Tag Archives: Mystagogy

Musical Mystagogy: Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Confession: even after having studied music throughout college and graduate school—throughout my whole life, really—I find that I still feel woefully lacking in my musical knowledge, particularly of the treasury of sacred choral repertoire. To be fair, there’s a lot of music out there. A LOT a lot. More music than any one person could listen to in ten lifetimes. But still. As someone who thinks and writes about liturgical music, who regularly plays and even sometimes writes liturgical music, I know I can (and should) always be learning more about the musical heritage of the Catholic Church. The well of riches in this area is indeed bottomless, so, in this series, I hope to begin to plumb its depths more intentionally. Why? Because this music has been and continues to be an integral part of our language in worshiping God, and can help us to discover a richer vocabulary of praise. Because this music stretches across time and space, connecting us with those who heard and sang it centuries ago, and with those who will hear and sing it centuries into the future. But most of all, because this music is beautiful, and in its beauty, our hearts and minds are lifted to the One who shows us how to become beautiful. In short, I am undertaking this project because I hope that it will help me grow closer to God.

The confusion is real.
Singing liturgical music is hard. Exploring it can be even harder.

But where to start? The process of trying to find a friendly, fruitful inroad into the vast world of sacred choral music can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the Church herself provides me—and consequently this series—with a road map in the gift of the liturgical year. Much of the sacred choral repertoire was composed specifically for liturgical use, and through the magic of the internet, one can, with just a little bit of searching, discover multiple pieces composed especially for a particular feast or season. And so, once every week, I will be offering little points of entry into the world of sacred music by sharing both well-known works and hidden gems written for specific feasts as they arise on our journey through the liturgical calendar. I will offer a commentary on said pieces accessible not just to trained musicians, but to anyone who “has ears to hear” (cf. Mk 4:9, 23; Mt 13:9, 43; Lk 14:35), where I hope to draw connections between musical construction and theological reflection.

Because the ultimate goal is to get to the listening, my commentaries will be brief (this first post notwithstanding), and because people are busy, the pieces I will feature will also be relatively brief. With any luck, these posts will provide weekly opportunities to take a 5–7 minute respite from the craziness and busyness of the day, and enter into the beauty of a feast through the beauty of sacred choral music. I hope that you’ll bust out your headphones and join me in this sustained expedition through some of the most beautiful music that has ever been written, and I hope that it will help us all discover in this music a via, a way of growing in the knowledge and love of God.

In this first post, I begin—appropriately enough for someone working at a Holy Cross institution—with a recent choral setting of the Introit (Entrance Antiphon) written for today’s celebration: the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Composed in 1997 by British composer Grayston (Bill) Ives (b. 1948), Nos autem gloriari is a setting of the Introit, or Entrance Antiphon, which is intended to “give a name to the entire celebration” of the Eucharist, as Paul Turner asserts in his foreword to Jason McFarland’s book Announcing the Feast: The Entrance Song in the Mass of the Roman Rite (xviii). The Introit sets the tone for the feast, alerts the congregation to what we will be celebrating during this Eucharist; it is the musical door through which we enter the liturgical celebration. It is decidedly not just a song that will cover the time it takes for the priest and ministers to process from the back of the church to the front.

Today, the Church invites us to enter the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross with these words, based on Galatians 6:14: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered.” The Cross, once an ignominious sign of humiliation and shame and agony, is transfigured in Christ as the sign of our very salvation. Christ’s death on the Cross becomes a bridge, spans the chasm between God and humanity created by sin, and if we are to cross this bridge, we must not only accept the Cross for ourselves in whatever way it may present itself in our lives, but we must also glory in it. It is the great challenge and the beautiful paradox of Christianity. Life out of death.

Ives demonstrates this paradox musically by refusing to sugar coat the challenge posed by the Cross: the opening of this piece is haunting, eerie, quietly unsettling. The lower voices (basses and altos) stay on the same note while the upper voices (tenors and sopranos) sing a jagged melody, until all of the voices converge and, together as one chorus, ultimately find resolution on the final phrase of the Introit, which affirms that it is precisely through the ignominy of the Cross that we are saved from sin and death itself. The musical effect here is stunning. After wandering adrift through disjointed, dissonant harmonies, we reach a place of peace, of hope. The musical resolution for which we long comes only after we have confronted and accepted the reality that salvation cannot come apart from the Cross. It is our only way. It is, as the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross have taught us, our only hope.

Ave Crux, spes unica.

Easter Vigil: Hearts Ablaze–The Sacramental Proclamation of the Scriptures

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Hearts Ablaze:  The Sacramental Proclamation of the Scriptures

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures (Lk. 24:25-27).

What would it have been like to listen to this first sermon of Christ on the road to Emmaus?  In three short days, the assumptions of these disciples about what it means to be God were called into question.  Their hopes about the restoration of Israel dashed in the death of a now questionable Messiah.  The promises of the Scriptures, an illusion.  The empty tomb does not brighten this darkness but obscures it.  These two disciples no longer wait in watchfulness for the marvelous deeds of God in the city of Jerusalem but leave town, prepared to begin again somewhere else.  Wandering aimlessly to some other place, any other place, in which they will no longer confront constant reminders of this seeming divine blunder.  Of their own failure to stand by the tomb, watching and waiting, to keep the Vigil.  Yet, in a single moment, through the words of an unknown figure known by all, the foolishness of the cross becomes the wisdom of love.  This first truly liturgical sermon transforms human experience, radically altering the disciple’s narrative about God’s plan for the world.  The mysteries of the Scriptures become present to these disciples, their hearts burning while the unknown Christ preaches to them upon the way.

