Assumption Sermon August 15, 2006

Assumption Sermon, Aug. 15, 2006,

By The Reverend John T. Zuhlsdorf,

Delivered at Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Camden, NJ

The Lord has done great things for me, and Holy is His Name. 

These words from today’s Gospel from Saint Luke are of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s canticle which we call the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

Your Excellency, Reverend Fathers, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ.

After her encounter with Gabriel, the angel sent by God the Father, and her virginal conception of the eternal Word made flesh by the Holy Spirit, Mary journeyed to the home of her cousin.  Scripture portrays Mary to as quietly reflective, watching, listening, pondering the events of our salvation.  She pondered Simeon’s grim prophecy, she reflected on finding Jesus’ in the Temple, she weighed the circumstances of the wedding at Cana before speaking to her Son, and in silence she gazed at her Son our Savior on the Cross.  On her way to see her cousin Elizabeth, Mary contemplated the significance of her virginal conception of the Messiah.  To her cousin’s exalted greeting and the prophetic stirring on the precursor child in the womb, Mary bursts into song.  Her lyrical response conveys both the depth of her feelings and the content of her reflection on what God was doing through her and in her.  Her interior understanding, conviction, and faith were thus clothed with outward glory in song.

Mary’s song proclaims the Lord’s mighty works.  First she sings of what the Lord did with her alone.  Then she sings of what He did in her for the whole world.   The great work God brought about in Mary reverberated throughout the cosmos.  It is still echoing now and will so echo forever. 

The entire focus of Mary’s song of praise is what Almighty God had accomplished.  In the words “He has done”, a single Greek word epoíesen which in Latin is fecit, we find the fulcrum between the two parts of the Magnificat: The first part of her praise begins with the expression “the Almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His Name”.  This strophe ends with an introduction to the second part: “Fecit potentiam in brachio suo... He has done a mighty deed with His arm”.   The singer then explains how the fortunes of many changed as a consequence of what God had done through her.  The birth of Mary’s child set in motion the great overturning of human values and fortunes, and from this overturning the ultimate People of God would emerge from the race of Adam and Abraham.  This is the People Mary exemplifies and represents.  By God’s action she was made the participant of a grace so immense that His gifts were extended through her to the whole world in every generation.  Mary’s song is all about what God has done, already done in the hidden conception of her child.  Already the child was forming in Mary’s womb and the great deed of final salvation was already accomplished. 

Mary was the immeasurably favored singer of God’s praise; she was in full the recipient of His graces; she was conscious of being a privileged participant in the history of salvation, even as a new Eve.  As a singer, recipient and participant, Mary is our perfect model, instructing us in every facet of our ordinary lives.  Her song, her reception and her participation are also examples of how we are to sing, receive and participate properly in the commemoration of God’s deed of final salvation.


In gratitude for God’s gifts to Mary, the perfect singer, recipient and participant, we can consider what our participation at Holy Mass may be, because the Eucharist – both its celebration and its reception – are the source and summit of our Christian Catholic lives.  We do this during our commemoration of the moment when Mary’s earthly song came to its final verse and she received yet another mighty grace.  God assumed her in to heaven, body and soul, and there she now participates in heaven’s liturgy as the Queen of heaven’s choirs.


The Second Vatican Council spoke of participation in the Church’s liturgy using a phrase both often quoted and nearly as often imperfectly understood.  The Council Fathers in their document on the liturgy taught that we receive what we need for our spiritual well-being by means of “full, conscience and active” participation in the liturgy (SC 14).  This phrase, “full, conscious and active”, was the fruit of the liturgical movement during the 20th century long before the Council.  It embodies all that scholars and Popes such as St. Pius X and Pope Pius XII understood about what happens in Holy Mass.  The description “full, conscious and active” applies equally to the “traditional” Mass we are praying this evening as well as to the Novus Ordo. 

When the Church speaks of “full, conscious and active” participation, many assume they must be constantly busy, outwardly doing things such as singing, carrying things around and so forth.  These are all good things, of course, each in its proper measure, time and place.  But this is not primarily what the Church meant for our “active participation”.  The truer meaning of this all important phrase is best described as “active receptivity”.  That is to say, through an act of will we strive to be receptive to everything the Lord wants to do in us and through us. 

The Mother of God is the perfect model for our active participation.  She was actively receptive to everything the Lord offered to her at every moment of her life.  She received and pondered. She consented and cooperated.  She treasured things in her heart and then expressed herself outwardly. Similarly, Holy Mass is not first and foremost about what we do outwardly and physically.  Mass is about what the Lord is doing for us and through us.  Jesus Christ is the true actor in the liturgy.  Mass is about what He desires to do for us.  The Church invites us to be actively engaged with His act of giving, conscious of what He is doing, willing our ever receptivity to His graces.  Our ability to receive comes from our baptismal character, which integrates us into Christ’s Mystical Body.  Because we are baptized, we can receive the other sacraments and participate actively in the liturgy in more than a simplistic sense.

Sometimes you hear it said that, in the old days, people were passive spectators at Mass.  Relentless efforts were made far and wide to get everyone doing things as if by doing things we were actively participating.  Everyone, for example, had to sing everything.  Little room was left for silence and reflection. This had less than positive consequences for Church music and liturgical decorum.  If everyone must be doing something, then the proper roles of the ordained and the laity are compromised.  If everyone must sing everything, then choirs exist only to lead people in singing simplified ditties.  The treasury of the Church’s sacred music was thus slammed shut and the memory of its contents all but erased for the sake of a shallow notion of “active participation”.  But those unfortunate old ideas are passing and, inspired by the actions and words of our wonderful Holy Father Pope Benedict, people everywhere are taking a renewed interest in authentic active participation and in the sacred music the Church has always preferred, namely Gregorian chant, along with polyphony, pipe organ and orchestral and choral settings of sacred texts.  New music and new forms are both possible and necessary, but based always on the proper principles as determined by the Church, not on fancy and the unbridled experiments of the self-interested.

