Corpus Christi 2017 (transferred)

Corpus Christi (transferred) (OF)
18 June 2017
First Reading: 
Deuteronomy VIII. ii-iii, xiv-xvi.
Second Reading:  I. Corinthians X. xvi-xvii.
Gospel:  S. John VI. li-lix.
Collect:  O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Passion: Grant us, we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood, that we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption. Who live and reign with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is shown worshipping her immortal Son in the Blessed Sacrament in this painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1852). She is flanked by S. Louis, the great crusader-king of France, and S. Joan of Arc (?).

OUR first reading this morning comes from the Old-Testament book of Deuteronomy, which records the last teachings of the Holy Prophet Moses. The children of Israël are preparing to enter the Promised Land and Moses is preparing to die in the wilderness: for God has revealed to Moses that he will not enter the Promised Land. The book of Deuteronomy therefore has a special poignancy and power, representing as it does the last commands and prophecies of the man to whom God entrusted the giving of the Law. The prophet looks back on the history of the Jewish nation to that point, and prepares them for what is to come. Speaking, furthermore, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, Moses prophesies about the New Testament which will come in Christ.

Let us therefore be most attentive to the words of the Old-Testament saint: “And thou shalt remember all the we which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna.” In these opening words, Moses gives some of the reasons that God condemned the children of Israël to wander in the wilderness so long, but one reason stands out above the others, because it is repeated. Now, repetition is significant in the Holy Books, and this is no exception. “God led thee these forty years in the wilderness to humble thee”; and again, “He humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know.” Part of God’s purpose in exiling the children of Israël to the wilderness for half a century was to break their pride and to teach them humility, and, strangely, one of the means by which he taught them was through manna, the bread from heaven that appeared on the ground each morning to feed the whole nation of Israël.

The reading that we have heard read is slightly abridged, and so I will read to you some of the omitted verses together with the ending of the reading, since the force of Moses’ words is clearer when they are read together. The prophet says to the people,

Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; who led thee through the great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint; who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end.

In the same way, then, that God had used the sojourn in the wilderness to teach his people humility, his stern warning is that they should guard against pride once they have entered the land of his favour. For pride and humility are opposites, even enemies. The Lord even goes so far as to explain how to recognise this sin, when he says that pride consists “in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes”. Pride expresses itself in disobedience: the proud soul sets himself up as a rival with God. Thus we can see that pride is the chief sin of the devil of hell, since his defining characteristic is to defy God, his Lord and Maker, and to pretend to be his equal.

Let us therefore not be under any false ideas about the danger of pride. To elevate oneself in pride is to place oneself on the same pedestal the proudest spirit of all, even the devil, and we know that, on the last day, the devil and his pedestal will both be thrown into the fire. If, then, we are found on that pedestal with him, we will likewise be thrown into the fire with him. This warning, then, is not some trifling matter. The Holy Ghost, through Moses, is preparing his chosen people to face the spiritual dangers of the world. We, the heirs of the promise, face the same dangers, and more so, and must heed the same warning. The solution for us is also the same as it was for the Israëlites: To be humble, and to obey God, knowing that he, in the words of the Holy Book, will “do [us] good at [our] latter end.”

The sixteenth-century English composer Thomas Tallis has set today’s Gospel to music.

With this in our mind, we turn ourselves to the Gospel assigned for this holy feast. In the very first verse, our Lord Jesus Christ refers to the first reading, and shows how he is the fulfilment of Moses’ prophecy, saying, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” God sustained the children of Israël in the wilderness by sending manna from heaven for them to eat. Now, God the Son, united in purpose with the Father and the Holy Ghost, has come down from heaven to feed mankind of himself. The temptation for those who hear Christ’s words, not only today but also in the moment that he uttered them, is to believe that he is speaking metaphorically. The Lord does not permit such a reading. For he immediately says: “The bread that I will give is my flesh.” Moses says of manna that neither the Israëlites nor their fathers had known manna before God sent it to them. How much more is this the case with this new bread that has come from heaven! Verily, neither we nor our fathers could have conceived that the flesh and blood of a man would be the bread of life, come down from heaven!

The Church was not idle when she gave us these two passages side-by-side. Look even closer at the first reading, and you will see that the Holy Ghost that was speaking through Moses already knew what a miracle he would work through the flesh of Christ. For it is written, “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.” Hear what the same Holy Ghost says through mouth of S. John Evangelist who, speaking about Christ, says: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” The bread that Christ is offering, namely, his own flesh, is therefore literally the Word of God, since the Word of God (which is to say, God the Son) was made flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.

