holy cross sermon for the twentieth sunday after pentecost, year c, october 6, 2013

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our ongoing series of sermons on the mass – its components and their meaning – we come almost to the Collect. We have hitherto discussed a little bit about the situation of the mass in the overarching narrative of salvation, how through our participation in the mass we are participating in the Passover of Jesus, with all of the resonance of that phrase with the history of Israel. We have discussed the preparatory prayers (that I pray with the servers in the sacristy), and how it is important to prepare for prayer by prayer – to “pray before you pray.” We have discussed the introit – the prayerful ritual accompanying the entrance of the ministers into the sanctuary, through the gate, and how this is an icon of our leaving the world to commune with God. We have discussed the Kyrie Eleison, the ninefold Greek prayer, asking God to have mercy on us. And last week we discussed the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, the angelic hymn of jubilation at the imminent arrival of God’s Son; how the angels broke out singing this hymn on the first Christmas Eve, at the moment of the incarnation, and as witnessed by the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and of how we sing it now at the conjoined mystery of the Lord’s imminent arrival in our midst, on the altar.

We come today to the frontier of the collect, the short pithy prayer that, in a sense, brings these first prayers and rituals of the mass to a close.

But a few, apparently minor, things happen between the Gloria and the Collect, and I would like to talk about these. Even minor ritual details of the mass are prescribed in the ritual and have ancient origins. Its like a symphony or a ballet, where not a single note or movement is left to happenstance.

Firstly, at the end of the Gloria, the celebrating priest kisses the altar, as he does at several other points during the mass. This kiss (the technical term for which is an “osculation”) is a sign of reverence for the altar, which in the history of Christian ritual is sometimes treated as though it had a life of its own – in much the same way that the cross itself is sometimes personified in Christian piety, as in the great Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of the Rood. In the ancient Maronite Eucharistic ritual – that belonging to the Church in Lebanon – the celebrating priest actually speaks to the altar with a very beautiful valedictory prayer that begins, “Remain in peace, O Holy Altar of God, I hope to return to you in peace.”

One reason that the altar is venerated is that it contains relics of the martyrs (in our case, fragments of the bones of Jesuit missionaries murdered by the Iriquois in Canada or upstate New York in the 17thcentury) – the altar is thus in effect a tomb of the saints. So it is kissed and venerated partly for the same reasons that we might leave flowers at the graves of our loved ones. But the altar is also the place on which the Body of Christ reposes, and this is the main reason that we treat it with special reverence. So it is kissed by the celebrating priest from time to time, just as is the book containing the Gospels, and just as we all come forward to kiss the cross on Good Friday. And so too there are strict rules about what objects may be placed on the altar, and who may touch it, and when.

After kissing the altar, at the end of the Gloria, and just before the collect, the celebrant will turn to greet the people, and in so turning, he turns his back momentarily on the altar. And here is another reason for the kiss. It is a valedictory sign of affection and reverence – the way that a wife might kiss her husband when she goes to pick up the children at school. “I love you, darling. I’ll be right back.”

 

After kissing the altar, the celebrant turns towards the people and says to them, “The Lord be with you,” and they respond, “And also with you.” The traditional form of this little colloquy, in the Anglican liturgy, is “The Lord be with you,” “And with thy spirit.” And this traditional version is a more precise rendering of the Latin dialogue which is its basis. In Latin, the priest says, “Dominus vobiscum,” and the people respond, “Et cum spiritu tuo.” In 1979, the Episcopal Church followed the Catholic Church’s new English translation of the Latin mass in changing the people’s response (“Et cum spiritu tuo,”). The response was rendered, “And also with you.” Interestingly, in 2001, the Holy See issued an instruction to national churches, saying that,

“the original text [of the mass], insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet.” (Liturgiam Authenticam)

And so, as of last year, the Catholic Church in America now renders this greeting: “The Lord be with you,” “And with your spirit,” more faithful to the Latin original.

But what is the point of this little dialogue that occurs just before the collect and at several other points during the mass – but, conspicuously not at others? And where does it come from? First of all, it serves simply as a greeting, and to draw attention to the action that it precedes: Joseph Jungmann says that as such, we might render it as an admonition equivalent to, “Brethren in Christ, we are going to pray. [Or] Devout Christians, listen to today’s Gospel,” when it is repeated just before the chanting of the Gospel.

But even considered merely as a greeting, the “Dominus vobiscum,” and its response invite us to look deeper into the dynamics of the ritual actions that accompany and surround them. For almost a thousand years, for example, Christian liturgical books have prescribed the accompanying gesture of the celebrant opening and closing his folded hands in the direction of the people, as he says “The Lord be with you,” and they respond. Again Fr. Jungmann sees in the response of the people “a popular consensus in the work of the priest, not that the congregation here gives the priest authority or power to act in its stead [this happened at the priest’s ordination], but that the congregation once more acknowledges [the presiding priest] as the speaker under whose leadership the united group will approach almighty God” in this mass.

And so the contours of the spiritual dynamic of the mass take shape, even in this little dialogue, so apt to pass unnoticed. The celebrant and the people are united to one another, and their greeting anticipates the almost invariable phrase at the end of the collect: “through Jesus Christ our Lord…” Priest and people, are joined together, and they approach the Father’s throne, “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” through whose merits and mediation alone, as today’s collect observes, it becomes possible for us so boldly to petition the transcendent Deity.

Most commentators also note that the greeting “The Lord be with you,” etc., is very ancient – that its use extends back into Old Testament times. It appears early in Scripture, for example, in the book of Ruth, when Boaz greets the reapers among whom his future wife, Ruth, a foremother of Jesus, is gleaning. Scripture says, “behold, Bo’az came from Bethlehem; and he said to the reapers, ‘The LORD be with you!’ And they answered, ‘The LORD bless you.’” Seen in this light, “the Lord” in question, is the God of Israel. And we are drawn again into the Passover narrative of God’s relationship with his covenant people. And hence this greeting in the mass becomes an expression of the priest’s wish that God might be with “you,” his people, who have been “grafted in” (Romans 11) to the vine of Abraham; and that God’s presence might be among his people here, and that his “favor [might] accompany their praying,” (Jungmann), as the priest is about to offer the collect to God on behalf of the assembly.

Considering what I said several weeks ago about the entrance rite, the careful and prayerful ritual whereby the ministers – and by extension all the faithful – enter into God’s sanctuary to seek him, we can see how this little dialogue, “The Lord be with you,” “And also with you,” is a devout aspiration that the words from the epistle of St. James might become true for us: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you,” (James 4.8), the expression of a desire that the Lord himself might come among us in this place to be “with” us. And we are thus drawn inexorably back to the person of Jesus, “the Lord” who will in short order be “with” us, on the altar, and even more intimately in the act of communion. We are reminded of the prophecy of Isaiah about his coming: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us),” (Matthew 1.23; Isaiah 7.14).

Thus in this little greeting, “The Lord be with you,” and its response, we should be mindful of meeting the conditions of Jesus’ injunction that “when two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” (Matthew 18.20). And so when we say, “The Lord be with you,” “And also with you,” the mass itself comes into focus as a fulfillment of the Jesus’ even more explicit, more consoling promise to his disciples after his resurrection, that he would never again be separated from them: “lo, I AM with you always, to the close of the age,” (Matthew 28.20).

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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