March 26, 2023 at Saint Eugene Church in Oklahoma City, OK
Ezekiel 37, 12-14 + Psalm 130 + Romans 8, 8-11 + John 11, 1-45
My name is Thomas. When my parents chose that name for me, I am sure that they did not realize what a gift they were giving me. While there are several great men with that name: Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Beckett, Thomas More, I feel sure that they knew nothing of those men, and I have always believed that the Apostle Thomas was their intent. Over the 81 years I have carried that name, that man called: “The Twin” and I have grown closer. The oral tradition that shaped the written Gospels only recalled three occasions when he spoke, and it’s not hard to understand why they would have remembered and passed on his words. The three things he says reveal a movement in faith for anyone who would be a follower of Jesus Christ. First some bewilderment: “We do not know where you are going”. Then the first and shortest of all creeds, “My Lord and My God”. Finally, the courage and boldness that any believer must have when he says, “Let us go to die with him.”
With the words we hear today, Thomas challenges the fear in his companions as they near Jerusalem knowing that there is trouble ahead, and the enemies of Jesus are waiting for him. His timid, frightened companions remind Jesus that there had just been an attempt on his life. They don’t want to go, and they don’t want him to go. Thomas speaks up. What he suggests is that anyone living in fear is already dead. Fear drains the life out of us. It leaves us paralyzed and unable to fulfill God’s plan for us. Jesus knows what God wants, not just from him but from us all, and so, fearless, he goes.
There is much more to this episode in John’s Gospel than a story about a dead man being called from a tomb. This occasion in Bethany is not the first time Jesus as called someone to life.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Transfiguration scenes, but not John. There is no Transfiguration scene. The whole of John’s Gospel episode by episode, reveals the glory of Jesus. The whole Gospel is an unfolding of glory revealed in Jesus Christ from the joy of a wedding feast without wine to the sadness of a grave in Bethany. The glory of God is slowly being revealed through Jesus Christ, who constantly shows us the essence of God’s being and glory. We are invited to enter into the dynamic of that love and in response, give glory to God.
Come Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out and poured into the lives of those cautious, timid, and sometimes fearful disciples, the glory of God breaks into this world.
My friends, if the mission of Jesus Christ was ultimately to give glory to God and restore that glory in the lives of human kind, then we suddenly know what our lives are about and why we are here. The glory of God is the reason we have the gifts given to us using them for the glory of God affirms that we know who we are and why.
For three nights this week, I will refresh your memories about what we do here in this sacred space and remind you of why we do it. An example: I will soon say to you: “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” And you say? “For the glory of his name!” There it is! There is your reason for being here. Giving glory to God is what you came here for not to get something. Yet, how often we hear some say: “I don’t get anything out of it.” Maybe they only do things to get something in return. I’m also going to talk about what God is doing here. Sometimes we miss that because we’re too busy thinking about ourselves. Join me three times this week. It might just be refreshing and change the way you experience this Holy and precious time we spend in this place.
Lenten Mission at Saint Eugene Parish in Oklahoma City, OK
Monday, March 27, 2023
The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part One
Let us pray that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God the almighty Father. May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy church. With those words the church, you and me declare to all the world why we were created, why we are here, and what God asks of us. Yet, somehow those words that say so much get so little attention. They get rattled off by memory and are more a signal to stand up than anything else. To invite you to do more than recite words, and to tempt you to dig deeper into the mystery of faith revealed to us and celebrated in this church is why I am here.
Historians, I suspect, will examine these years of our times and have all sorts of names to describe our generation: the age of blame, the age of the victims, the age of relativism, the age of individualism, the age of narcissism, and, I suspect, the age of the great Culture War. While we all find some evidence to support any of those names, the one that might be most troubling and destructive is the latter one. The Culture War being raged in this polarized western society has infected not only our civil society, but our church as well. While I wish the issues being fought over would be addressed in a classroom, the fact is, they are often being addressed in our churches.
Change is a frightening and disturbing experience, and it is often resisted at a high price. I can confirm that from my own experience. Retirement, while planned for and anticipated, has been nothing like I expected. It has been was full of surprises not always welcome. In the beginning, I would pick up my phone not to answer a call, but to check the battery because it was never ringing. I would show up to celebrate Mass in a parish and discover that I had gone to the wrong church, or that something special was going on that day over which I had no information nor input about it happening.
Yet, change is a sign of and a result of life. Whatever does not change is either frozen or dead. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is much like the Prophets of the Old Testament, calling for change. The Synodal Church he is reawakening is a church that listens. He wants us to stop talking, judging, commanding, and condemning and start listening both to one another and to the Word of God. Listening must come before acting. There is a pattern of that in our Sacred Liturgy and we would do well to honor that wisdom in everything we do.
A few years ago, I sat in as an observer during a meeting of priests during which the polarized clergy were addressing the issue of what language should be used at Mass and which direction the priest should face. I did not observe much listening at that meeting. It amounted to a series of pronouncements and a kind of manifesto written from various documents favorably chosen somewhat out of context. I came away from that meeting sensing that the liturgy was not really the issue. One of the men who was obviously and unfortunately feeling very defensive was asked why he chose to do what he was doing with the liturgy of the church. His response was: “Because I can.” I immediately began hearing Frank Sinatra singing “I did it my way.” Since I was there to listen, I kept my mouth shut, but I wanted to say: “Excuse me. I don’t like the possessive pronoun. It isn’t your liturgy. It’s “my sacrifice and yours”. In truth, it’s really God’s, and you can’t do what you want even if you can. You can’t kill someone even if you can. You can’t stand on one leg to give out communion even if you can. Now, when it comes to priests, I have often said when preaching retreats, “It’s not your parish.” You are just passing through. From the viewpoint of a priest, I have personally always avoided using the possessive pronoun when referring to my assignments. I would often challenge the men in seminary to avoid saying “My Parish.” It’s never yours. Your name may be on the Checking Account, but it’s not on the Deed. You are just passing through. (Tell the story of a Bishop.) When it comes to Lay people, it is their parish. Many of the built it, clean it, and pay for it. In as much as it really is God’s Parish, there is a practical and real side to possession. Let me tell you who taught me a lesson about this from the experience of a Lay Person. Her name was Ruth – some priests called her, “Ruth of Edmond”. She was my mother.
The greatest thing about retirement is that I no longer care about the roof, the collection, the staff, or even the Bishop for that matter. (Tell the St Peter story.)Since I am 81 years old, I have lived through six of them. They come and they go just like your pastors. Then, as a bi-ritual priest, living outside of the Diocese for which I was ordained, I now have three Bishops to whom I am responsible leading me to finally see that what concerns them does not really concern me, and my main objective is to avoid giving them any more concerns. The consequence of this is that I now have lots of time to sit, study, read, and reflect upon what’s going on around me, and that is what led me to gather these thoughts I want to share with you this week. I am very aware that there is a difference between opinions and facts. Some people are not aware of that difference. I will make it clear which one is which. However, during these Culture War Years, facts no longer seem to matter, and I can’t do anything about that.
What I hope you will take from the time we spend together these next two nights is a greater and deeper respect and reverence for what we do knowing why we do it. It is my opinion that those who long for the old Mass are mostly not those who were there. They are often are heard to say that it has more mystery and more reverence. That comment always gets this old red-head a bit fired up. I resent the suggestion that what I do at the altar is in any way lacking in reverence. I feel the same way defensive of the people who gather with me. Quite honestly, the reformed Liturgy as we now have it could very well stand some serious attention when it comes to respect and a spiritual sense of what we we’re doing, and I hope that’s why you’ve come here tonight. I can easily remember the 12-minute Latin Mass of my childhood. It was hardly spiritual, reverent, or mysterious. It was fast and efficient. I firmly believe that when we begin to take the sacred Liturgy seriously, pay attention to what we are doing, and become more attentive to what God is doing, the real tradition will be recognized and embraced because what has been restored and emphasized by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council is far more traditional than what we did before 1968. What I observe (opinion here) is that this movement toward a “more reverent and mystery filled liturgy” is really a new form of a priest-focused clerical liturgy that is as much performance as it is worship in which women are returned to the sacristy while men take charge.
