Sunday, October 16, 2011

Giving God His Due (Sunday 29.A)

This morning's paper says that grizzly bears are expected to appear on the North Shore before too long.

This could be God's way of getting people to church on Sunday morning—when you spot a grizzly in the woods or on the slopes it's not a good time to think "Oh-oh. I'm supposed to be at Mass."

More likely, if we do get grizzlies—and the experts say that's many years away—there will be some who'll say, "Sunday Mass? Not me. Might get attacked by a grizzly in the parking lot."

Oh well, we do need a new excuse for missing Mass. The old one is getting pretty tired—"I don't get anything out of it."

That excuse has been a used for years, by young and old, to explain why people miss Mass, either some of the time or all of the time. And for just as many years, priests have preached "it's not what you get out of Mass, it's what you put into it."

That's true, but it's not my message today.

Today I want to look at attending Sunday Mass from a different angle, that of duty. In today's Gospel, Jesus says "Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

Almost all of us understand what it means to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, even if we lament our income taxes and are annoyed by parking tickets. But what does it mean to give to God the things that are God's?

Very high on the list is giving God the worship he desires, deserves and demands. The Catechism tells us that worship is a commandment written naturally on the human heart. Pagans worshipped God without being told to. The Old Testament, of course, states the commandment of keeping the Sabbath day holy.

For Christians, from the earliest times, the celebration of Sunday—and the Sunday Eucharist especially—have fulfilled this natural and supernatural obligation of worship. From all that we have received from God, we offer back our act of worship.

Small wonder that the Catechism calls the Sunday Eucharist "the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice" and reminds us that deliberately missing Mass without a serious excuse or dispensation is a grave sin.

Please don't get the idea that Sunday Mass is only about the worship we owe to our Creator. It's much, much more: it's "a testimony of belonging and being faithful to Christ and to his Church." [CCC 2182] It's the weekly celebration of the Easter mystery—of our salvation. [CCC 2177]

But today our Lord reminds us of one central fact: we owe to God the things that are God's. While blessing the candle at the Easter Vigil, the priest says "Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega; all time belongs to him and all the ages…"

How can we hold back an hour a week from Him to whom all time belongs?

At this point, if you are a sharp listener, you have realized that there's a problem with this homily. I am preaching about the duty of attending Mass to people who are already here attending Mass. What's the point of that?

There are two points, actually. The first is that the duty to attend Mass is so basic to our lives as Catholics, that we have a related duty to help others fulfill this obligation.

Here's how Archbishop Miller put it in his homily at St. Edmund's Parish last night: Of course you must practice what you preach, but you must also preach what you practice.

The Archbishop mentioned extending an invitation to Mass as one of the ways we can tell people that God loves them and wants them as his friends. How many of us have invited a neighbour or co-worker to join us at Mass, and perhaps for brunch afterwards?

Archbishop Miller's challenge to St. Edmund's parishioners is a challenge to us as well: "A parish community which is alive in the Spirit must invite those who no longer worship with us to hear the Gospel all over again, as if for the first time." [cf. Benedict XVI, Homily at Vespers (28 June 2010].

Those who have become inactive he says, are often just waiting for an invitation from us.

The second reason I'm talking to those who are attending Mass about the duty of attending Mass is this: we owe more to God than our mere physical presence in Church. Worship demands reverence and attention, and Christian worship requires participation.

In a positive way, this means that all of us take an active interest and become personally involved in the liturgy. While there is a unique and irreplaceable role for the priest, because of the common priesthood all of us received in Baptism, every baptized person participates in the offering of the Eucharist. Although there is a distinction of roles, the lay faithful do "offer to God the divine victim and themselves with him." [Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, 51]

Practically, full and active participation involves attention, whole-hearted and audible responses, and an effort to lift our hearts and minds to God—both in prayer and in song. It helps enormously to prepare for Mass, either by looking at the readings at home, or by a period of prayer before Mass starts, or both.

With the bulletin today you will receive a handout about posture and gestures. It reminds us that we are composed of body as well as spirit, and that we pray also with our bodies. The postures of standing, kneeling and sitting all say something; and the gestures of bowing, making the sign of the Cross, and processing to the altar are not merely ceremonial.

It all depends whether or not we do them consciously. When we do these things with awareness, understanding and faith, they have great meaning and value. If you've never thought hard about this, today's your chance—take the handout home and give it a careful read. Then try for the next few Sundays to do at least two things, whether it's genuflecting, or kneeling, or bowing in the Creed, with very careful attention.

The changes at Mass coming up on November 27 will include some changes in gesture and posture as well. The bishops of Canada have determined that the sign of reverence before receiving Holy Communion will now be a bow of the head to the Sacred Presence. The children at St. Anthony's School have been practicing this for some months already.

Doing certain things together bears witness to our unity in Christ. So on November 27 we will follow new common directives from the Archdiocese and bring to an end the mixed practices we've been following until now.

These are, as I've said, the positive ways we render to God our humble worship as his creatures and as Christians.

Looking from a different angle, there are things we need to avoid if our worship is to be fitting. The first, of course, is arriving late. While there will always be people—often the parents of young children, or the caregivers of the elderly—who have gold plated reasons for showing up late, habitual tardiness really contradicts the proper sense of duty to God that is part of Sunday Mass attendance.

It's uncharitable, of course, to those we disturb, but the real losers are the folks who are late, because after getting off on the wrong foot, so to speak, they are going to have a much harder time entering into the profound mystery of the Mass.

I had a wonderful letter this week from a parishioner who mentioned one family sitting near her where the children read non-religious books all through the homily while their father texted. And each time someone texted back, his Blackberry buzzed! Small wonder God let that network crash.

The letter also mentioned inappropriate dress and an amazing number of people who think they can carry on a full conversation during Mass without disturbing others or offending God. Wrong on both counts, I assure you.

I should make it very clear that the parishioner who wrote is not some cranky person; she concludes her letter by saying "let she who is without sin cast the first stone," admitting she once kept a parish library book for nine months! I should also add that she is not alone: two other parishioners spoke to me just this week about how disturbed they were by someone talking all through the homily.

Someone else sent me an excellent internet item about many other things that should not happen in church. But I'm not going to carry on about them, since if you accept my basic point—that we owe God our true worship on Sunday—then a long list of rules is unnecessary. And if you don't, the rules will do no good anyway.

St. Paul reminds us today that the message of the Gospel didn't come to us only in words, "but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." The latest steps in the renewal of the liturgy is an opportunity to examine ourselves and to ask whether this is how we come to Mass—expecting not only a message but an experience of God's power in our lives.

But if we're not quite there, let's begin with the basic conviction that God desires, deserves and demands our weekly act of worship. If we give him that faithfully, we will arrive sooner rather than later at the "full conviction" every Christian should have.


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