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Wednesday, January 12th, 2022

‘Et erat subditus illis’: a Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Family

“Jesus went down with them, . . . and was subject to them” (Luke 2, 51).

In his epistle to the Romans, St Paul writes, 

But in like manner, the Spirit also helps our weakness. For we do not know how to pray for what we ought, but the Spirit himself pleads for us.[1]

This pleading of the Holy Ghost takes place, in a most eminent way, during the sacred liturgy. 

As you know, each liturgical text serves a particular function. Like the parts of a body, these texts form a complete whole, each part serving the whole. Each part signifies a certain spiritual effect. All this happens in such a way as to supply for the limitations of our ability to pray as we ought—especially when we pray in the presence of the Holy Mysteries. Perhaps at no other time do we need the Holy Ghost more desperately than when we handle holy things. But this is how Divine Providence has chosen to arrange the worship of the Church, and so we ought to be comforted and to approach without fear.  

Therefore, when we consider the texts of Holy Mass—especially the propers—I do not think it is incorrect to say that they draw us into a sort of guided meditation on whatever mystery is being commemorated that day. Each text tells us how we ought to pray and what dispositions to adopt.—None of this is to be done in a slavish or scrupulous way, let me be clear: we are not speaking of forcing anything. But we are speaking of allowing ourselves to be gently guided by the liturgical promptings of the Holy Ghost. This has nothing of an anxious air about it; it is all gentle guidance from Christ himself who is the high priest and victim of the liturgical action. 

All of that is by way of introduction; we turn our attention to the offertory and Communion antiphons. 

The offertory antiphon is the immediate preparation for the sacrifice. The Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, lessons, &c.: all these are so much remote preparation for the Canon of the Mass. But the offertory tells us that the sacrifice has begun. 

Today’s offertory is marked by an especially powerful theme; we hear it sung: Tulerunt Jesum parentes ejus in Jerusalem ut sisterent eum Domino; ‘His parents bore him up to Jerusalem, to place him before the Lord.’ You see how fitting the text is given what is happened at this moment in the sacred liturgy: the priest bears up the elements to be consecrated, and places them before the Father. Thus we are meant to connect in our prayer and understanding the actions of the Holy Family and the Holy Mass. Though still an infant, Christ begins his priestly service in the arms of his parents. And the offering which took place on that day centuries hence, is the same offering in which we participate now. That leads us to the essential principle of Catholic liturgical life: all the priestly action of Christ is contained here at the Holy Mass. 

Then there is the Communion antiphon; this text ought to be especially precious to us. None of us feel our weakness most acutely than when we approach the Communion rail; the priest feels the weight of his sinfulness when he bends over the silent Host before his Communion. But Mother Church comes to our rescue in that moment; by way of the Communion antiphon, she gives us the words that ought to be in our minds and hearts. 

Today, then, we are humbled to the dust. Descendit Jesus cum eis et venit Nazareth et erat subditus illis; ‘Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth and was subject to them.’ As pious literature about the priesthood sometimes puts it, God himself obeys the priest when he speaks the sacramental formulas.—Hoc est enim corpus meum, and Christ descends upon the altars. And as Our Lord was subject to Our Lady and St Joseph, he continues to be sacramentally subject to us at each of our Holy Communions.  

This self-subjugation of the God-man ought to be a constant source of wonder in the spiritual life of the Catholic. The feast of the Holy Family reminds us of how it continues and is effectual at each and every Holy Mass. No wonder this is a thing worth suffering and dying for; Christ was the first to do so. 

 


[1] Romans 8, 26ff.

{Art Credit: Girolamo Troppa, Holy Family (17th c.); private collection.

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