Summary: We must understand that in every age, whatever the climate, God has intervened to raise up His people.
Third Sunday of Lent 2016
Our extraordinary form of the Mass is truly extraordinary in the more popular sense on this fourth Sunday of Lent. The songs of the Church, both in words and chant, leap off the page with joy and exultation. The vocabulary is a Latin thesaurus of excitement: Laetare, gaudete, laetitia, exultetis. There is a look and feel here that is literally “rosy,” right in the center period of Lent, and just a week before the first Sunday of the Passion. What, we might ask, is going on, other than the purely human reality that we are weary of fasting and abstinence?
Our Mass as we have it is a product of European Catholic culture. As my sainted chant teacher, Fr. Charles Dreisoerner, was fond of pointing out, Gibraltar is at the same latitude as St. Louis, MO, and Stockholm is at the same latitude as the northernmost tip of Alberta. In our era when global warming is seen as a threat, we have lost the perspective of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when climactic change meant multi-degree cooling of the agricultural lands, and a late spring. By the end of Lent, foodstocks stored from the previous fall were critically low, and in many areas of Europe, starvation threatened every year. We who are rarely hungry cannot know this experience. Indeed, we can hardly imagine what it is like to be so hungry that our bodies are dissolving muscle tissue to keep our core temperature at a life-sustaining level. That kind of climate-change brought on five centuries of human misery for Europeans, including the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War that devastated central Europe, and the Protestant Revolution. During that time, the population declined by a third. No wonder St. Theresa called this life “a bad night in a cheap hotel.”
So the hopeful images of today’s Mass were entirely appropriate to the early Middle Ages, perhaps the only good news of the week. As the faithful entered their local parish or monastery chapel, they heard the promise of good things to come, not just with the next harvest, but with the eternal harvest and feast of heaven. They once more listened to the tale of Jesus using meager assets to feed perhaps ten or fifteen thousand souls, and knew that with the rest of the story they would be given the Holy Eucharist, the true Bread of Life. The repeated psalm verses told of Jerusalem, but they knew that even if the Crusader city of Jerusalem had fallen decades earlier, there was for them a Jerusalem on high, the true Jerusalem, where no robber barons were allowed, where they would see the very Face of the Trinity and be blessed in the company of Mary and the saints forever.
The Mass that they celebrated with their local clergy or monks was very like the one we pray today. The language, even the words, were the same. They had been the same for generations. It was that way all over Europe. In the cathedral windows they saw scenes from the Scriptures. On the high ceiling they could see angels and saints in heaven. The pillars and wall ornaments were of leaves and grapes and similar agricultural products that reminded them of a garden. A garden? Indeed, a lush garden like Eden, because the churches of the Middle Ages were supposed to be representations of the Paradise of heaven, the Paradise Jesus promised to the repentant robber crucified at His side. After all, isn’t every Mass a window into the Kingdom of God? Do we not banquet with the King, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the company of angels and saints? When the choir or schola voice the words of the psalms, aren’t they participating in the grand chorus of millions around the Divine Throne, singing of the wonderful works of God done through the “fiat” of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the throngs of faithful for the past two millennia?
So the Word and Sacrament that had nourished and consoled the early Christians, battered by persecution by the Jews and Romans alike was the same as the Word and Sacrament that later bolstered the faith of the papists hounded by agents of Luther and Zwingli and Queen Elizabeth. This same Word and Sacrament is given freely by the Lord Jesus through the ministry of the Church. Do we need it any less than the Christians of pagan Rome, of Protestant Geneva, or World War II Munich? Our need is just as great. The need of the whole world for the mercy of God may be even greater, for the survival of Christian culture has never been under such threat. The secular culture acts through the media, the courts, and the venality of politicians to press us to keep our faith to ourselves. They find it a horror that we would let our commitment to Christ stand in the way of commerce. Moreover, they have successfully turned the political process into a bawdy farce that makes thoughtful people understand why in history all democracies have ultimately ended in tyranny. The forces of death actively promote the genocidal reduction and perversion of families through unnatural unions, contraception and the murder of the unborn. And both within and outside our country, we face a resurgent Islamization of nation after nation on at least three continents that brings violence and oppression of women and minorities wherever it springs up. Yes, our need for the Word of God and the Blessed Sacrament of the altar are at least as great as that of our spiritual ancestors.