I have no illusions that our time together will change anything that is noticeable or maybe that even matters. Yet, I have thought my way into these talks because the Sacred Liturgy of the Church, and that means all of the sacraments must be for us the ultimate school of prayer. The Liturgy of the Church is our source of life. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that after the reforms of the Council in the 1960s all we did was change the language, move the furniture around, and learn a few new songs of dubious quality. In other words, we have spent a long time tinkering with the superficial things. Some insist that the Council broke the traditions of the Church. That is a superficial and silly idea of “tradition” which betrays a confusion over what is tradition and custom. It takes some thought to determine what is a “tradition” and what is a custom. They are not the same. Bread and Wine is the tradition. Gold, wooden, glass, or clay cups is a custom. In war, there is never a winner, and any illusion that we have to “win” is a perfect sign that a disaster is coming. If we are going to survive the cultural war that has found a place within the Body of Christ, we are must finally dig into the Spiritual meaning, and pay attention to the gestures, and words we use to respond to the Covenant God has offered us. It might be about time to stop being so preoccupied by what we do and open ourselves to what God is doing in the Liturgy. To people in RCIA who are approaching their first celebration of Reconciliation I have often said: “Stop being anxious about what you are going to say and do, and spend at least as much time on what you hope God will say and do for you.” And so, I ask you the question, “When is the last time you approached your parish Sunday assembly wondering and thinking about what God may be planning to do and say?”
Every now and then I hear someone complaining that it’s too noisy in church before Mass. They can’t pray. When I hear that, I know that someone is quite confused and does not seem to know what they are doing or why they have come to church. On Ash Wednesday, we heard a very clear instruction about prayer that should not be confined to Lent. “Go to your room and shut the door” is what we heard. Prayer is an experience of intimacy with God. It is unique to each of us. It is private, it is can be intense or casual. We all need to get something clear in our minds. We come to church to worship – that is not the same experience as prayer. By its very nature, worship is noisy. It is a gathering of God’s people at God’s command, and that gathering is noisy from words of greetings, to crying babies, to the banging of kneelers to the shuffling of feet or the scraping of walkers moving in a steady procession down the aisle toward the source of life.
In some ways, worship as liturgy is a refined taste. That’s different from prayer, and by prayer, I’m not talking about reciting by rote formulas and litanies. I mean a real heart to heart talk with God, with the risen Lord, or maybe with his mother? It can mean complaining, whining, or laughing in gratitude. It can also mean just being quiet. After all, if it’s a conversation, you better shut up and take a breath so the other can say something in response.
There is a very important moment in the Sacred Liturgy that expresses exactly why we get together in the church. That is the way we just began here. Let’s say it again. Let us pray that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God our almighty Father. And what do you say? May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, four our good and the good of all his holy Church”. Why are you there? For the praise and the glory of God’s name. We do not come into the Church to get something. Every weekend I see people who don’t get it. They come to get, not to give. They come to “get communion.” As soon as they do, they’re out the door. The purpose of worship the work of the liturgy is give glory to God, to praise God, to thank God. We don’t come to “get” communion. We are present in order to enter into communion with a people who are giving glory and praise to God. We don’t do that by racing out the door. We are not there to get points, to avoid sin, or think for one minute that we can stand before God and claim a place in the Kingdom of Heaven by saying, “I never missed Mass.” To that God will say what the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel tell us: “When I was hungry did you give me anything to eat?” We are not going to bargain or bribe our way into the Reign of God.
Liturgy is a learned set of behaviors and actions, not all of which are immediately obvious and not all of which can ever be totally explained. That is because liturgy is ritual. The rituals of our Sacred Liturgy, all say something that we need to understand, and that also means that we must understand that language. There is a consistency about ritual that allows us to be free of worry about what to do next or if we’re going to do it right. It frees us to pay more attention to what God is doing. If something breaks that consistency, if something happens that is not part of the ritual, it’s over.
The order of the liturgy is set, the scripture readings change from day to day. Some argue today that there is too much flexibility and that we should return to “one Roman Rite.” The idea that there was and should be “one” way of doing the Roman Rite is contrary to our history. That’s not true. At the risk of overgeneralizing, this means that from as early as the fourth century the liturgy as celebrated at Rome had the same structure, but there were differences between the papal liturgy and the liturgy celebrated in parishes. When I was at the Cathedral back in Oklahoma City, I tried to cultivate a “Cathedral” liturgy never intending it to be copied in local parishes. Even after the Council of Trent, liturgical practices that were in existence for two hundred years were allowed to continue such as the Dominican liturgy celebrated in Dominican Convents, or the Ambrosian liturgy celebrated in Milan. “One size fits all” has never been the case when it comes to the Roman or Western Latin Rite. However, those unique variations are for particular places and communities. They are not “optional rites” for people everywhere. For one thing, the rites have to fit the space. What works in a Gothic church of France would be silly on Guymon, Oklahoma. Rites have to be celebrated within a culture as well as a building, and that might mean different garments, different instruments, different movements. At the same time, it can be said that “one structure fits all” in the sense that the eucharistic liturgy always has the same basic outline: Gathering, Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, Presentation of Gifts, Eucharistic prayer, Communion, and Dismissal.
For me, liturgy is never understandable or comprehensible. In fact, the liturgy always articulates and enacts what is incomprehensible, astounding, and even fascinating. Rituals are all over us. We use them all the time because rituals are our way of expressing something when words are inadequate. I see it all the time, I do it all the time. I saw it Thursday at the Ft Myers airport. An older man got out of car, and boy who may have been about 6 or 7 got out with what I assumed were his parents. The little ran up to the old man and threw his arms around the old man with tears in his eyes, and the old man bent down, ruffled that child’s hair and kissed him on the top of his head. That was a ritual. It was an action that expressed something that words could not express. Contrary to what some young people might say, rituals are not boring. Boredom is a condition of the brain. It is the consequence of a failed imagination. I am never bored. I have suffered through the longest most ridiculous inconsequential meetings that you could ever imagine, and I’ve never been bored. I have rearranged the furniture in the room, changed the pictures on the wall and counted the ceiling tiles because I have imagination. It takes imagination to enter into Liturgy and Worship. It takes imagination to pray too. It’s not that God is a figment of one’s imagination meaning that we make it up. It’s that we have to imagine the God that Jesus has revealed to us, the God he called, Abba.
Liturgical rites are comprised of a number of things, and should engage all of our senses. They are not simply speaking of the right words over the right elements to produce predetermined results. Liturgy is always an astounding and complex collection of ideas, images, sights, sounds, silences, people, ministers, building, and much more all of which contribute to a multisensory and multidimensional experience. A good liturgy ought to wear you out. It ought to be an almost over-load of experience. Understanding what occurs is always secondary to experiencing in ever-new ways what occurs uniquely in and through the liturgy. Every liturgy is a unique and particular experience. When we gather every Sunday, it’s always different because things have happened to us during the week. We’re different than we were the week before unless you live in some kind of bubble frozen in time. While in every act of liturgy we use what we have used before: texts, rites, gestures, music, and so forth, no act of liturgy is ever repeated or the same if for no other reason that we are never the same.