Moses also prophesies that man will live when he eats the Word of God. The Lord Jesus affirms this when he continues:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is the bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.

What a great and strange mystery!

In other words, when we eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ, we are being prepared to live in heaven with him forever. And, notice, the life that we will live is not a mere continuation of this earthly life. For he says: “As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.” The life that we who have eaten the flesh of Jesus will have in the world to come is united to the life that the Blessed Trinity has within himself. In the same way that the three Persons of the Godhead are forever united in a fierce and fiery and infinite act of love, so, too, we will be united with him and with each other, albeit in a limited way, since we are finite. This is what we mean when we say the words, go to heaven. To go to heaven is to be in intimate communion with God, and, by God’s grace and sovereign plan, that intimate communion begins here in earth, in this life. For, as the Lord teaches us, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” This, to dwell in God and to have God dwell in us, this is what it means to be in heaven. Each time that we receive Holy Communion, we have a foretaste of the everlasting life of heaven.

This wondrous mystery does not remove the warning that Moses gave to the Israëlites. If anything, it makes it even more urgent. For Christ himself says, “If ye love, keep my commandments.” We must cultivate humility in our hearts, and obedience to the commandments of God. The devil would have you believe this to be difficult and, what is more, unjust. Hardly! Already in the time of Moses, God declared that he was working “to do [us] good at [our] latter end”. His commandments are not harsh or unjust, but are ordained in love for our good. He, furthermore, does not expect us to grow in humility by our own strength, but has left us certain helps and means of grace, the chief of which are the sacraments, and above all the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

This beautiful hymn, based on a Greek hymn ascribed to S. John Chrysostom, symbolically describes the descent of God to the altar escorted by the hosts of heaven.

As touching humility, I wish to stress one matter more. As I have said, each time we receive Holy Communion, and even each time that we devoutly hear Mass, we begin to grow into that relationship with God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, that will be the defining characteristic of our heavenly life. The Sacrament by itself, however, is worthy of the highest possible worship: for it is the Body and Blood of our Saviour. When we are in the Presence of the consecrated Host or the blest Chalice, we are truly and really in the Presence of God the Son made flesh, every bit as much as if we were with him at his Nativity in Bethlehem, or in the synagogues, or on the Mount of Olives, or on Mount Calvary. When we are face-to-face with the consecrated Host, we are face-to-face with the living God. S. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, says:

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith!

When, therefore, you find yourself in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, bow down, cross yourself, kneel, prostrate yourself! For you, truly, are then in the presence of God. Now, there is nothing magical in bowing or kneeling . Nevertheless, when we do these things with our body in the Presence of his Body, our souls are conformed to the humility which these actions symbolise, and we are drawn into a deeper and more intimate love with God, who was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, and who has ordained good for us at our latter end, if only we accept him in faith. Thanks be to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This Russian icon of S. John Baptist helps us reflect on the truth of the Real Presence. It is traditional to portray S. John with a lamb, since, when he saw Christ, he declared, Behold the Lamb of God! In the East, some began to discourage this practice, since it could imply that Jesus is, in fact, a sheep. S. John is thus here shown holding a paten (the sacred vessel that holds the Host), and in the paten, in the place of the Host, lies the Christ-child, since the consecrated Host is Jesus Christ. The poetry of the icon is further heightened because what we call a Host in the West (which word means Victim in Latin), the Eastern Christians call a Lamb. When the priest elevates the Host at Mass, therefore, S. John is saying in heaven, Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!

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Trinity Sunday 2017

Trinity Sunday (OF)
11 June 2017
First Reading:
Exodus XXXIV. iv-vi, viii-ix.
Second Reading: II. Corinthians XIII. xi-xiii.
Gospel: S. John III. xvi-xviii.
Collect: God our Father, who by sending into the world the Word of truth and the Spirit of Sanctification made known to the human race your wondrous mystery: Grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith, we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory, and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

The Holy Trinity is here symbolised by an old king enthroned on the sky (God the Father), Jesus Christ crucified (God the Son), and a dove (God the Holy Ghost). This depiction, with the saints and angels worshipping, was painted by Albrecht Dürer in 1511.

TODAY’S glorious feast marks the end of Eastertide and is dedicated to an ineffable mystery: namely, that we worship three divine Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and yet not three gods, but one God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This is the highest truth in the world, because it existed before the world. We find it difficult to understand not because it is a lie, but because our minds are finite: how could we possibly expect to understand the nature of an infinite God?

