Mass during the Night
Monday, December 25, 2017
The gospel text we just heard presents us with two distinct scenes in two different places. In the first, Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem and, while they are there, Mary gives birth to her firstborn son. In the second, angels appear to shepherds who are out in nearby fields and speak of this birth. Indeed, a crowd of angels appears in the sky singing a heavenly song. The two distinct scenes have a strong linguistic link that binds them. The storyteller, the evangelist, uses a same striking phrase in each different scene. Surely we are meant to take note of it. Of the son to whom Mary gave birth, he tells us, “she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” In the next scene the angel uses these very same words for the message addressed to the shepherds: “you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” A few verses later— we didn’t hear them tonight; they are heard at the dawn Mass tomorrow— we are told that the shepherds go to see what the angels announced and “found the child lying in a manger.” Why this threefold insistence on the manger? Why the twofold noting of the swaddling clothes?
Manger— it’s not a word you hear very much. It’s seems like nowdays you only hear it at Christmas. Its sense is common enough. It means a feeding trough for animals. It comes from the French, manger, meaning “to eat.” But it seems like the evangelist’s insistence on the word has been drilled into the Christian vocabulary for this scene. So much the better, for something uniquely Christian is being expressed in the birth of this child. Something significant is taking place in that the child’s makeshift crib is a feeding trough. The irony or double entendre in the word manger has been observed by Christian hearers of the story from its first telling to the present. What lies in the manger is food. But what kind of food? For whom? The question is half answered and simultaneously sharpened when we recall that the name Bethlehem, where this child is born, means “house of bread.” Bread is in the manger.
If we come now to “swaddling clothes,” the mystery of the child deepens. The child is wrapped in cloth bands so that it is held still and unable to move. This was common with newborn in the ancient world. It can comfort the child, make it feel snug and secure. But inside this whole story and where it is going, it was quickly taken by Christian hearers to be a mysterious prophecy of this child’s salvific death for us. When Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross, he is wrapped again and laid in the tomb. After Jesus’ resurrection, these wrappings are left behind as suggestive evidence of God’s mighty deed. But that marvelous story of death and resurrection begins here and now tonight as we find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Another whiff of where this whole story is going can be found in the fact that the manger would have been made of wood, so the child already lies on the wood of the cross as food for the whole world.
This is amazing stuff. Deep mysteries are being told. What ought we to do? We are meant in fact to put ourselves in the shepherds’ place. The angels that appeared to them are present to us now as well— present in the Word of God being proclaimed, present in the angels’ song which we have sung as the bells rang joyfully, present now in the Church’s preaching. What the angel said to the shepherds is the same message addressed now to us. “Do not be afraid, for behold I proclaim to you good news of great joy. Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”
The reality of that child’s birth invades this building now and makes it holy. That is to say, the reality of that child’s birth invades those of us who are in this building and makes us the holy place. That invasion was already begun as we sang again and again the mysterious words of the Entrance Song: “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my son; this day have I begotten you.’” Whose voice is this? Who is speaking? Ah, this is voice of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger! He sings a song that he has sung from all eternity, before time began; for he is “born of the Father before all ages.” But now that one is born in time. This “you are my Son” of the Father is an eternally uttered “You are my Son.” This “today I have begotten you” is said of the one who is eternally begotten of the Father. But today these same words are said in time, in the time of this church, in the hour of this sacred liturgy. These same words describe exactly what is happening in a particular stable (in a particular church) where a certain woman is giving birth to a child. The eternal Father says to this particular child coming forth from her womb, “You are my Son. Today I have begotten you.” And there is a perfect correspondence between the eternal coming forth from the Father and this temporal coming forth from the womb. The eternal Son who has always drunk from the wellspring of the Father and so received his divinity from him, today drinks in real human life in the milk and purity of his mother. He who forever says, “I have life because of the Father” today begins also to say, “I have life because of this mother.”
We remember all this today. We celebrate it today. We remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ today. But strikingly, the climax of the celebration of Christmas comes now in our celebration of the Eucharist, which is a memorial of the Lord’s death. We move swiftly from Bethlehem to Calvary, or perhaps better put: Bethlehem is Calvary. Bethlehem, the house of bread, gives us true bread from heaven on Calvary. From his wooden feeding trough, from the manger, he says, “Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is my Body which will be given up for you.”
See indeed how the Scriptures proclaimed in this night are fulfilled in our hearing. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” That people is us. That great light shines in this night. We come forward tonight to receive his holy body and blood in communion from the manger-cross. In that moment the words are fulfilled which say, “A child is born to us, a son is given us.” And this evening as we come forward to receive the gift of this Son, we will sing repeatedly the words of the Father eternally giving birth to his Son. We will sing, “In holy splendor before the daystar I have begotten you.” These words of the Father accompany the action of our taking his body and blood into our bodies, and they reveal what is happening. We become the place where the child is born. We become the place where the child dwells. We become the place where he dies and rises again. We become completely reborn in the Son and realize with joy and wonder that the Father’s words have drawn us up into himself and that the words addressed to his Son from all eternity are addressed to us as well in this holy night. To us, together with his Son, he says, “In holy splendor before the daystar I have begotten you.” Oh!!— “And now it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!”
Friday, December 8, 2017
Thursday, November 23, 2017
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Pontifical Mass of the Solemnity of All Saints, Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Rev 7: 2-4; 9-14. 1 John 3: 1-3. Matt 5: 1-12a.
Today, dear brothers and sisters, we celebrate the festival of the City of God, of the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother, where a great array of saints already sings God’s praises, and where, by means of this holy liturgy, we join our voices to theirs and step already today into the future God has prepared for us in heaven. Let us contemplate the vision of the festive city which today’s liturgy reveals to us. Let us see ourselves within the heavenly choirs and resolve to be faithful— never to sully what we celebrate today so that we may enjoy for all eternity the graces poured out in today’s feast.
This feast is based in visions, visions of one caught up in ecstasy— visions that the Apostle John received and writes down for us. He sees, first, an angel come up from the East who advances to protect with a seal on the forehead a huge throng of people identified as “the servants of our God.” Let’s start taking note of the different groups of those who are gathered. This first group is enormous: one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the children of Israel. Beautiful! There is Israel in heaven!
Then there is another vision, of a different group: “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue.” So not just Israel, but a countless throng from every nation and every kind of people. And all these are gathered around a center, a focus, something on which they gaze. What is it? We read, “They stood before the throne and before the Lamb.” Nothing less than the very vision of God. But at the throne of the one God we see also a more than one. We see God and the Lamb, that is to say, this multitude gazes on the Father and the Son, the crucified Son, now glorified and part of the very throne of God in heaven. And this countless throng gathers before these and cries out in a loud voice the words of a song that is our song as well. They shout: “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” [In hushed tone:] the Father and the Son!
Still, the vision is not over. Yet another group is joined to this gathering. This time it’s angels, mixed with human beings, and with other creatures— we don’t know what they are— alive, mysterious and powerful. We read, “All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures.” And they too are worshipping and adoring and we hear as well the words of their song.