The purpose of Liturgy is the sanctification of people and through the holiness of life one gives glory to God. It is odd to me that for nearly a generation, we have been ready to draw nourishment for our spiritual lives from the Sacred Scriptures. We have not been taught in a similar way to draw that nourishment from the Sacred Liturgy. I believe, and that’s why I’m here, that we must learn to experience the same nourishment from the Liturgy. This might mean, for example, approaching the mystery of the Eucharist by understanding the meaning of the Eucharistic Prayer. When the priest says: “The Mystery of Faith” in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, something should be unfolding, opening up, become clear to us about who is in our midst and because of it and because of what we are doing there, our own identity should be crystal clear. Four words that ought to make us think: “HUH?” “What’s happening here?” “How am I a part of this?” “What do I have to say about it?” Like the Scriptures, the Liturgy must be understood, meditated upon, and interiorized until it becomes part of our personal prayer. What I mean by that is that the Liturgy should makes us want to run home and shut the door! God speaks and acts through the Liturgy just as much as God speaks and acts through the Scriptures.
Many people these days have discovered an ancient and very fruitful kind of personal prayer called: Lectio Divina. It is a method of prayer usually practiced alone, but sometimes in a group setting when a passage of Scripture is read then reflected upon by placing one’s self into the scene or the occasion, imagining (there’s that skill again) what it was like and what it is like right now. I wonder why that same exercise used with Sacred Scriptures, could not be used with the words of the Liturgy? It might be rather fruitful. In the Acts of the Apostles, chapter eight, Philip asks the Ethiopian official whom he finds reading the prophet Isaiah: “Do you understand what you are reading?” I think that same question should be asked of every one of us: “Do you understand what you are celebrating?” No more than we could get through the Prophet Isaiah in one day do I think we can get through the Sacred Liturgy in three talks, but we can at least open a crack and get a taste for what might lead you to a deeper understanding and fruitful prayer in the Liturgy.
Saint Benedict never uses the word Liturgy in his rule that has guided so many praying and worshiping communities for so long. The wisdom of his rule is not just for monks and nuns. The wisdom of his rule if learned, practiced and followed in families would transform life in this world. The very first word that begins the Holy Rule is, ‘Listen.” What do you think it would like in your home if everyone followed that rule? As I said, Benedict never uses the word “Liturgy” in his rule when encouraging and instructing on prayer. In its place, he refers to the “Opus Dei”, the “Work of God.” It is not by chance that the Eastern Churches refer to the Sacred Liturgy as, “The Divine Liturgy.” Isn’t that saying a lot more than calling our worship, “Mass?” If you go to “The Divine Liturgy”, you know immediately who’s in charge and who is doing something. Our Liturgy is not what we do. It is the work of God, that accomplishes what it signifies. Saint Paul writes in almost every Epistle about the “mystery” of God. For Paul the “mystery” is God’s plan to gather up all things in Christ. Start thinking about that, ponder it, pull it apart the next time you hear a priest rise from his knee and say: “The Mystery of Faith.” It does not mean it’s a secret, because the secret has been revealed, God’s plan. It is Jesus Christ who reveals the mystery of God. That’s the mystery of faith: Jesus Christ!
The Greeks believed mystery was something that remained hidden, could not be spoken of, and was beyond comprehension. This is exactly the opposite of the Judeo-Christian understanding of mystery. How I wish Sister Mary Everlasting would have known and understood that. Instead, what many of us grew up with was that firm and authoritative announcement: “It’s a mystery” every time we asked a question about what something meant or why we did something in church. Because of Jesus Christ, the secret, the mystery has been revealed. We do know what God is doing. Nothing reveals the mystery of God more than the words and actions of Jesus. Think about that scene on Easter evening with those disappointed and discouraged disciples going to Emmaus. They were going the wrong way! Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and revealed the mystery at table with bread and wine. With that, knowing the plan of God, they turned around and went the right way – back to the company of the other believers in Jerusalem.
The link between the Scriptures and the Liturgy is absolutely essential, and we do something that makes it obvious. At the beginning of the Liturgy, the Gospel is carried solemnly, in the grand gesture of being held high before the entire assembly until reaching the altar, the heart of the assembly. It is then enthroned on the altar becoming a kind of Epiphany. The very Word of God passes through the people of God. It is a kind of Incarnation. The Word is within us. The Word of God takes flesh and remains in the flesh of God’s people. We put that Word on the altar, the place of sacrifice. It is the place of offering, because Jesus Christ offers himself. In Christ, the word of God becomes not just a body but a body offered, a total gift of self. The epiphany, the revelation, is there in the gesture of putting the Gospel on the altar. The Word of God has found its fulfillment in the true worship offered by Christ on the cross. We cannot just walk up there and put the book down like a picture book on your coffee table. That act is the beginning of the celebration. It is like an icon that manifests the unity that exists between the Scripture and the mystery of the altar, the Eucharist. In the Scriptures, the knowledge offered is intellectual and rational. In the Liturgy, in Ritual, one learns by listening, speaking, seeing, smelling, and touching. The senses are the pathway to meaning.
Those of you familiar with the Passover ritual might remember that a child asks a question at the beginning. “What does this mean?” With that, the Passover rite begins. I think we need to keep asking that question every time we assemble for the Liturgy. “What does this mean?” I always think that those who participate in the Liturgy without knowing the mystery are like a dancer who dances without knowing the music or rhythm. We must never quit pondering the mystery narrated by the Scriptures and celebrated in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is like a dance that moves, interprets and anticipates the story of our salvation as told in the Sacred Scriptures.
“Back in the day, I love to say that now that I’m retired, the seminary I attended required a half semester workshop with the drama teacher. At first some of us scoffed at the idea until the very first week, when Father Gavin spoke to us about Liturgy as Drama. In that class we learned about “blocking” which is what happens at an early stage of preparation for a play. Where people stand, how they move, what they do with their hands, where they look, and how they walk is all part of that. I remember the day in that class when he had us watch a video of a marching band out on a football field going through their drill for a half-time show. The precision of it to the day amazes. Every member of the band knows where they must stand and how to move from place to place without bumping into others. He spoke to us about space and how to move from one place to another. (Tell the story about Communion Ministers at Saint Peter and Saint William).
So, my friends, for the next two nights, I want to explore with you the mystery of faith. My hope is that in doing so, you may begin to gather for the liturgy with some excitement and some wonder about what God has in store, would like to say, and might do with you rather than coming because you have to, just because you always have, or because you’re afraid that as Sister Mary Everlasting told you that you would burn in hell if you didn’t go.
Just as I explained what we are doing with and why that great book is carried through the assembly and enthroned, not put, but enthroned on the altar, I will tease out the movements that make up the sign language we use in rituals. I need your imaginations to wake up. I need for you to wonder why and begin to connect your head and your heart. I hope that you will begin to find a new motive for and a new experience in prayer as you explore the rite and rituals that speak about something almost too profound too real and too divine to speak of. If you want to do that, God willing, I’ll be right here tomorrow night. If you have time, you might take a few minutes to prepare and read very slowly and carefully thinking about each word in Eucharistic Prayer Two or Three. You can find them on line, in a Missal, or Hymnal. It is a very different experience to read or say those words yourself rather than just hear some priest proclaiming them. Notice that the prayer is addressed to God, not to Jesus. That is important to realize as we explore how Jesus and the Holy Spirit participate and contribute to our Divine Liturgy and our Eucharistic experience.
Monday, March 28, 2023
The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part Two
In the last half of the 4th Century, Saint Ambrose gave a series of sermons right after Easter to the newly Baptized. One of them concerned the “Sacraments” In that sermon Ambrose tells us that the Eucharistic celebration is a mystery of forgiveness and reconciliation. The entire celebration is filled with gesture and words about reconciliation and forgiveness. From what is properly called: “The Penitential Act” with its “Lord, Have Mercy” litany to those words spoken over the chalice: “Poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins, to the Rite of Peace, to the Lord’s Prayer, to the Lamb of God, it’s all about forgiveness.
