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Monday, July 19th, 2021

‘Non esse possumus’: a Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Sine te esse non possumus.—Is there any more metaphysically necessary statement for man than that? Whether we learn it from the best philosophers of the West or from Moses, the truth is the same. From the metaphysicians, we learn that God is the First Cause, and all things depend upon that cause in some mode or another. In Exodus ch 3, we learn the same truth, but from God himself: ‘I am who am.’ So it is only right that the sacred liturgy should also declare the truth, especially at the beginning of Holy Mass, as we just heard. ‘With out you, Lord, we cannot so much as be.’ 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves; that clause comes at the end of our collect for today. 

The Church has put on the lips of the priest today the singular imperative of the word largio, that is, to give bountifully, abundantly, or to lavish. But yes, that is precisely what the Holy Mass is: the premier expression of the largesse of God—his saving sacrifice, re-presented un-bloodily, and applied to our weak and wavering souls. So when you think about the Mass for yourself, or if you must explain it to others, there is your definition: it is the largesse of God for us. Every detail of our worship points to it. As you behold the Mass unfolding before you, you are witnessing the lavishness of Christ’s Heart at work—and more than merely witnessing, but receiving.  

And yet the collect is even more specific: ‘In mercy, lavish upon us, O Lord, the spirit of always thinking and doing what is right:’ quæ recta sunt et agendi. To be sure, recta means more than simply behavioral niceness or correctness. A thing or person that is recta is proper, honest, straight, rightly ordered. Thus the specific grace of this collect: the mercy of always thinking and acting in ways that are upright and true.          

And that brings us to our present moment in the life of the Church. All of this is the medicine for those of us who were, to one degree or another, disturbed by the news of July 16th. Be utterly clear in your own hearts, beloved friends: despite what others may say, we cannot be mistaken about what we cherish. We ask only to think and to act rightly; to worship rightly.—Which is an essential reminder to all of us here. Our love of traditional Catholic liturgy makes demands upon us; it has nothing to do with party spirit or whatever else our enemies may say of us. Dear friends, we do well to make sure that we are always striving to be worthy of the rites we celebrate. The degree to which we find these things precious, must be reflected in our self-denying love of God and neighbor.   

So today’s collect is precisely what the Divine Goodness is prescribing for our moment. For it puts before us, in beautiful parallelism, our powerlessness on the one hand, and the lavishness of God on the other. We can do nothing about hostile decrees emanating from the Holy See; we can do nothing about ‘the bishop in white’ who countenances idol worship and doctrinal confusion; we can do nothing about the weaknesses of our prelates, nothing about the cultural forces that daily gather against us, and on the list may go.—But what we cannot do is far less interesting and important than what God can do, and does, and shall do.    

But that is the dynamic of the whole of the spiritual life—our weakness and Christ’s might. Which is precisely why the earliest Catholics, when hauled before the magistrates for illegally worshipping on Sunday, could say simply, Sine Dominica, non possumus; ‘Without the things that are the Lord’s, we cannot be.’ In these times of ours, we repeat it humbly and courageously, like children.  

That will be our cry and it will carry us always. With Our Lady and the saints to sustain us, it will be our cry, so long as we can be worthy of it. 

 


{Art Credit: The Presence, A E Borthwick, early 20th c; St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.}

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