The Liturgical Year
By Dom Gueranger
The Church gives us to-day another subject for our meditation: it is the Vocation of Abraham. When the waters of the Deluge had subsided, and mankind had once more peopled the earth, the immorality, which had previously excited God’s anger, again grew rife among men. Idolatry, too, into which the ante-diluvian race had not fallen, now showed itself, and human wickedness seemed thus to have reached the height of its malice. Foreseeing that the nations of the earth would fall into rebellion against him, God resolved to select one people that should be peculiarly his, and among whom should be preserved those sacred truths, which the Gentiles were to lose sight of. This new people was to originate from one man, who would be the father and model of all future believers. This was Abraham. His faith and devotedness merited for him that he should be chosen to be the Father of the children of God, and the head of that spiritual family, to which belong all the elect, both of the old and new Testament.
It is necessary, therefore, that we should know Abraham, our father and our model. This is his grand characteristic:- fidelity to God, submissiveness to his commands, abandonment and sacrifice of everything in order to obey his holy will. Such ought to be the prominent virtues of every Christian. Let us, then, study the life of our great Patriarch, and learn the lessons it teaches.
The following passage from the Book of Genesis, which the Church gives us in her Matins of to-day, will serve as the text of our considerations.
From the Book of Genesis. Ch. XII.
And the Lord said to Abram: Go forth out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and out of thy father’s house, and come into the land which I shall show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and magnify thy name, and thou shalt be blessed. I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee and in thee shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed. So Abram went out as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he went forth from Haran. And he took Saraï his wife and Lot, his brother's son, and all the substance which they had gathered, and the souls which they had gotten in Haran: and they went out to go into the land of Chanaan. And when they were come into it, Abram passed through the country into the place of Sichem, as far as the noble vale: now the Chanaanite was at that time in the land. And the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him: To thy seed will I give this land. And he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. And passing on from thence to a mountain, that was on the east side of Bethel, he there pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Haï on the east. He built there also, an altar to the Lord, and called upon his Name.
Could the Christian have a finer model than this holy Patriarch, whose docility and devotedness in following the call of his God are so perfect? We are forced to exclaim, with the Holy Fathers: “O true Christian, even before Christ had come on the earth! He had the spirit of the Gospel, before the Gospel was preached! He was an Apostolic man, before the Apostles existed!” God calls him: he leaves all things, - his country, his kindred, his father’s house, - and he goes into an unknown land. God leads him, - he is satisfied; he fears no difficulties; he never once looks back. Did the Apostles themselves more? But, see how grand is his reward. God says to him: In thee shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed. This Chaldean is to give to the world Him that shall bless and save it. Death will, it is true, close his eyes ages before the dawning of that day, when one of his race, who is to be born of a Virgin and be united personally with the Divine Word, shall redeem all generations, past, present, and to come. But, meanwhile, till Heaven shall be thrown open to receive this Redeemer and the countless just, who have won the crown, Abraham shall be honoured, in the Limbo of expectation, in a manner becoming his great virtue and merit. It is in his Bosom [St. Luke, xvi. 22], that is, around him, that our First Parents, (having atoned for their sin by penance,) Noah, Moses, David, and all the just, including poor Lazarus, received that rest and happiness, which were a foretaste and a preparation for eternal bliss in Heaven. Thus is Abraham honoured; thus does God requite the love and fidelity of them that serve him.
When the fulness of time came, the Son of God, who was also Son of Abraham, declared his Eternal Father’s power, by saying, that he was about to raise up a new progeny of Abraham’s children from the very stones, that is, from the Gentiles [St. Matth. iii. 9]. We Christians are this new generation. But, are we worthy children of our Father? - Let us listen to the Apostle of the Gentiles: By faith, Abraham, when called (by God), obeyed to go out into a place, which he was to receive for an inheritance: and he went out not knowing whither he went. By faith, he abode in the land, dwelling in tents, with Isaac and Jacob, the co-heirs of the same promise; for he looked for a City that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God [Heb. xi. 8,9,10].
If, therefore, we be children of Abraham, we must, as the Church tells us, during Septuagesima, look upon ourselves as exiles on the earth, and dwell, by hope and desire, in that true country of ours, from which we are now banished, but towards which we are each day drawing nigher, if, like Abraham, we are faithful in those various stations allotted us by our Lord. We are commanded to use this world as though we used it not [I. Cor. vii. 31]; to have an abiding conviction of our not having here a lasting City [Heb. xiii. 14], and of the misery and danger we incur, when we forget that Death is one day to separate us from everything we possess in this life.
How far from being true children of Abraham are those Christians who spend this and the two following days in intemperance and dissipation, because Lent is so soon to be upon us. We can easily understand how the simple manners of our Catholic forefathers could keep a leave-taking of the ordinary way of living, which Lent was to put a stop to, and reconcile their innocent Carnival with Christian gravity; just as we can understand how their rigorous observance of the laws of the Church for Lent would inspire certain festive customs at Easter. Even in our own times, a joyous Shrovetide is not to be altogether reprobated, provided the Christian sentiment of the approaching holy Season of Lent be strong enough to check the evil tendency of corrupt nature: otherwise the original intention of an innocent custom would be perverted, and the forethought of Penance could in no sense be considered as the prompter of our joyous farewell to ease and comforts. While admitting all this, we would ask, what right or title have they to share in these Shrovetide rejoicings, whose Lent will pass and find them out of the Church, because they will not have complied with the precept of Easter Communion? And they, too, who claim dispensations from abstinence and fasting during Lent, and, from one reason or another, evade every penitential exercise during the solemn Forty Days of Penance, and will find themselves at Easter as weighed down by the guilt and debt of their sins as they were on Ash Wednesday, - what meaning, we would ask, can there possibly be in their feast-making at Shrovetide?
