The Collect or Opening Prayer of today’s Mass is the one given in the Gelasian Sacramentary for the First Sunday of Lent. The Gelasian Sacramentary is a collection of Mass prayers, compiled some time around the mid 7th century, for use in the parish Churches of Rome. All original Roman manuscripts of this are lost, but one first hand copy survives, in beautiful calligraphy, made by Frankish nuns near Paris in the mid 8th century.
The Latin of our Prayer is typically well constructed, sonorous, strong, dense. God is asked for two things, while those who pray are reminded of a presumed condition. “As a result of our annual lenten observances,” it says, “may we both make progress in understanding the mystery of Christ, and follow its effects through a worthy manner of life.” Actually the condition is one of the things we ask God to grant, so the structure of this prayer is three-fold, organised as a sort of chiasm, or sandwich. The first and last clauses, or the bread of the sandwich, state what we are to do. We are to perform our lenten exercises, and we are to show by our manner of life that we have truly responded to what Christ has done for us. The middle clause, or the jam of the sandwich, gives us the heart of this prayer. It points to contemplation, rather than action. May we make progress in understanding the mystery of Christ. We are asking, in effect, for the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom and knowledge. These belong properly to God’s grace; they are his free gift, rather than our own work.
Let me comment briefly now on the prayer as it unfolds.
Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus, ut, per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti...
This is very interesting! Lent is here spoken of as a Sacrament, or Mystery. Of course lent is not one of the seven Sacraments of the Church. Nevertheless, the assumption here is that, like those Sacraments, lent is of divine origin; it’s a channel of grace for each individual and for the whole Church; the Lord blesses those who go through it in a special way; its fruits will be for us a deeper conformity to Jesus Christ, and a closer union with him. The idea of lent as Sacrament is associated especially with St. Leo the Great. He was Pope in the mid-5th century, and played a decisive role in the development of the Latin liturgical tradition.
The prayer continues: et ad intellegendum Christi proficiamus arcanum... that we might make progress in understanding the mystery of Christ. St. Paul often speaks of the Mystery of Christ. In Christ the designs of God, hitherto hidden from the world, have become manifest. Christ’s mystery is located both in who he is, and what he has done. Above all we think of his Paschal Mystery: his passing over from the death of the Cross to Resurrection. So our Prayer here points us towards the culmination of lent. And surely it’s a fact of experience, that each time we pass through these awesome mysteries with the whole Church, we come out the other end with our faith renewed, reinvigorated, deepened. On Good Friday we contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Cross, and we understand, as it were in our bones, and as if for the first time, that this is truly our hope, and our salvation, and the hope and salvation of the whole world. At Easter we contemplate the Resurrection, and again we simply know, as it were from the inside, that here is joy that cannot be taken away; here is God’s answer to sin and death and all the problems of the world; here is the final triumph of good over evil; here is total victory, in which our destiny is to share.
I’ve been using the word “Mystery”, but perhaps surprisingly, the Collect does not. Instead it speaks here of the arcanum Christi - the secret of Christ. This word does occur occasionally in Scripture, but really it belongs to the early Christian centuries. Particularly for the Church in the era of persecution, the “secret” referred above all to the rites of Christian initiation: Baptism, confirmation, Eucharist. So again, our Collect points us towards the climax of our lenten observance, when at the Paschal Vigil catechumens are baptised, and all of us renew our Baptismal promises. So we ask here that our lent may help us to understand, come to know ever more deeply, what it means for us to have been baptised; what it means for us to participate in the Holy Eucharist.
et effectus eius digna conversatione sectemur - and that we may follow its effects through a worthy manner of life. “Digna conversatio” - “worthy manner of life” - recalls our own Benedictine vow of “Conversatio morum”. But what are the “effects” of Christ’s mystery? Surely above all that we are made children of God, members of Christ’s Body, sharing his own divine Sonship! How can we reflect that in our way of life?
Lent, says St. Benedict, is given to us as a reminder of how we ought to live all the time. In lent we pray a lot; we pray more! We pray because in that way we express our relationship with our heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We also fast, as Jesus did. In other symbolic ways too we demonstrate our continuing resistance to the downward pull of the world, the flesh and the devil. Our fasting expresses also our solidarity with the hungry, and it helps us to realise our own condition before the Lord as radically dependent, needy, helpless beggars.
Then also in lent we make a special effort at almsgiving. This expresses our Christ-like attitude of love and compassion towards all our brothers and sisters in the world, especially those who are poor, friendless, sick or in any way afflicted.
In today’s Gospel St. Mark shows us Jesus in the wilderness: driven by the Spirit and tempted by Satan; surrounded by wild animals and ministered to by Angels. This is something of an image of our own life on this earth; perhaps especially our life during lent. We are tempted, threatened, lacking all security. The mention here also of St. John the Baptist being “handed over” reminds us of the direction in which Jesus too is heading, and of the death that is in store for all of us. Yet: like Jesus we are never without God’s presence and help. Like Jesus we may find the difficulties and pains of our life an occasion, not for any separation from our heavenly Father, but precisely for a closer encounter with him. And, after the pattern of Jesus, we know we have a very high destination. We are not here, just aimlessly marking time. We are heading in a definite direction: towards Easter, towards resurrection, towards eternal life.