It is a hard fact of our fallen human state that we can be either deluded activists or passive spectators at any Mass, “Tridentine” Mass or Novus Ordo, in English or in Latin, no matter how diverting or engaging it is made.  When I hear the claim that if people aren’t allowed to sing everything and move things around, they are being turned into passive spectators, I respond that it is entirely possible to sing and be busy doing things and have your mind be a thousand miles away.  Have you ever caught yourself singing, whistling, humming, doing things like gardening, driving, or even reading when you suddenly realize that you have turned several shovels full, street corners or pages, and have not the slightest recollection of what you just did?   You can sing every verse of every hymn and all along be thinking about the groceries you have to buy.  You can carry things, stand up and kneel down, and really be participating far less than someone who is sitting still in the pew, who cannot stand or kneel, cannot see the sanctuary clearly or very easily hear the prayers or sermon.  And yet, and yet, with every breath and heartbeat, he knows why he is there; that person senses the Real Presence, and longs to be a part of what is taking place.  Active participation is made possible by baptism and by our willed, conscious, active interior union with the action of the Mass and the true Actor Jesus.  Attentive watching and careful listening are not easy, friends.  Effort and practice are needed to get past the distractions.
In every Holy Mass, God is the actor [immeasurably and more importantly than we are], just as he is characterized in Mary’s Magnificat.  [Mary did not conceive on her own or raise herself into heaven on her own and nothing we do at Mass has any value apart from what God is doing for us and through us.] The saving work of God is renewed and extended everywhere through all generations.  If we know that a song echoes outward, like the ripples of a stone striking the surface of a glassy pond, all the way to its banks, then will not a beautiful, reverent celebration of Holy Mass resound and reverberate through the whole of the cosmos, even to the gates of heaven?  In fact, our Mass is heaven’s own echo and what we do in church should reflect that reality.  If you were told you might be permitted a momentary glimpse of the heavenly liturgy, with all the angels and saints and our Blessed Mother before God’s throne, would you not ready yourself for that moment with intense anticipation and concentration?  Would you not ready yourself to drink in every word, song and gesture? 

In 1958, several years before the Second Vatican Council, Pope Pius directed that a Vatican document be issued On Sacred Music.  This seminal document says that our participation must be primarily interior, that is to say offering our sacrifices with and through Christ the High Priest.  It stated that our participation becomes fuller (plenior) when we join to our interior participation different external actions like genuflecting, standing, sitting, making our verbal responses and singing.  The document clarified that perfect active participation is achieved in the proper reception of Holy Communion.  Reception, dear friends, is active.   Our Blessed Mother perfected reception in receiving the Body, Blood, soul and Divinity of the Lord in her womb.  She reflected deeply on her conception of the Lord, and then gave what she received an outward expression in song. 

The Second Vatican Council observed that sacred music is an integral part, pars integrans, of the liturgy.  Sacred music, such as we are blessed with this evening, is not an add-on or a mere ornament.  Sacred liturgical music truly is liturgy itself.  It is prayer.  This is why music for Mass must be the best we can provide.  For it to be suitable for worship, however, it must be truly sacred, that is focused on sacred subjects, even the words of Scripture themselves; it must be art truly suitable for use in church, and it must be performed with all the skill and artistry we can muster.  We can participate in this liturgical prayer, which is musical, by our attentive and careful listening and reflecting.  We cannot be distracted from prayer during Mass by appropriate sacred music.  We cannot be distracted from prayer by prayer.  Just as we participate fully, consciously, actively in the reading of Holy Scriptures by our listening, so too we are active when we listen to sacred liturgical music as part of Holy Mass.  Listening is not passive.  It is action of the mind and heart. 

The great Doctor of the Church Saint Augustine of Hippo, before he requested baptism by St. Ambrose, had already been intellectually convinced of many of the truths of the Faith, but his conversion was not yet full.  In his Confessions, Augustine describes listening to the hymns Ambrose composed being sung in the church.  He describes how those songs entered into his heart and how he wept and that the tears were good for him.  Because he was receptive to the content and intent of the sacred music Augustine was moved beyond a merely intellectual grasp of the content of the Faith.  The music helped him know the true content of the Church’s liturgy, the Person of Christ Jesus.  Thereafter he would describe the act of singing sacred texts, singing prayers and singing the words of Scripture, as being an act of love: “cantare amantis est ... singing belongs to one who loves” (s. 336.1).  This is the phrase which would eventually be transformed into the famous “he who sings, prays twice”, or rather, “he who sings well prays twice” (qui bene cantat bis orat).   First the love, then the song. 

And so there are those moments in Mass when we are called upon to participate actively by receiving and then, on the foundation of our full, conscious and active interior receptivity, use our voice and gestures in a way that is far more beneficial by the fact we have first received.  Remember: the Lord is the true actor at Holy Mass.  He is the High Priest.  And the Mother of the High Priest, who is our Mother, teaches us in song how to receive the great things He has done for us.


Holy Mass, like Mary’s life and song, is all about the mighty works God has wrought for our salvation.  God did wondrous things in Mary, the humble daughter of her own Son, at whose side she now sits, in body and soul, as heaven’s Queen.  Through her example and loving intercession wonders never cease for us and our generation is honored to call her blessed.


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