18th Sunday after Pentecost
The breviary lessons for the "Sunday after Ember Saturday" (Fourth Sunday of September), are taken from the book of Judith, whose story St. Ambrose, in the second nocturn, connects with this season of penance, since to the fasting and abstinence of this heroic woman he attributes the wonderful victory that she obtained.
To persevere with our plan of working out the connection between the missal and breviary, we too may study the Mass of Ember Saturday, formerly of this Sunday, in the light of Judith's history.
While Manasses, king of Juda, was in captivity in Babylon, the Assyrian monarch, Abuchodonosor, sent his general Holofernes to complete the conquest of Chanaan. This officer besieged Bethulia, whose inhabitants, reduced to the last extremity, decided to surrender the city, unless help came in five days.
But just then Judith, a widow in Israel of great influence, was living in the place. "Let us be penitent," was her advice to the ancients of Israel, "and with many tears let us beg God's pardon ... Let us humble our souls before Him and ask that He would show His mercy to us ... Let us believe that these scourges of the Lord, with which like servants we are chastised, have happened for our amendment and not for our destruction."
Then this holy woman "went into her oratory, and putting on haircloth, laid ashes on her head and falling down prostrate before the Lord, she cried to the Lord."
Having finished her prayer, Judith put on her best apparel and left the town with her servant, reaching at daybreak the advanced Chaldean outposts and announced that she had come to surrender herself and her people to Holofernes. The soldiers took her before the general who was dazzled by her great beauty, which almighty God had been pleased to increase, since she made use of it, not from motives of sensuality but of virtue.
Holofernes believed everything that Judith told him and made a great feast in her honour, at which, carried away by enjoyment, he drank to greater excess than usual and overcome by intoxication, lay down on his bed and sank into a drunken sleep. Upon this everyone withdrew, Judith alone remaining with him. Then, praying that God would strengthen her arm for the deliverance of Israel, she took down the sword which hung over the bed, and with great courage cut off Holofernes' head, which she gave to the maid-servant with instructions to hide it in her wallet. Then they returned the same night to Bethulia.
When the ancients of the city heard of Judith's action they cried: "Blessed be the Lord who hath made heaven and earth." And the next day the blood-stained head of Holofernes was hoisted on the walls of the fortress. The Chaldeans complained loudly of Judith's treachery, but being pursued by the Israelites, all fled or were put to the sword. Meanwhile the High Priest came with the Ancients from Jerusalem, to celebrate the deliverance of their nation and saluted Judith with cries of: "Thou art the glory of Jerusalem, thou art the joy of Israel, thou art the honour of our people."
In the second nocturn for the fourth Sunday in September, St. Ambrose comments as follows on this portion of the Scriptures: "It was through the strength given by sobriety that Judith cut off Holofernes' head. Fortified by fasting, she went boldly into the enemy's camp. The fasting of a single woman vanquished the countless hordes of Assyrians."
The Mass for Ember Saturday is full of similar expressions. The prayers implore the divine mercy, while relying on fasting and abstinence which make us stronger than our enemies. "Forgive us our sins, O Lord," says the first Gradual. "Help us, O God, our Saviour, and for the glory of Thy name, O Lord, deliver us." And the second Gradual: "Behold, O Lord, our protector; and look on Thy servants." While the third adds: "Return, O Lord, a little, and be entreated in favour of Thy servants."
The lessons all allude to the mercy of God towards His penitent people. "As I purposed to afflict you, when your fathers had provoked Me to wrath, saith the Lord, and I had no mercy: so turning again I have thought in these days to do good to the house of Juda and Jerusalem."
The story of the deliverance of the Jewish people from Assyrian bondage by Judith (whose name is the feminine of Juda) by fasting, is a type of the freeing of God's people by Jesus, of the race of Juda, at Easter after the penances of Lent.
