Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

‘Vultum tuum requiram’: a Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension

My heart hath said to thee, I have sought thy face, thy face, O Lord, I shall seek (Psalm 26, viii). 

During the days after the Ascension, the Church is occupied with a single thought: the coming of the Holy Ghost. 

A week from now, on Whitsunday, we are going to sing that incomparable sequence, the Veni Sancte Spiritus. And in that sequence, the Church will use a very striking title to call upon the Holy Ghost: Dulcis hospes animæ, the sweet guest of the soul. And though I can’t remember where I first heard it, there a is brief devotional prayer that uses the same title: ‘Come Holy Spirit, sweet Guest of my soul: abide ever in me, and grant that I might ever abide in thee.’ 

Thus, during this post-Ascension novena, and even in our previous few Sundays, the Church is pondering the mystery of God as the coming Guest. The Polish have a charming proverb which says much the same: Gość w dom, Bog w dom; ‘a guest in the house is God in the house.’ Naturally we should think of Abraham entertaining the three angels, the type of the triune God.[1] And it is the same insight which moved St Benedict to command that, when guests came to the monastery, the receiving brothers were to prostrate themselves and adore Christ abiding hidden in the guest.[2] 

Today we approach that mystery, and on Pentecost we will reach the end of the logic of the Easter season, which runs something like this: Lent and Passiontide gives us Christ’s saving sacrifice; Easter Day gives us his victory over death; Ascension completes that victory as he returns to the Father; and Pentecost settles the Church into her state of pilgrimage; which, in conclusion, explains why a full half of the liturgical year is devoted to the time after Pentecost.   

But to think: God the Guest! But that is theological precision, not sentimentality—because God does not force entry into the lives he has made: ‘I now no longer call you slaves, for a slave does not know what his master does; but I have called you friends.’[3] No, there is no breaking and entering with God. And our collect for today proves the matter, too: it asks that we be given the grace to conform our wills to God’s: ‘grant us to have a will devoted to you.’ The will is the faculty of desire and choice, and by this prayer we ask God for the grace and liberty to hand over and synchronize our wills to his. One thinks of the officers along the Western Front synchronizing their wrist watches in order to coordinate their attacks.    

That explains today’s introit which I quoted at the beginning: quæsivi vultum tuum, vultum tuum Domine requiram. As Cardinal Schuster explains, ‘This grand introit, which teaches us so insistently to seek always the face of God, that is, to have him always present in our thoughts and in our desires.’[4] That is what it means to seek God’s face: not that he is lost and must be found, but that his very self is a destination toward which we are traveling. The Holy Ghost becomes our guest precisely when we seek him.  

Thus, as we prepare for Whitsun, I do not see why we should not think in terms of giving hospitality to God; the art of homemaking and hospitality is indeed an analogy of the spiritual life. What is it that we do when we are expecting company? We clean house, lay the table, await the guest’s arrival, open the door promptly on his arrival, and rejoice to see his face. Vultuum tuum quæsivi; vultum tuum Domine requiram. 

And in the sacred liturgy, divine hospitality becomes sacrifice and adoration. (Psalm 26 proves it, and if you are looking for a prayer to prepare you for Whitsun, today you have found it.) But that God should be our guest. This divine condescension makes us to wonder, and that wonder becomes liturgy and a life devoted to God’s service. That God should be our guest. And it is precisely in that moment that the tables are turned: for in our Latin tongue, hospes is the word both for guest and host. And then we can speak of the sacred host which we receive from this altar, which must come from Latin hostia, victim. Here the victim becomes our guest, and by him the Holy Ghost lingers under the lattices of the soul. And if you want an illustration of what the Catholic life is, now you have it.     


[1] Genesis 18, ii ff.

[2] Cf Rule ch 53.

[3] John 15, xv.

[4] Schuster, vol II, p 379.

{Art Credit: detail, Rembrandt, Abraham Entertaining Angels (1646); private collection.}

Homilies & Sermons