In some sense, dear friends, we can never stand in the place of these disciples.  We know the ending of this great salvific comedy.  We know that Christ is risen from the dead, and that through our baptism we share in his death and resurrection.  We know our destiny is to join with the angels in their song of adoring delight.  This is our faith, this is the faith of the Church, we are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Yet, each time we gather to listen to the Word of God proclaimed in the Scriptures and the homily, it is Christ’s own voice we hear.  He comes again to interrupt the smallness of our narrative, to rekindle our memory of these marvelous deeds, to make sense of our own lives as they are gradually conformed to his Paschal Mystery.  The Scriptures are sacramental because Christ speaks through these words, and no place in the liturgical year is this more true, than in the Easter Vigil.  We become the disciples on the road to Emmaus on this night, for this is the night.  Let us listen with the ears of our heart to Christ’s voice in the Scriptures.  Let us ask ourselves what he might have said to us, his pilgrim disciples on the road to the resurrection.

In the beginning.  You see, my beloved disciples, creation is the commencement of this story of redemption.  Out of nothing, out of darkness, God speaks a Word, and it is good.  And God creates man and woman to share in this delight, to walk with God.  From the very foundation of time, in this creation, God condescends, sharing with human beings a world that is utter gift.  And in the fall of man and woman, this gift is rejected, a logic of violence introduced into the created world through human freedom.  But such violence is not intrinsic to creation.  It is not genuine freedom.  It is not the divine plan.  The logic of love, the gift of the cross—this is the meaning of existence.  So what I have done on the cross for you is a renewal of creation.  Be recreated, perceive the marvels of love to the end.  For all of creation testifies to this fact if you had the eyes to see.  Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God (Mt. 5:8).

And such love to the end is the divine pedagogy.  Look to the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac.  See, the gift of my offering upon the cross in their loving obedience.  Abraham leaves his land to enter into covenant with God.  He is a promised a child, descendants as numerous as the stars of the heavens, and yet upon hearing God’s Word, he offers his long awaited son as a sacrifice.  Isaac himself obeys his father, not fully aware of what is to take place.  The story of Abraham and Isaac is my story.  Obedience led me to the cross, an obedience of faith to the will of my Father, to love unto the end.  I did not seek out death, I did not want to suffer.  Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done (Lk. 22:42).  But obedience to love is my mission.  It is my identity as the Word made flesh.  Be therefore a descendent of Abraham, like me.  Offer a sacrifice of love unto the end.  For this too is your identity as a son and daughter of God.

And I know, dear disciples, that you may forget this identity from time to time.  You too may be enslaved in Egypt, in a world of violence, of slavery, in the logic of sin and death.  But, you need not be.  Moses crossed through the Red Sea with the people of Israel, the waters crushing the Egyptians.  The people of Israel were freed from the source of their slavery.  Yet, freedom is hard.  The hymn of Moses and Miriam, I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously (Ex. 15:1) is followed almost immediately by the grumbling of Israel.  There is no water, how much better to be a slave.  There is no bread, how much better to be a slave.  You too have passed through the waters of the Red Sea in the baptismal font.  You too are free from the enemies of sin.  Look back.  See violence and death, misery and suffering crushed in the waters.  Live no longer as slaves to sin but as free daughters and sons of God on pilgrimage toward eternal life.  Be free to truly love.

Indeed, this is why the son of man was crucified and rose again three days later.  To show the truly free nature of love unto the end.  That every act of sacrificial love is a mockery of death, a trophy of death’s demise.  It is never too late to learn this lesson of love.  You will spend a lifetime learning this lesson, discovering the true miracle that is the resurrection.  For the resurrection promised is one of the heart and the body.  Let your heart be resurrected now.  Know the mercy of God revealed in the cross, and aspire to belong to the heavenly city.  Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:1-2).  I will give you a new heart to make this possible, I will teach you to desire anew.  Every aspect of the created order is intended for you to practice this resurrection.  And at the end of time, when the saints are resurrected from the dead, you will be well-practiced in this resurrection vision.

Until then, your vision will be renewed through hearing my voice in the Scriptures, receiving me in the breaking of the bread.  For the tragic fault of humanity is a chronic forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness that you are created and not the creator.  Forgetfulness that love defeats violence and misery.  Forgetfulness that the resurrection of the flesh is the destiny of the human person.  To listen to this narrative each year, hearing my voice anew, you are reminded of a memory that will gradually become a part of who you are:

Don’t you know that all who share in Christ Jesus by being baptized also share in his death?  When we were baptized, we died and were buried with Christ. We were baptized, so that we would live a new life, as Christ was raised to life by the glory of God the Father.  If we shared in Jesus’ death by being baptized, we will be raised to life with him.  We know that the persons we used to be were nailed to the cross with Jesus. This was done, so that our sinful bodies would no longer be the slaves of sin.   We know that sin doesn’t have power over dead people.  As surely as we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him.   We know that death no longer has any power over Christ. He died and was raised to life, never again to die.   When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God.  In the same way, you must think of yourselves as dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God (Rm. 6:1-11).