Nevertheless, God in his loving-kindness has revealed his very nature to us, and we, like children, must do our best to understand. The Apostles held the Faith simply as Christ and the Holy Ghost had handed it to them, but in time it became necessary to define the matter more clearly. Under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the great bishops of the first centuries devised certain formulae that encapsulated what they had received from the Apostles. These formulae do not contain God nor do they give us a clear vision of the inner nature of God, but they do preserve us from error, and help us to see God the way the Apostles who received the Faith from his very lips saw him.

I hope that you will therefore permit me to quote at some length from the Quicunque vult, commonly called the Athanasian Creed, which lays out some of these formulae for us, to guide us to the Faith that the Church has held since the beginning.

The Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such the Holy Ghost:
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, the Holy Ghost uncreate;
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible;
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal;
As also they are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty;
And yet there are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God;
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.

Here is a great mystery, beyond human reason, but not contrary to it. Nowhere in the mortal world is there anything like it. As the great theologians are quick to tell us, those who invent gods for themselves always fashion them after the natural world or after human society. This is not out of stupidity; they are merely constrained by the limits of the human imagination. The Trinity is, quite simply, not something that mere men could have made up. And despite this fact, it coheres with everything we know about the world. I bears repeating: the doctrine of the Trinity is a sacred mystery, above human reason, but not contrary to it. To use the precise terms, we should say that it is suprarational, but not irrational.

Every Sunday we confess together this same Faith, which God has revealed, throughout the liturgy. I shall draw your attention to two places in particular, which are two of the oldest prayers that we recite. The first is the Gloria, in which we glorify first the “Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.” Immediately after, we worship the “Lord, the only-begotten Son [Jesus] Christ [who is] the Lord God, the Lamb of God, the Son of the Father.” And, finally we confess that Christ is not subordinate to the Father, but conclude with these words: “For thou only art holy; thou only art the Lord; thou only, O Jesu Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father.” Likewise in the Creed, we first profess belief in God the Father, then in God the Son, and finally in God the Holy Ghost. Other ancient Christian prayers, such as the Te Deum, follow a similar pattern, and dozens of prayers in the Mass are repeated in sets of three to remind us of this mystery that lies at the centre of our Faith.

On this most holy feast-day, therefore, and at certain points throughout the year, I urge you to take up one of the Creeds and to meditate on the nature of our God, who is three Persons and one Godhead. The three Creeds are: the Apostles’ Creed, which we recite at Baptism and in the Holy Rosary; the Nicene Creed, which we recite in the Mass; and the Athanasian Creed, which I quoted to you in part. During the Mass, listen for the prayers and the hymns addressed to each of the Persons of the Trinity. Grow in your love of our great and mysterious God, whose love for the within his Godhead was so great that he created you to share in it, whose love for you was so great that the Person of the Son became a man to die for your salvation, whose love for your body and soul is so great that the Person of the Holy Ghost has made it his dwelling and temple. Thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Whitsunday 2017

Pentecost (Whitsunday) (OF)
4 June 2017
First reading: Acts II. i-xi.
Second reading: I. Corinthians XII. iii-vii, xii-xiii.
Gospel: S. John XX. xix-xxiii.
Collect: O God, who by the mystery of today’s great feast sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation, pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth and, with the divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed, fill now once more the hearts of believers.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Descent of the Holy Ghost, Titian, circa 1545: The Holy Apostles are depicted in the upper room as the Holy Ghost descends upon them, as S. Luke records. The classical (Roman) architecture is typical of Renaissance painting, and, together with the symmetry, it lends a sense of grandeur and majesty to the image. The inclusion of the Blessed Virgin is traditional, but notice the addition of S. Mary Magdalen just behind her, which is less common. The artist has included three separate symbols of the Holy Ghost, which together give visual substance to something invisible: the Dove, the beams of light, and, of course, the little tongues of flame. If you look in the right-hand corner of the window, you will see in the sky a touch of that blue that Titian made famous.

FIFTY days after his glorious Resurrection from the dead, and nine days after his Ascension into heaven whence he had come, the Lord Jesus Christ sent the Holy Ghost upon his Mother and his Apostles, as he had promised. On the great feast of Whitsunday, or Pentecost, we see not only a demonstration of the love of the Blessed Trinity for men, but also the beginning of a new age in the history of salvation: for it is on Whitsunday that the Apostles are united together to become the Church, which is to say, the very Body of Christ.

