Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVII: No. 1
The Stripping of the Altar
by François Mauriac
François Mauriac (1885-1970) is acknowledged as one of the greatest Catholic writers of the twentieth century. He was born in Bordeaux, France, and wrote more than 30 books. During the Second World War, he supported the French Resistance through his writings, and following the war he was an editorial writer for Le Figaro.
Mauriac was admitted to the French Academy in 1933, and won the Nobel Prize in 1952, "for the deep spiritual insight and artistic intensity with which he in his novels penetrated the drama of human life".
Blood covered our nakedness...
-- Saint Catherine of Siena
After the short Vespers of Holy Thursday, the officiating priests strip the altar of all ornaments and recite meanwhile the twenty-first* Psalm with the choir. It is the Psalm of which the first verse was cried out by the dying Christ: "O God, my God...why hast Thou forsaken me"?
The evangelists did not falter before this apparent acknowledgement of defeat, and no doubt it was necessary that the chalice be drunk to the dregs, even to this total abandonment. At that minute, nothing but vanquished humanity appeared any longer in Christ.
How could the Son of God have believed Himself to be forsaken? Had He not known and accepted His martyrdom beforehand? He knew it, without doubt, and He also knew that everything that was happening in that moment had been prophesied in that very twenty-first Psalm, the first verse of which He was crying out to His Father. [Note: This is Psalm 22 in the present numbering, and the text appears below. --Editor]
None of the scribes, who at the foot of the Cross were shaking their heads and scoffing at the dying victim, thought of drawing a parallel between the desperate appeal which opens this Psalm and what follows: "All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn; they have spoken with the lips and wagged the head. He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let Him save him, seeing He delighteth in him".
But then was it not precisely the same mockery which the chief priests and rulers had just used against Jesus crucified? Were they not laughing at Him because, having saved others, He could not save Himself? Were they not challenging Him to come down from the Cross because He said He was the Son of God?
But, above all, they who knew the Scriptures should have remembered verses seventeen through nineteen, which were being confirmed at that very moment in an astonishing manner: "They have pierced my hands and feet. They have numbered all my bones. They parted my garments amongst them and upon my vesture they cast lots."
And this twenty-first Psalm, which begins with a cry of doubt and distress, ends with the promise of a triumph that the Crucified alone was to achieve. "All the ends of the earth shall remember and shall be converted to the Lord: and all the kindred of the Gentiles shall adore in His sight. For the Kingdom is the Lord's; and He shall have dominion over the nations."
The excerpt above is Chapter VI of Holy Thursday: An Intimate Remembrance, reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press (Box 5284, Manchester, NH 03108, Ph: 1-800-888-9344). Holy Thursday was originally published in French as Le Jeudi-Saint, copyright 1931, Flammarion (Paris). English translation copyright 1991 by Sophia Institute Press. (www.sophiainstitute.com)
Psalm 22 
My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Why art Thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night but find no rest.
Yet Thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In Thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and Thou didst deliver them.
To Thee they cried, and were saved; in Thee they trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads: "He committed his cause to the Lord; let Him deliver him, let Him rescue him, for He delights in him"!
Yet Thou art He who took me from the womb; Thou didst keep me safe upon my mother's breasts.
Upon Thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me Thou hast been my God.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.
Many bulls encompass me, strong bulls of Ba'shan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet -- I can count all my bones -- they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.
But Thou, O Lord, be not far off! O Thou my help, hasten to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword and my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen!
I will tell of Thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise Thee:
You who fear the Lord, praise Him!
All you sons of Jacob, glorify Him and stand in awe of Him, all you sons of Israel!
For He has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and He has not hid His face from him, but has heard, when he cried to Him.
From Thee comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear Him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek Him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before Him. For dominion belongs to the Lord and He rules over the nations.
Yea, to Him shall all the proud of the earth bow down; before Him shall bow all who go down in the dust, and he who cannot keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve Him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim His deliverance to a people yet unborn, that He has wrought it.
[RSV Catholic Edition]
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