It looks like the H1N1 panic is subsiding, although there’s still talk about a second wave this winter. Be that as it may, a parable about an epidemic should hit home these days.
And Matthew Kelly tells a good one in his book Rediscovering Catholicism. The parable begins with an incurable illness that spreads around the world. But this illness is not the flu, and not even SARS: everyone infected dies. And the infection spreads fast.
In fact, the future of humanity is at stake. This imaginary pandemic will wipe out the world if a vaccine can’t be found.
The world is plunged into panic and then despair. But all of a sudden there’s a ray of hope: scientists discover they can make a vaccine if they can find someone whose blood has a certain antibody. Everyone is urged to get their blood tested immediately at the closest hospital.
And so a mother and father head downtown with their five year old and join the lineup to give blood. Almost miraculously, excited doctors come running out of the lab shouting a name: it’s the five year old.
The news is so wonderful everyone is laughing and crying and praying at the same time. But then a doctor takes the mother and father aside.
“May we see you for a moment? We didn’t realize the donor would be a child. We had no idea. We need all his blood to save the world; the blood donation will cost his life.”
The parents make the unimaginable sacrifice of their son to save the world.
Now if the parable stopped there, it might help us understand the sacrifice of God’s only Son a little better. But Matthew Kelly isn’t finished telling the story.
A few weeks later, there is a public ceremony to honour the boy whose death saved the world. It’s a ceremony that should make the opening of the Olympics look like nothing.
But what happens? Lots of people don’t bother to show up. Some of those who do come arrive late. Others sleep through it. Still others won’t take a seat at the ceremony.
Matthew Kelly wonders how the parents of that little boy would feel when they saw this. Wouldn’t they want to jump up and say “Excuse me! My son died for you. Don’t you even care? Does it mean nothing to you?
And he wonders whether God might want to say the same to us—to us who come here to church to honour the Saviour of the world. To us who come to Mass late, or leave early, or fail to participate in the liturgy.
Let me make something clear: I say “us” for a reason. The parable should make us all squirm. I’m not often late for Mass, except when caught in the confessional, and I never leave Mass early, but I have lots of reasons to squirm when I think about how often I come to the altar without taking some time to pray and focus, when I think about the distractions I allow to interfere with celebrating the liturgy.
The first reading today shows us how people of faith participate in liturgy. And—since we’re all in this together—the reading also shows us a priest doing his job well.
The first thing you notice is that the people are gathered into an assembly—a congregation. People aren’t coming and going—they’re assembled for a purpose. The community that has gathered to hear the Word of God and listen to Ezra preach have returned to Jerusalem after the exile of the Chosen People had ended.
They’ve come back to a city that needed rebuilding—but they themselves need rebuilding, as a community. That’s what this assembly is about. Funny how some things never change—when it’s over, Ezra tells them to eat the fat and drink sweet wine: it’s like an invitation to coffee and donuts after Mass. And he reminds them to share with those in need, just as we’re doing today.*
The group that’s gathered at the Water Gate isn’t exclusive. There are men and women, young and old alike. Ezra is reading and preaching for anyone old enough to listen with understanding, which includes children. Showing the same respect for the young, the Church requires them to attend Mass every Sunday from the age of seven onwards. Parents have a solemn duty to ensure their children are able to fulfill that sacred obligation.
The liturgy described in the reading lasts for at least two days. We have it easy, don’t we—even though the occasional homily seems to go on forever, we’re rarely in church for more than an hour. That’s something to think about when we feel the Sunday obligation is a burden. An hour is a remarkably brief period in which to do something so important. If we can’t manage it every week, maybe it’s time to stop and really think about the pace at which we’re going, or about the priorities we’ve established without even knowing it.
After all, it was Jesus himself who asked the apostles “Could you not watch one hour with me?”
Enough about the liturgy itself—let’s look at the people who are taking part. Notice first what they did when Ezra began to read: they stood up. Just as we do at the Gospel reading at every Mass; and it means the same thing today that it did then: “We’re ready to listen. We’re taking this seriously.”
The reading also tells us that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Law.” They were listening.
Listening and hearing are two different things. I hear the music playing in the mall, but I’m not listening. Listening requires engaging our minds—paying attention, in other words.
I heard a story about a priest who taped one of his homilies so he could listen and try to improve his preaching. As he played it back on Sunday night, he fell asleep in his chair.
Fair enough; some homilies take more work than others. But what is our basic attitude to them—do we see them as penance, as entertainment, or as God-sent help to understanding the scriptures? The priests in Jerusalem were preaching for a purpose: so that the people might understand the reading. Sometimes our attitude to the homily reflects our attitude to God’s Word. Do we see it as living and active, able to change us, able to instruct and guide us?
If we come to Mass with open ears, like the congregation listening at the Water Gate, we might be surprised at what God has to say. And we might be keener to hear what the homilist has to say to help us understand and interpret the Word. As regards bad homilies, let me ask you: what would you usually prefer—a well-delivered speech on something you weren’t interested in, or a poorly-delivered one on a topic that really fascinates you. Most of us would choose the bad speaker on the good topic, wouldn’t we? Sometimes our reaction to the homily reflects low expectations of the Word of God as much as it does low expectations of the homilist.
Enough about homilies, or this one will be longer than Ezra’s. In fact, enough about Ezra; let’s look at the people in his congregation. They are model participants in a liturgy.
When the priest says the opening prayer, they say Amen, just like we do. But it’s pretty clear in the text that their response is from the heart—they actually say “Amen, Amen!” and they lift up their hands. Doesn’t sound like their amen is a rote response.
How many of us know what “amen” means? How many of us, for that matter, know what “alleluia” means? If we don’t know what these words mean, how can we mean it when we say or sing them?
