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12th Sunday after Pentecost: You are Christ’s love letter

In the flow of our green Vetus Ordo Sundays, this 12th Sunday after Pentecost brings the last selection from Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians.  Next week we begin with Galatians.   The order of our readings is very ancient, older in fact than the institution of the Divine Office.   Hence, for our ancient Roman forebears, these readings during the so-called Mass of the Catechumens were a major element of the Church’s meditative prayer life.

It occurs to ask: Why did our predecessors in the Faith want more Scripture read at Mass?  They had more, after all.  More is better.  Right?  Why did it take a millennium and a half for us finally to wise up?  Did our ancestors know something that we moderns don’t know?

That’s something of the context of the flow of our Sundays and of the history of our readings.  Let us turn to the context of our first reading, the Epistle, for Holy Mass, from 2 Cor 3:4-9.

St. Paul was compelled to deal with detractors and interlopers, probably people who followed him around and interfered with his work. They showed up with letter of recommendation, perhaps falsified, from other communities as credentials. In the first two chapters of 2 Cor, Paul defends himself. He is concerned that if the people reject him, they will also reject the true Faith he brought them to.  To defend the Good News, he was forced to defend himself.

At the beginning of the 2 Cor 3, Paul wrote:

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

You see the element of the “letters of recommendation”.  Paul counters, “You know me. YOU are the living proofs of who I am and the authenticity of what I taught, which is from God.”

And here is the Sunday reading in the RSV…

[Brethren:] Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor? For if there was splendor in the dispensation of condemnation, the dispensation of righteousness must far exceed it in splendor.

And it’s continuation…

10 Indeed, in this case, what once had splendor has come to have no splendor at all, because of the splendor that surpasses it. 11 For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor.

When Moses returned from his colloquy with God, His face shone as if giving off something of the Divine Glory cloud which he had soaked in.  At first, Moses face was too bright to look at, but it began to fade.  Moses did not want the people to see the light fading, so he kept the veil on (v. 13).  The point Paul is making that is the splendor of the old covenant is inferior to that of the new.

There are a couple of a minore ad maius arguments here, “from the lesser to the greater”.  As we just saw, if when people were under the passing covenant there was something resplendent, but even more glorious is what we have in the Spirit with Christ.  Also, if strangers claiming authority come with a credential from outside the community, how more does Paul have authority with them, whose already well-known credentials are written on their hearts.  As Paul wrote just before our liturgical pericope, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts” (v.2)

However, the Apostle to the Gentiles points to the true source of all authority and their graces of conversion, of belief and of life: “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (v.5).

Bl Ildefonso Schuster remarks that this reading is in harmony with the Offertory antiphon, which he says is “one of the most beautiful pieces in the Gregorian collection”.

Allow a digression which isn’t a digression.  When our forerunners in the Faith chose their texts for Mass, they intended that people should not hear merely the limited content of those particular lines of Holy Writ in isolation.  They knew that they had a greater context and that those contexts could overlap.  Here we have an example.  The Offertory antiphon is from Exodus 32, which is about the Golden Calf incident.  God is wrathful and would destroy the people for their idolatry.  Moses begs God, invoking God’s own actions in saving the people from Egypt and His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel/Jacob.  God relented.

To back up Bl. Ildefonso, I can attest that the Offertory chant is strikingly beautiful, particularly at the invocation of the names of the great patriarchs (v.13) which is the emotion-packed climax of the chant before it drops into its peaceful denouement.  You want to hear the chant and follow the chant notation?  HERE

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? […] 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

Then Moses came down the mountain with the two covenant tablets of stone.  In the preliminary section of 2 Corinthians 3 before our liturgical pericope what did we see?

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (v.3).

Admitting some exceptions and adjustments through history, in most of our Mass formularies the readings and the antiphons are woven together. By the singing of Exodus 22 as the offertory procession brings the needed things for the Sacrifice to the altar, we hear the dramatic moment when, by Moses intervention, God puts aside his wrath over falsehood, idolatry.  St. Paul, in his appeal, also interceded with God for his beloved Corinthians lest they should succumb to deception and false doctrine, backslide into their former pagan idolatry and provoke God’s anger.

Returning to those questions about the expansion of the readings from Scripture after Vatican II, we may have more Scripture now, which in itself isn’t bad.  How could it be?  But something was lost in having a three year cycle on Sunday, including in many cases, coherence between antiphons and readings.

Lest I digress into all the antiphons and the wealth of the Gospel parable about the Good Samaritan, we might search for a take away.

Paul and Moses are intercessors for their respective charges.  Clearly in the case of the later and surely in the case of the former, God was appeased.  Moses invoked the Patriarchs.  Paul invoked, well, himself, but also clearly giving all the credit to God and to what had been worked through him by God in the hearts of those who heard his letter being read aloud.

Moses invoked as his forensic witnesses in his argument before God’s judgment saintly figures who were dead and had passed out of this earthly realm.  Paul, in making his argument about his authority before the judgment of his audience invoked saintly figures who were still alive and working out their salvation in this earthly realm, namely, the Corinthians themselves.

In both cases we see at work our Catholic doctrine of the invocations of the saints, especially in regard to those whom time and the Church’s own authority have identified as worthy of our veneration and prayers for intercession.

The fact is, we all, living and dead members of the Church, Christ’s Mystical Person, have a care for each other.  The merits of the saints can be applied to us.  In invoking the saints in our lives we both implicitly and explicitly give God the glory that is the whole point in the end.  We are not isolated individuals while we are here in this vale of tears.

The saints of heaven and the saintly here among us have a care for our well-being.  If they have a care for us, when we become fully aware of how integrated and bound together we are, how much more should we be motivated by fitting attention to them?

Honor for the saints, our neighbors in Heaven. Sacrificial love for our neighbors whom we encounter along this road of life.  You are Christ’s love letter to them both.

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