Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Most Precious Blood

Sometimes one forgets that "precious" means valuable, pricey: if Our Lord in His parables speaks of the "pearl of great price", then even one drop of His Blood was worth more than anything material, than everything material - and He shed it in torrents, prodigally.  Many years ago I read Fr Faber's devotional book on the Precious Blood; I must admit, his purple prose makes it almost unreadable, but it does contain solid insights couched in flowery language: and I think Faber was right to emphasise the prodigality of the Precious Blood.  We were purchased at a great price: not silver or gold, not pearls or jewels, but with the precious Blood of Christ, as of a pure Lamb without spot or blemish (so writes St Peter).  

It is from the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapters ix and x, that the Sacred Liturgy draws the lyric passages, full of doctrine and piety, that constitute the Lessons of the First Nocturn at Matins, and (in shorter extracts) the little chapters at the Day Hours.  Christ, High Priest of the good things that are to come, Mediator of the New and Eternal Testament, has entered once and for all into the Holy Place, heaven itself, with His Own Blood, a Blood able to wash us from the works of death, and make us to serve the Living God.  Therefore we have faith and trust ourselves in entering the Holy Place by the might of that same Blood.  (The Magnificat antiphon of First Vespers speaks of this, again quoting Hebrews: Ye have come unto Mount Sion, and the City of the Living God... .) 

Chrysostom - in the passage quoted in the Lessons of the Second Nocturn of this feast, which in the modern Divine Office has been not inappropriately given star billing as the patristic reading on Good Friday itself - points out that Christ's Blood is of astounding power: the mere foreshadowing of it, the blood of irrational lambs painted over the Hebrews' doorlintels, sufficed to ward off the very Angel of Death (as Exodus tells - quoted in this feast's Benedictus Antiphon); so how much more so does the Blood of Christ empurpling the lips of the faithful, His very temples, terrify and drive off the demons?  And again, as Augustine (quoted in the Third Nocturn) concurs, the shedding of water and Blood from the side of Christ, dead on the Cross, is the symbol and power of the Saving Mysteries - of Baptism and the Eucharist.

The Office of today, the 1st of July, is a splendid composition, wonderfully paying due and solemn adoration to the Most Precious Blood.  Four of the antiphons of both Vespers are taken from Isaias lxiii, 1-3a:

Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bosra, this beautiful one in his robe...  I, that speak justice, and am a defender to save.  Why then is thy apparel red, and thy garments like theirs that tread in the winepress?  I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the Gentiles there is not a man with me...

The third antiphon, however, from the Apocalypse of St John (xix, 13) answers the question posed by the prophet:

And he was clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood; and his name is called, THE WORD OF GOD.

At Matins, the nine antiphons make reference to the Seven Bloodsheddings of Our Lord (at His circumcision, His agony, His scourging, His crowning with thorns, His carrying the Cross, His Crucifixion, and the piercing of His Side in death), and also to Judas confessing that he had betrayed innocent blood, to Pilate attempting to wash his hands of His Blood, and to the crowd's frenzied cry, His Blood be upon us.  The responsories of Matins, and the short responsories and versicles at the Little Hours, make quotation from the great references to the Blood of Christ found in the Epistles of the New Testament, from St Paul, from St Peter, from St John.

At Lauds and the Little Hours, the focus of the psalm antiphons is on the redempti, those washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb: all of these come from the Apocalypse (vii, 13b. 14b-15a; cf. xii, 11a; xxii, 14a):

These that are clothed in white robes, who are they? and whence came they? ... These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night...

And they overcame [the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb, and by [their]testimony [to His Word]...

Blessed are they that wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb...

Lauds, too, features the hymn Salvete Christi vulnera, a pæan to the Five Wounds of Our Lord, taking up the earlier mediæval devotion to these founts of Emmanuel's Blood, and points of access to His Sacred Heart.  (Compare two other hymns: "Glory be to Jesus", a Catholic composition and translation; and the Protestant Cowper's "There is a fountain filled with blood" - both products of eighteenth century piety, and not dissimilar in sentiment.)

The Collect is at first sight one of those recent orations that ends a little predictably "may we do X on earth that we may have Y in heaven" - but after all, ought we not hope thus, trusting in the grace won for us on Calvary?  It is thankfully easy to translate:

Almighty, everlasting God, Who hast established Thine Onlybegotten Son as the world's Redeemer, and hast willed to be placated by His Blood: grant, we beg, that we may so revere the price of our salvation with solemn cult, and by its power be defended from the evils of this present life, that we may rejoice in its endless fruit in heaven.  Through the same...

What more can be said?

Let us kneel and pray, ut mos est:


(We therefore beseech Thee to come to the aid of Thy servants, whom Thou didst redeem by Thy Precious Blood.)

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