This year I am tasked with looking at the first reading for Sundays in the Vetus Ordo. For this 2nd Sunday of Lent, Holy Church has us read for about the 1500th time St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians 4:1-7. It is not read in the Novus Ordo Lectionary on any Sunday, but it is on one Friday of every other year.
Before anything else, let’s see it, in the Revised Standard Version (RSV):
Brethren: we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you. For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness.
Some context, as always. Firstly, 1 Thessalonians starts out as encouraging along with Paul’s expression of desire to return to see their community. It winds up with an a description of the Second Coming, alas too sketchy for us moderns. One can imagine that he had told the Thessalonians more when he was among them and this is a brief reminder, much as he did in a letter to the Corinthians when he mentioned the mysterious “restrainer… katéchon.” In 1 Thess 4, therefore, there is an exhortation about how to live in view of the return of the Lord. They must keep to tradition and live in purity (vv. 1-2 & 3-8 which cover our Epistle reading for Sunday) in view of the Second Coming of Christ (vv. 13-18). In fact, this chapter has the verses used to underpin the false teaching about the “Rapture,” in which Paul writes about those “who are left” being “caught up… in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17). One problem with this is that Paul says this will happen after the Resurrection. So, those who have died will be raised and then those “who are left” will be caught up “with them”:
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
This isn’t a “Rapture” in the sense that some will be “left behind” until a later Coming, a Second Second Coming. It is about the Second Coming, pure and simple.
So, that is some context for our Epistle reading. The Gospel is the account of the Transfiguration of the Lord from Matthew 17. You recall it, but briefly, the Lord leads the core three Apostles, Peter, John and James to a high place and there allows something of His divinity to radiate out of His humanity so that He shone bright white as the sun while he conversed with Moses and Elijah. If only we had an account of what they said!
Looking back at our Epistle reading and knowing that Holy Church weaves things together for our moral and spiritual uplifting, our own transformation, you might be wondering how the reading from 1 Thess 4 and Matthew 17 might related? Well, again context helps. I’m not so sure that they are woven together in this case. They just happened to be together. That doesn’t mean that the one can’t help us interpret the others for our own contexts and times.
We have the historical context for this particular Sunday to consider. You know that each day in Lent has a Roman Station church to which our forebears processed for Holy Mass with their Bishop, the Pope. This Station this Sunday is Santa Maria in Domnica on the Caelian Hill. However, it wasn’t always so. Originally there was no Station because this 2nd Sunday was perceived as a wrap up to the preceding Ember Saturday, which after several readings from the Old Testament and from 1 Thess 5 also had the same Gospel about the Transfiguration. In fact, ancient sacramentaries reveal that there wasn’t even a Mass on this Sunday, because of the weariness of the people who had been praying and fasting intensely from Friday through Saturday and into the morning of Sunday.
Once upon a time, the Roman Church did not have feasts in honor of the mysteries of the Lord’s life. By the middle ages, Western churches and monasteries began imitating the Greek East by instituting feasts such as that of the Transfiguration, which was eventually codified by Pope Callixtus III. Until them, however, the Second Sunday of Lent, with the previous Saturday, had become a celebration of the Lord’s Transfiguration.
This Sunday’s Mass formulary is therefore a patchwork of pericopes and antiphons from other formularies. For example, Sunday’s Secret is the same as that of the other dominica vacat or “empty Sunday” after the Ember Saturday of December, the Communion chant is from the previous Wednesday and the Postcommunion is from Sexagesima Sunday. That doesn’t mean there cannot be cohesion between them.
Here is an observation from Bl. Ildefonso Schuster:
Thus the patchwork composition of this Sunday’s Mass confirms two important principles. The first is liturgical – namely, that the Mass of the Pannuchis [i.e., Ember Days] dispensed originally with the celebration of any other Mass, so that in some places the holy Sacrifice was not offered even on Easter Day. The second principle is theological – to wit, that the ecclesiastical spirit, especially in the matter of liturgy, which to the ordinary Catholic is as a part of his Catechism, is strongly opposed to that of hankering after novelty so dear to the secular mind.