Both words are Hebrew words. Although our first reading is a translation, “amen” is exactly what they shouted out at the Water Gate all those centuries ago. It means “certainly,” though the Greek Bible translated it as “so be it,” which is what some of us were taught in school. What it doesn’t mean is “yeah, I guess so,” or “okay.” It’s an acclamation, a thumbs-up to what’s just been said.
Alleluia means “Praise the Lord.” When we sing Alleluia before the Gospel, we praise God for the Good News. We open our hearts in gratitude for the Word that nourishes us. We should meant it when we sing Alleluia! How sad to be praising the Lord with our lips and not with our hearts.
The most striking part of this Jewish liturgy some 2500 years ago is the people’s posture. Not only do they lift their hands, they bow their heads right to the ground. Their bodies make a statement about their hearts.
Our bodies continue to play an important role at Mass. We don’t just come to Mass with our souls; we worship with body and soul. That’s why there’s so much standing and kneeling in the Catholic Church: we're convinced the body matters a great deal.
One of several things we say with our bodies at Mass is “we’re one.” It’s unfortunate that there are several points at Mass in our parish these days where we aren’t united in our posture, with some standing and some kneeling—but we’re not going to address that until the bishops make a final decision on some new directives from Rome. I know just what will happen if I ask everyone to stand or everyone to kneel: a month later the bishops will choose a different option and we’ll have to change again! So for now we wait patiently—but it’s good we're bothered by the different practices we see around us. The fact that people are complaining about it says we do notice how important it is to express unity through gesture and posture, which "both expresses and fosters the spiritual attitude" of the congregation. (GIRM n. 20)
Our bodies also speak a language of reverence. It is strongly recommended that those coming to Holy Communion should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Sacrament--usually a slight bow, or the sign of the cross.+
Kneeling, in particular, shows reverence, as does bowing at the name of Jesus and folding our hands in prayer. Overall posture can say a lot, especially when you’re up on the altar. Slouching and fidgeting says “I’m not really into this.”
When we won’t find a seat at Mass—one problem, at least, that I never have!—we speak a language of disconnectedness. Just lately there are more and more people who like to stand along the wall. What does that say? What would it say at a theatre, a dinner party, a speech—in fact where would you stand against a wall except in church?
I make no judgment about individuals and their motives, but I know what the sight if people standing when there are empty seats makes me feel. And it’s not just me: the members of the parish pastoral council have asked me to speak to you about their concerns around this and other issues. The number of people who are regularly late for Mass has become so high, especially at the 5 but also at the 10, that I have made this a long homily partly to be sure the whole congregation hears this part!
Always being late for Mass—and leaving early—hurts both the person who’s late and the others in the congregation who are disturbed by the late arrival. Someone who is late has not, obviously, spent a few moments preparing peacefully for Mass; someone who leaves after Communion has not, obviously, spent quiet time in Thanksgiving.
Again I stress that I am not judging individual cases. If your four-year old throws up as you open the car door to drive to church, you’re going to be late. But if he does it every Sunday you’d better see a doctor—or maybe an exorcist!
And if you are an obstetrician on call, and your pager goes off at Communion time, you’ll have to leave early. But if it goes off every Sunday at Communion time, you need a new pager—or another obstetrician in your practice.
This is tough to preach about folks, because obviously some people are going to take it personally. Our dedicated ushers have been startled by some of the harsh responses they’ve been given when they’ve offered people a seat. We’d all be happier if I preached about something that doesn’t hit home with anyone—I love the story about the young evangelical preacher who was sent to Kentucky and preached about the evils of gambling. The chairman of the church council promptly reminded him that he was near the home of the Kentucky Derby and that many of the congregation depended on horse racing for their livelihood.
The next Sunday the minister spoke on the evils of smoking. Again the church elder came to call, and cautioned him that the church was located near tobacco farms. So the following week the fervent young preacher condemned alcohol, only to be told that Kentucky had many distilleries.
Finally, he asked the chairman, “Well, what can I preach on?” The man said “Witch doctors.”
“Witch doctors?” he asked. “Why witch doctors?”
“Because there’s not one of them within a thousand miles,” was the reply.
Sadly, the church is full of people who need to be a bit unsettled by the example of Ezra’s flock bowing to the ground in worship, and I include myself. Of course they didn’t have to worry about turning off their cell phones.
We do need to think about things as basic as that, even as a matter of common courtesy. Respect for others also requires we work at maintaining a reverent silence in the church before and after Mass, so that those who are praying are not disturbed. The building is noisy because of the foyer, but noise outside is different than noise inside. Visiting with fellow parishioners is a good thing, but it should take place outside the body of the church. In addition to showing respect for others, silence in church is a sign that we recognize God present in the Tabernacle.
I could go on and on—in fact, you could say I already have! We don’t really need a list of every single thing that works against good liturgy and authentic worship; if each of us just takes a few moments to ask ourselves what we need to do to make this day holier to our Lord it would do the trick. For me, it’s calming down before Mass and staying focused during Mass, for someone else it’s giving up their favorite perch leaning against the wall. For many, it’s a once and for all decision to get to Mass ten minutes ahead of time: that decision would lessen stress, allow time for prayerful preparation, and… guarantee you a seat.
Sometime soon I’d like to talk more about preparing for Mass, but I’ll just end today with a powerful quotation from the Catechism that says it all in a nutshell:
"The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father's will … [which are] the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward." (n. 1098)
We’re gathered here to honour the only Son of God, who died to save us from the most mortal of all epidemics, the plague of sin. We do care—I know we care. But let’s do all we can to show it—to God, and to one another.
* S. Joseph Krempa, Captured by Fire, Cycle C, p. 78.
+ Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile Donum, n. 11.