Finally, yet another group is distinguished within this immense gathering, and the question is asked who they are. We hear, “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” The question is answered, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”
My dear brothers and sisters, this last description makes it clear that we qualify to be a part of this gathering. For even now we stand in two times: we stand in the time of great distress, and around this altar today we wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. And so we are surviving the time of great distress and enter already into our definitive future where for all eternity we shall prostrate ourselves in adoring wonder before the throne of God and of the Lamb. Together with All Saints in the City of God.
The visions of the Book of Revelation are dizzying and not easily long sustained. They came, as the inspired writer himself says, when he was “caught up in ecstasy on the Lord’s day.” But the same reality is viewed in calmer, less dramatic tones in today’s second reading from the same author in a different genre, writing a simple letter to a community of believers. The Apostle’s words are addressed to us and are about us, this concrete community. They speak more simply, more quietly than the intense language of the visions: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. Yet so we are.” We are that now. The Apostle insists on this. He says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” This means that the feast of All Saints is our feast too. We are already now among the saints. And although sin and unfaithfulness could still throw us back into the time of great distress, we have been placed squarely within a trajectory that is meant to thrust us into the very heights of heaven. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” This is unbelievable! We shall see God as he is and be assimilated to him. “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is!”
So there is a “now,” and there is a “what we shall be.” And in the today of this feast we are in both times. And the consequences of “what we shall be” make themselves felt already on our present time. In the Apostle’s words, “Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” This is how we remain in the future festival in which today’s festival already is a part. Put more bluntly and less elegantly than the Apostle says it: “Don’t blow the future in which you are already established. Do not return to sin. Keep yourself pure, as he is pure.”
By the quiet waters of the lake Jesus ascends the peaceful, flowered, grassy mountainside. He sees the vast crowd, and his disciples come to him. He sits down and begins to teach. Jesus’ words that day hold their force still. We are in that crowd. What he declared then unfolded with force and truth and was displayed in very fact and flesh in his death and resurrection. That was the divine deed that assembled together into one single place the countless throngs that we saw as the heavens opened— however briefly— in the visions of the Book of Revelation. “Blessed are… Blessed are… Blessed are…” Jesus said again and again in his sweet teaching on the lakeside mountainside. Makarioi, Makarioi, Makarioi in Greek— an eschatological blessedness, a definitive blessedness, a divine and supernatural blessedness. The blessedness of standing forever before the throne of God and the Lamb and singing their praises. And who stands there? Who is blessed? The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers! All saints! You and I! You and I if we are these poor and meek.
The Eucharist we celebrate now is the pledge and sure seal of this. This altar is the throne of God and of the Lamb. Gathered around this altar is a huge multitude of human beings and angels which cannot be seen and, even if they could be seen, could never be numbered. But here we are— seen and in that number. (“Oh, I want to be in that number!”) What we see here today and however many we number— this concrete assembly writes the icon here and now of the whole heavenly City of God, and the sacrifice we offer is the whole heavenly City— ourselves. “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” says St. Paul. And that is the sacrifice that our being joined to the Body of Christ enables us to offer now. St. Augustine says exactly this in The City of God: “This is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, a sacrament well-known to the faithful where it is shown to the Church [in the signs of the sacrament] that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God.”
Who are we? Who are we, this monastery? Who are we, this seminary? Who are we, friends and associates of monastery and seminary? Let what we do now in this Eucharist be the answer to this question. “[We] are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; [who] have washed [our] robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Friday, September 8, 2017
Simple Profession, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Friday, September 8, 2017
Romans 8: 28-30. Matthew 1: 18-23
My dear Novices — not all seven of you, the three about to profess — my dear novices, you have heard the Word of God, and you respond now by professing monastic vows. You were consecrated to God in Baptism. You seek to deepen that consecration now by vowing to live in stability, conversion to the monastic life, and obedience. This is a good response to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit has formed it in you.
And according to our custom here at Mount Angel, you make your profession on the feast of the Nativity of Mary. For different reasons we are not always able to do profession on this day every year, but most years we manage to do it then. And in any case, we count September 8th as a profession anniversary for many members of the community. This is because the monks of Mount Angel have wanted to put their monastic profession under the protection of Mary and to understand their monastic vocation in the light of the Marian mystery.
So, dear Novices about to make vows, and dear confreres who have made your profession on this day in years past… or for that matter on any other day… and dear students and friends who are listening to me speak as an abbot to his monks — let us ponder the monastic vocation and vows in the light of today’s joyful feast.
This liturgy began with an entrance song in which we sang Mary’s words, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum…” Every day of his life a monk sings these words at Vespers, and they are incised in him as the meaning of his life. In the Prologue to the Holy Rule St. Benedict describing who can live in a monastery, it says that those “who fear the Lord and glorify him working in them” can live in a monastery. To perceive the Lord’s grace at work in our life every day, every hour, and to praise him on this account — this is a definition of a monk. Dear Novices, you are promising today before God to do this — to do it every day. And dear confreres, you have already promised this. Freshen your promise inside the graces of today’s liturgy.
The Collect of today’s liturgy was clear in what it asked of God. Let’s be sure we heard that to which we added our Amen. “Impart to your servants, we pray, O Lord, the gift of heavenly grace…” Praying in this way we were, of course, praying for this whole assembly and, indeed, for all the holy People of God across the globe. But how can we not be especially mindful of these three novices on the verge of their profession. They are the Lord’s servants — Mary’s word for what she is — they are the Lord’s servants for whom we all pray the gift of heavenly grace. For us all, and especially for these three about to profess, we went on to pray that this feast “may bring deeper peace to those for whom the birth of Mary’s Son was the dawning of salvation.” Deeper peace for you, my dear Novices! The dawn of what you do in full light today was breaking long ago on Mary’s birthday, and she stands watch over what you are doing now. And she will never stop watching.
Two tightly packed verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans are proclaimed in the liturgy today that remember Mary’s birth. Her birth is the preeminent instance of what Paul wants every and all Christians to know. Let’s think of it first for Mary and then apply it to monks who profess vows and then apply it to every Christian. In virtue of the forseen merits of the death of her Son, Mary was immaculately conceived and kept from all stain of sin — a reality celebrated by us on December 8th. Nine months later, on this day, September 8th, we remember the birth of the one who was so conceived. What does all this mean? What is God doing? Paul says it. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” “Foreknew, predestined.” Mary immaculately conceived and born today! But also in her same pattern, every Christian, every monk. Let’s continue with Paul’s text, applying it to these three novices. Paul says “those whom he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.” Predestined, called, justified, glorified — Mary in a preeminent way. But every Christian, every monk. And, Jonathan, Matthew, and Junípero — in these vows you are about to make you are called, justified, and glorified. And what you do shows us with clarity and as a witness what we all are in Jesus Christ.
