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Saturday, May 1st, 2021

‘Descendens a Patre luminum:’ a Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

‘[E]very perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of alteration’ (James 1, 17).

Here is a thing never to be lost sight of: the sacred liturgy is, first and foremost, the activity of Christ. When you and I come to Holy Mass, it is not so much that we are acting and doing, but that we are acted upon and God is doing. Yes, we lend God our bodies and voices: but Catholic worship is a thing you step into, not something that you produce. There is a river of adoration going out of the Heart of Christ to the Father, and we swim or sail upon it, sustained by the breath of the Holy Ghost. The classical Roman Rite makes this obvious and why therefore it is something precious to us. It is why we take such pains about it and would die for it.      

But we find ourselves tossed in a sea of changeableness; and it is night. It is as if something of the primordial waters of chaos have spilled over the shores of the world, constantly threatening to damage and drown us. Nobody here will think it is melodramatic to say so. But in this moment, we are at Mass; and it is Easter. And we have this marvelous text from St James: ‘Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.’ Descendens a Patre luminum. It puts one in mind of a similar text from St John’s Apocalypse: ‘And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.’[1]

This reality of the descending gift tells us something very important: we are recipients and beneficiaries. Fundamentally, the Catholic soul receives from God, the Pater luminum. That you well know. But the Holy Mass is meant to stamp our lives with the awareness all the same. Such an habitual awareness of does change a life. In a word, it makes one aware of the reality of Divine Providence, a doctrine much neglected in our time.   

Remember that, to put it most succinctly, Divine Providence[2] is the wisdom of God. As St Thomas teaches, not only does God create all things, but he guides them to their last end—to a purpose founded upon his goodness. Providence is that guiding type which exists in the mind of God. 

However, in the same way that we are caught up in the worship of God, so we are caught up in His Providence. For Divine Providence is not a static idea which sits unmoving in God, but affects and touches us at every moment.  

Which brings us to the second half of the text of St James that we are considering: ‘Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, in whom there is no change or shadow of alteration.’ Thus it is true: Divine Providence makes us to participate, in some way, in the changelessness of God. And that is a consoling truth to consider in our times—to know that, at every moment, we are sustained and upheld by the guiding hand of God’s might.

By way of repetition, therein lies the connection: to worship well is to be fixed ever more securely into God’s Providence. It is precisely as today’s exquisite collect prays:

O God, who makes the minds of the faithful to be of one will, give your people to love what you teach and to long for what you promise: so that amid the changing things of the world our hearts may be fixed in that place where true joys exist. 

That prayer breathes the Catholic spirit.  

I exchange the occasional letter with a Benedictine nun; and in her recent letter to me, she wrote that, ‘Paschaltide is always a little like living in the breach between time and eternity.’ So it is. The theme runs throughout the liturgy of Easter, and so this is where we are—the somewhat uncomfortable position of being in between time and eternity. But, despite everything, we are secure. Fixa sint corda. Indeed, let our hearts be fixed there: in that kingdom of our changeless Father. And we get there by way of our altars.  

 

 


[1] Apocalypse 21, 2.  

[2] Cf STh Ia, Q 22, a 1.   

{Art Credit: Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900), Stormy Sea at Night (1849), Pavlovsk Museum.}

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