Sunday, November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent (EF) - Excita! (Part II)

  Last week, we looked at the common portion of the collects for the Sundays which form the bookends of the liturgical year. We looked especially at the Church's use of the word "Excita!" To stir us anew to conversion and progress in the spiritual life, in preparation for the end of days.  This Sunday, the first of Advent and the inauguration of the new liturgical year, utilizes the same word in its collect. What inspires the Church to repeat this word so soon, and also to use it at the beginning of the year?
  A further examination of the collect will help us to understand this week's usage. The collect begins: "Stir up your power, O Lord, and come." While last week was addressed more to our needs and our conversion, this week sees the collect addressed to God Almighty and beseeching Him to come. In praying this, the Church opens up to us the mystery of Advent and its importance for us. For the heart of Advent is concerned with the coming of God into the lives and history of humanity.
  Certainly, we are praying for God to come and save us, to free us from our sins. In this, we are joining the ancient Jews in their prayer for deliverance, in their prayer for redemption. How long did they suffer in Egypt under the cruel slavery of Pharoah! How long were they thrown about under the various emperors and princes of the eras, becoming a plaything in those exalted men's hands! How long were they even exiled from that which had been sworn over to them, the Promised Land! They sought for the day when God would deliver them from all their enemies and reign over them forever in the kingdom of gladness and joy. Yet how little did they expect God to become personally present to them, to truly come to them as a neighbor comes to a neighbor.
  We, indeed, are the result of those prayers, of those expectations, though these prayers and expectations have not yet been realized completely. Christ our Savior has already come in history, has come to redeem His people, the people He has chosen to be His own. Truly has the Psalm been fulfilled which says, "All who expect you, O Lord, shall not be confounded" (Ps 24.3; see the Gradual).  All those who have waited and are waiting for the Lord to come do not wait in vain, for the Bridegroom is coming, whose birth we will celebrate so soon.
  Yet we are not merely commemorating the expectation of the nations to arrive. We are also a people in waiting. We, however, are awaiting not the fulfillment of the prophecies, but for the fulfillment of God's design. This is what is hinted at in our Gospel for this Sunday. The birth of Christ into the world was only the beginning of the final fulfillment, and Our Lord gives us warning of His final coming, just as we heard last week. When Christ comes this final time, He will not appear in humility and poverty, but in power and majesty, enthroned in glory as the Just Judge come to reckon to each his own. How dreadful shall that day be for those who have not followed the Lamb, but their own foolish designs.
  This is the second way that the Church calls upon God to stir Himself up as if from slumber. For the Church, the Bride of the Heavenly Bridegroom, desires to unite herself to the One she loves, to at last enter into the wedding feast prepared for all eternity. Truly, we should live in fear of that day if we are not progressing in sanctity and repentance, yet for the Christian, the end should be awaited in eager hope. We are not meant to live forever in this sin-filled world, but we are meant to be with God, in the intimate union for which we have been created.
  But this talk of intimate union draws out a third and final way by which the Church calls upon her Lord through this collect. Yes, God has come within the pages of history. Yes, God will come at the last day, on the last page, to close the book of life. But there is a hidden way by which Christ comes to His Church, a way that is only illuminated to us by the saints. This is the way of Christ dwelling within the soul, of the soul becoming Christ-like, as St. Paul tells us has happened to him.
  Christ is present to us insofar as we conform ourselves to His example and His teaching, insofar as we emulate His earthly life. This is the secret of the saints: all of them, though each in their own way, strove not only to imitate Christ, but to become Christ. Read any life of any saint, and you will see them growing further apart from sin and the world and the flesh, and you will also see they draw nearer to Christ: through prayer, through penance, through growth in virtue, and especially through growth in charity. We can have Christ in our lives here and now, the more we turn away from all that is hateful to Him and desire more and more to fill our lives with the good gifts and graces He gives us.

  Let us, indeed, beseech God to come to us. Let us pray that He will fulfill His promise to become a son for us, a child among us. Let us pray that He will come at last as the glorious and triumphant King at the end of days. But let us pray more fervently that He will come into our hearts, into our churches, to dwell among us as the only object of our love, as the only means whereby we live and move and have our being. Take heed to the words of St. Paul in our epistle today, that we will "put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ: and make not provision for the flesh." Let us pray that God will be stirred up so that we may be stirred more completely to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him, so that we may more completely rejoice at those words: "The Bridegroom comes; go out to meet Him."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Last Sunday after Pentecost (EF) - Excita!

Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel
There are many correlations between this Sunday’s Mass, the last one of the time after Pentecost and thus signifying the end of the liturgical year, and next Sunday’s Mass, the first of Advent and the beginning of the year.  I highlight only one of these correlations as found within the collects which begin the Masses.  The first word of each prayer in Latin is Excita.  Of course, the English mind immediately thinks of the word excite, and truly one is correct in coming to this conclusion.  Yet what does it mean to excite?
The Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary (an essential reference for those studying the venerable language) offers a few ways to understand this word Excita.  It defines Excita the verb as to raise up, to arouse, awaken, incite, or enliven.  We see, then, that this word signifies the action of stirring up or even waking up one from some state of inactivity.  This begs the question: Why does the Church use this word not only on this day but also for next Sunday’s Mass?

We will look at the use of Excita for next week’s Mass next week (a little incentive to keep you coming!) but for this week, we can link Excita to the image Our Lord presents in the Gospel of the angel’s trumpet.  In the midst of describing in a mysterious manner the last days of the universe, Christ tells us that the Son of Man “shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice” after He has returned (Mt 24:31).  It is this passage that is central to interpreting the Church’s use of this word in our prayer and what effect it should have upon us.
This month of November is normally dedicated to the consideration of the Last Things since the Sunday Masses place us this impending mystery before us.  While this theme is certainly appropriate for the end of the liturgical year, it is also the fundamental inspiration for why the Church operates in this world.  Eagerly awaiting the coming of her Savior, of her beloved Bridegroom, the Church strives to call souls to that same hope and same love before the angel’s trumpet is heard, before that same Bridegroom comes to carry out His most terrifying task as the Judge of the living and the dead.
But this task of calling does not end once souls have entered into the bosom of Holy Mother Church.  Far from it!  For now comes the task of leading souls away from sin, from Satan and all his works and pomps, so that these souls may begin to live and breath that same faith, hope, and love with which Christ infused the Church.  We must always remember that our entrance into the Church, our incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ, does not come with a guarantee or a punched ticket; it comes only with a promise: “Abide in me, and I will abide in you” (Jn 15:5).
How often it happens in our lives that we are thrilled with entering into some new activity or receiving some new toy or gadget, yet that thrill vanish after a short time and the activity becomes routine or boring, the toy becomes old and no longer carries the same curiosity.  This is most especially true in our ecclesiastical life, and even more so for those of us who have discovered or returned to the Church: we are excited and filled with awe at her teachings and her rites, her Gospel and her history, and we seem to want more, more, more!  Yet we sink into a pattern of familiarity, of routineness, a pattern that seems to make all of this just seem like anything else.  Our minds become dull with the loss of that newness, our hearts grow weary because what we expected has not come to be, our souls seem to become fixed in their ways or (even worse) to start retreating from the progress we had made back to the old comfortable sins, the easy way of living.  Like the natural world all around us, we seem to shrivel up and grow dry and cold.
It is to this that the Church, as a most loving and caring mother, knowing what is best for us, concludes the year.  She cries out to us: “Wake up! Rise up! Awake from your slumber!” She shocks us like a foghorn to the ear, like a bolt of lightning surging through our bodies.  The Church, in her perennial wisdom, knows that we human creatures too easily slack off and grow weary of the fight, grow tired of waiting, and so she revives us by her prayer.  “Stir up your people, we beseech you, O Lord!” she cries in our Collect.  Stir up your people, that they may rise from their sleep and remain true to your word.
Let us, then, be roused from our complicity.  Let us be awakened from the slumber of sin and the ease of error.  Let us arise and be “strengthened with all might according to the power of [God’s] glory, in all patience and longsuffering with joy” as St. Paul encourages us in our Epistle this day (Col 1:11).  If we have failed in sin, let us beseech God’s mercy.  If we have grown slack in our spiritual lives, let us pray Him that His grace may envelop us and His Holy Spirit stir us up to activity.  If we feel weak and unprepared, let us pray along with St. Paul that we “may be filled with the knowledge of his will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” so that we may “fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:9-10).
Let us not join the nations who will mourn and bewail the coming of the Just Judge when His sign appears and His angels blast their might trumpets, but let us lead lives worthy of preparing to face the Judge confident in His mercy and His grace as leading us into glory.  Let us not fear the trials and tribulations which will come, either the daily struggle which forms us into saints or the heroic struggle which signals that the last and terrible day is at hand.  Let us endure all these things so that, being excited by Holy Mother Church, we may be made worthy to be partakers of the saints in the eternal light (cf. Col 1:12).