There are no gospel accounts — naturally enough — of Mary’s birth; and so the liturgy today chooses as a gospel text to focus on the scene which the woman born today was “predestined and called” to fulfill. We hear Matthew’s account, which some scholars accurately enough call the “Annunciation to Joseph.” In Luke’s gospel the annunciation is made by the angel Gabriel to Mary. Here an unnamed angel — perhaps also Gabriel — says to Joseph what Gabriel says to Mary and what I would also say to any novice about to make vows… or to any monk who has made vows. The angel says, and I say, “Do not be afraid.” In the story Mary is described, marvelously and mysteriously, as “with child by the Holy Spirit.” The reader knows this truth, but poor Joseph does not. As such, Joseph also is an image of a monk. Mary’s mystery is there, near him, unfolding, as is the body of her divine Son in her womb. But Joseph’s understanding and ours is short and without details. Trust is required. Enormous trust. “Take Mary into your home,” Joseph is told. Novices, I advise you to do the same: take Mary into your home. And you know how the story goes from there. You know who is born of the one whom you take into your home in taking Mary: Emmanuel, God with us.
“God with us” — this too describes this monastery and its professed monks. God is with us in the human nature the divine Son assumed from Mary. And so, marveling at this in the Prayer over our Offerings of bread and wine placed on the altar, we will pray today, “May the humanity of your Only Begotten Son, O Lord, come to our aid.” How is it we are able to appeal to this humanity? It is because of what dawned today in Mary’s birth. God the Son took his humanity from her and so enables our offering too to be acceptable to the Father.
Well, these are huge mysteries; and I could go on and on. I would kind of like to, but I won’t. Oh, but let me say just one more thing as I think about the humanity of the Only Begotten Son taken from Mary. It affects the whole of humanity, as St. Justin Martyr already said so clearly in the 2nd century. He said, “Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary conceived faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her…” (Dial. 100). Mary is a new Eve of a new humanity, and that new humanity is professed in monastic vows today.
Within the context of all that I have been speaking about, we must move on now very deliberately and invite these novices to make their monastic profession. Chapter 58 of the Holy Rule describes a procedure for receiving brothers into the monastery, a procedure we are following and enacting now. A prolonged period of testing and discernment — this was your postulancy and novitiate — and then the promise, the vow. For the next three years, St. Benedict’s words apply to you: “From this day you are no longer free to leave the monastery, nor to shake from your neck the yoke of the rule, which in the course of so prolonged a period of reflection, you were either free to reject or to accept.”
The ritual within which you make your vows is placed between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. You respond to the Word, and you bring your vows as an offering to be joined to Christ’s own sacrifice. So let us proceed to enact your response to the Word and to bring your gift of self now to the altar for consecration and for transformation.
As you prepare to come before your abbot and profess your vows — and you monks who have already professed the same vows before an abbot of this monastery — I offer for us all this reminder that our monastic profession is a turning away from a former way of life. St. Anselm, one of the greatest of Benedictine monks, prayed to Mary in these words which I recommend we make our own. He said: “Mary, powerful in goodness, and good in power, from whom was born the fount of mercy, I pray you, do not withhold such true mercy where you know there is such true misery. Let the brightness of your holiness confound the darkness of my sins.”
School Opening 2017, Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, Monday, August 28, 2017
Ephesians 1: 31, 41, 13-19a. John 14:23–26
We are celebrating a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit today at the opening of the school year, imploring the descent of the Holy Spirit upon our hilltop to impart his wondrous gifts in all that we undertake in this new school year. But today is also the feast of St. Augustine, and how can we not remember him now on his day even if liturgically we are not celebrating his memorial at this Mass? St. Augustine is surely someone whose name will be heard many times in many contexts in the days, weeks, and months to come in this school. He is an absolute giant of the Catholic theological tradition, but it is not only in theology that his name will be invoked and his thought followed and grappled with, but we will hear of him also in our pursuit of philosophy, of the arts, of pastoral practice, of rhetoric, of spiritual growth. It is not a matter today of choosing between paying attention to Augustine or to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit produces the saints! Age after age and in every epoch the Holy Spirit produces the saints. And today the memory of St. Augustine can help us to see quite concretely what we are hoping for and praying for when we invoke the Holy Spirit to pour out his graces on us now as we begin this school year.
I am happy to think about St. Augustine today in my task of encouraging you all at the start of this school year. Augustine is the Holy Spirit’s “production,” and there are patterns and traits and styles in what the Spirit molds. I mean, thanks to the Holy Spirit, we need not think that between the great St. Augustine and the seminarians who are beginning a school year at Mount Angel Seminary today there is too vast a distance. OK— Augustine was a giant and a pivotal figure in Church history; and, yes, I would be worried if a seminarian told me he conceived of himself as another Augustine. But from a different angle, what the Holy Spirit found and molded in Augustine is the same basic “stuff and material” that exists in every human being— student, faculty, monk, employee, guest. I’m thinking of Augustine, the anxious seeker of truth, Augustine in dramatic conversion, Augustine scrupulously preparing for priesthood and then to be a bishop, Augustine the theologian because he was Augustine the pastor, Augustine the brilliant exegete, Augustine the mystic, Augustine the enthralling preacher. Are we to praise Augustine for all this? Not exactly. We are to praise the Holy Spirit for the gifts he poured out on this man for the sake of the Church, for the sake of the world. We pray to the Holy Spirit today for the same gifts.
Augustine’s Confessions are a model for how we might think about our lives in this monastery and seminary, at whatever level and in whichever tasks and parts of it all we are involved. He knew that Christian theology succeeds only when the believer sees that the story of creation and redemption coincides with the private story of the life of the individual believer. These are not two separate stories. My life makes sense only when I see that my story is the same story as the Bible’s story of creation and redemption. And to be sure that I see this, I use the Bible’s language to understand my life. That’s what Augustine’s Confessions do with his own life, and they are a model and pattern for us all. The Confessions are a massive effort on the part of Augustine to understand the action of God in his own life by means of the biblical language and patterns. And he undertook this effort and worked it through because he saw that he dare not undertake to be a bishop and preach and teach before he had worked it through. What he broke through to there gave him the peace and confidence he needed to be a pastor and to preach with confidence.
Something else that is striking about the Confessions is that from start to finish they are directly addressed to God. He is not addressing a reader. He is addressing God. And this is no literary pose for effect. It is totally authentic. It is not a recording of Augustine’s prayer. It is Augustine praying. This is how you would pray if you were praying by writing. And why did he pray by writing? Because the Bible is written. And he wanted to write the story of his own life with the very language of the Bible so that he could discover that the two stories are ultimately one and the same. Of course, in the end it not the writing that matters, neither in the Bible’s case nor in Augustine’s. What matters is what the writing is about, what the writing testifies to, what the writing reveals. In the Bible it is about the very creation itself, its meaning; and it is about the events of redemption and the rendering of them present still. In Augustine’s life, it is about the meaning of this same creation and redemption in his own life. It is ultimately about the meaning of any Christian’s life.
So, let’s turn to that biblical language for a moment now to understand what we are doing here at Mount Angel at the beginning of this new school year. The Bible’s language tells us what is happening now in our lives. We heard it proclaimed in the first reading and the gospel. I can use St. Paul’s very words in the passage we heard from his letter to the Ephesians to say again what I have just been explaining. He says, “In Christ you also have heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation and believed in him.” I pause to underline the words “you also.” And the same sentence goes on to say, “You also… were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance…” So, our prayer for the Holy Spirit today is about awakening to a gift we have already received and been sealed with. Beautiful the image of the Holy Spirit as a first installment. It means there is more to come, more good stuff to come— ultimately, an infinite progress, an infinite expansion into the mystery of God’s life that can never exhaust itself.
