[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end [Revelation 22: 13].”
In the last few generations, students of Saint Thomas Aquinas have emphasized the overarching form of his greatest work, the Summa Theologiae. The technical name for the form of the Summa is “exitus-reditus,” which means roughly, “having gone forth and returned.” While this technical name stems from Greek (particularly Platonic) philosophy, the general gist of it can be found already in the prophet Isaiah:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread the eater, So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and prosper the thing for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55: 10-11]”
The mysterious Triune God, being Love itself, expresses this love by the utterly gratuitous act of creation. This creation is accomplished by God’s Word, that “goes forth,” endowing all creatures with dignity, integrity and fecundity, setting up their interrelations in such a way that all creatures might delight in this gift of existence.
But this act of creation is not that of a “watchmaker God” who then leaves the cosmos more or less on its own to work out the implications of the impersonal laws that govern it. At the pinnacle of creation is man, the one creature created for his own sake, made in the image and likeness of God. Man’s place in this drama is to work as high priest of creation, to bring all things back to God in a liturgy of joyful praise. This is the “returning” portion of exitus-reditus.
As we know, sin enters the picture and complicates the story. But God’s “purpose” is not thwarted by sin. Rather, we see another “going forth,” at Christmas and the Annunciation. God’s Word goes forth from the bosom of the Father and takes up His dwelling in the womb of the Virgin Mary, becoming a member of His beloved human race. He does this to rescue us who have lost the way home to the Father, to set wayward humanity on His shoulders and carry us back to the road, and to lead us in the grand, cosmic reditus.
This drama is enacted mystically in every liturgy. In Solemn Vespers, we see the ministers surrounding the priest who goes forth from the hidden sacristy, leads us in the praise of God, and then returns to the sacristy. The vestments worn by the priest and ministers help us to see in them Christ and His angels coming down from heaven to save us, to show us the way back to the Father.
We see other analogous movements throughout the liturgy. The Gospel book at the Mass come down from the altar, the holiest place and center of the church, so that the saving Word may be proclaimed in our hearing. Holy Communion, the Real Presence of Christ, comes down from the altar, and we are led in procession to receive what in other contexts is rightly called viaticum, “provision for a journey,” the “waybread” that sustains us as we journey back to the Father.
As the Easter season moves toward its fulfillment, the inauguration of the Church in the gift of the Holy Spirit, we prepare this week to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension. As we note every month in the rubrics for Solemn Vespers, the priest’s solemn entrance into the sanctuary mystically represents this motion of Christ’s enthronement on high. The sending of the Holy Spirit makes possible a renewed vision of the cosmos. We can learn to see the original meaning of all of God’s creatures, and in this meaning to see the Word that gave them this meaning. Thus all creatures will speak of the Word, that is Christ. Thus Christ is the origin of all creatures and their goal. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Would that we could live each moment of our lives out of this awareness! How different might our world appear if we could see Christ present in all creatures! As the celebrations of Ascension and Pentecost have been obscured in the modern West, the liturgy has been in regular danger of being subjugated to worldly goals rather than heavenly ones. There is a tendency to see in the liturgy just one form of a supposed universal need for “religion,” a necessary balm (or “opiate”) for benighted humanity, to “recharge” us for the “real work” of “making a better world.” But Christ did not go forth to make this world better, but to “make all things new [Revelation 21: 5].” “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision [marks of the world under sin], but a new creation [Galatians 6: 15].” This new creation is the one we inhabit at the liturgy, set back on the right course, arising and returning to its loving Father.