|Some Trivia & Some Un-Trivia.
The Eighth Wednesday of Ordinary Time; or, the Memorial of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Bishop.
Lessons from the primary feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Sirach 36: 1, 4-5, 10-17.
• Psalm 79: 8-9, 11, 13.
• Mark 10: 32-45.
Ember Wednesday of Pentecost.*
Lessons from the feria, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Acts 5: 12-16.
• John 6: 44-52.**
Pentecost Wednesday; and, the Feast of the Holy Bishop & Martyr Therapont.
Lessons from the pentecostarion, according to the typicon of the Byzantine-Ruthenian Rite:
• Romans 1: 18-27.
• Matthew 5: 20-26.
10:31 AM 5/27/2015 — I've mentioned to you a number of times how I choose to celebrate the Divine Office according to the extraordinary form, and according to that form we are in the middle of the Octave of Pentecost, which will be followed by the season of Pentecost. That's all eliminated now in the ordinary form, which plunges us after Pentecost Sunday right back into Ordinary Time where we left off before Lent, which happens to be in the eighth week; and, we find ourselves reading, in our first lessons at Holy Mass, what the Missal calls the Book of Sirach. The Revised Edition of the New American Bible calls it “The Wisdom of Ben Sira” or “The Wisdom of the Son of Sira,” which is, in fact, the earliest title of this book of the Bible taken from the Hebrew name of its author. The Latin Vulgate called it the Liber Ecclesiasticus, meaning “the book of the Church,” because of the extensive use of this book by the early Church in giving moral instruction to catechumens, which is why it's called that even in older English translations today. It was written in Hebrew in the early years of the second century BC, and was translated into Greek by the author's grandson, which is how it came to be known as the Book of Sirach, since Sirach is nothing more than the author's name in Greek. It was never included in the Jewish Scriptures after the first century, which is why it is not included today in any Protestant Bibles, but the Catholic Church has always recognized it as inspired.
I offer that bit of Biblical trivia for your own intellectual edification; but, what I would prefer to offer you today is a reflection on our Gospel lesson from Mark, which is his version of a lesson we heard out of Matthew back in Lent (cf. Matt. 20: 17-20 on the 3rd Wed. of Lent), which contains the petition of the sons of Zebedee that they might be given the first places in our Lord's new kingdom.
When viewed within the context of our Lord's priestly prayer from John's Gospel, which we had been reading in the last days of Easter leading up to Pentecost, we find a new dimension being added to our Lord's lessons on how we are to pray: having learned during Lent that we must always pray with a sense of gratitude for what we've already received, it was during Easter that we learned that we must also pray with humility and abandonment; a much more difficult task to master, because it requires us to understand and speak the language of the Cross, and very few of us can. When Jesus asked James and John whether they could drink from the cup from which He must drink, they said they could, but I doubt they understood what He meant. In fact, back when these same two disciples were privileged to witness the Transfiguration along with Peter, and our Blessed Lord warned them not to say anything to anyone until after He had risen from the dead, Saint Mark specifically told us that they didn't know what this meant (cf. Mark 9: 10).
The language of the Cross is not easy to understand; in fact, it's impossible to understand for someone just beginning the journey of the interior life, and whose prayer is still on the level of “God, give me this” or “God, rescue me from that.” When I first came here to the Shrine, I was questioned why I never use the already composed petitions from the “Pastoral Companion,”—sometimes I don't do petitions at all—and I explained that I just don't like the idea of telling God what we want Him to do; and, I referenced a remark once made by then-Pope Benedict about how he had always thought that the petitions, if they are done, should be done according to a set formula which never varies, so that we aren't presuming to impose an agenda on God. And you may have noticed that sometimes I'll close the Bidding Prayers with an invocation asking God to grant us the grace to accept His will in all things. One could legitimately presume that that's understood in every prayer, but I'm not sure that it is, especially when the petitions being read sometimes at Mass sound like they were composed by someone at the New York Times or in the Democratic National Committee.
As you can imagine, we hear a lot of confessions here at the Shrine, and one of the most common complaints a priest hears in confession is from souls who simply don't understand why bad things are happening to them. And, as a priest you want to help them understand, and you try, but you know that there's no more chance of them understanding what you tell them than if you explained it in Japanese. They simply don't understand the language of the Cross. No one whose relationship with God hasn't progressed beyond “God, give me this” or “God, give me that” could possibly understand. That's why, when James and John asked our Lord to grant them a place next to Him in the Kingdom to come, He said right away: “You do not know what it is you ask. Have you strength to drink of the cup I am to drink of, to be baptized with the baptism I am to be baptized with?” (Mark 10: 38 Knox), but they had no idea what He was talking about. Drinking from a cup belonging to another was a common Middle Eastern expression of friendship, and that was probably what they thought he meant.
Now, it is a fact that just a few years after this, not long after our Lord's own death and resurrection, James would be beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa (cf. Acts 12: 2), but significant things had happened to him in the interval, principally his having experienced the events of Holy Week and Easter. And it wasn't just that he had suffered through them; he also had to internalize them, and embrace them, and make them his own so as to reproduce the sufferings of Christ in his own life, in complete abandonment to God's Holy Will. It isn't simply that he had suffered, but the fact that he suffered willingly for Christ that translated the language of the Cross for him. The same can be said of John's sufferings toward the end of his life.
In discussing this particular aspect of our Lord's lesson on prayer, St. Teresa of Jesus—Teresa of Avila—referenced this Gospel passage when she said, “His Majesty knows best what is suitable for us; it is not for us to advise Him what to give us, for He can rightly reply that we know not what we ask” (The Interior Castle, 2, 8); and, we won't know until we've not only suffered for Him, but have done so willingly, even joyfully.
That most eminent preacher and Father of the Church, Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on the Lord's reply to James and John, said,
The Lord knew that they could imitate His passion; but nonetheless, He asked them, so that for us too it is made clear that no one can reign with Christ who has not previously imitated His Passion. For highly-valued things are not obtained except at a high price (Homilies on Matthew, 25).
And when that is understood, then the language of the Cross, which previously was meaningless to us, now makes sense, and we can then say, along with Saint Paul,
Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus, with heavenly glory. A faithful saying: for if we be dead with him, we shall live also with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him (II Tim. 2: 10-12 Douay-Rheims).
* In the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, at the beginning of the four seasons of the year, the fast days known as "Ember Days" thank God for blessings obtained during the past year and implore further graces for the new season; and, their importance in the Church was formerly very great. They are fixed on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of specific weeks in their respective seasons: after the First Sunday of Lent for Spring, after Whitsunday (Pentecost) for Summer, after the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (Sept. 14th) for Autumn, and after the Third Sunday of Advent for Winter. At one time, the Ember Days were obligatory days of fasting; this requirement was dropped in the Missal of St. John XXIII in 1962, but violet vestments are sill worn on Ember Days even when they occur outside the seasons of Advent and Lent, with the exception of the Ember Days that occur during the Octave of Pentecost.
The significance of the Ember Days as days of voluntary fasting is multiple: not only are they intended to consecrate to God both the liturgical seasons and the various seasons in nature, they also serve as a penitential preparation for those preparing for the Holy Priesthood. Ordinations in the extraordinary form generally take place on the Ember Days, and the Faithful are encouraged to pray on these days for good Priests.
** Throughout the Octave of Pentecost, the Gradual Psalm is omitted; it resumes during the remainder of the Pentecost season.