[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Saturday, March 3.]
According to St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism and co-patron of Europe, every day in a monk’s life should be as if in Lent. I like to think that this is because every tomorrow for a monk is the Resurrection. We rise early every morning in the hope of Christ’s glorious return, and learn to live in this taut expectation.
The Church’s liturgy offers us a similar perspective, this time on the life of all the faithful. We might say that there are indications that the lives of Christians during Lent should be more ‘monastic’. One interesting indication has to do with the place of the Psalms in the Church’s liturgy for Lent. This can be best seen by looking at the Church’s Divine Office antiphons during Advent and comparing them to Lent.
The antiphons for Sundays in Advent tend to be somewhat free paraphrases of texts from Isaiah and other prophets. This allows for an enjoyable re-interpretation of the typical Psalms sung on Saturday and Sunday evenings and on Sunday morning (Pss. 144b-147, Pss. 109-112, and Pss. 50, 62, 117, and 148-150 respectively). The antiphons color the meaning of the Psalms and encourage us to pray imaginatively.
During Lent, the situation is a bit more plain and even, we might say, ‘chaste’. Now the antiphons for Sunday are taken from the Lauds Psalms and so highlight the Psalm texts themselves, unadorned with the prophetic sense of expectation. Traditionally, the Psalms are to be prayed with the voice of Christ, and in this fashion, we are drawn repeatedly to contemplate the Passion of Christ, His appeal to the Father in ‘reverence [Hebrews 5: 7]’, and His triumph in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, contrary to what we might expect, we are called not so much to a focus on repentance that might become self-involved; rather we are invited to contemplate the One Who walks with us this path to redemption.
We note a similar phenomenon in the liturgy of the Mass. The texts of the communion chants for each weekday of Lent are taken from consecutive Psalms, beginning quite deliberately with Psalm 1. That is to say that Psalm 1 appears as the communion on Ash Wednesday, Psalm 2 on the following Thursday, and so on. This intense focus on the Psalms is quite ‘monastic’, as any monk would be quick to point out. The 150 Psalms shape everything we do at prayer in community, and much of how we think even in private.
The focus on the Person of Christ comports well with the traditional gospels for each Sunday (preserved as the selections for ‘Year A’ in the current lectionary cycle). The First Sunday retells Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, the Second Sunday brings us the foretaste of Christ’s glorification in the story of His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. And on this third Sunday, we find Him promising the Holy Spirit to the woman at the well.
These indications within the liturgy are a good reminder that the austere life of the monk is not at all meant to be joyless, but provides precisely the atmosphere in which the believer can better assent to the fullness of the Good News of our salvation and sanctification. Lenten fasting and abstinence is far more than a means simply to address deficiencies in our moral characters; they form the context in which we conform ourselves to Christ’s self-emptying [Philippians 2:6-11], so as to receive with greater intensity the indwelling of the divine life given at our baptisms. This we long for as we make our way toward the renewal of our baptisms at the Easter Vigil and on Easter Sunday, the foretaste of our own resurrections in Jesus Christ.