This article is a part of a series on the seasons of the liturgical year: Advent I; Advent II ; Advent III ; Christmas; Epiphanytide; Septuagesima; Lent I.
(LifeSiteNews) — We tend to think of Lent not just as a time for penance and expiation, but also for meditation on the passion of Our Lord – perhaps manifested in the hymns that we sing about his passion and sufferings.
But in the last piece, we considered how far from this spirit the actual liturgy of the First Sunday of Lent is, with no special mention of the passion at all. It is quite different from what we find in Passiontide and in devotions relating to the passion. It is almost as if the Church wants us to undergo further preparation before we can be admitted into the Holy of Holies of the passion.
Historically, the First Sunday of Lent marks the start of a period of preparation for baptism, culminating at Easter. In the early Church, and at various times of persecution throughout history, being baptized really could lead to the loss of family, friends, position and life. In this Mass, as the season starts in earnest, the Church seems more concerned to offer comfort to those to be baptized – as well as the rest of us, who must do penance for our sins.
The proper chants are saturated with the hope, confidence and trust of Psalm 90. According to the liturgical writer Fr. Johannes Pinsk, we almost wrap ourselves in its phrases, “and so stand, robed entirely in this Psalm, before the God [we] have come to worship.”1
This recalls St. Paul’s command that we “put on the armor of God” – mentioned also in the Epistle – so that we “may be able to resist in the evil day.” (Eph 6.13.) It also recalls St. Paul’s command that we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rm 13:4)
This is crucially important – for catechumens, and for the baptised. The Gospel of this Mass depicts Our Lord emerging victorious from his combat with Satan in the desert. For us to win a similar victory – especially in times of persecution – we must not rely on our own powers, but rather “put on Christ” and abide in him. This is what Christ himself tells us on the eve of his passion:
Abide in me: and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine: you the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. (John 15.4-5)
The Sundays of Lent show us who this Christ is, in whom we are to abide – and this is our preparation for Passiontide. As our knowledge and love of him increases, we are to enter more and more into him, to rest under the shadow of his wings, and to stand before God, robed in him and his grace. We are to allow him to transform our hearts, so that we can stand firm with him through his passion – and through whatever horrors might await us in the future.
This is the goal which the Church presents in her Lenten liturgies, to those preparing to die to their old life in baptism, and to those who joining them through penance and Lenten fasting. Once we have grasped that this is what the Roman liturgy seems to be doing in Lent, many surprising things fall into place.
The Second Sunday – our Transfiguration in Christ
For example, it may seem strange that the Gospel of the Second Sunday depicts the transfiguration of Christ, which has its own commemoration in the liturgical year on the 6th of August. What are we to make of this?
In the Epistle, St. Paul talks of the resurrection of the dead on the last day, which raises an important question: What will we be like, when we rise from our graves and step into the light once more? The answer lies in the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, which presents us with a foretaste of our future state. In some way, we too are to be transfigured in glory.
But more importantly, as Dom Columba Marmion writes:
Our Lord foresaw then that His apostles would be scandalized by His abasements, that His Cross would be for them an occasion of falling away […] He wishes to arm them in advance against the shock which His state of humiliation would then cause to their faith. He wishes to strengthen this faith by His Transfiguration.2
We too are preparing to weep with Christ on the Mount of Olives, and to die with him on the mount of Golgotha. We too may be scandalized at the cost of following Our Lord – especially those who are to be baptized. It is fitting, therefore, that the liturgy presents us with the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor at this point in Lent – and Marmion himself says as much.3 Christ is to be our strength in preparation for baptism, during the fast, and the contemplation of his passion. He is to be our strength in facing a hostile world, which like Saul, is “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9.1)
In the face of such fear and pain, we are to be filled with the power of the risen Christ, which we taste in advance in his transfiguration.
Foretastes of Easter in the chant
The foretaste of Easter even appears musically, in the Tract of this Second Sunday’s Mass:
Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus: quoniam in saeculum misericordiam ejus.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever.
These words of the psalm are sung with all the usual leitmotifs of the penitential Tracts. In this, the Church is already looking forward to Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, where these words are repeated.
On Holy Saturday, the leitmotifs in the Tracts have begun to take on a more hopeful air. But by the time that we reach the Alleluia for the Mass – which uses the same words above – these leitmotifs are transfigured altogether, from mourning into a calm hopefulness and joy. The Gradual of Easter Sunday , whilst maintaining the text, sheds this melody altogether – replacing it with another melody, whose soaring high notes can only be called a “victory cry.”
The musical and textual link between this Second Sunday of Lent and the climax of the Paschal cycle reinforces the sense that this is a foretaste of Easter, and of eternal life.
In light of this foretaste, we can understand why the Communion alludes to Christ’s power and glory, singing to “my King and my God”, and forming another textual link with the Third Sunday.
The Third Sunday
The Mass of the Third Sunday is infused with the image of a conquering Christ. In the Introit, we sing words simultaneously anxious and confident, which emphasize the importance of contemplating Christ and resting in him:
My eyes are ever towards the Lord: for he shall pluck my feet out of the snare: look thou upon me, and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor.
The Gradual speaks of our enemies, and how they will be overcome by the power of God:
Arise, O Lord, let no man be strengthened; let the nations be judged in thy sight.
