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Saturday, October 3rd, 2020

A Tale of Two Heroins: a Sermon for the Third of October

The Roman Rite celebrates a variety of both fixed and moveable feasts. Thus, the seasonal and sanctoral cycles of the liturgical year are woven together, and during each calendar year this weaving interaction is slightly different. It so happens, then, that the sacred liturgy often sets certain figures and mysteries side-by-side in ways which might not occur to us.—Like the processions of the moon, planets, and stars through the night sky, different and interesting conjunctions and alignments take place from year to year.

Today, October 3rd of 2020, we have one such conjunction in the firmament of the liturgical year.

At the Night Office, the Church reads the closing chapter of the book of Judith.[1] We see Israel celebrating its deliverance from the Assyrian general Holofernes, brought about by the hands of Judith. We hear how she lives out the rest of her long life, in chastity and peace. And we hear of how she is mourned for seven days by the nation and buried beside her husband in Bethulia.

In the course of the same Night Office, we also read the biographical sketch of St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose festival it is. Her brief life hardly needs summary here.

But now that the sacred liturgy has set these two women of God side-by-side in our company, what then? In a word, we ought to search out the differences and similarities which their persons suggest.

The introit of the Mass of St Thérèse—drawn from the Canticle of Canticles—speaks of a wounding[2]. Judith delivers a mortal wound to the enemy of God’s people. The epistle speaks of the deliverance God will bring to his elect in Jerusalem. Indeed, this deliverance is fulfilled in both holy women: Judith and her people are delivered from destruction and slavery, whereas St Thérèse is delivered from slavery to anguish and fear. The gradual makes references to the Little Way, and each woman treads that way, if differently. The Alleluia verse gives us an image of the finery in which Judith bedecks herself for that harrowing meeting with Holofernes, even as it expresses the way St Thérèse saw God in everything that was beautiful and fair.

The Gospel speaks of true greatness, which both Judith and St Thérèse understood and embodied: for it is neither in greatness of arms nor impressive virtues that God works and is honored. Rather, he delights in the trust, obedience, and fidelity of those who know themselves to be profoundly his children. This very truth is expressed in the offertory of the Mass, and it is a veritable echo of the canticle of Judith.[3] And it was this very status of humble handmaid in which St Thérèse took such delight. And finally, the Communion antiphon is an exposition of the strong and conquering grace with which the Almighty sustained both the Jewish widow and the French nun.

In sum, both Judith and St Thérèse are heroins of abandonment. Both holy women cast the entirety of their persons into the strong, fatherly hand of God; neither woman is disappointed in her hopes. And neither is the Church. Once again we marvel at the action of Divine Providence which indeed works wonders; and we marvel at the kingdom of God which boasts for two of its daughters the saintly heroins of Judith and St Thérèse.

 


[1] I.e., ch 16.

[2] Canticle of Canticles 4, 8-9.

[3] Judith 16, 1-22.

{Art Credit: detail, Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), Judith and Holofernes (c 1554); Saint Louis Art Museum}

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