Summary: Abel worshiped in faith, and so should we.

Ss Cyril & Methodius

February 14, 2011

The Spirit of the Liturgy

For a few months now we have been considering, with our Holy Father, the spirit of the liturgy. And so it is fitting that we hear today, and on Valentine’s Day, this marvelous lesson from Genesis, the story of accepted Abel and rejected Cain. Look for a moment at the visual interpretation of the scene from 16th century artist Mariotto Albertinelli:

The two brothers are offering part of their production to God on the same altar. A ray of light comes from a cloud and Abel’s offering of the best lamb and fat of his flock rises as a smoke to heaven, while Cain’s burnt offering is blown back into his face. But the interior disposition of each is the important focus of the painting. Abel is piously kneeling in prayer, eyes lifted to heaven. Cain is almost lunging toward the offering, his gaze fixed on it, and, through the smoke, angrily on his brother. Abel is fixed on communication with the divine. Cain is fixated with his own greatness, firstborn status, ego-satisfaction. The letter to the Hebrews interprets the scene: “Through faith, Abel offered God a sacrifice of greater value than Cain's. Therefore he was proclaimed just, God having born testimony to his gifts, and through faith, though dead, he still speaks.”

This sacrifice of “Abel the just” is linked with those of Abraham and Melchisedek in the Roman Canon, our Eucharistic Prayer I. That connection, and the obvious battle between justice and sin in the Cain-Abel story, leads us to consider the Passover sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and His institution of the Eucharist on the evening before He suffered. We’ve been reflecting on the incarnation of Jesus, His linking of the divine and human natures in His person, as well as his connecting time and eternity. But in His Passover sacrifice He also links the two calendars of humans, the solar and the lunar. Easter is late this year, almost as late as it can be, April 24. It is always on Sunday, the third day of the Old Testament and the eighth day of the Church Fathers, and the day of the Sun–the symbol of the rising Christ. But it is on the Sunday after the first full moon of spring, and that links the date to the lunar calendar. “In the world of religion, the moon, with its alternating phases, is frequently seen as the symbol of the feminine, but especially as a symbol of transitoriness. Thus the cosmic symbolism of the moon corresponds to the mystery of death and resurrection, . . .celebrated in the Christian Passover. . .Transitoriness is taken up into what never passes away. Death becomes resurrection and passes into eternal life.” (101) The Passover of the Jews was a setting free from death. “The oppression of Israel in Egypt was indeed a kind of death, which threatened to, and was intended to, destroy the people as such. Death was imposed on all male progeny. But on the night of Passover the angel of death now passes over Egypt and strikes down” the best (as the Hebrew says) of the Egyptians. “Liberation is liberation for life. Christ, the Firstborn from the dead, takes death upon himself, and, by his Resurrection, shatters death’s power. Death no longer has the last word. The love of the Son proves to be stronger than death because it unites man with God’s love, which is God’s very being.” (102)

So during Holy Week this year, which is the second-to-last week in April, look up and meditate on the symbolism of the full moon you will see. By that bright light Judas led Caiaphas’s police to seize His Lord. By that light the apostles fled the crucifixion, and Mary prayed her prayer of faith in her Son. And under that light the Lord Jesus arose in power, and will invite our catechumens to die and rise in Baptism, liberated from the bondage of sin and death, filled with the Spirit and empowered to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world in desperate need of Him.

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