Oh that Christians would stand on their guard against such delusions as these, and gain that holy liberty of children of God [Rom. viii. 21], which consists in not being slaves to flesh and blood, and preserves man from moral degradation. Let them remember, that we are now in that holy Season, when the Church denies herself her songs of holy joy, in order the more forcibly to remind us that we are living in a Babylon of spiritual danger, and to excite us to regain that genuine Christian spirit, which everything in the world around us is quietly undermining. If the disciples of Christ are necessitated, by the position they hold in society, to take part in the profane amusements of these few days before Lent, let it be with a heart deeply imbued with the maxims of the Gospel. If, for example, they are obliged to listen to the music of theatres and concerts, let them imitate Saint Cecily, who thus sang, in her heart, in the midst of the excitement of worldly harmonies: May my heart, O God, be pure, and let me not be confounded! Above all, let them not countenance certain dances, which the world is so eloquent in defending, because so evidently according to its own spirit; and therefore they who encourage them, will be severely judged by Him, who has already pronounced wo upon the world. Lastly, let those who must go, on these days, and mingle in the company of worldlings, be guided by St. Francis of Sales, who advises them to think, from time to time, on such considerations as these:- that while all these frivolous, and often dangerous, amusements are going on, there are countless souls being tormented in the fire of hell, on account of the sins they committed on similar occasions; that, at that very hour of the night, there are many holy Religious depriving themselves of sleep in order to sing the divine praises and implore God’s mercy upon the world, and upon them that are wasting their time in its vanities; that there are thousands in the agonies of death, whilst all that gaiety is going on; that God and his Angels are attentively looking upon this thoughtless group; and finally, that life is passing away, and death so much nearer each moment. [Introduction to a Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 33].
We grant, that, on these three days immediately preceding the penitential Season of Lent, some provision was necessary to be made for those countless souls, who seem scarce able to live without some excitement. The Church supplies this want. She gives a substitute for frivolous amusements and dangerous pleasures; and those of her children upon whom Faith has not lost its influence, will find, in what she offers them, a feast surpassing all earthly enjoyments, and a means whereby to make amends to God, for the insults offered to his Divine Majesty during these days of Carnival. The Lamb, that taketh away the sins of the world, is exposed upon our Altars. Here, on this his throne of mercy, he receives the homage of them who come to adore him, and acknowledge him for their King; he accepts the repentance of those who come to tell him how grieved they are at having ever followed any other Master than Him; he offers himself to his Eternal Father for poor sinners, who not only treat his favours with indifference, but seem to have made a resolution to offend him during these days more than at any other period of the year.
It was the pious Cardinal Gabriel Paleotti, Archbishop of Bologna, who first originated the admirable devotion of the Forty Hours. He was a cotemporary of St. Charles Borromeo, and, like him, was eminent for his pastoral zeal. His object in this solemn Exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament, was to offer to the Divine Majesty some compensation for the sins of men, and, at the very time when the world was busiest in deserving his anger, to appease it by the sight of his own Son, the Mediator between heaven and earth. St. Charles immediately introduced the Devotion into his own diocese and province. This was in the 15th Century. Later on, that is, in the 18th Century, Prosper Lambertini was Archbishop of Bologna; he zealously continued the pious design of his ancient predecessor, Paleotti, by encouraging his flock to devotion towards the Blessed Sacrament during the three days of Carnival; and when he was made Pope, under the name of Benedict the Fourteenth, he granted many Indulgences to all who, during these days, should visit our Lord in this Mystery of his Love, and should pray for the pardon of sinners. This favour was, at first, restricted to the Faithful of the Papal States; but in the year 1763 it was extended, by Pope Clement the Thirteenth, to the universal Church. Thus, the Forty Hours’ Devotion has spread through out the whole world, and become one of the most solemn expressions of Catholic Piety. Let us, then, who have the opportunity, profit by it during these three last days of our preparation for Lent. Let us, like Abraham, retire from the distracting dangers of the world, and seek the Lord our God. Let us go apart, for at least one short hour, from the dissipation of earthly enjoyments; and, kneeling in the Presence of our Jesus, merit the grace to keep our hearts innocent and detached, whilst sharing in those we cannot avoid. [The Litanies for the Forty Hours are given at the end of this Volume].
We will now resume our considerations upon the Liturgy of Quinquagesima Sunday. The passage of the Gospel selected by the Church, is that wherein our Saviour foretells to his Apostles the Sufferings he was to undergo in Jerusalem. This solemn announcement prepares us for Passiontide. We ought to receive it with feeling and grateful hearts, and make it an additional motive for imitating the devoted Abraham, and giving our whole selves to our God. The ancient Liturgists tell us, that the blind man of Jericho, (spoken of, in this same Gospel,) is a figure of those poor sinners, who, during these days, are blind to their Christian character, and rush into excesses, which even Paganism would have coveted. The blind man recovered his sight, because he was aware of his wretched state, and desired to be cured and to see. The Church wishes us to have a like desire, and she promises us that it shall be granted.
In the Greek Church, this Sunday is called Tyrophagos, because it is the last day on which is allowed the use of white meats, or, as we call them, milk-meals. Beginning with to-morrow, it is forbidden to eat them, for Lent then begins, and with all the severity wherewith the Oriental Churches observe it.