St. Paul’s language applied to us also prays that the Father of Jesus will give to us “a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.” Well, now, there’s a wish for the beginning of a school year. That is a gift that we should expect and receive as a precious treasure: the Spirit that gives us knowledge of the Father of Jesus. (It’s getting Trinitarian!) And here is a further wish that lands effectively on us with biblical language about our own lives. St. Paul prays, “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened that you may know… what is the surpassing greatness of his power in us who believe.” His power in us! What is it? It is the same power that the Father used in raising Christ from the dead. That power in us! May you be enlightened to know that. That is what this school year is about!
And Jesus, the Lord, the Master, is in our midst now speaking to us in the holy gospel. He says, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.” That’s why we’re all here. We love him. And we’re trying. And he reacts to our trying. He says, “My Father will love whoever loves me, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” This is amazing! This is the promise of this school year. Take it seriously, Everybody! The Bible’s language is directed individually to each of you and reveals the meaning of your life and existence. Jesus says to you, “The Father and I will come to you and make our dwelling with you.”
But there is more. (Of course there is more because this is God.) There is also the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name— he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” These words too describe this school year. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate teacher. The Holy Spirit reminds us of Jesus, the absolute crucial center and object of our contemplation and study: Jesus, known by the Holy Spirit as the Word of the Father, the Word become flesh, crucified and risen and living within us as his dwelling place.
That same Holy Spirit effects and confects all of this now in the Holy Eucharist we are about to celebrate. The bread and wine of our lives are brought forward, prepared by the deacons and then placed by the priest on the altar. The priest’s prayer over the gifts of bread and wine is shaped by the Holy Spirit. The prayer “teaches and reminds” us of Jesus’ actions and words the night before his death. This reminding in the Spirit helps us to connect these words and actions to the body and blood of Jesus broken and poured out on the cross, and the Spirit aides us to believe and perceive that the body crucified has been raised up and we have communion in it here and now by eating this bread and drinking this cup. Here and now for us in this eucharistic mystery is fulfilled at an intensity and with a guarantee beyond all our imagining the words of Jesus reaching us through the biblical text: “My Father and I will come to him and make our dwelling in him.” Each one here. And all of us together. Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary. 2017. The Communion of the Saints and Life Everlasting.
Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary — Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Revelation 11: 19; 12: 1-6.10; 1 Cor 15: 20-27; Luke 1: 39-56
In the Solemnity of the Assumption, the Church celebrates her belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, at her death was assumed body and soul into heaven. But how could we know this? No witnesses saw it happening and so testified to it. Rather, it is knowledge that actually emerged slowly in the life of the Church as the community continued to experience and ponder the consequences of the resurrection of Jesus.
To penetrate this far into the ramifications of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead, we have need of a divine revelation and the most intense kind of poetry. And we have these in the scriptures which are proclaimed in our midst this morning. Indeed, the very hearing of these is the feast! In them is revealed the dogma of the Assumption— not as something in addition to scripture but as the scripture’s deepest sense, discerned inside our very celebration. “Behold, God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” This is the definitive ark of the covenant in its definitive condition: it is Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, assumed body and soul into heaven.
This is the same mystery, expressed in a different kind of language, that the apostle Paul announced in the second reading. Christ’s resurrection is concerned not only, and not even primarily, with himself and his own condition after death. His death and resurrection are for our sake. “Christ raised from the dead is the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep… Just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ all will be brought to life.” And, the apostle specifies, there is an order to this resurrection: “each one in proper order,” he says; “Christ the first-fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ.” In Mary we see the next in order of what is to be extended to all those who belong to Christ. She who extended to the eternal divine Word her own body so that he could take flesh from her— she now has extended to her body all the divine glory that filled the dead body of Jesus and raised it from the dead, seating him at the right hand of the Father.
To fix our minds and hearts on such heavenly scenes is the gift of today’s feast, a feast whereby we enter somehow already into the future in which we too are destined to share. This future nourishes our hope with a divine influx whose expectations we could never hope to fashion by our own efforts and of our own imaginings. This hope comes from God. But if through today’s feast we already participate in our future, the inspired scripture nonetheless does not let us forget that we are not yet entirely arrived in that future. Indeed, the present moment is a dramatic crossroads for us. For the visions of revelation likewise disclose to us that this glorious woman is also in labor, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth and that a “huge red dragon” is ready to devour her child. We sense, under the force of the poetry and inside the meaning of this feast, that such a scene somehow describes also the present reality of the Church: Satan hates the Church and would destroy, if he could, all that the Church labors to give birth to, all the ways in which Christ continues to come into the world through the birth pangs of Mother Church, whose image Mary is. Precisely because the present moment is so dreadful and terrifying for the Church do we need this sure instruction of the ultimate outcome of today’s battles. “The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: ‘Now have salvation and power come, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Anointed One.’”
The images from the Book of Revelation are dizzying, and we cannot sustain them for long. They are precisely what the text tells them to be: glimpses into heaven from the vantage point of the earthly liturgy. (Revelation 1: 10) But today’s gospel deals with all the same images in a way that is much easier for us to sustain. Pregnant with the Word, the ark of the covenant, Mary, hurries into the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the one who will announce the presence of the Word. John the Baptist dances before the ark from his mother’s womb and causes to rise up from Elizabeth’s heart and mouth words which— yes, describe exactly that moment, but words which shall also expand in their meaning from that day forward all the way through to today’s feast. Already on that day of the Visitation it was true that Mary was blessed among women and blessed was the fruit of her womb, Jesus. But how much truer are these words today when we see that the fruit of Mary’s womb is nothing less than her Son crucified, risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven; and that she is blessed among all women because he associates her entirely with himself in the divine glory in which he is definitively established.
In the Liturgy of the Eucharist that we are about to begin now, we give thanks and praise to God for these wonderful mysteries. But not only that. The Eucharist splices us directly into the divine energies that lifted Mary up to share in the glory of her Son, and it causes us to share in the same. The Preface that begins the eucharistic prayer today sings to the Father about Mary’s assumption as “the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.” And that same Preface sings on in language that helps us to penetrate somewhat the Eucharist as the mystery of the Lord’s Body. It exultantly addresses God saying, “rightly you would not allow Mary to see the corruption of the tomb since from her own body she marvelously Brought forth your incarnate Son, the Author of all life.
In this eucharist, echoing the pattern of his Incarnation in the womb of Mary, Christ wishes to receive from us the gift of our own bodies as a spiritual sacrifice (Romans 12: 1), even as he extends to us the glory of his risen body. He says it quite explicitly, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live forever, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Mary our Mother labors and cries aloud in intercession for us as the image of her Son is brought to completion in the Church. Ah yes, indeed, her song will be the song of us all in heaven: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my savior; because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid. Yes, from this day forward all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name.”
Monday, May 1, 2017
Fr. Cosmas Funeral Mass Rev 21: 1-5a, 6b-7. Romans 8: 31b-35, 37-39. John 14: 1-6.