Good Friday: Intercessory Prayer and the Confidence of the Cross

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author


Intercessory Prayer and the Confidence of the Cross

Infants and young children are quite clear about their needs.  A baby cries, a mother feeds the child, the baby’s tears cease.  A child falls down and cuts his knee, his father hugs him, gives him a kiss, washes out the wound, affixes a Band-Aid, and the child resumes his play.  A young girl approaches a family friend at a party, asking them to read her a story, and the family friend (unless they are a horrible person, incapable of love), of course, does.  There is such confidence in these requests, particularly in a loving family, because the child knows that most of these simple intercessions will be fulfilled.  The need, the petition, and the fulfilled request are virtually simultaneous moments in the life of the child.

Yet, as we grow older, we lose some of this confidence.  Perhaps, it is because we have learned that our parents cannot grant all of our desires.  They cannot take away from us the disappointment of being turned down for a first job, or the sorrow at watching a relationship—once so full of promise—come to an end.  They cannot ensure that we will get into the college of our dreams, or that once we’re there that we’ll succeed.  They, and no creature for that matter, can answer for us those “depth” questions that arise in the human heart as we grow:  “What is the purpose of life?”  “Why is there death in the world?”  “Is moral uprightness really worth it, when injustice seems to be rewarded more often than not?”

A similar dynamic, dear friends, is often at work in our formation into intercessory prayer.  When we are young, we have confidence that God will answer our most simple requests quickly and with ease.  Yet, as we grow older, more attentive to the ways that our prayers seem to be unfulfilled, we may give up intercessory prayer except in the most extreme moments of life.  We have cried out that our friend may not die, and yet we have not been heard.  We have asked God that our poverty might be relieved, and yet we have not been heard.  We have sought God’s voice in helping us choose a path, and yet we have not been heard.  For most of us, the answer to this silence is not giving up faith in God but readjusting our expectations of what God can provide us in the first place.  We ask for less and not more.  We hope God has a plan, but when we’re asked to articulate it, we’re less than clear what such a plan might be.

The General Intercessions on Good Friday are an antidote to this subjugation of intercessory prayer.  Having heard Christ’s passion, we respond in trust with a barrage of intercessions for the salvation of the world:  that God will guide the Church, increase its faith, and make it effective sacrament of love; that the Pope might be strengthened in his role as servant of Christians; that all ministers, all lay people might reveal this faith in the world; that the catechumens might receive an increase in faith and understanding in preparation for their baptism; that Christians everywhere might be one in the fullness of faith; that the Jewish people might participate in the fullness of redemption, perhaps in a way that we cannot yet imagine (see, Paul’s reflection upon this in Romans); that those who do not believe in Christ may walk nonetheless in sincerity of heart, becoming perfect witnesses of God’s love in the world; that those who do not believe in God may perceive in Christians lives of love and mercy, attracting them to God; that God might lead those in public office to work for freedom, security, and peace; and, that the sick, the dying, the traveler, the captive, the oppressed, the hungry, and the diseased might be strengthened by God, and the source of their suffering blotted from the earth.  We pray this while standing and kneeling, taking time to allow the words of the prayers to become our prayer.

Yet, how can we trust that these prayers may be answered?  Indeed, on Good Friday, we are reminded that it is not we as individuals who prayer these prayers; we do not stand as those alone, isolated monads expressing wishes that remain unfulfilled.  Rather, our voice is Christ’s voice.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this quite beautifully:

Jesus also prays for us—in our place and on our behalf.  All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross, and in his Resurrection, heard by the Father.  This is why he never ceases to intercede for us with the Father.  If our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name, even more than any particular thing:  the Holy Spirit itself, who contains all gifts (no. 2741).

So, the General Intercessions that we pray on Good Friday are kind of extensive elaborations upon Christ’s own prayer, bestowed at the Last Supper:

that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn. 17:20-23).

It is the gift of love, of unity that seek.  Of course, this does not take away the painfulness of our often unanswered prayers any more than the mystery of the Resurrection erased Christ’s wounds.  His anguish echoes through the ages (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”) (Ps. 22:1).  Thus, when we ask for something that we do not get, including very good things (the health of a loved one, the gift of a child, a job to care for our family), our prayer is not just heard but it becomes Christ’s prayer—his cry upon the cross.  It becomes the prayer of the saints, who have joined their prayers with Christ’s, who know our sorrow yet rejoice God’s glory.  And the sacramental nature of this prayer means that the sorrow that we feel in uttering seemingly unanswered words can be transformed (through the gift of the Holy Spirit) into a longing for divine life, into a sincere hope for perfect salvation.  So, on Good Friday, let us ask God’s intercession as a child does, confident that they will be heard.  And let our hearts be opened to the surprising way that God hears these prayers.  A savior on a cross.  A king made subject.  The Word of God made flesh, becoming a lamb led to the slaughter.  A world transformed by a preacher from Nazareth.  For, it we become used to God’s surprising way of love, his prayer of being “God with us,” then we may begin to hear his voice anew:  in the cries of the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the lonely, those who know Christ’s cross all too well.



Good Friday: The Silence of the Cross

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

Silence speaks.  On a first date, long periods of silence, say, “This is not going well.  Why is this human being so painfully boring?”  On a hike through a gorgeous mountain pass, silence bespeaks wonder at the created universe.  At a funeral, silence signifies the pain of losing one we have loved so deeply.  At a wedding, it testifies to the joy of nuptial love.  In this way, silence is not the absence of meaning, but a kind of privileged form of poetic discourse.  Silence is the linguistic posture of wonder, of awe, of mourning, of contemplation.

