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1st Passion Sunday: Unfurl the Battle Banners!

In the ancient Roman Church, before the establishment of what we now call Lent, we would have begun today, now called 1st Passion Sunday, a more intense fortnight fast leading to Easter morning. It is important for us to keep in mind that another source for teasing forth the themes of the seasons and feasts and each Holy Mass is the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours. Religious and clerics have a greater connection to this liturgical font than most laypeople, since they obliged to it. Today, in the day’s first hour, Matins, which has various readings and responses (changed into the post-Conciliar Office of Readings) we have the fourteen theme.

These are the days to be observed of you in their seasons. * In the fourteenth day at even is the Lord’s Passover, and on the fifteenth day ye shall keep a Feast unto the Lord, the Most High.  Isti sunt dies, quos observáre debétis tempóribus suis: * Quartadécima die ad vésperum Pascha Dómini est: et in quintadécima solemnitátem celebrábitis altíssimo Dómino.

Let’s continue with some liturgical-historical context, which can serve to reinforce our Catholic identity in our own times.

The Roman Station is at St. Peter’s in the Vatican, reaching back to when there were vigils on Saturday followed by diaconal and presbyteral ordinations in the morning. On this Sunday when – at least in our imaginations and in union with our forebears – we are at the place where the first Vicar of Christ was crucified, the theme of the Mass is overshadowed by the Christ’s own Passion and crucifixion. The final battle with death is soon to begin liturgically, and to usher it in we sing at Matins the tetrameter trochaic catalectic hymn,

Pange, lingua, gloriósi proélium certáminis,
Et super Crucis trophaéo

Dic triúmphum nóbilem,
Quáliter Redémptor orbis Immolátus vícerit.

Sing, my tongue, of the victory in glorious battle
and tell a noble triumphal (song) about the trophy of the Cross,
how the once Immolated Redeemer of the world prevailed.

This was written in the meter of the marching songs of the Roman legions of G. Iulius Caesar in Gaul as reported by the Roman historian Suetonius (c. 49).

From this Sunday, we are marching to the battlefield. We even unfurl our battle banners, our war flags in the form of veiling images in our churches.

Coincidently, today in St. Peter’s the Veil of Veronica is displayed.

I say we “unfurl our banners”.  However, another way of seeing these veils is as part of the liturgical Passion of the Church together with her Lord.  I’ll explain.

All during pre-Lent and Lent we are losing liturgical life, in  sense.  The Alleluia goes on Septuagesima.  Music and flowers go on Ash Wednesday.   Now, statues and images are draped in purple.  That is why today is sometimes called Repus Sunday, from repositus analogous to absconditus or “hidden”, because this is the day when Crosses and other images in churches are veiled. Traditionally Crosses are covered until the end of the Passion on Good Friday. Also as of today in the Vetus Ordo, the “Iudica” psalm in prayers at the foot of the altar and the Gloria Patri at the end of certain prayers is no longer said. After the Mass on Holy Thursday the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the main altar, which itself is stripped. Bells are replaced with wooden noise makers. On Good Friday there isn’t even a Mass and for long there was no Communion on Friday but also Thursday because there wasn’t even a “Mass” of the Pre-Sanctified. At the beginning of the Easter Vigil we are deprived of light itself! It is as if the Church herself were completely dead with the Lord in His tomb.

This liturgical death of the Church reveals how Christ emptied Himself of His glory in order to save us from our sins and to teach us who we are.

The Church then gloriously springs to life again at the Vigil of Easter.  In ancient times, the Vigil was celebrated in the depth of night.  In the darkness a single spark would be struck from flint and spread into the flames.  The flames spread through the whole Church.

We are focusing this year on the Vetus Ordo’s first reading, the Epistle. In the well-known reading from Hebrews 9, Paul stresses the High Priesthood of Christ, and our redemption in the shedding of His Blood.   Since this letter was written to the Hebrews, Paul used references that every Hebrew of his day would have understood right away, like shorthand.

Brethren: when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. (RSV)

Every descendant of the Hebrews would have known that the brother of Moses, Aaron, was set apart to be the High Priest over the People and that all subsequent priests were to offer sacrifices according to God’s prescriptions in the portable sanctuary or tabernacle and later in the Temple.   They knew that on one special day of the year, the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur ­- the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer a blood sacrifice to reconcile the entire people with God and atone for all their sins.   Paul underscored how that repeated annual action of the High Priest of the old covenant was a foreshadowing of Christ’s far superior, once-for-all Sacrifice.

Remembering that the Hebrews knew about the old covenant priesthood, Paul’s explanation of a New Covenant also takes care of the problem that Jesus of Nazareth was not of the tribe of Levi, like Aaron.  He was, however, the heir of David who was King and Priest in the line of Melchizedek the King of Salem (Jeru-salem), which pre-dated the Aaronic, Levitical priesthood.  And Jesus is the “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4).  Paul refers to Melchizedek in Hebrews 5:6-10 and 6:20 and 7:1-21 and 8:1.  Hebrews 7 is especially important. You might read it through before Sunday Mass.

Another point that Paul makes is that Christ is High Priest in a “greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)”.   This is a reference to the tent of presence, the tri-partite portable sanctuary.  This subdivided tent contained, as the Temple would later, the area of sacrifices in an outer “court”. Sectioned off within that was the holy place for the Presence Bread, Menorah, and Altar of Incense.  Within that was the inmost place, the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was, where only the High Priest could enter and only once a year (cf. Leviticus 16).   So, if Christ is to enter a tent not made by human hands, Paul could only mean the sanctuary of Heaven.   Into this Holy of Holies, the High Priest took His own Blood as the expiatory, reconciling once-for-all time Sacrifice to atone for every sin ever committed.

Moreover, this is a new covenant with God.  All previous covenants were marked by several features: they were instituted in a high place, and they involved both a sacrifice and a meal to seal the deal.   Hence, all previous covenants pointed to the height of Calvary, the sacrificial altar of the Cross, and the meal of the Last Supper. Calvary and Cenacle were bound together as one event because Christ only consumed the Passover meal’s fourth and final drink of wine just before He consummated the Sacrifice and breathed His last.  Supper was Sacrifice to be and Sacrifice was Supper that was and continues to the end of days.  Because our High Priest ascended out of time and space to the heavenly temple where He perpetually offers His Sacrifice to the Father, we can renew that same Last Supper Calvary Sacrifice on our altars across the globe, even simultaneously (cf. Hebrews 8:1ff).

I’ll wrap this with a quote from Pius Parsch’s The Church’s Year of Grace about the beginning of Passiontide.

During the coming two weeks let us draw close to Christ in His bitter suffering, to Jesus the Man of Sorrows. Let us weep and sympathize with Him; but let us likewise regard Him as the conqueror upon the battlefield of Golgotha, with whom we too will be victorious. Let us see in Him the King who rules while suffering upon the throne of the Cross, with whom we too may rule by rising above the troubles and misfortunes of life. In spirit let us follow our High-priest as He passes into the Holy of Holies to sacrifice Himself for us; He is inviting us to share in His priesthood by offering ourselves as victims.

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