Missa Deus in adjutorium meum intende
POPE BENEDICT XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth (Vol 1) has an amazing commentary on today’s Gospel. I’m fully indebted to His Holiness for the roots of the ideas. If anything is amiss here, it is my fault, though.
Today’s Collect continues in a theme that has been repeatedly expressed in recent weeks. We can do nothing without God first giving us the gift to do it. Today the gift is worship itself. In the Novus Ordo Common Preface IV reminds us of this saying,
For, although you have no need of our praise,
yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift,
since our praises add nothing to your greatness
but profit us for salvation
through Christ our Lord.
God has no need of our worship. And he gives us this gift for our very salvation. And we asked him to increase in us this gift and give us the strength to get there quicker by his grace. The Introit Cries out to God in the same words that are used to open every Daily Office: Incline unto my aid, O God: O Lord, make haste to help me or in the older translation, O God make speed to save me: O Lord make haste to help me. Come quickly and help us to come to you ever faster! What are we running towards?
The Epistle for this Mass takes us on a little detour: how dare we run? For the ancients, God was terrifying. Remember that our forefathers standing, at Mount Sinai, begged Moses to let them go away because this God, rumbling on top of the mountain, scared them. They even begged not to hear God’s voice for that was scary enough. How do we run? And we do not run away will you run to. We run to the God whom the scriptures describe as a consuming fire. Are we not afraid? Again St. Paul reminds us: Such confidence we have through Christ towards God. Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God. This is not our gift, or our power, we are no braver than our ancestors. Are you not terrified of the Eucharist? But God would have it so. God, in his grace, glorified the face of Moses so much that it was necessary for him to wear a veil. The people were even terrified of the light shining from Moses eyes. Paul asks, If the law was so terrifying does it not make sense for us to even be more in awe and even more glorified?
Suddenly, there is what seems to be a bifurcation in the propers: from here the Gospel seems to go in one direction while the other, the minor propers point in a different direction. The minor propers are about praise for God and about his generosity to us, while the Gospel is the story of the Good Samaritan. However, please come in one Mass and so must tell us one story. I believe the fulcrum is in the Communion verse. So let us take a look at the Gospel first and then sweep back to all the minor propers together.
The text, taken from St Luke’s gospel, is the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. The Lectionary actually gives us a tiny bit more of the context by sharing what came before, Pope Benedict gives even more context four this story. Two points are important: first, in 6 AD the Samaritans invaded Jerusalem and strew bones in the temple. Then, secondly, in the chapter immediately before this in St Luke “the Evangelist has recounted that on the way to Jerusalem Jesus sent Messengers ahead of him and the day entered a Samaritan village in order to procure him lodging. ‘But the people would not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem.'” Then two of the Apostles asked Jesus if they should call down “fire from heaven” on the Samaritans. It is in this twin context that the Evangelist places the story of the Good Samaritan.
His Holiness goes on to remind us that the church fathers have traditionally viewed this as a parable about Jesus. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who reaches out to mankind, now fallen among thieves who have beat us in stripped us of our wealth the robe of Glory that we had before the fall of Adam and Eve. However Pope Benedict also recognizes that this is a story that Jesus is telling to another, as it were to us, about how to inherit eternal life. Remember the context I shared above: neither the 12 apostles themselves nor any of the listeners would have had any reason to suppose the Samaritan would be the good guy in this story. Yet he was, exactly, that. Although some commentators stir up many anti-Semitic waves about the Priest and the Levite going on their way, the Pope Emeritus does not. In fact he is quite generous in his making excuses for them. You fix the point of the story is in the Samaritan himself. The point is made even stronger by highlighting that the Priest and the Levite knew they were on a dangerous stretch of road (as would any sensible traveler) but the Samaritan went in to help anyway. So while this is a story about how God leaves heaven and comes to us – while we were yet sinners – this also becomes a directive for us to act courageously, without care for our own danger.
In the end, says His Holiness, the question of who is my neighbor is turned on its head. Anyone is my neighbor if I act like their neighbor to them. This is the core of the twofold Commandment to love God and to love your neighbor: the lawyer, to test Jesus, wants to know who is his neighbor. Jesus’ answer is, “Who is not?”
The wine and the oil that the Good Samaritan poured on the wounds of the man in the ditch are greatly symbolic. In the medical understanding of the time the wine was cleansing and the oil was soothing and also a protection against disease: much like we might think of a salve today. So: splash some wine in to wash out anything dangerous, then pour on oil to put a sort of seal on top, then tie a bandage on the wound to hold everything together. But the wine and the oil or two of three parts that show us where we get this courage to act bravely and so forgivingly in the face of danger – or before the face of our neighbor?
The Communion verse answers with the bread and the wine and the oil which are the sacraments of the church: The earth shall be filled with the fruit of Thy works, O Lord, that Thou mayest bring bread out of the earth, and that wine may cheer the heart of man: that he may make the face cheerful with oil; and that bread may strengthen man’s heart. From these simple elements of nature, which require not only God’s giving but our interaction to prepare, the Church has fashioned her sacraments of quickening: anointing, or chrismation/confirmation – the seal of the Holy Spirit, followed by the Eucharist.
From these we receive the forgiveness of our sins as the Secret and the Postcommunion reminds us, but also God is glorified. How? We finally answer in the gospel of Saint Matthew, in The Sermon on the Mount: that men may see your good deeds and glorify your Father, which is in heaven. So the Holy Mysteries are the strengthening of our souls to do good deeds: the works of mercy, such as our Lord described in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We are called to be neighbors, not to some, not to our own, not to those who are near or like us: we are called to be neighbors to everyone.
The Gradual and the Alleluia then become a sort of call-and-response between the needy and those who are praising God. The late Keith Green (1953-1982) sang a song about the church being “Asleep in the Light”:
Oh, can’t you see such sin?!
’cause he brings people to your door,
And you turn them away
As you smile and say,
“god bless you!
Be at peace!”
And all heaven just weep,
’cause Jesus came to your door,
You left him out on the streets
Later in the song he will ask, “How can you be so dead when you’ve been so well fed?” Indeed. We’re not at liberty to ignore either the spiritual needs or the physical needs of those around us. The Gospel requires not only that we bring the bread and wine of the Eucharist to the lost, but also the food and justice that they need.
The Offertory reminds us that not only was Moses a great teacher of the things of God to the people but he was also a great intercessor before God on behalf of the people. Like Moses Jesus stands before us teaching and interceding. So the Church, the body of Christ, must be before the world. We cannot only proclaim the things of God we must also do the works of God: Love. How are we supposed to love? “It is true that the creature loves less because she is less. But if she loves with her whole being nothing is lacking for everything is given.” (St Bernard) We cannot love as much as God for he is infinite and we are finite. Yet by his grace, given in his bread, his wine, and his oil, we can love as God: with our whole being. As God did, we change our relationship with the other not by changing them but by changing our self. We go out to them in love.
(If you get a chance be sure to read Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth volume 1. The story of the Good Samaritan is discussed at length on pages 194 through 201.)