Editorial Note: This post is part of a series intended for Catholics who are unable to participate in public celebrations of the Eucharist because of restrictions around COVID-19. Through prayerful reflection on the proper texts of the Mass each Sunday, we may still receive the fruits of Eucharistic communion.
Give me justice, O God,
and plead my cause against a nation that is faithless.
From the deceitful and cunning rescue me,
for you, O God, are my strength. (cf. Psalm 43:1–2)
In much of his preaching, St. John Henry Newman frets over what he calls the ‘religion of the day.’ The religion of the day sees religious practice as appropriate to a certain English identity akin to afternoon tea and Oxford tutorials. Religion should not be treated with too much gravity since its function is to teach us a certain good sense, a basic posture of social morality.
The Entrance Antiphon on the Fifth Sunday of Lent refuses to let us dwell in this comforting religion of pious maxims. The psalmist cries out to God demanding justice, asking that God rescue him from a faithless nation, from the enemies that surround him on every side. The psalmist mourns the absence of God because he is oppressed by the enemy.
In the rest of Psalm 43, the psalmist recognizes that God alone can save us from the dreadful darkness of despair. God’s light and truth (Psalm 43:3) will go forth, bringing the desolate one to the Temple where he can resume his praise to God with lyre. Even the thought of this consolation, this joyful prayer in the presence of God, lifts the psalmist’s soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my savior and my God” (Psalm 43:5).
Early Christians understood that the psalms are not just ancient hymns. When we sing these psalms, it is the voice of the whole Christ that sings out, head and members. Psalm 43 is sung by Christ on his way to Jerusalem. He is aware of the enemies who await him. He will be oppressed by blame, hatred, violence, and death itself. And still, the beloved Son directs his eyes to the Father, to the Temple at Jerusalem. Light and truth will shine forth as the body of our beloved Lord is lifted upon the Cross, manifesting to the world the depths of divine love.
And yet, we too as the pilgrim Church sing this hopeful lament to God. Our oppressor, our enemy right now is real. It is the enemy called COVID-19. It is the oppressor that keeps us locked away in our homes, away from the Blessed Sacrament, from the Eucharistic sacrifice of praise.
Still, there is hope. Our spirits may be cast down, longing for the day when we can praise God once more in the temple court. But even our desire to offer this praise, the longing to receive the Blessed Sacrament, to join with the assembly of believers, is an act of hope.
As we contemplate the Entrance Antiphon on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, it’s more than acceptable to cry out to God, even demanding that God will save us from this enemy of sin and death, this illness that threatens so many of us. It is in fact right and just to long for a better day, a day when we can once more gather as Christ’s Body to adore God. It is right to rely entirely on God, the only one who can save us from the terrors of death.
Let this longing, dear friends, be our medicine against hopelessness: “Hope in God; for I shall praise him, my savior and my God” (Psalm 43:5).
By your help, we beseech you, Lord our God,
may we walk eagerly in that same charity
with which, out of love for the world,
your Son handed himself over to death.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
As I mentioned in last week’s reflection, the Collect, or Opening Prayer, has a structure particular to Latin prayer texts in the Roman Rite of the Mass. If we recognize this structure, we’re better able to attune ourselves to praying it. The Collect is addressed to God (You), remembers what God has accomplished in the past (Who), asks God to act in our day (Do), and locates our prayer in communion with the Blessed Trinity (Through).
The Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Lent begins with the image of a journey. On this final Sunday of Lent before Passiontide and Holy Week, we turn our eyes with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Throughout Lent, we have been on a journey. This may seem strange to say, especially this year, since so much of our Lent has been spent in our homes. We have missed Mass, parish Stations of the Cross, fish fries, crawfish boils, and pilgrimages to churches throughout our neighborhoods.
But, as St. Augustine preached, we Christians undertake pilgrimages not exclusively through the physical act of walking, but also through caritas or love. As our hearts grow inflamed with love while praying a psalm, as we give alms to the hungry and thirsty, we continue our pilgrimage toward God.
And yet such love is not drawn exclusively from our own resources. Lent, despite how frequently we hear about our Lenten practices, is not about us. Progress in the Christian life is never a form of works righteousness, where we lift ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, attaining holiness through our own effort. Rather, Lent is the season in which we perfectly conform ourselves to the caritas of the Father and the Son through the grace of the Spirit.
