Sermon for 14 September at Blackfen

I was the homilist for the thanksgiving celebration at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Blackfen, where the great Fr. Finigan is parish priest.  There was a very nice solemn Mass for 14 September when the provision of Summorum Pontificum went into effect.

I set up my digital recorder to capture the sermon, but found afterward that there must have been a bad sector on the disk.  I cannot recover the audio, alas, though I am trying what I know to try.  There is still a program I can purchase to work on the file I managed to xcopy from the mp3 player/recorder’s hard drive. 

In any event, here is the copy of notes I adhered to fairly closely.  I added a few things I remember saying in pretty much the way I said them.   Also, I did a digital recording after the fact and incorporated it into a PODCAzT so you can listen to it.

For what it may be worth:

Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen – 14 September 2007: Exaltation of the Cross

Today’s feast commemorates the discovery of the Holy Cross by Emperor Constantine’s mother St. Helena in A.D. 325 in Jerusalem, through a series of archaeological digs in search of relics of the Passion, as well as and the Dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in 335 built on site where the Holy Cross found. A portion of the Cross was placed there at the Basilica.  The Basilica was consecrated on a 13 September, and on 14 September the fragment of the Cross was shown to the people so that the clergy and faithful could pray before it.  In 614 invading Persians and King Chosroes absconded with it and held it until it was recaptured by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 628 and returned to the Basilica.

Today’s Mass places before us the image of the Holy Cross.  But just as we don’t celebrate feasts in honor of dogmas, neither do we have feasts for archaeological digs.

The feast brings together the historical reality of the Cross – it really existed – with its symbolic function – it invites us to explore the central mystery of the life of Christ and of our life, namely, death.

The Cross as a symbol both allures us and it repels because it points to the mystery of Christ’s death, the mysterium tremendens et fascinans (Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy). 

Christ’s death is a mystery, because mysteries reveal something hidden, they show us something unknown, something outside our experience.  The mystery’s allure and its repellence come from the fact that the Cross reminds us that we all must die.  We instinctively flee from this reality.  And thus we so arranged our worlds as to avoid the fact of death and distract ourselves from it.  We look for way to occupy out time, shuttling from activity to activity.  We surround ourselves with noise.  We kill time with television, or the internet, or sports or endless forms of play, or even our work, noble though it may be.  Silence and solitude are shoved aside so that we are less likely to confront the terror.  That terror is death.  What terrifies us about the mystery of Christ’s death is not just that He died, but rather that we still have to die even though He died and rose for us.  We can’t avoid death.  We cannot control death.  We don’t understand death and we fear what we don’t understand.  Fear, at its root, is a result of the Fall.  Death and fear are inseparable, as cause to its effect.  The Cross forces us to confront death’s mystery and it does so supremely in Holy Mass.

Mass must be celebrated in such a way that it leads us into the mystery of Christ’s death, and our death.  Mass is therefore like the Cross.  It is a mystery.  It thus will allure and repel, reveal that things are hidden and demand faith in what is unseen, or rather seen only darkly as if through a glass.

We remove the Cross from Mass at our peril.  By removing or diminishing the Cross at Mass we dodge, once again, our fear of death.   We get through another hour or so without having confronted anything either frightening or meaningful.  We avert our gaze from what Christ did for us and from what must yet experience.   Take the Cross from its central role in Holy Mass and we reduce Mass to yet another worldly distraction.  It becomes a show.  But Mass is a sacrament, in the sense of its being a mystery.  It prepares us for death, Christ’s and our own.  What other reason is there to go to Mass?

Pope Benedict chose the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross as the precise moment when the Motu Proprio would come into force.  This cannot be an accident.  The older form of Mass is itself an exaltation of the Cross.  The Holy Father is teaching by this gesture that the Holy Cross is central to the Roman Rite.  We thank God for the gift of a wider use of the older, traditional form of the Roman Rite for it will build up the faith of the Catholic community with the correct orientation, toward the Cross of the Lord, the Lord who passed through death and will come again to rescue us from a death that would otherwise never end.  The older form of Mass will give more Catholics the opportunity to experience a Mass that places starkly before them the symbol of the Cross.  That symbol, never lacking in the older form of Mass, does not fail to draw us into the central mystery of the life of Christ and of our own life.