The Good Friday liturgy begins in silence, the priest and deacons processing through the aisle then lying prostrate upon the floor.  Indeed, the silence in the church on Good Friday is as much visual as aural.  The altar, bare.  The cross, empty.  The Eucharist, absent.  Candles, snuffed out.  Even the stomach is empty.  Yet, as the liturgy progresses something begins to happen to the permeating silence.  It gives up its space to the word, to the image.  Lengthy passages of Scripture from Isaiah, from Hebrews, from the Gospel of John (either said or sung) fill the space.  Intercessions are chanted, the longest and most comprehensive of the year, making it quite clear that Christ’s death upon the cross is about the fullness of humanity—not just the small clan gathered in the space that day.  The visual austerity is broken when the cross, concealed to human eyes, is revealed before the world:  Behold, the wood of the cross, on which is hung our salvation—come let us adore.  The cross, unadorned with the body of Christ, is filled with kisses of lips, gentle tears of sorrow, and images of the human body bowing before it.  When the Son of Man is lifted up, he shall draw all things to himself.  And the absence of the Eucharist is but momentary.  For, we do not pray the Eucharistic prayer but we consume nonetheless the body of Christ.  The body of Christ is not visually upon the cross.  But, it is even more present as we eat his flesh, as we ourselves become his body.

So, the silence that begins the Good Friday liturgy—the visual austerity and aural emptiness—is one of anticipation and preparation.  Before one consumes a large, delicious meal, it is often a good idea not to gorge oneself at Taco Bell.  Likewise, this liturgy is slight on words at the beginning, nearly empty of images, so that we might become full of delicious words about the redeeming work of the Word made flesh.  Of course, this does not mean that our silence is necessarily the same as that of the rites of Good Friday.  Our silence may be a sign of sorrow that the world still too often speaks words of injustice.  The silence of the cross speaks here.  Our silence may be one of spiritual emptiness, an internal clamor asking God to intervene where God has not thus far.  The silence of the cross speaks here.  Our silence may be one of disappointment that those we love most have failed us; that perhaps, even the ministers of the Church, those whose love is to be a sacrament of the divine love of the cross, have made dreadful noises muffling the divine Word.  The silence of the cross speaks here. The silence of the cross speaks to us this day through liturgical rites not because words are inadequate.  But, because only such meaningful silence has the capacity to fill us.

James MacMillan – St John Passion: Part II, x. Sanctus Immortalis, miserere nobis

Holy Thursday: The Eucharist and the Agony in the Garden

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

The Eucharist and the Agony of the Garden

One of the remarkable features of Christian faith is our belief that time itself is meaningful.  To some degree, this is feature of all authentic human life—whether Christian or not.  We remember the minutest details of the blissful moments of our life—the size and shape of the envelope of our college acceptance letter, what our husband or wife was wearing when we first met, the contemplative expectation of waiting for the birth of our first child.  Likewise, time has a similar depth of meaning in the sorrow that is characteristic of being human.  When our spouse is diagnosed with a terminal illness; when the newlywed couple learns of their own infertility; when we come face-to-face with human tragedy, a 9/11 or a natural disaster.  These are liminal moments, occasions that are so full of or absent of meaning that they seem as if they are outside of time.  Such moments in the Christian life—liminal spaces within a human life—become sacramental when taken up into the Church’s liturgical prayer.

While all the Triduum is a kind of liminal space, the moments following the Eucharistic rites on Holy Thursday take on a distinctive quality, a time outside of time.  The preface of the Eucharistic prayer on Holy Thursday assists us in entering into this temporally full memorial space:

Father, all powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord.  He is the true and eternal priest who established this unending sacrifice.  He offered himself as a victim for our deliverance and taught us to make this offering in his memory.  As we eat his body which he gave for us, we grow in strength.  As we drink his blood which he poured out for us, we are washed clean (Preface, Holy Eucharist I).

What we do in all Eucharists, but especially in this one, is enter into Christ’s priestly sacrifice of love.  His offering makes us into an offering.  His body becomes our body.  His blood our blood.  This is not a matter of science, of historical temporality, but of mystery—of faith in things unseen.

Yet, while most Eucharistic rites end with us departing from the sacred space, on this day, there is an interruption to the normal accounting of Eucharistic time.  The priest, on what is now a bare altar, offers incense before the Blessed Sacrament.  Taking the ciborium in his hands, covered in the humeral veil, he begins a procession around the church–accompanied by candles, the processional cross, all in a cloud of incense.  The choir begins that sacred chant, Sing my tongue, the Savior’s glory, of his flesh the mystery sing.

This Eucharistic hymn of Thomas Aquinas poetically evokes the night of the Last Supper, the night where Christ’s passion begins:

On the night of that Last Supper,
seated with His chosen band,
He the Pascal victim eating,
first fulfills the Law’s command;
then as Food to His Apostles
gives Himself with His own hand.

Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature
by His word to Flesh He turns;
wine into His Blood He changes;
what though sense no change discerns?
Only be the heart in earnest,
faith her lesson quickly learns.

What is beautiful about this hymn is that it presents to us a way of Eucharistic perception necessary for discerning the mystery signified this night and throughout the Triduum.  You see, if during the Triduum (and in all of the Church’s rites), we look at only what is visible, we fail to perceive the mystery.  If we look at the Eucharist, and see bread and wine alone, we fail to grasp the reality of divine, self-giving love represented by the signs.  If we look at the cross, and see a botched project, we fail to perceive the tree of life.  If we look at water, and see only a rite of passage, we fail to perceive the transformation performed by Christ.