The rites of introduction for the Eucharistic celebration have four elements: a greeting, the penitential act, the doxology, and the prayer. These are not separate actions. The purpose of this introduction is for us to enter into the presence of the Lord. The first authentic liturgical act the assembly is called to carry out is to approach God’s presence. There is a reciprocal presence here. The Lord is with his people and the people are before the Lord. Psalm 24 composed for the liturgical entry into the Jerusalem Temple goes like this: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?” Then it continues: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” Our “Confiteor” prayer expresses the same sentiments. Remember this, in the Scriptures, the “pure and just one” is not the one who is without sin but the one who recognizes their sin. When you remember this, those words: “Let us remember or call to mind our sins” become the first act of the assembly. Only the just one shall stand before the Lord, and who is the just one? It is the sinner who knows their own sinfulness. With that comes the great “doxology”. Doxos is a Greek word meaning “Glory.” Having been made pure by the mercy of God, the assembly expresses its intention to carry out an act of worship. In the Bible there are five cultic verbs:
We praise you
We bless you
We adore you
We glorify you
We give you thanks for your great glory.
Recognize the great hymn?
It goes on with what amounts to a Creed that expresses the Holy Trinity
You alone are the Holy One
You alone are the Lord
You alone are the most – High, Jesus Christ,
With the Holy Spirit
In the Glory of God, the Father.
With that said, the Introductory Rite finishes with a summary prayer that in every instance affirms how we pray and why we pray: Through Christ our Lord.
So, with that fresh in our minds, we must ask and wonder what it means spiritually. The answer, to put it briefly, is that we are both a holy people and a sinful people: holy by reason of the one who is in our midst and sinful by reason of what we have done and what we have failed to do. Humanity’s misery stands face to face with God’s mercy here. It’s like that woman caught in adultery. There she is standing before the Lord of mercy. The work of the Liturgy to come is to resolve that conflict. In our usual way of thinking everything is about us, the thought has developed that Liturgy or “Liturgia” in Greek refers to the words we say or what we do in ritual worship. Maybe we need to get over ourselves because, it also refers to the work of God and what God is doing. Instead of being all concerned about what we do and how well we do it, we might shift our thought to what God is doing which is far more important. Thinking of Liturgy as the work of God among us, as Benedict says in his rule, changes our whole perspective and perhaps our attitude about and our presence in the Liturgy. God is doing something here. Pay attention.
An element in the Penitential Act that is more often ignored than observed is silence. It is essential. It must be austere, intense, and severe. It ought to last long enough to make us feel uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable because we want to get things moving, but uncomfortable because we are in shame. When I am presiding, I take this moment seriously. Why not take it seriously? I want God to take me seriously. I take God seriously. I once overheard one of the servers at Saint Mark Parish in Norman say to another one: “He must have a lot of sins to remember!” When that silence does conclude with the Confiteor or a litany of God’s merciful qualities, there comes a blessing prayer in which the attributes of mercy, compassion and holiness are expressed by invoking the name of the Lord. This is not absolution.
At this point then, it is necessary to resolve a confusion that often arises over this Penitential Act and the Rite of Reconciliation. We cannot reduce to a simple recited formula the powerful work of God moving a person to conversion and repentance. The Sacrament of Penance expects just exactly that, a period of conversion and penance. The naming of the sin, the recognition and the claiming of the consequences of specific sin, is the journey we might call Reconciliation. That is not what happens in the Penitential Rite introducing the Eucharistic Liturgy. In short, to put it in bad, but common language: Going to Mass is not an excuse for avoiding the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Listen to these words that conclude the Syriac Liturgy with which the celebrant dismisses the assembly:
Go in peace, beloved brothers and sisters; we entrust to you the grace and mercy of the Holy Trinity, and to the viaticum that you have taken from the purifying altar of the Lord, all of you, near and far, living and dead, saved by the glorious cross of the Lord and signed by the sign of holy baptism. May the Holy Trinity forgive your errors, remit your sins, and give you the repose of your soul at your deaths. Have pity on me, a weak and sinful servant, with the help of your prayers. Go in peace, content and joyful, and pray for me.”
It took me a long time to see it, so I’ll bet that most of you have never noticed that the only time Jesus reads the Scriptures is in the context of the Liturgy. It is the 4thChapter of Luke’s Gospel. The infancy narrative is finished. John the Baptist is at work, and the adult Jesus appears, is baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit and led by that Spirit to the wilderness where he faces his temptations. Then Luke tells us that filled with the Holy Spirit, he returns to Galilee and went to the Synagogue. He takes up the scroll during the prayer, and with that, his ministry begins. His first public act is liturgical in the synagogue not in the Temple. What happens in that synagogue is the institution of the Liturgy of the Word. What happens in an upper room is the institution of the Eucharistic Liturgy. Both moments of Institution happen in the same way and with the same words. “He took in his hands.” First, he took the scroll of the Prophet in his hands. Then he takes the bread and cup in his hands.
The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that it is himself, Christ, who speaks when the Scriptures are read in the church. For me, that is one of the most important and profound messages of the Council. When we read the Scriptures in the assembly, it is Christ who speaks proclaiming the Good News once again. If we really believed that, how could we sit back and not be on the edge of our seats with eyes and ears wide open. Jesus Christ is speaking to us right then and there. This is not some “back in the day” moment when we are recalling something Jesus said once long ago. It is now. Jesus Christ is speaking to us right then and there. This is the living Word of God, not some old diary or journal entry made 2,000 years or so ago. Think for a moment what effect this reality should have on the reader both in terms of their appearance, their preparation, and the sound of their voice. How does it happen? What does it mean? These are the questions to ask at this point.
We must notice a detail in Luke’s Gospel. He writes: “And Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath.” He did not go into an empty room. He went into the midst of a people gathered together. This is not just describing a physical action like walking into a room. It means convening together with the believers in the same place in order to be a member of the gathering. For a Christian to enter a church, for every believer to enter his place of worship, means entering into and becoming part of a people’s entire history of faith. It means choosing to be a member of the community of believers present and past, or we could say: “Dead or Alive. See how this anticipates and foretells the Mystery of Faith. And, what is this “mystery of faith?” It is Jesus Christ whose presence, whose mission, whose entire being is the gathering together of all people. This is why is greatest focus for him was on those who were scattered, lost, abandoned, expelled, sinful. His fulfillment of God’s will and God’s plan was to gather all people together with, through, and in Jesus Christ. That is the “Mystery of Faith.” It becomes a kind of sign of what is to come. So, the assembly gathered in worship is a sign of what is to come. Look around the next time you enter your church for the Holy Eucharistic celebration. Use that gift we call, “imagination.” Look at that rag-tag assembly of sinners longing for Salvation. We belong there. To summarize this simply, the assembly is the place where God continues to speak to us and where Jesus proclaims the Good News. And so, when we hear the Gospel proclaimed, some event in the past is not being recalled as though it was history. The work of God through Jesus Christ is made present now. The assembly is essential. I came to this realization when I learned some time ago that to this day, in every synagogue of the world, the scroll of the Law may not be removed from the Arc unless there are ten adult men present. It is not enough for the book of the Law to be present and read. It is absolutely necessary that there be people present to hear it. Here is the difference between a Scripture Study class and the proclamation of the Word of God in the Liturgy; people present and listening.
This reality has implications regarding the assembly. They are there to listen not to read. It is about hearing, not about reading. It means that they ought to be able to hear which says something about a sound system and about the one who speaks. There are details in Luke’s Gospel that give us even more to notice. The attendant hands the scroll to Jesus who is the lector. The scroll is not his property. In fact, to make the point more clearly, Luke tells us that when he finished, he handed the scroll back to the attendant. That scroll belongs to the community on whose behalf the attendant acts. The community is the care taker. So, in the Christian assembly, the lector receives from the church the Sacred Text to read. They do not bring their own Bible. The book is on the ambo because it belongs to the church. When finished, the lector leaves it there because it is in the keeping of the assembly just as the Eucharist is in the care of the church. One other thing to note from Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus received the scroll, he read from the passage assigned for the day it tells us. He did not just pick out something he wanted to preach on or read. It is the same for the Lector in the Liturgy. They read the passage assigned by the church for the day. In reference to the lector, Saint Benedict had this to say, and I sometimes wonder how we could have ignored it: “No one shall presume to read or sing unless he is able to benefit the hearers; let this be done with humility seriousness, and reverence, and at the abbot’s bidding.”Watch this, remember, and think about this the next time you are at Mass. Those Sacred Scriptures are ours. God has given us his word. Think of that the next time you hear the words: “and the Word was made flesh.”