In this media age, this immediate age, when television allows us to see in slow motion even the laces of a baseball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand, we expect – rather – we demand to be able to see and hear everything with easy apprehension.  So, for many who experience the older form of Mass for the first time, or the first time in many decades, some of its characteristic elements leave them disoriented.  The Latin language, for example, or the position of the priest in relation to the altar, or the silence, especially the silent Canon, leaves them confused.  And so these elements are thought to be defects, defects which liturgical experts couldn’t wait to correct. 

But we know that these characteristics which so challenge 21st century man, are actually advantages.  They are precisely what we need to train the soul for an encounter with mystery.  They purify us of our over-attachment to the immediate, to the easily and instantly comprehensible.  The soul grows in faith, hope and charity only in contact with a reality so far beyond itself, so transcendent, that it cannot be grasped or controlled.  The soul stands back in awe, in fear and wonder at what it cannot understand and yet knows somehow to be deeply true and necessary.  The older form of Mass explicitly asks for surrender to the supernatural and strips us of our power to control.  It defies reduction to sound bites.  It places the modern believer suddenly in the cave with Moses when he was permitted his passing glimpse of God.  Moses demanded of God that He show Himself.  So God told Moses to peer through a cleft in the rock to see Him as He passed by, for a glance of the divine majesty but only at his back, from behind, in a fleeting way.  So too Christ’s humanity both reveals and leaves hidden His Godhead.  The difficult elements of the traditional form of Mass create in the soul the very tensions which are in the warp and weft of an experience of mystery.

Holy Mass necessitates our own sacrifice, deprivation, self-emptying, even unto death.  One way this is made clear in truly sacramental liturgy is through the denial of sensory perception.  For example, in the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Churches people can hear every text being sung but are denied visual participation because of the wall-like iconostasis with its closed doors.  Here in the Western, Latin Church, at least in the extraordinary use of the Roman Rite, we are denied at times not only to see various gestures but also to hear the mystery-laden central prayers.  The extraordinary form of Mass wants a deeper participation because it wants a greater deprivation and dying to self.  It asks for a deeper active participation, an active receptivity to what Christ is doing.  In a way, our participation at the older form of Mass reflects clearly our human condition, how in this earthly life we are waiting for the Lord, watching for Him to come to fulfill His promises in us.  We are waiting for Him to save us from our incessant fear of death, which St. Augustine called “our daily winter” (ep. 38).  Only by detachment from the merely worldly and through an interior movement of the soul upward, can the seeker come to “awe at transcendence” (William James), the experience of mystery.  Awe at transcendence, which is the very object of religion, cannot induced by empty spectacle or too much manipulation of those very elements which draw us to mystery, or, above all, the removal of those elements.  It must instead be promoted by a purification from distractions, from a measure of deprivation, of hunger, of longing for that which we glimpse only through the cleft in the rock, through the dark glass, through the mystery of the Cross.

Just as the today’s feast isn’t really about a relic, as such, so too the Motu Proprio is not just about a venerable liturgical artifact.  We actually do the older form of Mass a disservice by saying that its value derives from its antiquity.  That would be like saying we found a really curious old relic: “O look!  They move the book from one side to the other.  Isn’t that interesting?”  From that point of view, Holy Mass, no matter how solemn or beautiful is merely another spectacle which distracts us from the central mystery, which is the sacrificial death of the Lord.

Our attachment to the extraordinary form of Mass is therefore grounded not in nostalgia, or curiosity, or a fear of modernity, or suspicion of Vatican II, or downright stubbornness, but rather in the conviction that this form of Holy Mass draws us into a participation in the mystery of Christ, the incarnate Word, who saves us from eternal death.

Liturgy has no higher goal than to promote holiness.  And so we are thankful for the gift of Summorum Pontificum.  We accept the challenge the Holy Father has given us to extend this older form of the Roman Rite to all those who seek it and to celebrate the Roman Rite with devotion.  May it promote in us the holiness which is Christ’s gift to the Church.


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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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