Since the Book of Esther is read in the breviary on the following Sunday (the fifth in September), we can easily understand that St. Ambrose would also find there an illustration well suited to his subject, and in fact he points out that "it was to the fast of three days, thanks to which almighty God increased the grace which adorned her mortified soul, that Esther owed her victory over the wicked Aman and rescued the Jewish people from a cruel persecution."
We ourselves shall deal with the history of Esther on the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, with which it sometimes coincides.
When later on the custom of waiting until the evening to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice on Ember Saturday had ceased, the Mass composed in the sixth century for the Dedication of the Church of St. Michael at Rome, and said on September 29th, was borrowed for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Consequently all the "Proper" of this Mass refers to the consecration of a church. "I was rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord" (Verse of the Introit and Gradual). "Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord" (Offertory). "Bring up sacrifices and come into his courts: adore ye the Lord in His holy court" (Communion).
We have here a symbol of heaven whither all nations shall flow at the end of time, referred to on this Sunday and on those which follow at the end of the cycle. The Alleluia is the same as that of the Sundays after Epiphany which foretell the entry of the Gentiles into the kingdom of heaven. The Epistle speaks of those who await the revelation of our Lord at His second coming. They will rejoice forever in the Lord's presence in the peace which, according to the prophets, He will give to those who await Him (Introit, Gradual); a peace assured to us by our Lord through His death on the cross, which is the true evening sacrifice of which that of Moses is only a type.
After he had offered a holocaust, the odour of which was pleasing to the Lord, the holy Lawgiver obtained the pardon of his people's sins, and rejoiced in the vision of God. In the same way men reconciled to God, by Him who has power to remit sins (Gospel), by their faith in Christ, will share in the unique and sovereign divinity, by beholding it face to face, a privilege granted by God Himself, and will thus be made rich in Christ in all utterance and all knowledge (Epistle).
Already in the Church all enjoy this pardon and peace, thanks to the power which our Lord has entrusted to His priests, and indeed in this Mass, coming after Ember Saturday, allusion is made to the Priesthood. Like our divine Redeemer, who went about exercising His ministry, curing the soul of the paralytic at the same time that he healed his body, those who have just been ordained preach the Word of Christ (Epistle), celebrate the Holy Sacrifice (Offertory), and remit sins (Gospel).
Thus they prepare men to receive their divine Judge in a manner beyond reproach.
Da pacem, Domine, sustinentibus te, ut prophetae tui fideles inveniantur: exaudi preces servi tui, et plebis tuae Israel. * Laetatus sum in his, quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus.
Give peace, O Lord, to them that patiently wait for Thee, that Thy prophets may be found faithful: hear the prayers of Thy servant, and of Thy people Israel. * I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord.
(Ecclus. 36:18 and Psalm 121:1 from the Introit of Mass)
Dirigat corda nostra, quaesumus, Domine, tuae miserationis operatio: quia tibi sine te placere non possumus.
In Thy tender mercy, direct our hearts, we beseech Thee, O Lord, because without Thee we are not able to please Thee.
Continuation of the holy Gospel according to St. Matthew.
At that time, Jesus entering into a boat, passed over the water and came into His own city. And behold they brought Him one sick of the palsy lying in a bed; and Jesus seeing their faith, said to the man sick of the palsy: Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee. And behold some of the scribes said within themselves: He blasphemeth. And Jesus seeing their thoughts said: Why do you think evil in your hearts? whether is it easier to say: Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say: Arise and walk? But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins (then said He to the man sick of the palsy): Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house. And he arose, and went into his house. And the multitude seeing it, feared, and glorified God who had given such power to men.
(St Matthew 9:1-8)
Tulit ergo paralyticus lectum suum, in quo jacebat, magnificans Deum: et omnis plebs, ut vidit, dedit laudem Deo.
The man sick of the palsy therefore took up his bed in which he had been lying, glorifying God: and all the people, seeing it, gave praise to God.
(Antiphon at the Magnificat of Vespers, St Luke 5)