Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

Dominica 4 Adventus

Evening, 17 December 2016

Church of St John, Agawam

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5).

We already said from this pulpit that the Last Gospel is a kind of summary of salvation history, if not especially as it relates to our Advent waiting and preparation. It is also the case that the Last Gospel is a summary of the Holy Mass. For instance, during the first half of the Mass—the Mass of the Catechumens—we receive the testimony of the Scriptures about Christ, just as the Last Gospel states: “This man [John the Baptist] came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him.” The scriptural texts of the Mass before the Canon all serve to acquaint us with the person and mission of Christ.[1]

The second half of the Mass, the Mass of the Faithful, is when Christ takes flesh on the altar.—“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” as the Last Gospel puts it. Christ dwells among us most dramatically and efficaciously in the Sacraments, and among these, in the Eucharist most of all, the Sacrament of Sacraments. When the Word became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, he had the Mass in mind: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”[2] If that be true, then we see why the prologue of John’s Gospel is an especially appropriate text with which to conclude the Mass: again, it spells out the whole picture of the sacramental action that has just taken place. As one liturgical scholar put it, the Last Gospel is “the concluding paragraph by which the Mass is brought back to its ‘eternal root’ or source.”[3]  

All that being said, the Last Gospel has another quality and function that is no less important: it is a text that blesses. We know this in two ways. First, by its location in the Mass. If the Last Gospel were meant to have an instructive function, as do the epistle and Gospel, then it stands to reason that it would be located in that part of the Mass which contained the other lessons. But this is not the case. Instead, it follows immediately upon the final blessing given by the priest-celebrant, without any other prayer or liturgical action in between.

But we know the Last Gospel serves as a blessing for another reason, namely, how the text is used in other rites of the Church. For instance, it may be read by the priest in the sickroom before he dispenses the Sacraments; at one time it was recited over a neophyte or used to evoke the blessing of fine weather.[4] Most especially, however, the prologue of John’s Gospel is used during the solemn rites of exorcism: this text is so profound that it is especially potent against the enemy of our souls. Why? Because the prologue of John pierces the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, and therefore reminds Satan how thoroughly and powerfully he has been defeated by that same mystery: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” As we have said before, all the Gospel texts are sacred; the prologue of John is especially so—which is precisely why the Church has always used it when she has had to more explicitly assert herself against the darksome influence of Satan.

Therefore, the Last Gospel is like a seal set over the blessing of the priest at Mass. Christians who are nourished at the supper of the Lamb also need to be guarded against the enemy, who does all he can to try to sully and wreck the purity of the gifts God bestows. “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Unto ourselves, we are no match for the dark intelligences that set themselves against our spiritual good; human power can never stand against what is angelic. But with the words of the prologue of John, we are protected by grace from on high: et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.

The mysteries of the Christmas cycle are indeed joyful mysteries. The faithful do well to make this a time of especial rejoicing and trustful abandonment to the gentle Father. The truths and images of Christmas are rightfully precious to us, we who so readily attracted to the divine tenderness of the Madonna and Child. Without prejudice to that joy, however, our spiritual realism does well to take note of the fact that the Christmas mysteries are a prominent part of the great campaign against the kingdom of darkness. (They are the Normandy Invasion of the spiritual order.)      

The Vespers hymn for Advent spells this out explicitly: Te, Sancte, fide quaesumus, / venture iudex saeculi, / conserva nos in tempore / hostis a telo perfidi.[5] This he does— fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia[6]—contrary to the work of our ancient enemy. “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Amidst the natural cold and darkness of this season, the light of grace shines brightly and warmly from the Incarnation of Christ. Authentic Christmas joy has nothing to do with sentiment and superficial well-feeling: our spiritual enemy is too real and hateful for any of that. But the Last Gospel, at each Mass, reminds us that our joy may blossom and flourish all the more because of the divine love which attains so great a victory: et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.       

[1] This is not to say, however, that the texts do not serve other purposes. Every Mass text is an act of worship, even the recitation of the scriptural lessons. The texts are indeed given for our edification, but they are also spoken to God in adoration. The position of the deacon during the singing of the Gospel at Solemn Mass suggests this most obviously: he faces “north,” in the direction of the Gospel side of the sanctuary, perpendicular to the people.     
[2] Jn 14:18.
[3] Jungmann, vol 2, p 450.  
[4] Ibid, 447-448.
[5] “O Holy One, we faithfully beseech you, / the coming Judge of the age: / preserve us in time / against the weapon of the treacherous one.” Translation mine. 
[6] Cf Magnificat antiphon for 17 December: O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae. 

No comments:

Post a Comment