And so too, we can also miss the mark in our perception what takes place in Eucharistic adoration following the Holy Thursday liturgy.  Though it may seem like it, we are not “pretending” to stay with Christ in the garden in the same way that Peter and James and John did.  Yet, we can participate in Christ’s agony in the garden this night if we do so with the eyes of faith.  For, what makes Holy Thursday evening so beautiful, a time outside of time, is the sheer fact that the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, dwelled in sorrowful time.  Jesus Christ knows our poverty in all of its terrifying emptiness; He knows what it means to offer a prayer of faithful desolation to the Father:  “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).

So, on this night, we keep watch with Christ not because he needs us to, as if our “being there” makes possible his Eucharistic presence.  We’re not cheerleaders in Christ’s cosmic and historical drama.  Rather, we dwell in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus to learn how to offer the same self-giving love as he did.

In our sometimes painful and seemingly futile work of teaching and parenting, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  In the disappointments of the previous year, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  In those inevitable diminishments of human life, illness and death, dreams unfulfilled, hopes sought for without hope, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  Christ’s prayer this night becomes our prayer; our prayer is taken up into his own prayer.  He gives us words where we can only stammer.

Of course, we know that Christ’s offering this night was only partially passive.  He was not a pawn, willing to accept whatever human beings did (no matter how dreadful) as his Father’s plan.  When the ear of solider was cut off, when violence was threatened, he responded, “No more of this!” (22:51).  So too, we learn from Christ this night to say No more of this.  Indeed, Eucharistic adoration ends this night at midnight, when Good Friday begins.  But, the fruits of this adoration are to overflow into those concrete relationships of love, the practice of self-offering, that is part and parcel of the Christian life.  So, in this time that is outside of time, let us learn from the divine pedagogy of the Eucharist.  Let us receive the gift to say with Christ, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  And let us offer his gift to the world, No more of this.  No more violence, no more injustice, no more suffering.  Not because with the cross, the world is without pain, without diminishment.  But, because we know in faith—having accompanied Christ in the garden—that love conquers death.  Faith will tell us Christ is present, when our human senses fail.

Holy Thursday: Our Eucharistic Beginnings

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

Our Eucharistic Beginnings

The art of telling a decent story arises from a simple question:  from where do I begin?  This is because even the most exciting events do not come with an obvious, underlying narrative structure.  Our falling in love, a time in which every deed of our beloved is analyzed for its potential meaning, still requires some theme through which we might tell the story to another.  The best story tellers are capable of transforming the mundane, the quotidian into brilliant reflections upon the human condition.  The worst seem to begin their narrative so far afield from any plot that they’re simply recounting events that happened in precise, sometimes mind-numbing detail.  Then, I did this, then I did that, finally, oh I forgot that one minutely unimportant feature.

The Scriptures that we hear over the course of the Triduum, happily for the sake of the persuasiveness of the Gospel, have more in common with the former than the latter.  Each set of Scriptures during this season are verbal icons, sacramental signs of the mystery we recall during these days.  Through the contemplation of this mystery, we enter deeply into the narrative of the Father’s creation and re-creation of humanity through the self-giving love of his Son and the Spirit.  Still, it is a narrative that we contemplate during these days, a history of how God entered into the depths of the human condition and what this entrance meant for human existence as a whole.  Thus, we might ask ourselves, as one might with any good story:  why begin with the Eucharist?

In some way, the answer on a historical level is obvious.  We begin with the Eucharist, NewPassoverbecause it comes right before Christ is arrested at the commencement of his Passion.  But, the liturgical commemoration of the Paschal Mystery could have begun with Christ’s agony in the garden itself, a far more dramatic narrative than a Passover meal shared among friends.  Of course, the person who reads this account with the eyes of faith, aware of what Christ is doing, realizes that in some sense, the Gospel writers are providing that golden thread that runs through the story of Jesus’ death that has become the story of our life.  Christ’s death and resurrection is no ordinary event but it is the new Passover.

Thus, we begin our listening of the Scriptures with the institution of the first Passover.  This is not because Christians are supposed to re-enact this Passover within our own churches emulating the traditions of our Jewish brothers and sisters.  Nor is it a kind of elementary reminder that indeed, just in case you forgot, the first Eucharist occurred in the context of Passover itself.  Instead, it recalls to us the memorial function of the Passover, that day when God rescued Israel from slavery, marking them as a chosen people by the blood of the lamb.  And God, speaking to Israel, declares “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.  You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” (Ex. 12:14).  When Israel celebrates the Passover, it remembers this event, it enters into this time, it celebrates God’s wondrous deeds.  This is the night.

In the context of this sacred meal, of the recalling of Israel’s rescue from slavery, Jesus takes up this sacred memory.  Paul, handing on what he has received, testifies to this:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying this cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

The Passover meal comes to be connected to Christ’s own passion.  He is the lamb that is led to the slaughter, though willingly.  And each time Christians gather together to celebrate the Eucharist, they proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection; they participate in it.  They behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  We begin with the account of the Eucharist, because it is a sacramental icon of the passion that we will mediate upon over the course of the Triduum.  The words of psalm, if we’re attentive to them, bring us to perceive precisely what Christ does in the Eucharist, what he makes present to us:

What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.  Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones…O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.  You have loosed my bonds.  I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD.  I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people in the course of the house of the LORD, in your midst Jerusalem (Psalms 116.12-19).

