Homily for Sunday 17B, 28 July 2018, on John 6:1-15

The Roman Gradual offers five proper Chants for the Mass of each Sunday: the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion. We don’t know who selected the texts for these Chants, or who composed the music, or where, or when. The earliest surviving manuscripts which bear witness to them come from the monasteries of the Frankish Empire, dated around the end of the 8th century and the beginning of the 9th century. The selection they offer has survived, more or less, until today: though today’s Gradual was specially chosen to complement the Gospel in our modern three-year cycle; also in ancient times the Alleluia Chant was simply selected by the Cantor from the wide choice available to him.

The opening phrase of today’s Introit is very striking. We would expect some notes of intonation, from low Tonic to high Dominant; but in this case the first word, “Deus” is trumpeted forth already on the high note “Do”. Deus in loco sancto suo - God is in his holy place. The Chant is set in the Fifth Mode. The words are taken from Psalm 67, which sings of God’s triumph over Israel’s enemies in history. We sing Psalm 67 at Vigils on Wednesdays: it’s notable for several obscure verses of uncertain interpretation. Our text from the Psalm expresses complete confidence in God. The music echoes this. Strong emphasis is given, for example, to each two-syllable word of the first phrase, as rising musical figures underline the word accents: “Deus, loco, sancto, suo.” God is in his holy place, we sing: he will give power and strength to his people.

Ancient Israel believed that God is everywhere, since he created the whole Universe by his word. Nevertheless, God had a special “Holy Place”, which was the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a sign and guarantee of God’s presence among his people, and his covenant with them, and his abiding love for them. The Temple also expressed Israel’s committed worship of God.

In today’s Gospel we see Jesus among the crowds in the hills of Galilee. He is greater than the heroes of old evoked by our Psalm: Moses and Joshua and the Judges and the Kings. In Jesus God is now present among his people, no longer in mere sign, as in the Temple. Jesus gives strength to the hungry now in the form of food. And that meal on the Mountain was a sign, evoking the gathering of the Church in better worship than could ever be offered in the Temple. For we offer no longer the blood of animals, but the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Through this sacrifice God has indeed arisen on our behalf, to scatter our enemies, sin and death, putting them forever to flight (Ps 67/8:1).

We recorded today’s Gradual for our Holy Week CD, since it’s sung at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Its text is from the Alphabetical Psalm 144, which is a Psalm of joyful praise and thanksgiving for all God’s goodness and benefits. Oculi omnium in te sperant Domine - the eyes of all look to you O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. We sing that at Saturday Vespers, and also each day in the refectory. Aperis tu manum tuam - you open your hand. The Seventh mode Chant most wonderfully dwells on these words, draws them out, plays with them, marvels at them. The Hebrew Psalmist knew well that God has no body; he cannot be depicted by any image. Yet so often the Psalms speak of God’s face, his hands, his arms, his feet, his heart, even his bowels. All that of course is strictly metaphorical. But in Jesus we do see God with a human face, which we can depict, and we hear a human voice, and we receive blessing from his uplifted hands. For the 5,000 of today’s Gospel, Jesus opened his hand in super-abundant generosity. Later he would open that hand to receive the nail on the Cross, and open his Heart also to receive the Spear, in order to pour out God’s definitive blessing (Ps 144/5:16), which is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Alleluia Chant today is also in the Seventh mode, but less interior, more exuberant than the Gradual. The text is addressed not to God but to us, in three imperatives: Exsultate, iubilate, sumite - Exult, celebrate, take up the joyful Psalm with the harp. Psalm 80, which we sing at Thursday Vigils, is very much in the spirit of Deuteronomy. It recalls the Exodus, and urges us not to forget how God then both set his people free, and gave them a law to keep. We sing these words as we prepare to listen to the Gospel. To listen to the words of Jesus and to the account of his deeds is to hear again the story of our own liberation, and to receive true spiritual nourishment. Even as we listen, we joyfully renew our determination to live in accordance with his law.

The Offertory is set in the Second Mode, and is a musical meditation on the first verse of Psalm 29. Exaltabo te Domine - I will extol you O Lord, for you have upheld me, and have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me. We sing this Psalm on Sundays at Vigils, and this Offertory Chant also on Ash Wednesday. Our text is not a petition, so much as a cry of joy that the petition has been answered. Domine, clamavi ad te, et sanasti me - O Lord I called out to you, and you healed me. As the Altar is being prepared for the celebration of the Eucharist, we remember God’s saving deeds for us, in the life and ministry and death of Jesus, and we thank him, and praise him, and rejoice in him.

Our Communion Chant today takes a text, unusually, from the book of Proverbs. Honora Dominum de tua substantia - Honour the Lord from your substance ... in order that your barns may be filled to repletion, and your vats may overflow with wine. The Chant is set in the Sixth Mode. The sage of Proverbs suggest to us: give to God what is due, and he will reward you. Give him a bit, and he will give you a lot. This advice is verified in every Mass, for there we offer God ourselves: and He, in return, gives us Himself.

Today we heard how a small boy gave to the Lord from his substance, and maybe rather more than that. He gave five loaves: presumably the provisions prepared for himself, his parents and two siblings. But nobody lost out thereby. Now at Mass we bring bread and wine, to symbolise our self offering. And Jesus gives us, in return, his Body and Blood: proof of his all-surpassing, super-abundant, infinitely excessive gift of Himself to us.