4th February: Sermon

A semon preached by the Rev’d Daniel Lloyd on 4th February, 2012 (Sunday 5, Year B):

And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them’.

The introit of today’s mass is something of a prize plum for those interested in texts and translations:

Come, let us worship God, and bow down before the Lord:  let us shed tears before the Lord who made us, for he is the Lord our God.

Those of us who know the vernacular tradition of English psalmody may be surprised by the inclusion here of a reference to shedding tears before the Lord who made us. We know our Coverdale, and our BCP Matins, and this is not quite how the Venite goes: ‘O come, let us worship, and fall down: and kneel before the Lord our Maker’. So it is in the modern Roman Breviary, too. But the version of the psalter from which this text is taken comes to us from a different tradition. St Jerome, it seems, was too prolific a translator for his own good. He began by using as his yardstick the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Scriptures, and revising such Latin translations as existed to bring them all into line with the Greek. This, the Roman Psalter, was what got used in the Missal. In the Office itself, however, and in the Vulgate bible, and in the emerging corpus of Gregorian chant, they favoured Jerome’s second run over the target, based on a side-by-side compilation of texts known as the Hexapla. This was the case, apparently, in most places except England, where they favoured the Roman Psalter, and used it until the Norman Conquest. Oh yes, and they used it at St Peter’s, and at St Mark’s basilica in Venice. St Jerome then had a third try, using the Hebrew text as a basis, but it doesn’t seem as though anybody much found that any good. Confused yet? You will be.

When the first translations were made into English, they did use the Hebrew texts, and subsequent translators and revisers either did that or, like Myles Coverdale, they admitted that they couldn’t actually read either Greek or Hebrew especially well, and cribbed from Latin, English and German versions. Except Dr Challoner, of course, who translated his Douai-Rheims Bible from the Latin, so as to make the point. So, the Greek tradition enjoins us to tears; the Hebrew tradition enjoins us to bend the knee, and the Ordinariate – being all things to all men for the sake of the Gospel – will enjoin you do to both, in the most accurate and sacral English available.

I tell you this because this dual concept of worship and weeping, this cardinal dilemma of creatureliness, is right at the heart of today’s liturgy. St Augustine, in his commentary on this psalm, glosses this verse as follows:

mourn before the Lord: fearlessly mourn before the Lord, who made you; for He despises not the work of His own hands in you. Think not you can be restored by yourself. By yourself you may fall off, you cannot restore yourself: He who made you restores you.

‘He who made you restores you’. ‘And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them’. We hear, in St Mark’s text, important echoes. Later in the Gospel, Our Lord commands the disciples to go out and preach, and they do, and they anoint the sick, and the sick are healed. In the Epistle of St James, we find that sacramental text

is any among you sick? Let him call for the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Our Lord has instituted the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, and St James has told us how to go about it. ‘And the Lord will raise him up’: ‘and he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up’.

As creatures in a cosmos in which we are allowed to sin, we will encounter illness, sickness, sin, death. But for those of us who, in the normal way of things, are not afflicted in what we might consider exemplary ways, we have the danger of tripping over the precipice of good intention and plummeting into the abyss of platitude. As the poet didn’t quite say, ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, perhaps you haven’t understood the gravity of the situation’. We each have our cross, but some have found just the right spot between the shoulders. But even Our blessed Lord stumbles, and more than once. ‘Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good’, and that said by the righteous man Job, is surely not far from any of us. This is part of what it means to be created. This is why St Paul tells the Colossians the he is making up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions: not because the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord are, in some way, not good enough; but because we are baptized into them. We have to co-operate with God’s grace in such a way that we allow our sufferings to unite with Christ’s, that we allow the objective fact of his Redemption to be the reality which orients our very selves. Christ’s boundless compassion, his suffering with us, in the world as it is, if we let him, transforms suffering from an inward, individualized, atomizing process into one which allows suffering to be used for the good of others, for a witness, offered up for the benefit of the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

That is why the sacraments are as they are. When we need them, they are, simply, there. In this sacrifice of the Mass, He is with us, inviting us into Himself even as we take Him into ourselves. This holy exchange, this sacred commerce, has been wrought into poetry and symbol for century upon century. The late Welsh Catholic poet and artist David Jones (who would, it seems, have been eligible for membership of the Ordinariate, since his mother was an Anglican), speaks, in his poem Kensington Mass, of the kiss which the priest bestows on the altar: as the rubrics say, ‘osculatur altare in medio’: ‘he kisses the altar in the middle’. Says Jones of the priest, standing there on our behalf:

He has no need of
the rubric’s nudge: osculatur altare in medio.
for what bodily act other
would serve here?
Creaturely of necessity,
for we are creatures
Our own salvation
were it possible
Could be no other than the rubric’s osculatur.

Fearlessly mourn’, says St Augustine, ‘let us shed tears before the Lord who made us, for he is the Lord our God’. Since Candlemas, we have turned to use the Ave, Regina Caelorum as the anthem to Our Lady. The collect which sometimes follows us beseeches God to grant support to our frailty, that we who commemorate the holy Mother of God, may, by the help of her intercession, arise from our iniquities. We get the same message in the Offertory antiphon from Psalm 17: ‘Render secure my footsteps in your paths so that my feet do not slip; Incline your ear and hear my words’. As we turn through the ’gesimas with Lent on the horizon, let us pray – and ask Our Lady to pray – that we may not be afraid to let Our Blessed Lord take us by the hand and lift us up.

And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them’.

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