue that causes the righteous to seem distant, and holiness unattainable, is no virtue at all.

Christ Stretches Forth His Hand

Job and Paul, in their weakness, conduct us to the Gospel of the compassionate Christ. In the Gospel, the God of the Responsorial Psalm has a human face, human hands, a human heart, and a healing, human touch. Look at our Divine Lord in the Gospel. What do we see Him doing? He stretches forth His hand (Mk 1:31) to raise up, to set free, to heal. What Our Lord does in the Gospel for the mother-in-law of Peter (Mk 1:30), and for the whole city gathered together about the door (Mk 1:33), He wants to do for us.

Come to Him

Come to Him, present in the adorable Mystery of the Altar. He will take you by the hand and lift you up (Mk 1:31). If, scorched by the heat of the day, you long for the shadow (Jb 7:2), He will "hide you in the shelter of his wings" (Ps 17:8). If months of emptiness have been your lot (Jb 7:3), He comes to "crown the year with bounty" (Ps 65:11). If nights of misery have been your portion (Jb 7:3), He rises before you as the dawn of mercy (cf. Lk 1:78-79).

He Comes

If you say, "When shall I arise" (Jb 7:4), He stretches forth His hand to raise you up (cf. Mk 1:31). If you say, "the night is long" (Jb 7:4), He says, "You will not fear the terror of the night" (Ps 91:5). If the night is "full of tossing till the dawn" (Jb 7:4), He says, "Come to me . . . And you will find rest for your souls" (Mt 11:28 29). If the days of your life are rushing past, "swifter than a weaver's shuttle" (Jb 7:6), leaving things unresolved, questions unanswered, and your heart without hope, He comes to calm and quiet your soul, "like a child quieted at its mother's breast" (Ps 131:2).

My Hope Laid Up in My Heart

If you fear that never again your eye will see good (Jb 7:7), draw near today to the Holy Table saying with Job, "I know that my Redeemer liveth . . . and in my flesh I shall see my God . . . . This, my hope, is laid up in my heart" (Jb 19:25-27, Vulg).

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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