Hence, let us rid ourselves of thinking about our contemplation of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday as the commencement of an enacted history.  Instead, let us begin with the Eucharist because in this sacrament, the whole mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection is already present, the new Passover made available to those who eat and drink in faith.  And the rest of the liturgy these three days, if we’re attentive to it, is a ritual enactment of the Eucharistic pedagogy of Christ, now performed within the Church.

Holy Thursday: The Gloria and the Triduum

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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The Gloria and the Triduum

Human speech, in order to be understood, requires context.  “You smell beautiful,” is a gem of a phrase when delivered from a husband to a wife.  The same three word sentence, on the other hand, is less of a gift, and perhaps a source of some fear and trembling, when bestowed by a stranger on a dark city bus in the middle of the night.  Indeed, if there is something that separates human language from the “speech” of the variety of machines that now regularly demonstrate their superiority to us in Jeopardy, chess, and automated calling systems, it is the capacity to notice the more subtle aspects of communication.

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.  This phrase, so regular to the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy, “sounds” differently when it rings out at the beginning of the Holy Thursday liturgy.

Perhaps, it is that this hymn has been silent from the lips of most Christians during the Lenten season.

Perhaps, it is the chorus of bells that accompany its angelic notes on this day.

Perhaps, it is the memory of Christians knowing that this song will not sound again until the Easter Vigil, when the radiant light of Christ’s resurrection has conquered the night of death.

Yet, I’d like to focus on its biblical context for a moment.  In the Gospel of Luke, these words are sung by the angels to the shepherds gathered in the fields, watching their flocks by night.  In the midst of their normal business of shepherding, an angel of the Lord stands before them announcing the birth of the savior of the world:  “This will be a sign for you:  you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:12).  In this humble sign, a child swaddled to protect him, to keep him warm, born among beasts, yet honored by kings is the savior of the world:  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of good will.  The one who filled his mother’s breasts with milk as the Word of God now drinks in deeply from this fullness, tasting all that it means to be human.  This is the scandal of the Incarnation.  Such strength in such humility, such wonder in such lowliness, such power in such weakness.

Might I suggest then that one reason the singing of the Gloria is so important as we launch into the liturgical rites of the Triduum is that it provides a kind of lens through which we can understand the mystery that we recall during these Holy Days.  The Gloria, that privileged song of Christmas, is also the Easter hymn par excellence.  For as we contemplate Christ washing the feet of disciples, a sign eliciting love, we are invited to sing in our hearts, Glory to God in the highest.  As we taste Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ handing himself over in his own hands, we are invited to sing in our hearts, Glory to God in the highest.  As we kiss the cross on Good Friday, the light that shines in the darkness but no darkness can conquer, we are invited to sing Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of good will.  And at the Easter Vigil, when that song of the hearts finds its way to our lips, we are invited to sing with renewed understanding,  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of good will.

Of course, dear friends, we need not wait until the Triduum to practice singing the Gloria in our hearts.  Notice that the manifestation of God in Christ Jesus brings peace to people of good will.  What does this peace involve?  Indeed, the Triduum reveals a divine peace, which should inform all of our singing of the Gloria.  It is not a facile peace though.  For the narrative of the Triduum reveals a logic of love so immense, so significant, that it tends to bring out the worst in people.  Even at Christ’s birth, not everyone was able to see in Christ a sign of God’s glory, not all were people of good will.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Herod responded to the birth of the Messiah not with a Gloria but with the slaughter of the innocents, a moment recalled in the Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated the third day after Christmas.  This is no accident.  Already in that feast of the Incarnation, the Paschal mystery is presented.  Thus, to be a person of good will is to live one’s humanity in such a way that like Christ one becomes a complex sign, a humble sign, one glorifying God and bringing the peace of the cross into the world, a logic of love that descends even to the point of death, death on a cross.  When we become a person of peace, we ourselves become a song of peace:  Glory to God in the highest and peace to people of good will.

Many of us will not be called to such a death.  But, we are called to bring forth a peace so peaceful that it scares those who rely not upon peace but the logic of violence, of exchange.  So let us practice the Gloria not only that it may ring out from lips on Easter day but so that it is always echoing in our hearts, in our acts of love in imitation of the Word made flesh.  Then, we will truly be capable of singing Glory to God in the highest and peace to people of good will.

Trinity Sunday: A Feast Celebrating Liturgy

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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This weekend in the United States, we celebrate Trinity Sunday.  For the most part, our parishes will be inundated with a series of beige homilies, which celebrate not so much the mystery of the Triune God but the mathematical puzzle of 3 and 1.   Those sermons that dare to preach on the Trinity itself will often apologize for the strangeness of the doctrine.   The English syntax of the Collect Prayer for this particular feast embodies the challenges that any preacher faces in preaching this weekend:

God our Father, who by sending into the world

the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification

made known to the human race your wondrous mystery,

grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith,

we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory

and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever (Opening Collect, The Most Holy Trinity).

On one level, the complexity of preaching on this feast day pertains to its origins as “an idea feast,” seemingly disconnected from a particular mystery in the life of Christ, of Mary, and of the saints.   TrinityPaintingIn his magisterial, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, Cyprian Vagaggini, O.S.B. critiques the development of the feast in the eight and ninth centuries (the feast was approved for the universal Church by John XXII in 1334), “…a liturgical feast is not to have for its object simply an abstract idea, but rather a historical event pertaining to our salvation, or, if you will, an idea perhaps, but one that has been concretized in one or more of the historical events of salvation history” (245).   Note Vagaggini’s assumption that the feast of the Holy Trinity celebrates an idea, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity itself.   Catherine LaCugna, offering her own assessment of the feast, writes, “The starting point of Christian reflection on the nature of God had been the experience of the radical nearness of God in Jesus Christ.   How ironic and how lamentable it is, then, that what had originated as a teaching about God’s radical nearness to us [the doctrine of the Trinity] should have become, within only a few centuries, a teaching about a self-sufficient godhead of persons” (“Making the Most of Trinity Sunday”, in Between Memory and Hope, ed. Maxwell Johnson, 257).  LaCugna urges preachers to focus not on the immanent Trinity (the inner life of the Triune God) but the economic Trinity (the way that the Triune God is revealed in history).

