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20th Sunday after Pentecost: Sober Inebriation

Context is always important. First, where are we in the liturgical year for this 20th Sunday after Pentecost Historically, this is the 5th Sunday after the Feast of St. Cyprian. Obviously, this is a telling of Sundays that existed before numbering them after Pentecost. The great liturgist, Bl. Ildefonso Schuster informs us that

The computation of the number of weeks between Pentecost and Advent has not always been the same, since at Rome the Sundays nearest to the feasts of the apostles and of St Lawrence were reckoned; then came those after St Cyprian, and lastly, in some versions, there followed a concluding series of Sundays after the dedication of St Michael, post Sanctum Angelum. This explains why, as we have already observed, the Introits of these last Sundays form, as it were, a group by themselves, not being taken, as was the general rule, from the psalms but from the prophetic books.

Our Epistle reading is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5: 15-21, a chapter that some noisy members of the Synod on Synodality (“Walking Together about Walking Togetherity”) do not enjoy reading because of its condemnation of “filthiness” (aischrotēs), which is homosexual behavior.

Paul spent a good deal of time in Ephesus, a heavily pagan city in Asia Minor, some three years. Most of his converted Christian community would have been from Gentile background. He wrote this letter to his spiritual children while in prison in Rome, just about 10 minutes by foot from where I presently clack the keys. Paul wrote to reinforce the unity of that community, impressing on the Gentiles that they were not to live according to their old pagan ways and to help them to a knew identity in Christ, rather than as Gentile and Jew.

There is an autumnal feel to this pericope, or cutting from Scripture for the liturgy. There is time imagery and the mention of wine and song, as there would be in a wine harvest. After this reading, we hear in the Gradual about how God’s servants hope for “food in good season” (Ps 145/144).

[Brethren:] Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Again in the Gradual after this reading, in the “verse” we sing of singing, chanting praise to God (Ps 108/107).

This passage from Ephesians is a common sense warning about the world we live in, a warning which applies as much to us today, if not more than it did to the ancient listeners (letters were read aloud). The Christian must be very careful in the material world. One way of putting this is his image of “intoxication”.

Paul writes of being full of the spirit. Being full of earthy wine will produce various behaviors, including singing, and not always very good songs. They will be loud and boisterous. Being filled with the Holy Spirit produces song as well, “psalms, hymns, spiritual songs” which are “melody in your hearts.” If worldly wine might produce a measure of self-referential boasting, the intoxication of the Spirit results in thanksgiving to the Lord.

Another effect of the intoxication of worldly and spiritual wine might be melancholy. The formula for Mass has its melancholy over tone because of references to the Babylonian Exile. Sunday’s Offertory is the brief: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion,” which continues, as the well-read listeners can continue on his own,

On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

The Mass today has deep currents. As I write, I am reminded of what it is to be a part of the exiled people, those who want the Traditional Roman Rite. In a recent exchange in presser at the Synod (“walking together”) the image of being banished from the Church was offered to Card. Tobin, who, after having just waxed eloquently about how beautiful the Church is by inclusion of active homosexuals, then denied that traditional Catholics were banished. It’s for your own good, he implied. You’ll get used to not being happy.  It is as if he said, “Sing us one of your songs.”

The Christian, beset, banished, persecuted, reacts with joy. If we have passing moments of anguish or melancholy, knowledge of our baptismal character should buoy us up right away. Thinking about the blessings of our very existence, in the time and place God wants us, the availability of the actual graces we need to live our vocation, these blessings raise us above the huggermugger. That sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us as in a temple, fills us with a joy that wants to burst out. When Peter and Apostles left the Sanhedrin after their scrutiny, they rejoiced (Acts 5:41). Paul and Silas sang in prison:

about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened. (Acts 16)

Shall we not do the same? Could it be possible that we “trads” put aside some of our differences, lay down the sack of melancholy we drag around, put to flight the little black clouds that hover, and together attune our song? It seems to me that when people see our joy in the benefits of the traditional rites, they are attracted as well. Sure. There will always be those who try to beat us down. Let ‘em try.

When the guards over Paul and Silas saw what happened, they converted.

There is an old theme explored by many sages of the Church: sober intoxication that stems precisely from these verses of our reading today. Firstly, your mind will flash to Acts 2:1-13 and the Pentecost descent of the Holy Spirit, when some thought that those filled with the Spirit were drunk, though it was early in the day: “filled with new wine.” Many Fathers of the Church such as Origen, St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose’s hymn Splendor paternae gloriae for Lauds in the traditional Office, and this hymn has survived in the Novus Ordo I believe, has the theme of sobria ebrietas. After singing about controlling our souls and untarnished purity, we sing:

Christusque nobis sit cibus,
potusque noster sit fides;
laeti bibamus sobriam
ebrietatem Spiritus.

Let Christ be our food,
and let Faith be our drink.
Joyful, let us drink the
Spirit’s sober intoxication.

Writing about the Church’s sacred music, Joseph Ratzinger in his Spirit of the Liturgy used the theme of sober inebriation to drill into the difference between music which is fitting for liturgy and which is not. He writes of the Holy Spirit enkindling in us the desire to sing out of love with words that surpass earthly meanings because they are rooted in the logos, spiritual rationality, rather than the worldly spirit that drags us into an intoxication that crushes rationality and makes us slaves to the physical senses. As St. Augustine wrote, “cantare amantis est… Singing belongs to one who loves” (s. 336, 1 – PL 38, 1472).

So, we circle back to our reading for this Sunday, wherein Paul tells us to be cautious about being in the world, for we are living in evil times. These times might be hard, but in due season all shall be fulfilled. We have every reason always to rise up and sing in thanksgiving and joy for the wonderful things that we have received in our own due season, already fulfilled and yet still ongoing.


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