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Back in Lent 2008…

October 10, 2008

As I slowly sift through the first few days of Interventions at Synod 12, I’ve also gone back to re-read the sermons that Fr Cantalamessa gave to the papal household this past Lent.  “Why?” you might ask.  Well, because he began his first sermon by saying:


In view of the Synod of Bishops next October I thought that I would dedicate my Lenten preaching this year to the theme of the word of God.


In that first sermon, he makes the following point, which is similar to what I’ve heard mentioned several times already in the first few days of Synod Interventions:


Heard in the liturgy, the biblical readings acquire a new and more powerful sense than when they are read in other contexts. They do not have so much the purpose of bringing about better knowledge of the Bible, as when one reads at home or in a school for biblical studies, as they have the purpose of recognizing him who makes himself present in the breaking of the bread, of every time illuminating a particular aspect of the mystery that is about to be received. This appears in an almost programmatic way in the episode with the two disciples traveling to Emmaus: It was in listening to an explanation of the Scriptures that the heart of the disciples began to open so that they were then able to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.


This idea of ‘liturgical hearing’ reminded me of the story, as told by St Athanasius, of the way in which St Anthony received the call to be a solitary by hearing the Gospel read at Mass:


2. After the death of his father and mother he was left alone with one little sister: his age was about eighteen or twenty, and on him the care both of home and sister rested. Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to then needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, ‘If thou wouldest be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and come follow Me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers–they were three hundred acres, productive and very fair — that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister’s sake.


3. And again as he went into the church, hearing the Lord say in the Gospel, ‘ be not anxious for the morrow,’ he could stay no longer, but went out and gave those things also to the poor. Having committed his sister to known and faithful virgins, and put her into a convent to be brought up, he henceforth devoted himself outside his house to discipline, taking heed to himself and training himself with patience.


Fr Cantalamessa goes on to share a personal incident in which the depth of a passage of the Gospel which he read at Mass became very real and personal for him, and has been indelibly printed on his heart:


It is not only the deeds but also the words of the Gospel heard at Mass that acquire a new and more powerful sense. One summer day I found myself celebrating Mass in a small cloistered monastery. The Gospel passage was Matthew 12. I will never forget the impression that those words of Jesus made on me: “Behold, now there is one here greater than Jonah. […] Behold, now there is one here greater than Solomon.” In that moment it was as if I had heard them for the first time. I understood that those two words “now” and “here” truly meant now and here, that is, in that moment and in that place, not only in the time that Jesus was on earth, many centuries ago. From that summer day, those words became dear and familiar to me in a new way. Often, at Mass, in the moment that I genuflect and stand up again after the consecration, I repeat to myself: “Behold, now there is one here greater than Jonah. […] Behold, now there is one here greater than Solomon!”


Describing an experience that we all have probably had at times, Fr Cantalamessa says:


Among the many words of God that we hear every day at Mass or in the Divine Office, there is almost always one that is especially destined for us. By itself it can fill our whole day and illumine our prayer. It must not be allowed to fall into the void.


I most recently experienced this several days ago when praying Psalm 131 in Vespers at the end of a very busy day, with still plenty to accomplish before lights out:


[1] O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
[2] But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
[3] O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.


Inspired by v. 2, I was so filled with the desire to steep myself in the Lord’s peace amidst all the busyness, with a longing to abandon myself to his love and trust in him alone, that the memory of that verse and those yearnings are still with me several days later.


Fr Cantalamessa also quotes an admonition of Origen which was similar to ideas that have been shared in some of the Synod Interventions:


“You who often partake in the divine mysteries,” Origen said to the Christians of his time, “when you receive the body of the Lord you treat it with great care and veneration so that not even a crumb will fall to the ground, so that nothing is lost of the consecrated gift. You are rightly convinced that that it is wrong to let a piece fall out of carelessness. If you are so careful in safeguarding his body — and it is right that you are — know that neglecting God’s word is not less wrong than neglecting his body.”

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