Pious and simple souls are disturbed by any kind of innovation, as though they feared it would shatter the edifice of their faith, fortified by the buttress of patriotic tradition. To pray to God in those same formulas dedicated by the Fathers, to sing those same hymns which comforted them in their sorrows and labours for the Church; all this helps us to enter more completely into their devotion, and to be sharers with them in their hopes and their ideals.
A gracious insight into tradition and those who desire it.
With that I will circle back to the Epistle reading from 1 Thessalonians. Paul begins with an exhortation to stick to tradition, that is, what Paul handed down to them (vv. 1-2):
[As] you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification.
Why? Not for some addlepated-progressivist, conciliar-dogmatist, discontinuity-positivist notion about “nostalgia” which is constantly launched at those who desire traditional liturgical worship, with the doctrine and identity that it supports. Frankly, they use “nostalgia” as an insult about the shallow-sentimentality of those less enlightened, not yet inducted into their Gnosticism. In truth there is a profound meaning to the word. Anthony Esolen, in his book Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World explores this. Nostalgia is, as the Greek indicates, a pain (algea) we feel for our “return home” (nostron): “pain for the return, ache for the homecoming.” It is an essential longing. False nostalgia might be thought of as a desire for some “golden age” that is no more, and probably never was. A desire for something better. Augustine, drawing on the science of the day, describes the heart as restless because, according to ancient thought, gravity was a tendency within the thing itself which compelled it to go to where it belonged. The object tries to get where it is supposed to be. Thus, with the heart and God. Augustine says, “amor meus, pondus meum… my love is my weight.” This is at the heart of what Esolen explores in Nostalgia. He uses to great effect the figure of Odysseus and his long path to get home after the Trojan War. But I digress. Our Epistle reading begins with Paul’s admonishing to stick to tradition.
The reading continues, and remember that after this pericope Paul writes about the Second Coming, which will involve judgment, with reminders about the danger of immorality. Their world was still a pagan world with its pagan ways. Christians, who came from that milieu, were under the social pressure to adhere to that “tradition” including immoral practices. Hence, Paul warns again “the lust of concupiscence… pathos epithimías” of the Gentiles. As disciples, they were not to be idle and were to treat each other fairly, fraternally, and to avoid “uncleaness… akatharsía.” This is not ritual “uncleaness,” which had no moral implications, but rather precisely moral impurity, acts resulting from lust and impure motives. The Lord launched this word at the scribes and Pharisees in their whited-sepulcher chat (Matthew 23:27).
In the Transfiguration, the Lord gave Peter, John and James a view of something of His divinity whereby He strengthens their wills against the horror of his upcoming Passion. The Lord handed down to them something meant to bolster them in the moment of trial. In his letter, Paul tells the community at Thessalonica to stick to what he had handed down to them from Christ, knowing that they were in the grinder too, in a pagan society.
Our days are not so unlike the pagan times. These are again pagan times, with all the resultant impurity. Impurity is celebrated and, through the devious machinations of powers that control the mass media, made the constant screen that obscures hearts and minds from knowing where our true homeland is. They are the sirens who snare us as they did to the crew of Odysseus. They are Circe, who changed the crew into swine.
Peter denied the Lord, James fled, and only John returned to be at the foot of the Cross. Let us not get puffed up about how tough we are in view of the Enemy of the soul’s relentless grinder.
I will only like to whisper the suggestion that in many places we also face the grinder within the Church as well, now more than ever. We need the view of the Transfiguration to strengthen the whole of the Church! We need Paul’s advice and warnings in view of the Second Coming!
Paul’s imprecation against impurity recalls the Prophet’s diatribes against the people’s infidelity to God and the covenants in terms of adultery and whoring. If then it was a term of the Jews for the ways of the Gentiles and their false Gods, then why not for us members of the Catholic Church who depart from what has been handed down to us through a nearly violent program cum pogrom of rupture?
As Lent continues, let us remember the lessons of our forebears, which they gave us as loving gifts. A Sunday like this might have originated as a patchwork because a specific formulary was lacking. But it was lacking because they were exhausted from the vigils and fasts and liturgical rites of many long hours. How’s your Lent going?
The moral exhortation of Paul with the account of the Transfiguration reminds us of the dangers we face from the world, the flesh and the Devil, in the Church and from without.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz