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Sunday, February 28th, 2021

‘Faciamus hic tabernacula’: a Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent

Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles (Matthew 17, 4). 

A brief note at the beginning, for those interested in liturgical history. Today’s Holy Mass is a good example of the conservatism of the Roman Rite. As you know, we have a feast of the Transfiguration on 6 August; why, then, do we have the Gospel of the Transfiguration today? Are we dealing with an example of liturgical redundancy? To ask the question that way, however, is to get the matter backwards—for 6 August is a much later importation of a feast-day that is Greek in origin. But this reveals a general principle about the character of our Latin branch of the liturgical family: primitively speaking, the Rite of Rome does not celebrate many feast-days which focus on the mysteries of our Lord’s life and death; instead, the consideration of these mysteries are imbedded into the Masses that occur throughout the seasonal cycle of the liturgical year.[1] This is what we see today.   

(The summer observance of the Transfiguration becomes universal in the Roman Rite only as late as the 1450’s. It was on 6 August in 1456 that news came to Rome of an important victory over the Turks in the Balkans. In thanksgiving, Callixstus III placed the feast on the general Roman calendar.) 

So, originally speaking, the face of the transfigured Christ shines upon the Roman Church in the midst of Lent; it shines on us today, at this hour. 

This Gospel forms an interesting contrast with last weekend’s Gospel: instead of Christ tempted, we see Christ illuminated. It also forms an interesting contrast to next weekend’s Gospel, when we shall see Christ harassed by his enemies. Today, we see him in the company of Moses and Elijah. Last week, he was alone in the desert; next week he will be in town; today he shines upon Mt Tabor. 

I admit that as I was preparing for this Mass, it was difficult for me to focus on one aspect of Our Lord’s Transfiguration. I did not have access to many of my books, in which some of the Fathers and Doctors might have told me what to say. And I further confess, I wasn’t quite prepared to venture into St Thomas, given that my thoughts were trailing off into a hundred different directions. But then I leaned back into my chair and looked around the room and then across the hall into the little chapel I have in the rectory; there is a tabernacle there.—

‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if thou wilt, let us make three tabernacles.’ 

Friends, while you and I make our way through this valley of tears, please let us never cease to marvel that we keep the living Flesh of our Divine Lord in little golden boxes. We do not have the advantage of Peter, James, and John: we cannot behold Christ in his shining glory. We do have the sacred liturgy, where in fact we do meet Christ in his glory—but it is a glory we must see by way of signs. Thus, if Roman Catholics have from the earliest ages contemplated the Transfiguration during Lent, this may be for very profound reasons. 

Indeed, Roman Catholic liturgical life is especially robust during Lent and Passiontide; we handle and hear the most ancient Mass formularies during these days. Indeed, there is a proper Mass for each day of our Lent, rather than for each week. Moreover, each day has its own Roman stational church in which these Masses are traditionally celebrated. To be sure, we cannot celebrate the days of our great fast with much of the same solemnity as our Roman forebears. And yet I go so far as to say that we still enjoy a particular gift as Roman Catholics. If we are attentive, we are a people especially touched by these Lenten mysteries. Let the Greeks multiply their Alleluias; but we Romans will abide with a fearful wonder, like the dumbstruck apostles on Mt Tabor.     

The Transfiguration teaches us that it would be a mistake in the spiritual life to think that, because we do not enjoy many consolations or insights in prayer, we are far from Christ; after all, it was a bright cloud that overshadowed the apostles. It would be a mistake in the spiritual life to think that our weakness or the world’s disorder keep us far from Christ. It would be a mistake in the spiritual life to think that, because we suffer, we are far from Christ.   

Today’s mystery fits into the setting of Lent like a diamond on a golden ring. And our Lent teaches us to behold Christ’s hidden glory; we are dramatically introduced to the paradox of God’s hidden but true presence.—Which is why the Eucharistic piety of the Roman West has become so robust as the centuries advance. One thinks of the Adoro te devote.Adoro te devote, latens Deitas. 

In the end, my point is to suggest that, because the Transfiguration meets us during Lent, we Romans ought to be especially attentive to the hidden nature of God’s glory.   

And to this hour, we see how much mercy the Lord has stored up for us: ‘Lord, . . . if thou wilt, let us make three tabernacles.’ Si vis, faciamus hic tria tabernacula. It turns out that he does will it after all.

 

 


[1] I.e., the temporal cycle, rather than during the sanctoral cycle. Cf Schuster, The Sacramentary, vol II, pp 79-80; vol IV p 418.

{Art Credit: François Marius Granet (1775-1849), La Basilique Saint-Jean-et-Saint-Paul à Rome (19th c.)}  

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