While agreeing with both Vagaggini and LaCugna that the feast presents challenges for the preacher, including resisting the urge to engage in unnecessarily complex (or perhaps more true for most of us, unclear and unsophisticated) theological discussions regarding the interior life of God,  I would like to present a more optimistic reading of the potential of the TrinityStBenedictsfeast for the Church, including the complex images employed in the Collect Prayer.   That is, Holy Trinity Sunday does celebrate a particular event–the sanctification of the Christian (that is the participation of the Christian in the Triune life of God) and the entire world made possible through the liturgical life of the Church.

The doctrine of the Trinity, even in its classical expression focusing on the interior life of God (One God, three persons) is fundamentally related to the mystery of love revealed in Jesus Christ (the economic Trinity).  As Joseph Ratzinger writes:

…in Jesus’ prayer, the Father becomes visible and Jesus makes himself known as the Son.   The unity that this reveals is the Trinity.   Accordingly, becoming a Christian means sharing in Jesus’ prayer, entering into the model provided by his life, that is, the model of his prayer.   Becoming a Christian means saying ‘Father’ with Jesus and thus, becoming a child, God’s son–God–in the unity of the Spirit, who allows us to be ourselves and precisely in this way draws us into the unity of God.   Being a Christian means looking at the world from this central point, which gives us freedom, hope, decisiveness and consolation (The God of Jesus Christ, 35).

Therefore, at the very heart of the doctrine, is the peaceful salvation of the Christian; the manner in which every Christian life is defined by allowing the Word to become flesh in JesusPrayerone’s life, to offer up one’s will, one’s entire existence as a sacrifice of love.  Such a gift of self does not annihilate the individual, precisely because the doctrine of the Trinity ensures that the Persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are “distinct” even in their unity.  Walter Kasper, commenting on this fact, writes:

The revelation of the Trinity is thus the revelation of the deepest and utterly hidden nature of the unity and oneness of God, which is turn grounds the unity of the church and, via the church, the unity of the world.   In its content, then, the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian form of monotheism.   More accurately:   the doctrine of the Trinity concretizes the initially abstract assertion of the unity and oneness of God by determining in what this oneness consists.   The oneness of God is defined as a communion of Father and Son, but indirectly and implicitly also as a communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it is defined as unity in love (The God of Jesus Christ, 305).

The complex formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity acknowledges that true unity, grounded in God’s own life, does not destroy individuality but elevates it through love; simultaneously the doctrine forms the imagination of the Christian to perceive that individuality is not possible without self-gift, without communion.   The destiny of all of humanity is in fact hidden within the doctrine of the Trinity–the manner in which every particular human life, through initiation into the Church, becomes a form of divine life.

Thus, Trinity Sunday is a feast celebrating the salvation that takes place in the liturgy itself.  In liturgical prayer, we enter into the life of the Son, offering words of praise and lament made incarnate in the liturgical rites of the Church, to the Father.  Our individual hopes and desires, our tragedies and sorrows, are not blotted out but rather become a single, nonetheless diverse gift of love offered to the Father.  The affections, the insights that we come to, even our boredom in the midst of our celebration of the liturgy, is the very Holy Spirit coming to dwell among us–uniting us more closely to the Father.  The
DivineLiturgy Spirit of adoration, of love, that descends upon the assembly leads us forth from the celebration that we might offer the entirety of our lives as gift of love, bringing all of humanity and creation itself into the life of the Triune God through the priesthood of all believers.

In conclusion, Trinity Sunday is a feast celebrating the salvific pedagogy of the liturgy itself; the manner in which all of humanity enters into the self-giving love of God through full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgical rites of the Church.  The young couple who prays the Liturgy of the Hours is not simply performing a mundane rite but allowing their common words (uttered in a different registers, with different emphases) to become Christ’s own speech to the Father.  Each Sunday, as Christians throughout the world gather into a single space, the plurality of narratives embodied in each person, becomes one through the Eucharistic memory of the Church.  We become one another’s through the liturgy, the Church become icons of the Triune God through practicing such self-gift.  In this way, Trinity Sunday is not an idea feast but an identity feast, an imaginative, hopeful, even daring contemplation of what God has planned for those who give themselves over to the logic of love sacramentally embodied in the doctrine of the Trinity; a logic of love pedagogically carried out in the liturgical life of the Church; a love that re-configures what we mean when we say “community”.  As Kathryn Tanner writes:

Owning by giving is the way the Son is the Father’s own, it is the way humanity is the Son’s own, it is the way we are the Father’s own.   We are the Father’s own as his children not his slaves, his children only through a gift and not by nature as the Son of God is, his children not in the sense of those of whom one has the right to make demands but children in whom the Father delights and wills to give his fortune, despite their follies and failings.   We are to be each others’ own in community in this same general sense of possession or property (Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity:  A Brief, Systematic Theology, 93).

