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Friday, January 1st, 2021

‘Viderunt omnes salutare Dei’: a Sermon for the Octave of Christmas

All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God (Psalm 97, 3).

On June 8th, 1978, Aleksander Solzhinetsyn (1918-2008) addressed the 327th graduating class of Harvard University. If you’ve ever read or listened to this rather famous speech, you know that his listeners did not exactly get what they bargained for, and this for a number of reasons. In a word, Mr Solzhinetsyn warned his listeners that a profound spiritual disease had taken hold of the soul of the West—a disease which could neither be explained nor cured simply by the more equitable arrangement of social life. Of course, that is not what the young Marxists wanted to hear then, nor what they would want to hear now.

At one point during his speech he said:

A person who works and lives a meaningful life does not need this excessive burden of flowing information. Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the twentieth century, and more than anywhere else, this is reflected in the press.

Yes, the media was rightfully a target of his criticism: first, because the human being who lives connected with reality does not need the media; and second, because the superficiality and vanity of the media does constitute, at bottom, a psychic disease. He could not be more correct, and the truth of his words has only grown in the forty-two years since he first spoke them. How could anyone dispute it?

But what has this to do with today’s Mass? A kind of contrast emerges. The text of Psalm 97 is used twice today: ‘Viderunt omnes fines terræ salutare Dei nostri.’ Today’s liturgy declares that God is about his work of manifesting his plan to repair the human race. But who is listening? Who is seeing?

However, another liturgical text for today comes to mind. It is not from the Mass, but from the divine office. Speaking to the Virgin Mary, an antiphon at Vespers sings:

In the bush which Moses saw to be unburnt, we acknowledge your praiseworthy and inviolate virginity: Oh Mother of God, intercede for us![1]

Indeed, the Church has always seen the burning bush in the third chapter of Exodus to be a type of the virginal motherhood of Mary. Thus, in the person of Moses, the ends of the earth were already beginning to see the salvation of God—and there was Mary, burning brightly in the midst of that salvation.

And yet we have to remember that it was desperation that had driven Moses to the wilds of Madian in the first place. He had killed an Egyptian who was mistreating one of his kinsman, but word had gotten out. And so it was to save his life that he fled the comfort of Egypt. In exile he took a wife and was tending the flocks of his father-in-law; and it was ad interiora deserti that the theophany of the burning bush met him.

We learn much from Moses’ encounter with God here. First, we learn that it was on account of the sorrow of the people that God was manifesting himself to Moses. Second, that deliverance and prosperity was the end of this divine work. And third, we receive the profound revelation of the Divine Name: I Am Who Am. And, in point of fact, Moses received all of this during prayer: it was the first of his many face-to-face meetings with God. Viderunt omnes fines terræ salutare Dei nostri.

Contrast all that with Solzhenizen’s observation about the psychic disease of the twentieth century. On the one hand, there is the world’s slavery to distraction, tawdriness, and superficiality; on the other hand, the pregnant luminosity of the revelation of God—they are completely opposed and incommensurate; and the human being can choose to abide in only one of them. And there is one activity that will incline us to choose rightly: prayer. Not without reason did St Alphonsus teach, with all the eminent doctors of the Church, that prayer is necessary for salvation.[2]

If Catholics are going to come through the trials of life—both the ordinary trials of the Christian life, and those trials unique to our times—then they must pray. And we must do this as Moses did in the desert: in the midst of his confusing and tenuous exile; through the labor of his daily work; through the uncomfortable mysteries of his personal identity and of God’s Providence for him. We are not speaking of prayer as simply a pious time-killer (as if it could ever be that!); but prayer understood as a desperate need, a clinging to life, an irresistible attraction to the divine goodness and beauty.

I say more. As Moses discovered before the burning bush, the mystery of sorrow is one of the hidden aquifers out of which prayer flows. In this life, prayer is bound to sorrow; and if there is any consolation in it, that is only because we are allowed to glimpse for a moment the faraway country to which we are heading. Remember that Moses was unable to enter the promised land; his bones are hidden away in some ravine.

When the times were more Catholic, in many places March 25th was the beginning of the civic year, and this for a profoundly theological reason: the Annunciation marks the new and decisive beginning of salvation. And yet today, the octave of Christmas, is also a Mass thoroughly Marian. Because she is at the beginning of every work of God; and she is at the beginning and end of every prayer. She was promised immediately after the sin of our first parents; Moses beheld her in the mysterious veil of the burning bush; her work is in the waters of Lourdes and the sun at Fatima; and to the extent that we begin to see Mary everywhere, the ends of the earth begin to see the salvation of our God.

 


[1] Third antiphon: Rubum quem viderat Moyses incombustum conservatam agnovimus tuam laudabilem virginitatem: Dei Genetrix intercede pro nobis.

[2] Cf The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection, part 1, ch 1.

{Art Credit: Icon of the Theotokos “Burning Bush”, 19th century; Polissya, Ukraine. The Museum of Ukrainian home icons, Radomysl Castle, Ukraine.}

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