In the First Testament Book of Nehemiah another important element is passed on to us, the visibility of the Book of the Law of the Lord. In the 8th chapter it says: “Ezra brought the law before the assembly. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose. Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen. Amen.” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
What is important here is the book must be seen before it is heard. The people express their faith because to be before the book of the law is to be before the Lord. It is a ritual action manifesting the presence of God in the midst of the people. Even today in a synagogue this ritual gesture is repeated. Before it is read, the scroll is held up open for the people to see, and then it is carried through the assembly as the people venerate it and sing. We declare by this gesture that the book belongs to all who have free access to the word of salvation. And so, when the reading is finished, the book stays where it is, where it belongs where all the people have access to it.
When it comes to the Book of the Gospels, the Good News, even more attention and more ritual behavior is evident. The Book itself is beautiful. It is always to be treated with great reverence. It is not tucked under the arm to carry around. It is held high, brought through the assembly, and it is enthroned on the altar which is free of any other object at this point. It has the same dignity as the Eucharistic gifts. It is not just an object used it in worship. It is an object of worship. Again, the Second Vatican Council put it this way: “The Christian is nourished by the Bread of Life …from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ.” That is why the Gospel Book is on the altar – it will feed us. “Not on bread alone does one live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In the Eastern churches, the Book of the Gospels is enthroned on the altar even outside the liturgical celebrations. It is always there just as the Eucharistic consecrated elements are always in the tabernacle.
When it is time to feed the people with the Good News, the book is taken from the altar just as the Body and Blood of Christ are taken from the altar when it is time to feed the people. Remember these words from John 6, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” But just verses before that he says: “Anyone who hears my word has eternal life.” We cannot overlook that the Gospel is lifted up from the altar. Ultimately all four Gospels lead to the proclamation of the Passion. The Gospel and the Cross cannot be separated, and for that reason, we sign ourselves at the time of the Gospel’s proclamation because this is the book of the crucified.
Tying all of this together I want to point out an interesting little part of this ritual that is too often ignored or just passed over without any question when we should be asking the question a child asks at the Passover: “What does this mean?” Just before communion begins, there is a little one-line verse often ignored. Why is it there and what does it mean? At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration, at the moment we receive the body and blood of the Lord, the Liturgy reminds us of the intimate relationship between the Book of the Gospels and the altar, between the Word and Eucharist. That’s where something called, “The Communion Antiphon” comes in, and what it does. It is a moment, just as communion is about to begin which is why it is called an “Antiphon” meaning that it comes “before.”
In the 13th century, the reception of communion by the faithful disappeared. With it disappeared the Communion Chant. Only the antiphon remained. A fragment of what it once was, it still reminds us that there is a connection between being fed and nourished by the Word and being fed and nourished by the Bread of Life. That single Gospel verse is spoken or sung over, so to speak, the Eucharistic bread and chalice so that the broken bread and the broken word form a single reality in the sacrament. Hearing a verse from the Gospel of the day just proclaimed reinforces the unity of the table of Christ and the Bread of Life. This past Sunday was a perfect example. The Communion Antiphon was part of what Jesus said to Martha standing there at the grave of Lazarus. It ties the feast we have just had on the Word with the feast we are having with the Eucharist Bread. That verse becomes an invitation to enter into deeper communion with God. But even more so, it says that the Gospel is fully realized only through the communion in the body and blood of Christ. Think of it this way: Pope Gregory the Great commented on the Emmaus story saying, “They…recognized in the breaking of the bread the God they did not know as he explained the Sacred Scriptures.”
Let’s turn our attention now to the gifts. There is here an unmistakable ritual act by which we say something in gesture about what we believe and who we are. There is a definite ethical dimension to this act. If you want to really get to the roots of this, the 26th Chapter of Deuteronomy will take you there. It calls into question the right to possess. It is an act of Thanksgiving that acknowledges both the obligations of those gifted and their responsibility for those who are without. This action of the Liturgy is not just a way to get the dishes to the altar. In Deuteronomy, all of the demands about tithing, first fruits, the sabbatical year, and gleaning are there to make certain that the poor do not have to beg.
Saint Augustine insists that when we make an offering, we are offering ourselves. This rite of presentation directly involves the faithful who are present even though only two or three may actually bring the gifts to the altar. This is in obedience to the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 16) “No believer may come before the altar with empty hands, because the vocation of every person is to offer the world to God by her own hands.” When you realize that this is the law of Moses, you might begin to question how that law can be dismissed while Murder, Stealing, Lying, and Adultery get to be such big things. Who makes the priorities? This presentation of the gifts is a priestly act that demonstrates the priestly character of all the Baptized. In as much as these gifts represent ourselves then it is we who are placed on that altar, it is we who are sanctified by and through these gifts which, by the power of the Holy Spirit will soon become the Body of Christ. Hear these words from the Maronite Rite spoken by the priest holding up the gifts just given him by the people: “Almighty Lord and God, you accepted the offerings of our ancestors. Now accept these offerings that your children have brought to you out of their love for your holy name. Shower your spiritual blessings upon them and in lace of their earthly gifts, grant them life and your kingdom.” An exchange of gifts is about to happen. We bring what we have. God gives us what God has. And then with what God has given us, we give God glory.
Let’s think about what is offered: bread, wine, and water, but let’s do so because these are the elements Christ took into his hands. The prayer said by the priest is remarkable. “Blessed are you, Lord”. That is an acclamation and an affirmation of faith in the Blessedness of God. We are not “blessing something”. It is not the Bread and Wine that are blessed, but the God of the Universe, the God of all creation. When you stop to think about it, bread is extraordinary. In it we can recognize the fundamental elements of the world: the EARTH that receives the seed and makes it grow, the WATER and the ground grain mixed together into a dough, and the FIRE and hot AIR for baking. These are the elements of the universe. They are universal, and so is bread. Every culture has some form of bread as its staple. It is the most basic of foods, and everywhere it is a metaphor for food. To lack bread means to lack food to lack that on which we depend to live and without it we die.
Unlike bread, there is the wine which is not a principle of sustenance. We can live without wine. Yet, wine adds an element of gratuity and suggests a feast. It is a drink of joy and pleasure. It is call to community and festivity and it promotes a spirit of joy and fellowship. So, these two elements, bread and wine are the signs of human life, signs of work and signs of play, fatigue and joy, need and excess. I bake bread every week. I never buy bread in the store. When I started, I noticed that my bread would last about four days before mold begins to grow. I also noticed that bread from the store might last two weeks leaving me to wonder what chemical is in that long-lasting bread. So, out of some caution and some doubt that my life would be prolonged by that chemical, I have been baking a loaf about every five days. In doing so, I have begun to reflect and pray as I do so. It strikes me very powerfully, that the dough in my hands is alive. It rises, it eats the sugars in the grain and produces gasses that lift up the dough making what at first is heavy light and fragrant. Then I bake it, and it dies. Then I eat what has died and I live. It is a spiritual revelation worth turning you into domestic bakers. Try it.
