There is a special poignancy in a year like this, when Septuagesima precedes Candlemas; when preparations towards Easter have begun ere the light of Christmas has quite passed.
It is as if the seasons are re-arranging, in an unearthly kaleidoscopic dance, where what comes after precedes what came before. I think of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. . . .
Of course, this is lost, as so much was lost, in the liturgical “reforms” after Vatican II, when Septuagesima was simply discarded. But the Old Mass is returning, and the recovery of our heritage has already begun.
I don’t know what the reformers were thinking, in their stripping down of our calendar – shoving a few “ordinary Sundays” into the gap they had made by isolating Lent, which now comes without its own “adventual” preparation, and the poetry of the signaling through those preceding Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima. . .
Instead, out of nowhere, blam!, Ash Wednesday.
Being no liturgical expert, I say this only as a participant in the Mass, or mere observer. No doubt some better tyro could put me in my place.
But as a reader through the last few years of (for instance) the “WDTPRS” series on Father Z’s blog, in which he patiently expounds the successive ICEL translations, in light of Latin and tradition, I do get a vision of the carnage.
It is as if everything that was poetic, and poetically sustaining in the Old Mass, was intentionally demolished; and each replacement made intentionally glib, with verbal exchanges between pulpit and pews in the spirit of a kindergarten drill. I find these post-modern “verses and responses” painful, embarrassing: an insult to the intelligence of the Catholic adults who did not come for a weekly pep talk, but to the Sacrifice, and Communion with Our Lord.
Which of course is not to say that the New Mass is invalid, only that I find it an ordeal; made worse in so many of the churches I have visited by irreverence and flippancy – as if it were an ordeal for everyone; something we just have to get through.
For as far as I know the obligation to be present on Sundays and high Holy Days remains. Not that anyone is taking attendance; or takes Catholic obligations too seriously these days.
Yet I open my old Saint Andrew Missal – my copy printed in 1962 – and from First Vespers in the antiphon at the Magnificat, my thoughts are carried away from myself, and my imagination charged by the vision of that old man, holding the Christ Child in his arms, governed by the Child. And, “Him whom a virgin brought forth, remaining a virgin still, the same did she adore.”
The Mass was of course in Latin, but the English translation just quoted does humble service to it. Throughout, great effort has been taken to preserve – even in the utility of translation – the liturgical necessity of stepping beyond time.
When I speak of this poetry, I do not mean something “fancy” or “decorative.” It is not plain language, tarted up. Rather the opposite. It is direct language, not taken down. It is a medium that allows us “to pass” – in the moment, dead to the world and alive to Our Savior.
Speaking, the other day, with a very intelligent and serious young European, it happened that the concept of Grace was mooted. He imagined it on the analogy of tropical sunlight, shining equally upon all; then imagined people responding, blocking it with their umbrellas and hats, or sheltering under arches and canopies.
The danger, but perhaps also the use in this analogy was its evocation of the Sun. No fleshly human can look directly upon it, and even the heat of its rays and reflections often seems too much for us. We scuttle for darkness, for the shadows, for relief.
It is an imperfect analogy, but not only in the obvious way. There is more to the Grace of God than heatstroke, as we all know perfectly well; and Our Lord is Lord, too, of the cooling waters.
But what confused me was rather the notion of Grace as a natural constant, when it belongs to the mysterious realm of the Spiritual: not less, but more real than our shadow lives. Granting that it is always there, and as it were, “always shining” in the perpetual daytime of this metaphor, can it be so monotonous? Does it only burn?
Grace, including that which we specifically associate with the Presence in our Mass, must be in some human sense variable. It is from one Source, but its means of access to the human soul is not one, or even three-dimensional. Not only are we surrounded on every side, but from within as well as from without; so that our blocking actions must be “omnidimensional,” too.
Something intricate is emerging from this relationship, between God and the creature He made “in His image.” The receipt of Grace is not an operation like sun tanning. It is something elaborately patterned or, in a word, poetical.
During an eclipse, one notices the diminishing sunlight. But look to the sidewalk where the Sun still shines through the leaves of trees. Suddenly one sees that a thousand tiny images of the eclipse are sparkling there, in extraordinary patterns. It is not some homogenized light; each of these images is perfect in its kind.
The Old Mass – which was never assembled by a bureaucratic committee but formed over centuries in the operation of Grace – communicates this patterning. In the movement of the feasts and fasts in their seasons, we have something intricately beautiful; something which embodies the unknowable immensity of God in the concrete of human apprehension.
And with great reverence, an amazement. For all of this has been done for us.
*Image: Paul Preaching in the Ruins by Giovanni Pannini, 1744 [Hermitage. St. Petersburg]