“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”
So begins the great doxology of praise that concludes chapters nine through eleven of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Before his conversion—and it is worth noting that we celebrated this event on January 25—Saul of Tarsus persecuted the Church. From his perspective, this offshoot of Judaism presented dangers to the faith of Abraham and the law of Moses. The Christians seemed to downplay the temple and the law. After the outbreak of persecution orchestrated by the youthful Saul, the situation became even worse, as Gentiles came to be included in the Christian gatherings.
Following his dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul spent nearly thirteen years rethinking everything he thought he knew. Eventually taking the name Paul, he was chosen by the Holy Spirit through the prayer of the early Church to become the Apostle to the Gentiles. He would bring the good news of salvation to a world waiting in the darkness of ignorance.
Winter is an apt time of year to ponder the problem of darkness. In the Church’s traditional lectionary, the readings from the Christmas season and after Epiphany emphasize that the Incarnation of God’s Son represents and enacts “light from light,” shining into the darkness which could not comprehend or overcome it [John 1: 5]. The problem is this: what is it in human nature that seems to prefer darkness to light? Why did the rulers of this age fail to “honor [God] as God or give thanks to him,” causing their minds to be darkened [Romans 1: 21]? If they had understood the Incarnation, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory [1 Corinthians 2: 8].” Yet some could see. Returning to the recent images of Epiphany, we see Gentile wise men honoring Christ as a divine King, while Herod aims to eliminate the One he sees as a potential rival.
The question is pressing for Paul not only because of his outreach to the Gentiles, but because he himself had been among those afflicted with blindness. “I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience [1 Timothy 1: 15].” So salvation depends on the mysterious workings of grace. This outworking of grace is perhaps nowhere so mysterious as in the eventual institutional separation of the Church from Rabbinic Judaism. Paul knew this enigma from within, and it caused him “great anguish in my heart,” even to the extent that he could wish himself cut off for Christ, so that his brethren among the Israelites could be saved [Romans 9: 2-3]. He sees so many examples of zeal for the God of Abraham, zeal which he himself had shown. Yet he longs that this zeal become fully “enlightened [Romans 10: 2],” drawn out of a darkness analogous to that displayed by the rulers of the age. Throughout the long argument in Romans 9—11, Paul works his way toward the conclusion that, far from building on a foundation of righteousness based in human efforts and intelligence, “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all [Romans 11: 32].” No one can boast before God, unless it be in the reality-inverting Cross of Jesus Christ, by which we are crucified to this world of darkness.
In the Church’s liturgy, we make use of several different “lectionaries,” ordered selections of Scriptural readings assigned to each day of the year. The one that most Catholics know is the lectionary for Mass. The office of Vigils (known in the Roman Breviary—significantly—as the Office of Readings) also follows such a structure. When we monks arise to pray early each day, we await the inbreaking of light into darkness, and symbolically invoke this by proclaiming the Word of God. The lectionary for these weeks following Epiphany assigns us to read Paul’s Epistle to the Romans throughout the first four weeks of the year (i.e. Ordinary Time). This past week, we have been listening to Paul work out his grand theology of salvation. During tomorrow’s celebration of Vigils, we will finally arrive at the great doxology which began this reflection. Paul’s words eventually also became attached to the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, and it is from that day’s liturgy that we borrow the splendid motet O altitudo by Lassus. We will end the coming week’s lectionary readings in the twelfth chapter of Romans, from which is drawn tonight’s Magnificat antiphon. Finally, it is telling that both the hymn (Willaert’s O Lux, beata Trinitas) and the motet for the opening procession (Gesualdo’s Illumina faciem—tomorrow’s communion antiphon) draw upon the image of light.
May the grace of God continue to shine in our hearts, that we may, like Saint Paul, know the depth of His mercy and thus be fitting witnesses in the present darkness of our world. As the liturgy turns us slowly but inexorably toward Calvary, may our offering of praise “widen our hearts,” that we may be true ambassadors for Christ! [cf. 2 Corinthians 6: 13 & 5: 20]
—Fr. Peter Funk, OSB