Now, the presentation of the gifts is not limited to bringing bread and wine for the Eucharist. There are other gifts to relieve the suffering of the poor. To me, this makes the Eucharist a source of social transformation, and the source and power for that transformation is here in this ritual of sharing, out of duty and gratitude. It adds another dimension to the Eucharist that makes it the food of charity. If it is the Bread of Life, then it is also the Bread of Love. There is a connection between sacramental practice and the practice of justice. What is not shared is wasted. Our Sacred Liturgy offers a challenge to the church in the world. In a society dominated by the strongest among us, the Eucharist is a real threat. In a society where individualism triumphs, the Eucharist reminds us of the common destiny of all humanity. In a society where waste prevails, the Eucharist is a call to share. The Eucharist forges a theology of charity, for charity is a mystery that is both sacramental and prophetic. The Eucharist is just as social as theological. It is where the ethic of service is rooted. The truth is, there can be no communion with God without sharing with our brothers and sisters. To receive communion is to be a communion.
Maybe at this point we should think about this communion to which we belong. How the church prays determines what the church is. Consider this, there are three successive movements that make up the dynamic of a liturgical assembly – which is the Church.
God calls his people together
God speaks to his people
God enters into a covenant with this people.
The origin of every Liturgy is the call of God and response of the people. The first liturgical action is the response and gathering of the people.
John Chrysostom has some fascinating and enlightening comments about the Greek word: ekklesia. As some of you know, I get side tracked sometimes by words, especially nouns and verbs. Indulge me for a moment. Ekklesia is a noun composed of the preposition ek, which means from and the verb, “kaleo” which means call. Therefore, ekklesia is “the convocation”, the “call forth from” that leads us to understand ekklesia as those called together.
Now, back to Chrysostom. He says that the ekklesia is not the bishop’s house but the house of God’s people. With that he instructs in this way, “The Bishop is not to greet those who gather there like the head of a house might greet guests. Christians who gather in assembly are not the guests of the one who presides. Rather, they are gathered in their own house because the Church is the common home of all.” The one who presides is also a member of the assembly. He too comes in response to the call of God to gather. He too confesses his sins, hears the Word of God proclaimed, offers thanksgiving and is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord in order to become, with the members of the community he serves, one body in Christ. What I think is important to point out here is that the Liturgy does not begin with the opening song or the sign of the cross. It begins with God calling together the people and the people responding to this call by gathering in assembly.
What makes an assembly an ekklesia is the Word of God. Hearing the Word of God is what made Israel “the people of God.” This is why God says through the Prophet, Jeremiah, (7,23) “This command I gave them, obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” It is the proclamation of the Word of God that gives birth to the church. This means that the assembly is the home of the Word. For that reason, the Ambo is the special place of the Scriptures. Observe this. The book is not held in the hands of the lector, because it does not belong to the lector. It is placed on the ambo and it remains there even when the assembly disperses. We are saying something by this behavior. Is anyone listening we might wonder?
At the same time what makes an assembly an ekklesia is also at the same time what makes an ekklesia is an assembly. That’s not doubletalk. This begins to unfold for us in the Epistle to the Hebrews chapter 10,” Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” This is not simply a reference to the historical body of Jesus but the body that is the church, the people God has gathered through him. Since the day of Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit has been to continue the mission of Christ, the gathering of the dispersed children of God giving the people a new covenant. The close connection between the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist cannot be ignored. The end purpose to which Christians are called in assembly is the body of Christ. The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit is not, in fact, an end in itself; rather, the gifts are transformed so that those who eat them may become what they receive.
As I said yesterday, the Eucharistic prayers, all of them, will be more fruitful for us if we give them the same prayerful reflection we use on the Sacred Scriptures with Lectio Divina. If you do that, you will discover the dynamic of the two epiclesis of the prayer; one epiclesis over the gifts and a second over the assembly. An example: in Eucharistic prayer 2 the church prays: “Humbly we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.”The bodies are placed in relationship here: the Eucharistic Body of Christ and the Ecclesial Body. The goal of the first one is the second one. The whole purpose of the Eucharistic Body is the Ecclesial Body. “Why are we doing this, we should ask? The answer is to become what the Holy Spirit continues to do, gather into one the scattered children of God.
The church cannot be satisfied with having the Eucharist. It is not something to be possessed. The Eucharist serves no purpose if it remains simply an object to be possessed and adored. The church, however, is called to become the Eucharistic body of the Lord. The truth of the Eucharistic body is an ecclesial body. To receive communion is to be a communion. When we understand that the purpose of the Eucharist is to make us one body, a communion of brothers and sisters in faith, we will no longer view our participation in the Sunday assembly as a matter of obligation but rather as the expression of our identity. Being there is what makes us Catholic or Christian. If you’re not there, you can’t claim that id
This is why we take great care to see that those who are too sick to be present must receive Holy Communion. Through no fault on their own are they absent. To make certain that they stay in communion, we reach out to them through the ministry of Extraordinary Ministers uniting them to the liturgy and to Christ and the Church. It is most important that this happen when the assembly is gathered together. Their sending forth is a powerful sign to all of us that some are missing, and as Jesus sought out the sick who, often because of their illness had been banned from Synagogue, we too as the Body of Christ still seek those who are missing to strengthen the bond we have through communion. Augustine, in one of his sermons tells a story about Victorinus who converted to Christianity around 355. He was in the habit of reading the Holy Scriptures and studied all the Christian writings intensively. He said to friend in a private conversation that he was a Christian. The other replied: “Until I see you in Christ’s church I will not believe that or count you among the Christians.” With that, Victorinus said: “Let us go to the church: I want to become Christian.” We know he was not talking about a building here, but rather an assembly gathered together in the name of Christ.
All of this leads us to confirm that the central issue for us today is to believe in the Church as communion, as the Body of Christ. In a culture marked by individualism, competition, affirmation of oneself at all costs, even at the expense of others, it is difficult to be church, to be truly a community. Only from the Eucharist, from the prophetic gesture of the breaking of the bread, can the Christian communities of the West renew their awareness that the Church cannot be the Body of Christ where Christians fail to turn away from egoism and refuse to share their goods with the poor. What is not shared with others in communion is taken from others in injustice. According to Sirach, God does not like a sacrifice that is the fruit of injustice toward the poor because: “Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor.” (Sirach 34, 24)
Wednesday, March 29, 2023
The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part Three
In a conversation about the Liturgy with someone recently, they expressed some surprise and not just a little annoyance when a fairly young priest said to her: “The Mass is a sacrifice. That talk about a meal and the altar as a table is just some Protestant idea that is totally wrong.” I wondered to myself at the time why it was an either-or matter in his mind. Then I began to wonder if that priest had paid any attention to the narrative of the Last Supper. I don’t think we call it the “Last Sacrifice.” The more I thought about it I wondered if that young man had any knowledge of Covenant which happens to be what was instituted and sealed at that meal in an upper room. Every Covenant in the whole history of salvation as recorded in the Scriptures involves a sacrifice and a meal. They always ate. They always consumed something in accepting and entering into a Covenant. The Old Covenant was sealed by the sacrifice of a lamb, and then the act of consuming what has been sacrificed binds one into the Covenant.
It is entirely possible that one or the other of these realities: sacrifice or meal might gain more importance or receive more attention from time to time, but it’s not a good idea to exclude either one. Doing so distorts everything and interferes with the action of God. Both sacrifice and meal contribute to the things we say and do in our ritual response to God’s action and Word. Let’s sort that out tonight.
The Paschal Sacrifice of Christ cannot be understood at all without understanding the Passover Sacrifice. The whole new Covenant springs out of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. It isn’t by chance that Matthew carefully casts Jesus in the image of Moses. It is entirely possible that Jesus saw Moses as his role model. Both what he says and what he does leaves little doubt about the influence of Moses and the Torah on Jesus himself. His life in the synagogue, his participation in the Feasts at the Temple root him firmly in Israel’s tradition.