V. When my enemy shall be turned back, they shall be weakened and perish before thy face.
This continues in the Gospel, which depicts Christ exercising his power over the demons, by casting them out of the possessed. This is a direct continuation of Christ’s combat in the desert, and manifests what Daniélou calls “one of the key themes of baptismal theology – the conflict with Satan.”4
This is because the same exercise of Christ’s power will benefit the catechumens. In the early Church, the catechumens were being exorcised daily throughout Lent, and preparing to be exorcised and to renounce Satan, and all his works and pomps – just as godparents do for babies being baptised today.5
In response to Christ’s power over his unseen enemies, his human enemies accuse him of casting out devils with the help of other devils. His answers are full of authority, majesty and dignity, and they silence those who opposed him.
He declares that he casts out devils “by the finger of God,” and we can see here that there is more power in God’s “finger” than in all the arms of his enemies. He also warns us about the dangers presented by a man falling back into the influence of Satan after having been liberated by Christ, because then “the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”
He tells a parable, presenting Satan as “the strong man” – but Christ himself as one “stronger than he”:
If a stronger than he come upon him and overcome him, he will take away all his armor wherein he trusted, and will distribute his spoils.
Christ is indeed the stronger man, “who has but to lift his finger to overcome the world.”6 To paraphrase the introit, our eyes are to be ever towards him, and this is the basis of the trust expressed in the propers at the start of Mass – as well as the contentment expressed in the Offertory and the Communion:
The justices of the Lord are right, rejoicing hearts, and his judgments are sweeter than hone and the honey-comb.
The sparrow hath found herself a house, and the turtle a nest, where she may lay her young ones: Thy altars, O Lord of Hosts, my King and my God: blessed are they that dwell; in thy house, they shall praise thee forever and ever.
Laetare Sunday, and a conclusion
Finally, in the Gospel reading of the multiplication of loaves on Laetare Sunday, we see one of the most striking exercises of Christ’s power – his power over matter itself, and his power to feed his followers in a miraculous way. Providing abundant food for them is a stark contrast with his refusal to turn stones into bread for his own benefit in the desert – thus also showing his tender care for us.
Further, this miracle is part of his preparation for feeding us with his own body and blood in the Holy Eucharist. In the words of Dom Prosper Guéranger:
Such a miracle is, indeed, an evident proof of Jesus’ mission; but he intends it as a preparation for something far more wonderful; he intends it as a figure and a pledge of what he is soon to do, not merely once or twice, but every day, even to the end of time; not only for five thousand men, but for the countless multitudes of believers.
Think of the millions who, this very year, are to partake of the banquet of the Pasch; and yet, He whom we have seen born in Bethlehem (the House of Bread), He is to be the nourishment of all these guests; neither will the Divine Bread fail.”7
Across the Sundays of Lent, we have seen Christ as the warrior in the desert, transfigured and glorified on Mount Tabor, as “the stronger man” overcoming his enemies, and as the provider of food for his flock. These four presentations of Our Lord across Lent are intended to inspire confidence and admiration for him, amidst the trials of the season and of life itself. They are also intended to spur on our contrition and sustain it, as we consider how we have sinned against such an admirable God and Sovereign Lord.8 Pinsk writes:
The encounter with Christ is of vital importance for anyone devoting himself to penance and thereby practicing detachment from this world, from the sources and forms of its life, whether it be one who is preparing himself in this way for baptism or one who is already baptized and wants to keep his power of decision supple for everyday life.9
But as we reach the threshold of the austere and holy season of Passiontide, having contemplated the person of Christ on these Sundays, the liturgy of Laetare Sunday finally brings us face to face with another reality.
Throughout Lent, the Church has been forming the catechumens in Christ, and preparing them to die with him at Calvary. On Laetare Sunday, Holy Church finally unveils her own face to those who would be born again to her in baptism, and to those who already know and love her as their mother.
In light of all that we have seen above, we can see that the rejoicing of Laetare Sunday is not a break with the spirit of Lent at all, as is sometimes suggested. Rather – as we shall see – it is the culmination of the Sundays of Lent, and the ultimate preparation for Passiontide and Holy Week.
1 Johannes Pinsk, The Cycle of Christ, trans. Arthur Gibson, Desclee Company, New York, 1966, 21. Fr Johannes Pinsk (1891-1957) was involved with the twentieth century liturgical movement in ways that many readers would consider regrettable. However, his works have a wealth of interesting information about the liturgical year, which I would like to share. They also contain some things which traditional Catholics might not appreciate. My purpose here is to present what is good, along with some comments, to help us appreciate the holy Roman Liturgy.
2 Dom Columba Marmion, Christ in His Mysteries, trans. Mother M. St Thomas of Tyburn Convent, 9th Edition, Sands & Co., London, 235. No date: imprimatur 1939, p 234-5
3 “For it was likewise for us that the Transfiguration took place. The disciples chosen to witness it, says St. Leo, represent the whole Church; it is to her, as well as to the Apostles, that the Father speaks in declaring the Divinity of His Son Jesus and in bidding us hear Him.” Ibid., 237.
4 Jean Danielou SJ, The Bible and the Liturgy, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1956, p 21.
5 “During this time, the catechumens are to come to church every day, at the hour of Prime. This daily ceremony included, first of all, an exorcism.” Ibid., 23.
6 Pinsk 32.
7 Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year Vol. V, ‘Lent’, 1949. Trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd, OSB., St Bonaventure Publications, 2000, p 317
8 Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei, 1947, n. 157. https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20111947_mediator-dei.html
9 Pinsk 30