Let us, together with the entire Church, celebrate Trinity Sunday as a liturgical feast, one that forms us in the mystery that we are made for self-gift, for love, for a unity that does not destroy diversity but allows it to mirror the non-competitive, self-giving of the Triune God.  For God became human that we might become divine.   

Jesus Lives: Singing the Resurrection

Carolyn Pirtle Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Looking out my window this morning, it’s difficult to remember (let alone believe) that spring has “arrived.” The air is still cold, the skies are overcast, the wind is still bitter. Looking at my life as a Christian, it’s sometimes difficult to remember (let alone believe) that I am still in the heart of the Easter season. Easter liliesAs I walk into my parish, I notice that the Easter lilies are starting to droop ever so slightly, and the other decorations, while still beautiful, have become less dramatic—something to which I am accustomed.

In her recent post, Anna Adams spoke eloquently about the incredible duration of the Easter season and provided some wonderful insight on how to keep the Easter fire burning for those in academia who are now enduring the stress of wrapping up another semester. Maintaining this Easter joy is something that proves difficult for everyone, not just those living in the world of a university—I find myself wondering yet again how the bloom can have fallen off the lily so quickly, and how one can celebrate the joy of Easter throughout the entire season.

But the brilliance of the Easter season lies precisely in the fact that it is so lengthy. Just as our Lenten observances are intended to have lifelong ramifications, so too are our Easter celebrations. We are bathed in the radiant light of the Resurrection for fifty whole days so that it might leave an indelible mark on the way in which we view the world. This is the period of mystagogy for the newly-baptized, and a time of thanksgiving and renewal for the entire Church: we spend these fifty days marveling at the miracle of the Risen Lord, learning from Him how we are to continue to manifest His presence in the world through lives of self-giving love, contemplating the Love that conquers even death itself, so that by the time Pentecost arrives, we are ready to go out and proclaim the Good News as the Apostles did.

Emmaus iconThe time of mystagogy is a time to plumb the depths of mystery; it is a time to learn to see and hear the story of the Resurrection with new eyes and ears that have been purified by Lenten sacrifice and prepared by the celebration of the Triduum. In the early Church, this mystagogical process took place largely through preaching, and today, the weekly homilies can continue to help us understand better the mysteries of Easter. In addition, the music of the Church can provide another source of theological wisdom and mystagogical insight that continues to resound throughout the entirety of the Easter season, drawing our attention again and again to the Resurrection story, opening our ears and our hearts to hear the message anew. The different hymns of the Easter season turn the kaleidoscope of the Story as it were, presenting the brilliant colors in different shapes and patterns, holding up different facets of the mystery for our contemplation. Even those hymns that we hear every Easter resonate within us differently from year to year, for we are different people each time we encounter them, and so they become inexhaustible treasures for continuing to plumb the depths of the mystery of the Christian faith that is (to borrow from Augustine) “ever ancient and ever new.

Since 2008, one such hymn has become a sort of touchstone for my contemplation of the Easter mystery; in fact, it’s the same hymn I chose to feature in my post about Easter this time last year. I write about it again this year because it continues to teach me how to live in the reality of the Resurrection. This Easter hymn, entitled Jesus Lives, presents an incredible catechesis on the mystery of the Resurrection. Moreover, its very title presents a simple, profound statement that can serve as the bedrock for a life of faith, hope, and love. Jesus lives. Jesus lives. And the world is reborn. And I am made new.

Jesus Lives
Text by Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-59) from Sacred Hymns from the German
Music by Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO (1930-2008)

Jesus lives: thy terrors now can, O death, no more appall us;
Jesus lives: by this we know, thou, O grave, cannot enthrall us, alleluia.

Jesus lives: henceforth is death but the gate to life immortal.
This shall calm our trembling breath when we pass its gloomy portal, alleluia.

Jesus lives: our hearts know well naught from us his love shall sever;
Life nor death, nor pow’rs of hell tear us from his keeping ever, alleluia.

Jesus lives: to Him the throne over all the world is given.
May we go where He is gone, rest and reign with Him in heaven, alleluia.

The reality of the Resurrection has a profound impact on the way life is to be lived in the Christian faith. The Resurrection is ever before us as the promise of our hope in Christ: that beyond dark night of suffering, beyond the Cross and the grave, lies the dawn of the Resurrection. This song—the song of Resurrection, of new life in Christ—is what we are called to sing not just during the fifty days of the Easter season, but throughout our entire lives. This is the song that sounds like a clarion call from across the waters when we seem to be lost on seas of turmoil and sorrow. It is the song that should be constantly stuck in our heads—the victory anthem that rousts us from bed each morning and the lullaby that sends us off to a peaceful sleep each night.  This is the song of a life lived in Christ; its quiet confidence and unabashed simplicity implant within us the courage necessary to go out to all the world and proclaim its message to all we encounter. Jesus lives. Alleluia.

The Eucharist as a Sacrament of Love

LG NDCL BThe Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and the Alliance for Catholic Education have partnered to create a resource on the Eucharist, entitled The Eucharist as a Sacrament of Love.   Drawing on Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum caritatis, The Eucharist as a Sacrament of Love treats the Mass as a mystery to be believed, celebrated, and lived.   Discover the central Scriptural and doctrinal teachings behind our celebration of the Eucharist, why Catholics pray the way they do at Mass, and how the Eucharist is central to our vocation to love.

This video is intended especially for Catholic schools and parish catechetical programs, although it is accessible to all who are interested in a deeper appreciation of the Eucharist in Catholic faith and practice.