In this way, Lent is the season to recognize once more the gift of love given to us by the Son. We are to give up on the project of attaining the best version of ourselves, as if a bit of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is really intended to make us better. Really, we’re to give up on the project of self-actualization at all, finding our exclusive source of grace in the divine caritas of the Son.
The Lenten journey continues in the time of COVID-19. In fact, it has been intensified as we are all forced to contend with our nature as contingent beings. Unto ourselves, we cannot make this journey. But, if the love of the Father and the Son, the very life of the Spirit comes to us, all things are possible.
Psalm 130:1–2, 3–4, 5–6, 7–8
For a commentary on these readings, see Our Sunday Visitor’s weekly column on the Sunday Scriptures, Opening the Word.
Prayer Over the Offerings
Hear us, almighty God,
and, having instilled in your servants
the teachings of the Christian faith,
graciously purify them
by the working of this sacrifice.
Through Christ our Lord.
From week to week, we likely mutter the words of the Creed without much awareness of what we’re saying. We profess, half asleep, the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. We run through Christ’s Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension in a couple brief phrases. We confess our belief in the Holy Spirit, the Church, the communion of saints, the resurrection of our very flesh, and the advent of life eternal. And then we move on.
Today’s Prayer Over the Offerings asks us to pause a bit, to reflect on the gift of faith, especially around the Creed. Our catechumens will have recently received the words of the Creed. In these brief words, we Christians proclaim that the world has a meaning—a meaning that we did not create, but that came from God. The world is created as good, redeemed as good, and the destiny of this world is good. It is the destiny made possible through a God who is gift, love unto the end.
Christian life, the one that many of us have practiced for years, is meant to instill this hope in us. The teachings of the Christian faith are not merely notional assents for us, occasions for intellectual engagement. Instead, the various clauses of the Creed are meant to change everything. If God really did create the world, redeem the world through the Death and Resurrection of the Son, doesn’t that change everything?
Because of habit, we may forget this wondrous gift. But the sacrifice of the Eucharist is meant to purify the People of God, to re-awaken in us the desire for faith. Even when we’re all kept away from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrifice of the Eucharist continues for us. This sacrifice, offered on every altar in every town, purifies the People of God so that they might live as those who confess ultimate faith in the Word that became flesh, dwelt among us, and redeemed us from the wood of the Cross—that death, in the end, is not the meaning of life. Love is.
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everything to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For as true man he wept for Lazarus his friend
and as eternal God raised him from the tomb,
just as, taking pity on the human race,
he leads us by sacred mysteries to new life.
Through him the host of Angels adores your majesty
and rejoices in your presence for ever.
May our voices, we pray, join with theirs
in one chorus of exultant praise, as we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy . . .
Since the reforms of Vatican II, the Roman rite has expanded the number of prefaces that take place immediately before the Eucharistic Prayer. These different prefaces invite the one praying to focus on a specific dimension of salvation.
St. Augustine would often refer to Christ as both exemplum and sacramentum. Christ is an exemplary image, an icon of what it means to be human. At the same time, Jesus is God, bestowing to us insight into the eternal life of God that was previously unavailable to us.
The raising of Lazarus, which we hear proclaimed in the Gospel on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, is an occasion to contemplate the mystery of Christ as fully God and fully human. Jesus weeps when he arrives at the tomb of his dear friend, Lazarus. The Eucharistic Preface this day underlines the imagery of friendship. Lazarus is not just the disciple of Jesus, learning as a student does from a master. He is his friend. They share a communion of love.
Jesus, as fully human, sheds tears. These are not “faux” tears, a kind of dramatic enactment to prove to everyone that he really cares. He cries. His heart is moved by the death of his beloved friend Lazarus. As human beings immersed in fear—likely terrified that our loved ones might get sick from the virus, that we’ll lose our jobs, that nothing will ever be the same—we may shed a tear or two. If Jesus could cry at the tomb of Lazarus, then we can too, out of our love of friends and family.
And yet, Jesus is also the Word made flesh. He is the friend with the power to save, to raise Lazarus from the dead. And he does.
Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead as both friend and God. It is his trembling voice that cries out to Lazarus, telling him to arise. It is the same voice, the same bodily presence, that was the source of his communion with Lazarus in the first place.
And still, as the Preface invites us to contemplate, our God is working through matter. The prayer says that God has “pity,” but it is right and just to think about God’s response to our condition as pathos. God recognizes our suffering, hears our cries for assistance, casts in his lot with us, his creatures. And God acts not from his eternally secure cloud, far away, but through the mysteries or sacraments of the Church. God still restores us to life.
For you catechumens, this is what you’re waiting for in your Baptism. You’ll wait a bit longer now, as we’re all quarantined at home. But, you’re waiting for Jesus Christ to raise you from the death of sin, of sorrow, of loneliness, of anxiety, of all that keeps us from life lived to the full, the life that God intended for the human race. Long for this, and you’ll delight even more on the day of your Baptism.
For you who have already descended into the waters of the Jordan, who have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, God is still leading you to life through the sacred mysteries of the Church. Isn’t this, at the root, what is so sorrowful about foregoing Eucharistic communion? To receive his Body and Blood, to kneel in his holy presence, is the very way that we come to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Let us all remember, right now, this sorrow. And when we’re able once more—or for the first time—to approach the Eucharistic altar, let us remember that we’re not receiving ordinary bread and ordinary wine. We’re receiving the manna sent from above, the eternal bread, that heals us of the disease of eternal death. As we long to receive our Lord, to partake in this holy mystery, our Lord increases in the depths of our hearts the desire for eternal life.
Prayer After Communion
We pray, almighty God,
that we may always be counted among the members of Christ,
in whose Body and Blood we have communion.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
It’s easy to forget the beauty of life in the Church. We grow accustomed to the passing of liturgical seasons, to the presence of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to the liturgical cycle of chants and hymns. We grow accustomed.
And yet, our identity as members of Christ’s Body is something that we should never take for granted. To be a member of the Church is not akin to belonging to a nice club, whose membership we could give up if we found a better one. To belong to the Church is to exist in a communion with our brothers and sisters that changes everything.
Even as many of us participate in the Mass by watching it on television or a live-stream, that communion remains. It cannot be erased. In fact, now more than ever, what a gift to remember that our lives are inescapably linked to men and women the world over whom we’ve never met. We’re tied together, in a communion that we did not create, but in a communion that came to us as pure gift. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then absence from the sanctuary of the Lord may instill in us the fondness that we should possess for the communion of love we share in Christ’s Church.
Prayer Over the People
Bless, O Lord, your people,
who long for the gift of your mercy,
and grant that what, at your prompting, they desire
they may receive by your generous gift.
Through Christ our Lord.
There’s an occasional guilt that many of us experience when we ask God for what we want. For those of us who suffer from this guilt, we believe that we can hide from God our deepest desires. Is it acceptable to ask for the health of my family when so many people in the world suffer? If I ask God to end this pandemic, will it work? Shouldn’t I ask for something easier?
God has no interest in us being so shy in his divine presence. God knows the deepest desires of our hearts. God knows what we ask before we can utter it. In fact, it is the very Spirit of God that prompts our hearts to desire at all.
So, we should ask God for the desires of our heart. At times, we may not receive exactly what we asked for. But what we do receive is the presence of the friend of Lazarus, who comes to dwell with us in our joy and suffering alike. God is here, present among us. He alone can raise us from the dead.
Questions for Discussion
The questions below are intended to help you reflect on the texts for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. If you can’t discuss them in person with family or friends, talk about them with a loved one over the phone or through some other form of digital media.
- What are the enemies or oppressors in your life right now? Fear or anxiety? Poverty or suffering? Sickness? The death of a loved one? What do you have to say to God about this suffering?
- Christ comes to us this day, as the friend of Lazarus, to raise us from the dead. Where, in the final days of Lent, do you need to experience the gift of the Resurrection?
- What do you miss most about going to Sunday Mass right now? How might this sadness be an occasion for you to grow closer to Jesus Christ?
- With your family or group of friends, find out the date of your Baptism. Begin to celebrate this day each year.
- For the rest of the week, pray over the text of the Nicene Creed. What strikes you about this Creed? What does it reveal about the meaning of life?
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