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Media Vita

Thursday, April 09, 2020

By Br Albert Elias Robertson, O.P. | As we begin the Sacred Paschal Triduum, Br Albert reflects on what it means to celebrate the victory of life in the face of death.

Today begins the Sacred Paschal Triduum, the celebration of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, and our share in that victory. But for a lot of us this year, this will be a Triduum like no other; for the faithful with no access to churches, the liturgies will either be something they participate in over the internet by live-streaming, or by prayerfully meditating on the readings and texts of the liturgies. Kits have been produced by enterprising church suppliers so that you can can have your own mini-paschal candle to light while you keep Vigil behind locked doors. For us friars too, and for priests and religious all around the world, the celebration of Holy Week will be muted this year because the lack of congregation and the fear of contagion has meant that the Rites themselves have been abridged and truncated to be less of a burden to celebrate. Even though we have the immense privilege of still being able to attend the Sacred Liturgy, for us too, it will not be the same.

Compline is one of the great treasures of our Order, and it has some of the most beautiful chants. On Sundays, Feasts and Solemnities in Lent we sing the Responsary Media Vita, a text originating, according to Wikipedia at least, in a battle song written in 912 by Notker the Stammerer, a monk of the Abbey of Saint Gall.* The Responsary is one of my favourite parts of Lent, and the text has seemed peculiarly appropriate this year: ‘In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.’ This year we celebrate the great victory of life, Eternal Life won for us by Christ’s saving death, in the middle of death.

Of course each year the Triduum plunges us into the midst of death; but how seriously do we take it? Each year at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper we read from the twelfth chapter of Exodus about the institution of the Passover meal, a type and shadow of Christ’s own Paschal Sacrifice. But we always stop short of what might be for us, this year at least, the most important detail; the people of Israel are told that ‘…none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning’ (Exodus, 12:22). That first Passover the people of Israel were shut up behind their doors, and plunged into the middle of death, spared from the death dealing angel by the sign of blood on the lintels of their houses.

The disciples too will shelter in fear of death. After the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, they scatter and return to that same upper room where they had met the night before for the Last Supper, locking the door for fear of the crowd. Jesus dies just as the lambs were being sacrificed for the Passover, and so the disciples locked in that upper room become like the people of Israel in Egypt: shut behind a door waiting for their liberation.

This year we are in a special way the people of Israel, and in a special way the fearful disciples. Our time of isolation is a time for the removal of communion; but only of bad communion. It is worth remembering that the word contagion comes from the Latin contagio, meaning contact or touch. That kind of contact or touch is bad communion, because it is related to that first sin of our race, touching and taking the forbidden fruit. This is the contact or touch which brings the opposite of communion, a disunity. In the case of our present situation, it can bring the ultimate form of disunity, the disintegration of death.

But while we shelter behind doors like the people of Israel and the disciples, it is worth remembering that it is that same room that Christ enters on the evening of His Resurrection, breathing on the disciples the Holy Spirit. What is offered here is genuine communion, not the stacked up touches from person to person which pass on the contagion. The offer of communion still remains even though we are physically distanced from one another, because the communion of the Church knows no limit of time and space. So in the midst of our fear, in the midst of death, while we celebrate the precious victory that Christ has won for us, Christ comes to visit each of our households saying, Peace be with you.

* In the original Dominican breviary it was used from the Third to the Fifth Sundays of Lent at Compline, and perhaps something of our shared history with the Augustinians accounts for the fact that it was a favourite of Martin Luther. Presumably it was from there that it made its way into the Book of Common Prayer as part of the burial service. There’s a beautiful musical setting by Sheppard.


Br Albert Elias Robertson O.P.

Br Albert Elias was born in Surrey and went to university at the London School of Economics, where he read Social Anthropology before going to Oxford, where he read for an MPhil in Material Anthropology. After studies, he had a propaedeutic year in three Anglican parishes in north London. He became a Catholic in 2013 and worked for a short time in London living at St Patrick’s Soho before entering the noviciate in 2015. Br Albert helps to run the Thomistic Institute and so has an interest in promoting the theology of St Thomas as well as Patristics. In his spare time he likes to read novels [lots]. | albert.robertson@english.op.org


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