Every year on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, standing outside the church building, everywhere throughout the world, the Church gathers around a blazing fire and blesses it as the paschal fire and prepares the paschal candle to carry and spread its light. As the candle is decorated with the sign of the cross, with “glorious” nails, with the Lord’s titles of Alpha and Omega, the priest prays, “Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. “ Then he traces the numbers of the present year, this year, into the arms of the cross: 2017. And he says, “All times belong to him, and all the ages. To him be glory and power through every age and for ever.” This year, just two weeks ago Saturday, we entered this building following that flame; and its light and beauty spread throughout the building, and the ritual action of the Church made this building to be again what it is: Church. The Church is where Jesus Christ, the Crucified, lives as glorious Lord in his body, his body the Church. So here we are now, [in] that same building— Church, Christ’s body.
Every year many Christians die in the year that is traced on the paschal candle. They die to sin in Baptism at the Vigil. Or they confirm again their death to sin by renewing baptismal promises at the same Vigil. And one year the Vigil which you attend will be the year in which you die in your body, the year of your death. Two weeks ago Saturday, as I traced 2017 on this candle, it was Fr. Cosmas’ year. To him apply, as to all who die and live in Christ, the words we prayed, “By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ guard you and protect you…, Fr. Cosmas.”
But surely, to die in these days of Eastertide is an enormous mercy and revelation of grace in Fr. Cosmas’ life. He had already died with Christ in Baptism. That death in Christ was strengthened and deepened in his monastic profession. Deeper still it drilled into him in Christ’s call to him to share in his ministerial priesthood. And so now this biological death that he offered and that consumed his body is the final revelation of what his entire life was for and was meant to be. “If we die with Christ, we believe we shall also live with him.” From this man’s death in Baptism in 1929 to this in 2017: death in Christ and new life in him! All praise to Christ, who breaks the prison bars of death and rises victorious from the grave!
Last evening at our Vigil service, we heard from Abbot Peter wonderful stories that gave us some sense of the rich, textured, long life that Fr. Cosmas lived. Now it is our task to proclaim the Christian message on the occasion of Fr. Cosmas’ death and in terms of it. Jesus, the Lord, is with us now. He is the cornerstone of this building that we form, the Church. He is the head of his Body, the Church— his Body, crucified and risen victorious from the grave. And he speaks to us about the mystery of death, of the mystery of a long life lived and then ended. He speaks also to Fr. Cosmas himself now, and his powerful words effect the man’s crossing over to him. He says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled… In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself.” Here is the pattern, here is the movement of every Christian’s life. Jesus, by his death, goes somewhere and does something. And Jesus, in his resurrection, comes back to us to take us to himself. Indeed, in his resurrection he is established as the One who is always coming, always coming as glorious, saving Lord. He is the One who was, who is, and who is to come.
But even so, dying is a struggle, a tremendous struggle. We are like Thomas who says to Jesus, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Fr. Cosmas had this question, and he also had Jesus’ answer. Just a few days before Fr. Cosmas died, one of the young monks was sitting beside him as Father moved his legs in a sort of walking movement and shifted restlessly about in his bed. He kept saying, “I’ve got to get going in the right direction.” His young brother asked him, “Do you know where you need to go?” “The right direction!” he said again forcefully, as if in complaint that he hadn’t been heard the first time. So, the young monk asked, “What is the right direction?” Perhaps impatient that his young companion had not properly gaged the seriousness of the situation, Father answered quickly and bluntly, saying, “Christ.” Ah, with that answer Father was already moving in the right direction, and less than 24 hours later he had died.
Jesus, the Lord, is with us now. And he speaks to us about the mystery of death, and he says, “I am the way.” He is the Way to the Father. No one comes to Father except through him. But he is not only the way. He is the way to what he also is; namely, the Truth and the Life. Truth— not truth understood as correct answers to complicated questions, but Truth as a word for what Jesus is in his very essence; namely, the only Begotten Son of the Father, come in the flesh, crucified and now forever exalted at God’s right hand. This is truth. And to know this truth is also Life, life not as just somehow vaguely being here but Life as the Son has life. Jesus revealed all this to us. He said, “Indeed, just as the Father possesses life in himself, so has he granted it to the Son to have life in himself… and so the Son grants life to those to whom he wishes.”
Fr. Cosmas has died in Christ. And now Christ stands in our midst and reveals himself to us all, declaring, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jesus never stops saying those words. Not in the sense that he is always talking and saying that. Jesus never stops being what he in essence is, and those words say that. And so his sacred words remembered and proclaimed inside the event of Fr. Cosmas’ death in their force and power effect something. So in our prayer for Fr. Cosmas, we ask Jesus to say those words now to Fr. Cosmas and so save him from death. We ask Jesus to be the way that leads Fr. Cosmas to a share in the truth and life that Jesus himself is— Jesus, the only Begotten Son, the Crucified, the Lord, the One who is and who was and who is to come. We ask Jesus to take Fr. Cosmas now ever more deeply and forever into his one glorified Body of which we are all members.
Jesus, the Lord, constantly intercedes for us. It is not only his powerful words that effect our salvation, but even more so the deed of his dying and rising for our sake. This is why we offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the dead. The Eucharist effectively makes present the death and resurrection of Jesus; it represents it in signs that totally converge with the reality they signify, and it delivers that reality as communion in it. It delivers that reality as truth and life. It is, as we heard St. Paul say in the Letter to the Romans, “the love of God poured out for us in Christ Jesus our Lord” from which nothing can separate us. Eucharist is the “new heaven and the new earth” announced to us in the first reading from the Book of Revelation. It is in the Eucharistic assembly that we still hear the loud voice from the throne of God, saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people… and there shall be no more death.” In the sacrifice we offer now for Fr. Cosmas we pray to Jesus, the Lord, the One who comes. And we ask that he directly address his words to Fr. Cosmas, the words where he says, “Behold, I make all things new…To the thirsty I will give a gift from the springs of life-giving water… and I shall be his God, and he will be my son.”
Fr. Cosmas celebrated these mysteries at the altar throughout in his life as a priest and monk. Now we pray that what he offered so faithfully in mystery he may behold with clarity for ever.
Saturday, April 15, 2017
We have finished our long vigil and have arrived at this gospel of the Resurrection. What can we say about our hour of prayer and meditation together? We can say this: the entire creation and the entire action of the living God in all ages have as their goal the Resurrection of the Son. And the Resurrection of the Son has as its goal our share in his divine sonship and our participation in the life of the Holy Trinity. Creation was for Exodus, and Exodus is for Resurrection. And so Creation is addressed in the Exultet, “Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her! Let all corners of the earth be glad.” Exodus is remembered in the Exultet: “This is the night when God made Israel’s children to pass dry-shod through the sea.” Resurrection is proclaimed in the Exultet: “This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” And our share in all this is likewise proclaimed: “O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth and divine to the human.”
As we ponder the things of heaven being wed to those of earth, I think it would be legitimate to wonder if angels, individual angels, have the equivalent to what we in human beings would call a personality. I mean the characteristics of a particular angel, the angel’s traits and style. If so, the angel in the gospel passage we just heard could be called the noisy type, even rambunctious and flashy. His arrival is accompanied by an earthquake. He rolls back the stone from the tomb. That wouldn’t have been quiet. One can imagine a rumbling. His appearance is like lightning. He scares the guards and knocks them dead, and they were supposed to be guarding a dead man. Now who’s dead? Then he sits on the stone he rolled back. Really? An incorporeal being bothering to sit! Is he being funny? And after all this he has the cheek to ask the women, “Did I scare you?” And then he calmly tells them not to be afraid. What do all these angelic moves mean? It is certainly a style. It creates its own kind of impression. In part it is certainly about a great good tide of joy we find in many of the gospel stories of resurrection appearances. We are allowed to smile and to enjoy the details.
But let’s be clear about things. None of this noise and commotion is of the resurrection itself. It is all the commotion of an angel designed to reveal an empty tomb— noise and commotion to reveal that there is no one here and nothing to see. Noise and commotion to reveal what made no noise and what took place in deepest night in a manner known to God alone, with a swift, spiritual, silent stroke of transformation: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. “Let there be light” said God into the chaos of the tomb, and there was light.
After the noisy arrival and display, the angel bids the women not to be afraid, and then declares the meaning of the empty tomb he reveals. He refers to Jesus by a beautiful title. He calls him “Jesus the Crucified.” And then he announces that he is not here in the tomb where he had been laid, for he has been raised. He has been raised, but his name will always be “Jesus the Crucified,” for never can we forget the love displayed through the long hours of his dying. And now God the Father confirms that act of love, accepts it, fixes it forever and establishes the Crucified permanently in glory. He is “the Lamb once slain who dies no more and lives forever as Jesus the Crucified, Lord and Messiah.”
The angel asks the women to believe his announcement and to pass it on to the disciples of Jesus. He tells them they will see Jesus in Galilee. Odd, if you think about it. If he is risen, why should he not show himself here and now? And why Galilee? That’s a long way away. Is that where he is? There and not here? If so, what does “risen” mean anyway? What does “he is not here” mean?
Well, let’s watch carefully how the women react. We read “they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful and yet overjoyed.” Two lessons here: (1) move away quickly from the tomb, from the place of death. And (2) believe the angel, even if it frightens and puzzles you, for you will be overjoyed as you put your trust in the announcement. They were running to do what the angel told them to do, “to announce this to the disciples.” But then what happens? Suddenly Jesus himself meets them and greets them with a huge and simple word. “Rejoice,” he says to them. The angel had told them they would see him in Galilee, but he stands before them here and now? Was the angel wrong? How here? Why now? Because they were moving away from the tomb, because they had believed the angel, because they were in mission to announce this to others— for all these reasons he appears to them here and now.
My dear brothers and sisters, this is how we too will meet Jesus the Crucified as the Risen One: by running away from the tomb of sin and death, by believing the angel’s announcement, and in mission to carry this news to others. On the way, in the mission, the women met him. Jesus shows himself suddenly how and where he will. And in his own sovereign way he will reveal himself to each of us and to all. He will come to us as we hurry away from the tomb and run to share the news with others.
The water that we will bless now to remind us of our Baptism, and the bread and wine that we will use to celebrate the Eucharist are the visible signs of this invisible mystery, the mystery of encounter with “Jesus the Crucified, who has been raised up just as he said.” Like the women, when they encountered him, in the Eucharist we approach him, we embrace his feet and we do him homage.
The Celebration of the Lord’s Passion (Good Friday)
Friday, April 14, 2017
My dear brothers and sisters, at the beginning of this ceremony the deacons and I lay on the floor, not as a gesture of mourning but to fall down in absolute wonder and fear and submission before the revelation of the glory of God in the mystery of the cross. In the liturgy we do not pretend for awhile that we do not know that Jesus is risen from the dead, thinking only for the next few days of his terrible death and burial. No, we experience in the course of this very liturgy that the Lord’s cross, the Lord’s death, is already victory and life. His death is a triumph, for by his dying he destroys death for us. And we who remember his death today do so precisely because we know him to be risen. The story of Jesus’ death is a constitutive part of the announcement of resurrection. The one who is risen is the Crucified Lord. This is Passover as both passion and passage. Death and resurrection—it is not first one and then the other. They are always inextricably intertwined—in Jesus’ Passover, in our Christian lives, in our lives as monks, and in the liturgies of the Triduum. In today’s liturgy we carefully remember the death of Jesus, and doing so is a magnificent revelation to us of the divine deed in which, yes, death and its horrors are all too real, and in which nonetheless that death is the glorious lifting up of the one who draws all things to himself.
Today’s liturgy consists of three parts: the Liturgy of the Word, the Adoration of the Cross, and Holy Communion. The first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah emerges from the barely broken silence like a trumpet blast. Each year on Good Friday when I hear this text proclaimed, I am amazed at the clarity and precision with which the prophetic words, pronounced some six centuries before the birth of Christ, find their fullest sense in the events surrounding the death of Jesus on the cross. Here we can immediately grasp the sense of that line we proclaim about the Holy Spirit in the Creed, where we say, “He spoke through the prophets.” Fewer texts could indicate this more clearly than the one we read today. The very details of the Passion are present in what the prophet says. We can understand how natural it was for the early Christians to read texts of this kind and understand them completely as a foreshadowing of Christ.
The prophet expresses the amazement of us all before the spectacle of Jesus’ cross. He exclaims, “Who would believe what we have heard?” And then he proceeds with a description whose details lead us into further contemplation of the cross, contemplation of that mysterious interlacing of passion and passage, of suffering and glory. On the one hand, the depth of the suffering of Jesus is further described, but concomitant with that, a glory hidden within. We continue to be struck by how tightly the words fit the life and death of Jesus. We read “There was in him no stately appearance that would attract us to him … He was a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity … spurned, and we held him in no esteem.” Even so, the prophet claims, he is full of significance, a significance that concerns our very salvation. We read “Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured … he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, by his stripes we were healed.”
Jesus’ own interior attitude during the course of the Passion is also foretold by the prophet. “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted … like a lamb led to the slaughter … he was silent and opened not his mouth … ” Even the details of Jesus’ burial are foretold by the farseeing eye of the prophet: “A grave was assigned him among the wicked and a burial place with evildoers, though he had done no wrong nor spoken any falsehood.”
These are startling and amazing things. But in effect, resurrection is obliquely foretold as well in what the prophet pronounces. We read “If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life.” We and all believers are those descendants, and his “long life” is the eternal life the Father gives him in raising him from the dead.
In the letter to the Hebrews we hear something that by now we are used to saying but which originally was a completely radical insight; namely, that what appeared to be only the cruel execution of a human being—Jesus being crucified—is in fact an act of a new priesthood and the offering of a new and definitive sacrifice. The author of this letter is claiming that what all cultic sacrifices could only weakly point to and symbolically achieve is now in fact definitively achieved by Jesus, not in a cultic act, but quite literally in his dying and his being exalted at the right hand of the Father.
