Homily given at Quarr Abbey, Wednesday 17 July 2019
By the Prior of Pluscarden
Second day of the Chant Forum meeting
We began our Mass today with a very fine Introit, set in the Third mode. This is the “tonus iratus” – the angry mode – or the anguished mode – or the mode of heightened emotion.
Dum clamarem ad Dominum exaudivit vocem meam – When I cried to the Lord he heard my voice; he saved me from those who surrounded me.
The text is from Psalm 54 (55). According to St. Benedict’s schema for the Divine Office we sing this Psalm every Tuesday morning at Vigils. I should just note that our modern versions differ somewhat from the one set by the Gregorian composer. The modern translators often render a Hebrew verb with a future tense, where the old Latin gives a past tense.
Our Psalm is ascribed by tradition, and by its own inscription, to King David. When in this Psalm David speaks of his distress, we seem to hear the words of Christ himself in Gethsemani:
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come over me, and horror overwhelms me (vv. 4-5).
The prayer of the Psalm continues in a way made famous by Mendelssohn: O for the wings, for the wings of a dove! Far away would I roam! In the wilderness build me a nest, and remain there forever at rest.
Again we seem to hear the voice of Jesus in his passion, as the Psalmist complains of betrayal by a friend – by a companion with whom he had shared delightful fellowship – even walking together in the house of God (vv. 12-14). Turning his eyes towards his faithless oppressors, the Psalmist is not ashamed to invoke upon them, and more than once, the fate they richly deserve.
Our Chant certainly brings out the intensity of the emotion with which he sings. He was in desperate straits; he seemed beyond all hope of escape; but then – with what relief! – with what joy! – he cried out to the Lord, and his voice was heard.
Who is this God who is so merciful, so powerful, so attentive, so close? He is the God who made all that exists – qui est ante saecula – and who abides forever the same – qui manet in aeternum.
So the Psalmist turns at last to us and appeals to us to do what he has done. Iacta cogitatum tuum in Domino – cast all your cares upon this Lord – et ipse te enutriet – and he will sustain you – he will nourish you.
We Benedictines very much like the prayer of the Psalms. We believe that these Old Testament texts, so often obscure or difficult, are nevertheless full of the Holy Spirit, and we love to make all of them somehow our own. What a joy for us then, when the liturgy takes just a few words of a Psalm, and invites us to dwell on them – when it sets them to music for us – in order to help us enter into these words – or to let these words enter into us!
Dum clamarem ad Dominum exaudivit vocem meam – When I cried to the Lord he heard my voice. We sing these words as individuals. We sing them with the whole Church, or as the whole Church. And we sing them with Christ, or even as Christ.
As individuals, we bring to this prayer all our personal worries, difficulties, fears, troubles. But above all we understand the “surrounding enemies” as anything at all that can tend to separate us from God, and from life in Him. In the context of the Mass we bring these concerns especially to Jesus, our Blessed Saviour, the very thought of whom fills us immediately with consolation and hope and joy.
Singing our Introit as the Church, we find ourselves like Moses walking on holy ground (cf. Exodus 3 – 1st reading). At the entrance to the divine liturgy, we enter in a special way, with and as the whole Church, into God’s presence. In company with all the Angels and Saints of heaven we prepare to give him worship, not in a merely human way, but precisely by offering Him the holy Sacrifice of Christ’s saving Cross.
Singing as or with the Church too we are very aware of the assaults of enemies on every side, so that it seems as if death is the only possible outcome. If these external enemies were not bad enough, there are also not lacking internal divisions, scandals, betrayals. All of this should rightly be for us a source of anguish and distress. But at least here now, in the liturgy, we turn to the Lord in perfect confidence, and here in the liturgy also we receive his answer to our prayer. We cast all our cares on him, and he sustains and feeds us.
Singing our Introit in the Person of Jesus Himself we touch on mysteries that are hidden from the wise and clever, and revealed to mere children – that is, to those who come to him in humility and trust (cf. Matthew 1:25 – Gospel). For when Jesus cried out to his Father, his prayer seemed not to be heard: though ultimately of course God did answer in a super-abundant and definitive way. When Jesus cried out to God, he was asking not for his own salvation, but for ours. So his Father did not prevent his death: on the contrary! - but after three days, for the perfect accomplishment of his predestined mission, God did raise Jesus from the dead.
What then will this God do now for those who belong to Jesus; for those who are promised a share in his eternal, divine and heavenly life? Ipse te enutriet, sings the Psalmist – he will feed them – with his grace and blessing – with his consoling presence – with his compassionate attention to every prayer - and above all, at Mass, with the life-giving food of his most holy Body, and his precious, redeeming Blood.