There are some questions that can lead deeply into the profound meaning of what we say, what we do, and why. The first question is, What does God ask of us? The answer to that question is found in the Book of Exodus when Moses, at God’s insistence approaches Pharaoh petitioning for the freedom of the Israelites. In Chapter 8 it says: “Go to Pharaoh and say to him: ‘Let my people go so that they may worship me.” Right there you have the answer of what God asks of us. Worship. The whole point of saving people is for worship. We know how that story unfolds as Moses goes back and forth between plagues. Finally, near the end Pharaoh tells Moses it’s OK to go and take some stuff, sheep, and goats with them. Moses says, “No.” We need to take everything because we do not know what the Lord will ask of us. With the last plague, as we know, Pharaoh has had enough, and the Israelites take everything and head out into the desert. The first place they go is to Mount Saini. They don’t know how to worship. They have been slaves. At this point in the history of salvation, they are not really a people, but there they find out. They discover that the heart of religion is worship, and the heart of worship is sacrifice. What we give to God is sacrifice.
Let me remind you what they are instructed to do. They are to take a year-old lamb, and the first thing they are told to do is to take it into their home. Now, remember when we were little and would come home with a stray cat or dog and want to keep it? I’m not sure about your home, but I can tell, Ruth and Ted always said no, and that was the end of it. As an adult, I have begun to understand why it was “no”. They did not want us to become attached to it especially if the owner would show up and take it back breaking our hearts. Well, there are two reasons why God required that the little lamb be taken into the home: to keep it safe and unblemished, and to let a relationship of love grow.
Then, the instructions continue. When it was time for the Passover, the lamb was to be carried to the temple, carried, again to keep it unblemished. Once at the Temple, it was lifted up in a place with a high wall where someone opened its throat catching the blood in a bowl. By that lifting up, the lamb was presented. It was not offered. There is a difference. That bowl was then taken into the holy place and the blood was poured out onto the altar. At that moment, it was offered to the Father. It was an “oblation.” That somewhat technical word means it was offered to God, offered in such a way that there was nothing left. God was given it all. That’s an oblation. There can all sorts of sacrifices for all sorts of reason. An athlete makes sacrifices in training to become better. That’s not an oblation. Notice and hear the language we use in the Liturgy. After the Oblation takes place, the dead lamb was taken home to be roasted and a feast was held to which others were invited who might not be able to afford a lamb. The story of the Passover was told again beginning with the youngest person present asking a question: “What does this mean?” The point of worship, the whole point of sacrifice is that you give up something you love. You give it all.
The question still stands for us: How has God asked us to worship him? In the Old Covenant, Take a lamb and slaughter it. In the New Covenant, how does he ask for worship? Do this in memory of me. That’s how God wants us to worship: Do This. At the moment in the Liturgy when the Words of Institution are spoken, that is the presentation. That is when the lamb is lifted up to the wall. When those sacred elements are held up in the hand. At that moment, we are confronted with the Mystery of Faith. It is presenting. It is not worship.
Worship is offered when the priest takes the body and blood of Christ and lifts it high with these extraordinary words that say it all: Through Him, With Him, and In Him, God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirt, all glory and honor is yours forever and ever. That is the moment of fulfillment. That is the moment of true worship. It is the moment when the Father is glorified. And what do we say at that moment? Amen. The instructions call it “The Great Amen.” In my experience as priest it is more of the “Lame” Amen. It is just a signal to get off our knees. If there is ever a time for bell ringing and incense smoking, it is right here, at this moment, not at the presentation moment. The whole purpose of the presentation is the oblation. The whole purpose of the consecration is the offering of Christ’s Body to the Father. Through Him. With Him. In Him. Do you remember what is said after that? (All Glory and Honor) Isn’t that exactly what you said you were going to do after the gifts were placed on the altar?
Let’s review that just for the sake of emphasis. Just before the Eucharistic Prayer’s Preface begins, the priest says to the assembly: Let us pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father. Then, what does the assembly say? “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy church.”
My friends with those words those present are exercising the priesthood into which we were all called and anointed at our Baptism. You cannot waste your priesthood by watching. You have to get into the worship giving glory and praise to God. People may not sit in a pew and watch as though they were watching the Texas/Oklahoma Football game. In fact, when I think about it, those watching the game are probably on their feet shouting and excited way more excited than most people taking up space in a church on Sunday. The Father asks us to worship and give glory. The Father is glorified and the world is saved only if we stop watching and start worshipping.
We are not re-enacting the last supper. For me, the prefix “re” suggests doing something again. We are not doing something over again. We have to be careful with that word, “remember.” We are not repeating something that happened in history. In the experience of the liturgy, there is no past. We are in a sense, in the future. This is why I think having a clock in the Church is a bad idea. The moment we step across the threshold of worship in the liturgy, we are outside of time. There is no time in the presence of God. We are actualizing the same gracious deeds God accomplished for us and for our salvation. In the liturgy, the notion of time is one in which a saving act that occurred once and for all at a time and place in saving history is experienced still, here and now, in a new experience until it is fulfilled at God’s saving initiative and in God’s good time at the end of time.
There are three final ritual gestures important to understand and reflect upon: the fraction rite, the greeting of peace, the reception of Holy Communion with the conclusion of the Sacred Liturgy, and what we begin to see with these final actions is something that is not too surprising. The longer something is done, the more we have to say about it. Just like it is in our lives, the longer we live, the more stuff we accumulate. The oldest of prayers are always shortest until someone decides to revise them and then they get longer: more words! If you just look at the Eucharistic Prayers in the Latin Rite, you can see it. Eucharistic Prayers Two and Three which have their origins in the 4th and 5th century, they are much shorter than the Roman Canon that comes from the 16th century. Longer still is Eucharistic Prayer Four which was adapted from a Swiss Canon composed in the 20th century.
In the very early days as Christian communities were forming and multiplying, it became increasingly possible for the one responsible for teaching, leading, and sanctifying to be present at each assembly. There developed the custom of distributing a portion of the Body of Christ consecrated at the Principal celebration to the outlying communities as a sign of their unity all together. Someone designated would take a small portion of the Consecrated Bread to other places where it would be mixed in or added to what was on the altar in the outlying place. It was either dropped in the Chalice or mixed into the Consecrated Bread already on the altar. Obviously uniting them in a visible and powerful way to the Leader, (Bishop) and the principal church or “Mother Church” as it was sometimes referred to. As an aside, we accomplish today with the Holy Oils. After the Chrism Mass, every community takes some of the Oil Blessed or Consecrated by the Bishop back home to the local church. It provides for us the same sign that was made with this ancient “Fraction rite.”
As that custom of sending out a small portion of the Consecrated Bread to each of the communities became increasingly difficult to maintain, an allegorical meaning was attached to the action. The church has always seemed to have a problem recognizing practical things as simply that. For instance, in some Byzantine Rites, there is a ritual gesture of adding hot water to the consecrated wine just before Communion. The water sits over a candle warming all through the liturgy. The purpose of adding the water is to thaw, or soften, the wine which has become somewhat congealed during the long liturgy in frigid cold climate and church. It’s simply a practical matter introduced to solve a problem. Once the liturgy was celebrated in a warm climate and once churches had some heat, the purpose has to be repurposed to make sense. Water gets added to the wine for us in the Latin Rite simply because the wine used early on tasted terrible. It was a crude drink always on the edge of being spoiled because there was no refrigeration. To make it palatable, the diluted it. The elegant blends of fine wines had not yet been considered. They used what they had. Historians tell us that no one today would drink that stuff.
It’s the same thing with the washing of hands in the Latin Rite. Early in the formation of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the gifts brought to the altar were many, messy, and varied. After receiving and handling all of that stuff, hand washing was appropriate. When the custom of bringing something out of everything you had had passed away, the hand washing continued now with a prayer to shift the action from practicality to piety. The result is now reflected in the prayer the priest says as water is poured over his hands. It comes from a Psalm, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from all my sins.” A practical custom of cleaning up has become a prayer for forgiveness and purity.
The same thing has happened with the fraction rite. First of all, the bread had to be broken up into serving sized pieces. There was also that old custom of adding a portion from the Bishop’s Liturgy that had been brought there. Suddenly, or perhaps gradually, when the practical matter no longer was necessary, an allegorical reason gets added in the form of a prayer which completely changes the meaning of the ritual action.
