sermon for the twenty-sixth sunday after pentecost, year c, november 17, 2013

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

Last week I spoke about the readings from Holy Scripture at the mass, and about their arrangement – what we call the “lectionary.” And I would just note that today’s collect is especially apt in this connection:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ…

In the e-newsletter this past week, I noted the distinction drawn in this collect between “hearing” Scripture, on the one hand, as we do at mass, and on the other hand reading and marking it, learning and inwardly digesting it. God reveals himself in the pages of our scriptures. God inspired their writing, and he has given them to us so that we can come to know him, and so be drawn into his light and salvation. The Scriptures have been given to us to save us form eternal death by drawing us into God’s immortality. This process of being drawn into God’s immortality cannot unfold in our lives by just any means whatsoever. We must rather make use of the tools that God himself has given us for the task – like the sacraments of the Church, the practicing of the virtues, ascetical struggle, and, as we see today, personal engagement with Holy Scripture. All in order that we may “embrace and ever hold fast” what God would give us in the person of his Son, “the blessed hope of everlasting life.”

Note too the dynamic of our salvation. God gives it to us freely in the person of Jesus. He gives us everything good, full stop. But as I have occasionally noted, it is not sufficient for gifts to be given, they also have to be received. God shoves nothing down our throats. The Lord said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me,” (Revelation 3.20). He does not batter down the doors of our hearts. They only open from the inside. We have to dispose ourselves to receive the Lord’s gifts. And our engagement with Scripture – hearing it, as in the mass, and also reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting it – is a preeminent way of learning to hear the sound of the Lord knocking at the door, and of training ourselves to open it.

But lets return to the Scripture readings within the context of the mass – the main context within which most of us hear the Scriptures regularly. The reading of the Scriptures at mass culminates in the singing of the Gospel, which is accompanied by a little procession with incense and (when there are sufficient servers), with lights. Within the context of the Bible, the Gospels are the pinnacle, the books wherein what God had revealed in a veiled and incomplete way through the Law and the Prophets, is fully disclosed in the record of the actual words and deeds of Jesus. It is as though in the Old Testament God revealed things ABOUT himself, but in the Gospels God reveals HIMSELF, in the person of his Son. So the ritual actions that accompany the proclamation of the Gospel in the mass reflect this reality – and foreshadow and anticipate, within the first half of the mass, within the “liturgy of the catechumens,” what will take place during the second half of the mass, during the “liturgy of the faithful” or the “liturgy of the sacrifice,” when Jesus will himself come among us, not just in words, but really and substantially, through the consecration of the Bread and Wine.

So the first half of the mass reaches a climax with the singing of the Gospel. But I would like to draw our collective attention to another related feature of the Scripture readings in our ritual, and that is that they are interspersed with the singing of Psalms. And this chanting of Psalms between the Scripture readings is another very ancient feature of our liturgy, stretching right back to the liturgy of the Jewish synagogues of the 1st century. So, in our mass, we have a reading from a text from the Old Testament (today Malachi), followed by the singing of a Psalm (today 98); then we have a reading from an Epistle (today 2 Thessalonians).

And after the Epistle, before the Gospel, there is something called the Gradual, which is usually (though not always) a verse or two from the Psalms, often thematically related to the Gospel reading. The name “gradual” comes from the Latin word “gradus,” which means a “step” (as in a staircase), and refers to the fact that this chant was sung, during the first millennium, by a singer from one of the bottom steps of a pulpit-like structure, called an ambo, from the top of which the Gospel would be sung. Over the centuries, the ambo and its steps went away, but the chant named for it, the Gradual, remained.

After the gradual, at the threshold of the Gospel, just before the Gospel is announced, one more short Psalm verse is sung, bracketed on either end by three “alleluia’s” – two before it, and one after it. This chant – called simply “the alleluia” – is likewise very ancient. The word “alleluia,” is Hebrew, and it means simply “praise the Lord!” It is a prayerful expression of jubilation to God, and it occurs conspicuously throughout the Psalms, and was therefore a regular part of the liturgy of the Jewish synagogue, whence it found its way into Christian liturgy, seemingly from the very get-go. Like the singing of the Gospel itself, the singing of “Alleluia” at the mass is a feature of almost all of the various ritual uses of Christians in the East and in the West. This ubiquity is itself evidence of the extreme antiquity of the practice. Pope Gregory the Great wrote to John of Syracuse, in the 500’s AD, telling him that the singing of the Alleluia had been introduced into the Roman ritual by Pope Damasus, from the Church at Jerusalem, during the 300’s.

In the Christian West the chanting of “alleluia” came to be especially associated with the paschal mystery, the mystery of Easter, and with the proclamation of the Gospel. And given that “Alleluia” is essentially an expression of joy, it is especially fitting that it should immediately precede the announcement of the Gospel. I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to greet the announcement of our salvation than with an expression of joy.

But even the way that the “alleluia” is chanted is very ancient – twice before, and once after the Psalm verse that accompanies it. Notice too that in the second and third singing of the alleluia, the final syllable “is drawn out in long neums by the music,” (Fortescue, 269). Many medieval commentators on the liturgy attach great significance to this musical drawing-out of the final syllable of the second and third alleluia’s. And the drawing-out even has its own name: its called the “iubilus” or “iubilatio” (also sometimes “cantilena”) – which means “the jubilation.” To the ancient commentators on the liturgy, this graceful flowing of the final syllable of the “alleluia,” was an expression of the spiritual state of one who has, in the words of today’s collect, truly “embraced and ever held fast the blessed hope of everlasting life in… Jesus Christ,” which is about to be proclaimed in the Gospel. It is, in other words, the musical and grammatical expression of the spiritual state of the soul preparing to greet a fresh proclamation of her redemption in the narrative of the Gospel. Adrian Fortescue remarks that the medieval commentators saw in the iubilus “much more than merely a place where the neums happen to be rather longer than usual. They see in [it] an inarticulate expression of joy, by which the mind is carried up to the unspeakable joy of the Saints,” (ibid.). Similarly, Fr. Joseph Jungmann says that:

In the jubilus of the alleluia Gregorian chant achieved its highest expression, and, no doubt, in the ages before people were spoiled by the charms of harmony, the untiring reiteration of the melismatic melodies with their endless rise and fall must have been a wonderful experience for the devout congregation. (430)

I would like to leave you with that thought, and with its implication. And note that it applies to the liturgy as a whole. What is the liturgy, what is the alleluia, what is the iubilus, but a symbolic system of gestures, words, music, lights, and even smells, that flow over, into, and out of one another, signifying – by us and to us – the whole mystery of our redemption. We have inherited the whole complex from previous generations of the faithful, extending back to the Apostles themselves, and through their mediation, to God himself in the person of Jesus. And when we give ourselves to this complex of signification – when we, for example, sing the Alleluia, and by singing it, allow our minds and our spirits to flow with it and in it, and we allow the mysteries of grace conveyed by the liturgy – packaged, as it were, by the liturgy – to permeate the whole of our lives, we allow ourselves to be carried on a steady course to the harbor of heaven, “the blessed hope of everlasting life in our Savior Jesus Christ.

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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