And in the Gospel of John, we hear the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion as a story bathed in power and light. Even Jesus’ last breath is nothing less that his delivering the Holy Spirit into all the world. Still more, his very corpse is life-giving, for from his pierced side there spring forth the wondrous sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist in the blood and water that the solider’s lance causes to flow.
The last part of the Liturgy of the Word today will be 10 long prayers for the Church and the whole world. Why all these prayers deep inside the celebration of the Lord’s Passion? It is nothing less than laying the death of Jesus before the eyes of the Father as we enumerate our many needs and hopes. In effect, we are saying to the Father that Jesus is asking this for us “with loud cries and tears” on our behalf. This is what it means to end every prayer, “through Christ our Lord.”
With the adoration of the cross we arrive at that part of the liturgy that is completely unique to this day. There are two basic parts to it. The first is a showing of the cross to all the people, and the second is a procession in which we come forward to venerate it. In this monastery we have a fragment of what is believed to be the true cross. We have placed this fragment within a large wooden reliquary shaped in the form of a cross. The celebrant declares three times: “Behold the wood of the cross,” and then the wood is exposed to our view and for our adoration. The sliver of the true wood touches the other wood and, as it were, renders all the wood to be that holy wood. To see this wood, to touch it, to kiss it, is to see the glory of God revealed in the holy cross. “Behold the wood of the cross!” All wood, any wood, is on this day that wood—“the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.”
After this there follows the third part of today’s liturgy: the reception of Holy Communion. We are very near now to the liturgy of yesterday evening, Holy Thursday, where the hosts we receive today were consecrated, and where Jesus gave us in the signs of the meal a means for interpreting the meaning of his death. Whenever I receive the body of the Lord, I receive it in some sense from the cross. There is perhaps no day when this is so clear as on Good Friday. The words of St. Paul in yesterday’s second reading have a new resonance for us today: “For as often as you eat this bread … you proclaim the death of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:26) I just spoke of how precious indeed is the opportunity to express our devotion by kissing the wood of the cross on which the Lord died. Far more precious than the relic of the cross is that which we receive in Communion. The very body that was crucified and is now risen is given to us as food and life. By eating this food we share in his life-giving death and resurrection. Passover as passion. Passover as passage.
Mass of the Lord’s Supper
Thursday, April 13, 2017
We are gathered together here on the very day and in the very hour when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. We know that we are initiating the three days of liturgy, the Triduum, that begins now with the memorial of the Lord’s Last Supper. We sense that we are every bit as much swept up into this event as were the original historical actors whose stories and words we have just heard.
We receive from Jesus his body and blood under the signs of and wine as a gift with which we are meant to discern the meaning of his death on the next day. So, we seek to connect all the signs of the meal to Jesus’ death on the cross, an event whose force is imminent and which impinges more and more on the mood of the supper and what follows.
Christ’s heart, as he looks at our assembly and invades it, is filled with the sentiments he expressed when he said to his disciples at the beginning of the Supper, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15) “to eat this Passover before I suffer”: a meal and a sacrifice.
How did Jesus enter into the Passover of his suffering? He did so by celebrating with his disciples the meal that is prescribed in this evening’s first reading, a passage taken from Exodus 12. The Passover meal, solemnly established by the Lord’s own words to Moses, opens into all the events of the coming days and contains them all in advance under the form of signs.
During the course of the meal Jesus quite consciously began to play some of its most fundamental themes in a new key, in the key of the new Passover that he was about to accomplish. The food and drink of this meal were the language with which the story of Israel’s Passover was told. Jesus draws on all its images now and intentionally summarizes or recapitulates all of Israel’s history in himself. In the signs of the meal which he selects, he is conscious that he holds all of Israel and all her history in his hands as he takes up bread and wine, and he identifies that whole history with himself and with the death he will undergo on the next day, saying over it, “This is my body, this is my blood, given up for you.” It is into his definitive Passover that we enter now by means of his same words and by means of the bread and wine he holds in his venerable hands.
“Every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb,” says the Lord. “If a family is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join the nearest household in procuring one.” That is what we have done in this very hour of our celebration. We are many households come together in one place., and we have procured a lamb. According to the Lord›s prescriptions, it must be a special kind of lamb. “The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish.” Our unblemished male lamb is none less that Jesus himself, the Lamb of God. Then we read that “with the whole assembly of Israel present, the lamb shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.” We are the whole assembly of the new Israel, and the very hour in which we are gathered is the evening twilight, and in this evening twilight, Jesus the Lamb lets himself be slaughtered as he hands over his body and blood to us. Further prescriptions follow. “They shall take some of the lamb’s blood and apply it to the doorposts and lintels of every house … and that same night they shall eat its roasted flesh.” We fulfill these prescriptions as we take the blood of Jesus in the chalice he gives us, applying it to our house by consuming it. We eat the flesh of the lamb as we receive his body in the transformed bread.
And it is precisely at this point in the reading, when we are told to eat like those in flight, that the Lord solemnly names the feast. He says, “It is the Passover of the Lord! For on this same night I will go through Egypt, and I will strike down every first-born of the land …” and then he adds, “but the blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you.” (Exodus 12: 11-13)
The second reading this evening is brief but very strong. St. Paul simply narrates what Jesus did at the supper “on the night he was handed over.” He introduces his account of what he tells by reminding the Corinthian community that their knowledge of this sacred meal is a question of tradition, that is, that Paul received the account of the meal from the Lord himself and he handed it on to them. This faithful handing on of what Jesus did has continued through the generations to the present moment of our own celebration. We feel the presence of Paul in our own assembly. His words are for us still the authoritative apostolic witness of what Jesus did. The words of Jesus over the bread and over the cup are repeated: “This is my body. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” And with both bread and cup, Paul repeats the Lord’s command: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
On this night we are faithful to the Lord’s command to do this meal in memory of him. St. Paul adds a very important comment of his own which interprets at depth what happens when the community fulfills the Lord’s injunction and celebrates as he commanded. Paul says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes!” These words have guided the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist from Paul’s time to the present. They show us with unmistakable clarity that the Eucharist is a memorial of the Lord’s death, of the Lord’s sacrifice. But Paul uses a very strong verb. He says we proclaim the Lord’s death. That is, his death is announced as something unexpectedly glorious. In this way his resurrection is known and announced—not explicitly, but by proclaiming his glorious death, the death of one whose coming again in glory we await. Indeed, then, that is the “space” where Eucharist is celebrated by the Church: in the space between the proclamation of his death and his coming again in glory. We are moving and acting in that space now.
The solemn announcement of the Passover which we heard in words from the Lord’s own mouth concludes with a final order: “This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution.” Faithfulness to this command kept the Passover alive in every generation down to the time of Jesus and his own celebration of it. But even more so, faithfulness to the command brings every subsequent generation of Christians into communion with Jesus’ new and definitive Passover. Before they sat down to table, Jesus, the Lord and Master, washed the feet of his disciples in humble service and as yet another sign that foreshadowed the death he would undergo in service to us all. We begin this year’s Triduum surrounded and immersed in all these same signs that proclaim his glorious death, his new Passover. These three days are a “memorial feast” established by the Lord. They are a “perpetual institution.” Their meaning is love. Jesus says, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
What striking readings from the Sacred Scriptures we have just heard! They are sharp, succinct descriptions of what we would see in Saint Benedict and thus they are chosen for this liturgy. They are also sharp, succinct descriptions of what we ought to see also in the disciples of Benedict and in those who celebrate his feast.