The Church is indeed the Body of Christ. The Holy Evangelist Luke allows no doubt on that count when he recounts for our benefit the conversion of his master, S. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles. S. Luke writes that the Lord appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road and demands, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” When Paul, or, as he was then known, Saul, asks who this voice is, the Lord replies, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” How could this be, that the mortal man Saul was persecuting the everlasting Son of God who reigned over heaven and earth in glory? The answer, of course, is simple: the Church, which Saul was persecuting, and to which he would very soon come to join himself, was and is the very Body of the Lord Jesus Christ. The glorious feast that we hold to-day marks the moment that the band of disciples were united together and endowed by heavenly grace and power to become the Body of Christ in the earth.

The first sign of this transformation is in the effect that the descent of the Holy Ghost has on the Apostles. They begin locked away in a room, “for fear of the Jews”, as S. John tells us in his Gospel. Then a wondrous change comes about. They are all filled with the Holy Ghost and begin to speak in the tongues of the earth, not privately, but out in the streets, so that the whole city comes to hear of these Galilæans who can suddenly converse with all the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem. S. Luke records for us their cry: “We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God!” There is a sudden change in the life of the Apostles, from fear to preaching, and from isolation to community. In an instant, the power of the Holy Ghost has remade the Apostles into something new: the very Body of the Lord.

This theme is expounded further in the Epistle read this morning, in which the Apostle works out the consequences of this divine work. Each Christian soul, so writes the saint, is imbued by the Holy Ghost with certain gifts to be used to a good end. The gifts, and service, and methods are all different, but—and S. Paul allows no confusion on this count—all these gifts, this whole service, all these methods, they all proceed from one Spirit. There is not, as it was among the pagans, a god of wisdom, and another of healing, and a third of government. Nay, there is one Holy Ghost, and, even as he binds all Christian souls together as one within himself, he grants to each a unique gift. The Apostle then draws this to an astounding conclusion, in which he builds on the revelation that the Lord gave him on the Damascus road. “For as the body is one,” he writes, “and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been made all to drink into one Spirit.” Verily, the Church, being composed of many souls with a diversity of gifts, is one, and not one organisation or even one family, but one body, even the Body of the Lord.

This then brings us to the marvellous Gospel assigned for this feast. In it, S. John, who was present there on that day, makes it explicit that the Holy Ghost proceeded from Christ. For he writes: “The said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” In the same way that S. Paul, inspired by the Holy Ghost, casts the Church in the rôle of body to Christ, the head, the Lord himself here draws a parallel between his own mission from the Father to redeem the world and the mission that he now gives to his Church through the gift of the Holy Ghost. I stress this, holy brethren: the Church is made of sinful men, but she herself is the holy and undefiled Body and Bride of Christ. Adam said of Eve when God made her from the rib that he had taken from his side, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Faced with the readings for to-day’s Mass, we can imagine Christ saying of the Church which he had bought for himself by the precious Blood that poured from his pierced side, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Christian, because she was taken out of Christ.

Now we see why the Church has held this day most holy since the very beginning. On this day, the gifts that S. Paul describes, given diversely to each believer, began to be given, and, on this day, the Church was united together and sent, as S. John tells us, to work the work of Christ in the world. It therefore falls to us Christians individually to cultivate in ourselves those gifts, powers and virtues that the Holy Ghost has entrusted to us. This includes, certainly, the talents and dispositions with which we are born, but the stress in S. Paul’s Epistle is on the gifts that we receive in baptism. There are many gifts that the Holy Ghost may choose to give us, but there are three in particular that we must nurture, protect and cherish, namely, faith, hope, and charity, which are the most beautiful and perfect of all gifts, and are the gates and keys to our salvation.

As we have also seen, brethren, this holy feast marks the beginning of the ministry of our Holy Mother Church. In the same way that we ought to cherish the gifts that God has given to us individually, so ought we also to cherish this gift that he has given to all mankind. The Church is composed of sinners, true, but she shines with the light and perfection of Christ her bridegroom. In the turning madness of the world, only the Church stands firm, and she stands firm because she stands not with her own power, but with the power of Christ. In her is daily fulfilled the promise of our Lord, as recorded by the Holy Evangelist Matthew: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”

Let us therefore draw together as one with joy and gratitude this Whitsunday, honouring the holy feast and, above all, worshipping God the Holy Ghost, who poured himself out as a free gift on the Church fifty days after the Resurrection, and who still guards her with his almighty power from age to age until Christ’s return in majesty. We have heard in today’s Gospel how Jesus himself breathed the Holy Ghost on his Apostles, and, in a moment, we shall together confess this in the words of the Creed: “And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified: who spake by the Prophets. And I believe One, Holy, Catholick and Apostolick Church.” This is the feast of the Holy Ghost, and the feast of the Church, but it is also the preparation for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, which we will celebrate in a week’s time, on the octave-day of Pentecost. Thanks be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.