With the typical efficiency of the Western, Latin, Roman rite, the priest says these words which you rarely hear because a Litany is being sung (Lamb of God). As he breaks off a small piece of the larger portion, (think of the original action) he drops it into the chalice with these words: “May the mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”
The Eastern Churches which, by culture, are far more inspired by allegorical ideas, have an even greater and more spiritual dimension to this breaking and mixing. In the Maronite Rite with which I am more familiar, the assembly begins to sing, and the priest, with the large consecrated host in his right hand breaks it over the chalice in two parts; then he breaks a piece from the edge of the half remaining in his left hand saying: “We have believed and have approached and now we seal and break this oblation, the heavenly bread, the Body of the Lord, who is the living God.” Then he dips the small piece into the chalice in the form of a cross saying: “We sign this chalice of salvation and thanksgiving with the forgiving ember which glows with heavenly mysteries.” Then he dips the Body of Christ into the Blood three times saying: “In the name of the Father, the Living One, for the living; and of the only Son, the Holy One, begotten of him, and like him, the Living One , for the living; and of the Holy Spirit, the beginning, the end, and the perfection of all that was and will be in heaven and on earth; the one, true and blessed God without division from whom comes life forever.” Then, he sprinkles the Body three times, using the small piece that has been dipped into the Blood saying: “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is sprinkled on his holy Body, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Then, he drops the small piece into the Blood of Christ and says: “You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity and our humanity with your divinity, your life with our mortality and our mortality with your life. You have assumed what is ours and you have given us what is yours for the life and salvation of our souls. To you be glory forever.” The priest then presents the consecrated host and the chalice to the people who together say: “O Lord, you are the pleasing Oblation, who offered yourself for us. You are the forgiving Sacrifice, who offered yourself to your Father. You are the High Priest, who offered yourself as the Lamb. Through your mercy, may our prayer rise like incense which we offer to you Father through you. To you be glory forever.”
This is the Eastern Church’s way of worship – the giving of Glory and Praise to God. It is that elevation of the Sacrament with the words Through, With, and In – To you be glory forever. That is worship!
What does the action mean we could ask as the child asks at the Passover Meal. That lifting up and those words mean that God is worshiped, praised, and glorified by God’s Son Jesus and by all of us through, with, and in him. This cannot be observed or watched. The fraction rite does not mean that the sacrifice of Christ was the breaking of his body. The Body of Christ must be broken, yes; but that Body is the ekklesia, the church. We have to be broken in service, and when we are, we are one with Christ. If we are doing nothing, if we’re sitting there watching, there is no worship.
Before we can get to the moment of union, we have to deal with something that is very real and somewhat contradictory. We have to deal with, acknowledge and ritually address our sinful brokenness. Just before the distribution of Communion, the Liturgy, or is it God, invites us to exchange a sign of peace with our brothers and sisters in faith many of whose names we do not even know. The peace that Christians offer each other is a divine gift, never simply the fruit of personal sentiments or feelings. The person with whom I exchange peace is a symbol of the person whom I most need to forgive and the person from whom I hope to receive forgiveness. This is a profound and sacred act. It is not time to be looking around for your friends. You don’t need to be reconciled, forgive, or be forgiven by your friends. Likewise, introducing yourself to someone behind or in front of you is not for this time. You should have already done that when you arrived. This is a time for husbands and wives to simply say, “I’m sorry” and mean it. It is a time for children to look up to their parents and feel the same sorrow, or to look at one another to forgive and find forgiveness for their fights and lies, and meanness. This is about seeking and giving pardon because, we are about to approach the altar of forgiveness, and we had better be at peace, for there might be consequences if we are not. To say to one another, Peace be with you,” means to recognize in each other the need for and the gift of forgiveness. We began the Liturgy by accepting the Lord’s forgiveness. Near the end, give what we have received.
In the logic of the Liturgy, the two or three people standing near me with whom I exchange peace become in that moment a sign of the real person with whom I recently reconciled or with whom I hope to reconcile soon. In that gesture of peace, I express my openness to peace and reconciliation, received from God. I receive, so to speak, a mandate that I am called to make a part of my daily living. I receive the gift of peace that I am also called to give. The truth of the sign of peace is made manifest by the respect and seriousness with which I give it. If I exchange peace in a superficial and thoughtless way, I run the risk of banalizing so great a gift. It might mean that I have lived this peace in a superficial and thoughtless way as well. If I exchange peace with all, in reality I give it to no one, in the rite and in life. This is personal. It is immediate. It is real.
With peace and forgiveness established, we may now approach the God of mercy and love to be fed, and to become what we eat. There is a procession, seeing it and joining it pulls us deeper into the church. We are a people on a journey toward the Kingdom of God. The procession is an image of all humanity on the way toward God, each of us in our own circumstances and states of life. All go toward the altar. Each of us just as we are with our burdens, our misery, our labors because we are hungry for the bread of mercy, the bread of eternal life that only God can give. In some ways, it is a vision of things to come.
A French writer named: Christian Bobin describes the Communion Procession of the Faithful on Easter morning. Close your eyes and imagine:
“At the moment of Communion, at the Easter Mass, the people got up in silence, walked down the side aisles to the back of the church, then turned one by one up the central aisle, advancing to the front. Where they received the host from a bearded priest with silver-rimmed glasses, helped by two women with faces hardened by the importance of their role, the kind of ageless women who change the flowers on the altar before they wilt and take care of God like he was a tired old husband. Seated at the back of the church, waiting my turn to join the procession, I looked at the people, their postures, their back, their necks, the profiles of their faces. For a second my view opened and I saw all of humanity, its millions of individuals, included in this slow and silent flow; old and adolescent, rich and poor, adulterous women and earnest girls, crazies, killers and geniuses, all scraping their shoes on the cold, rough stone tiles of the church floor, like the dead who will rise patiently from their darkness to go receive the light. Then I understood what the resurrection will be like and the stunning call that will precede it.
There is not much more to say after that except to remind you that there is one final intense gesture, raising our arms and opening our hands to receive the Body of Christ. Open hands like people about to receive a gift. It is a gesture that must reveal an interior attitude. It is an act of the Spirit. To open one’s hands is the purest human gesture one can make to represent openness to receiving a gift. The posture of one who is standing, with arms out and hands open, signifies not only openness to receive but also total vulnerability and inability to harm. Open hands are confident hands. One who wants to take something from someone, to take possession, does not open their hands but tightens them. We do not grab. We do not take. We receive from someone else. What we receive is salvation in the Eucharistic Bread, a sacrament freely given by the Father.
Liturgy then, is heaven on earth and at the same time also the threshold of heaven. It is the most sacred thing we do, because through and in it, we humans touch God and are embraced by God. Liturgy is the breaking into our world of all that is of God and of the kingdom of heaven. What we have in the Liturgy, my friends, is a dynamic school of prayer in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit teach us, the believer, how to pray with three important elements: Hearing, Interiorization, and Interpretation. Teaching someone to pray also is teaching someone to believe, and in learning to pray, we learn to believe. In the study and preparation, I gave for this day, I was constantly frustrated by the limits of time and the inadequacy of human words. With that in mind, I am humbled and say that I cannot find the words to express how wonderful it feels to be here with you back in Oklahoma. I told the people at Saint Mark at the last Liturgy we celebrated together that I would no longer be their pastor, but would always be their priest. I never forget you, and I can’t think of a better way to conclude this day than by taking the concluding prayer from the Divine Liturgy of the Maronite Rite. “I leave you in peace, O holy Altar, and I hope to return to you in peace. May the offering I have received from you be for the forgiveness of my faults and the remission of my sins, that I may stand without shame or fear before the throne of Christ. I do not know if I shall be able to return to you again to offer another sacrifice. I leave you in peace. “