Let’s be sure that we let that word still echo in our hearts now, for its power is still with us. The Apostle Paul says, “ Draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power.” How else do you think you’ll ever be a monk? How else do you think you’ll ever be a Christian?
Paul says, “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil.” Monastic life is spiritual warfare. Against whom? Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the rulers of this present age, with the evil spirits in the heavens. In other words, monastic life is not a self-improvement course or a way of living that will give you a positive self-image. It is a cosmic battle against evil. Therefore, put on the armor of God that you may be able to resist on the evil day and hold your ground.
Monastic life is spiritual warfare. “With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit.” That’s the “pray always” that monastic life is meant to be. Paul continues, “To that end be watchful with all perseverance and supplication.” All days. All day long. Every day. Perseverance and supplication for all the holy ones. That is monastic life as undertaken for the whole church. Perseverance and supplication for the whole church.
I like to say that one of the things monastic life is good for, is that it shows clearly the ingredients of the spiritual life. That’s why not just monks can profit from the monastic life. It’s a sign to the whole church. Perseverance and supplication for all the holy ones. That’s the sort of thing that St. Benedict would say today and he learned it from St. Paul. And St. Paul and St. Benedict are with us now in this sacred liturgy, urging us on with these words.
In the Gospel, Peter strongly encounters Jesus. He asked Jesus, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” We think of somebody asking that question. Peter? I don’t mind thinking of St. Benedict asking the same question. We monks, consecrated religious, priests, and sometimes seminarians perhaps too readily think we have the right to ask the same question. Have we? Have we given up everything yet to follow Him? Well, let’s say we have. Or, that we are trying. And what does Jesus say to us today? On this feast. He says, “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands or for my sake will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.”
Certainly, we see that that promise was fulfilled in St. Benedict beyond anything he could ever have imagined. Tens of thousands of monks and nuns have called him father through the whole history of Europe. And millions of lay people influenced by the kind of monasticism through more than 1,500 hundred years that he brought into the world. That’s a lot of hundred times more brothers and sisters. And for us who wish to be his followers and live under his influence, we too can hope for a little influence on others. We too can hope for the good and sweet experience of being a blessing for others.
There’s something that the monks all know, but I don’t know if everyone else does. There are two feasts of Saint Benedict in the liturgical year. Today, March 21, and July 11. Why is that? We know that March 21 was the very day on which St. Benedict passed from this world to the next. That feast was always kept in the church. But in the reform of the Liturgical Calendar, many of the big feasts were taken out of the Lenten season so that Lent could be Lent. And so the Universal Church remembers St. Benedict on July 11.
Benedictines were given the privilege of celebrating both days. That’s good for us here with the Seminary because March 21 can be a day that we especially celebrate the Feast of St. Benedict with our seminarians. We are happy to be able to do that. Whereas we devote the celebration have in July to receiving all kinds of guests. On the Saturday closest to July 11 we invite hundreds of people to come to the hill to celebrate the heritage of St. Benedict.
Both of those opportunities, the opportunity for us today as monks to celebrate with you seminarians and the many guests who are here, both of these days are our way of showing the monastery’s relevance for the whole church. But today is the very day on which St. Benedict died. St. Gregory gives us a beautiful description of the moment of his death and how the other monks experienced it. Let me just recall a little of that for you.
We read at the end of the Life of Benedict that St. Gregory gives us, we read that in the year that was to be his last, the man of God foretold the day of his holy death to a number of his disciples. That’s pretty amazing when you can say that on that day, on March 21, “ I’m going to die.” Well, St. Benedict, we know, enjoined his monks in this way: “Keep death daily before your eyes.” St. Gregory goes on to say, “Six days before he died he gave orders for the tomb to be opened,” as if to say, it is about to happen now.
“Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally on the sixth day, he told his disciples to carry him into the chapel.” Let’s think of this image on March 21, carried into the chapel by his fellow monks,” where he received the Body and Blood of the Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. This is how St. Benedict wants to die: Carried by other monks and receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord as Viaticum, as strength for his end.
I continue: “Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he raised his hands to heaven.” It’s like he puts his body in the shape of a cross, but his monks are holding his hands up so he can pray that way. “And as he prayed he breathed his last.”
So this description we have is from the monks who were present, but something else happened elsewhere. I continue with what Gregory tells us. “That same day two monks — one of them at the monastery and the other some distance away — received this very same revelation. They both saw a magnificent road covered with rich carpeting and glittering with thousands of lights. From his monastery, it stretched eastward in a straight line all the way into heaven.” That’s seeing something. Two monks are in two different places. Meanwhile, the other monks just saw him die.
That’s the scene. And then a man appears to both of those people that are having the visions, and he said, “Do you know what this is? Do you know who passed this way?”
“No,” they said.
“This,” he told them, “is the road taken by blessed Benedict, the beloved of God, when he went to heaven.” This is called the Transitus of Benedict. The passing of Benedict along this road, this carpet, glittering with thousands of lights from the monastery all the way to heaven. And that road is at every monastery. And it’s meant to be traveled by every monk. What is the lesson of the story for us monks? And what is the lesson for anyone who is under the influence of the monks? First of all, it is that Benedict never went to God alone. At the end, he let his brothers carry him. Benedict didn’t keep his relationship with God for himself.
The story that St. Gregory tells just before this is wonderful. It’s Benedict’s biggest vision. He’s alone at night in his tower where he used to go every night and pray. Suddenly he saw the whole world gathered up into a single light, and the light was Christ. And the world was somehow inside Christ.
In the midst of this vision, he calls out to the Deacon Servanes, who was nearby, to come see this thing. He disturbed his ecstasy to bring someone else into it. That’s Benedict or you. Beautiful. So, the first lesson we must take from this is that Benedict doesn’t go to God alone. He goes with his brothers. Others carried Benedict to the Eucharist. The lesson for us is to let ourselves be carried by others to the Eucharist and let us carry one another to the Eucharist. Another lesson is that the Eucharist is called “ strength for the journey,” the journey along the road that extends from the monastery all the way to heaven. The Eucharist will keep us on that road. And this image supporting the weakness of his body he lifts up his hands in prayer.
And so he travels on this magnificent road. My dear brothers in the monastery and seminarians and friends all, today let’s resolve again to take that same road. It’s the road St. Benedict speaks about at length in Chapter 7 of the Holy Rule, on humility. Where he speaks of the vision that Jacob had of a road leading from where Jacob prayed all the way to heaven. And St. Benedict says that you ascend that road by descending in humility. According to the Lord’s own words, “he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
So I repeat, dear brothers, let us take that same road that St. Benedict took by humbling ourselves. And how did St. Benedict travel that road? By feeding on the Eucharist. And so let us eat and drink now that same body and blood of the Lord that made St. Benedict a saint. Let us eat and drink now that same Body and Blood of our Lord that brought Benedict to heaven.
Let us seek the things that are above.