Saturday, February 18, 2012

Formed to Declare His Praise (Sunday 7B)

I was holding my breath and holding back the tears all the way through Father Sarmed's homily last Sunday. But what moved me most was the way he compared Jesus reaching out his hand to heal the leper, and our parish opening its arms to welcome a refugee family.

So today I thought I might pick up where Father Sarmed left off, and say a few things about body language—specifically about how we respond to God with our whole person.

It's an important topic, and particularly important to how we celebrate the sacred liturgy.

One of the parishioners who attended Rise Up, CCO's Christmas conference, told me he was very impressed by the way the young people took part in the liturgies. He said it was the first time he couldn't hear himself think at Mass. At Christ the Redeemer, he explained, the congregation is never louder than his thoughts.

I'd been meaning to talk about the way we participate at Mass in our parish, but that comment told me there was no time to lose.

There are, of course, some really good things happening. People seem to be getting quite comfortable with the new translation of mass, and I notice that the gesture of reverence at communion has become quite common and appears to be meaningful to a majority of parishioners. And we are following carefully the new rules for standing sitting and kneeling.

We have a number of strong Korean families in our parish. A few weeks ago I asked two teenagers if they knew why Koreans make such good Catholics. When they didn't know, I suggested they ask their parents. The next week the boys were ready with an answer.

"Because we are so good at bowing?"

Wrong! The correct answer is because the Catholic Church in Korea was deprived of priests for many years, requiring the laity to take on full responsibility for handing on the faith.

But the answer wasn't a bad one. Gestures like bowing and genuflecting express on the outside the spirit of worship that's on the inside. As St. Paul tells us, "at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend" (Phil. 2:10) What's more, our gestures intensify our prayer and express our unity with one another.

These things matter a great deal. In our first reading today, from the prophet Isaiah, God tells us that we are the people he formed for himself so that we might declare his praise. That's why we exist, and it's certainly why we come to Mass—so that we might declare God's praise. And each one of us has a role to play at Mass, whether we're ordained or not ordained. I stand at the altar because of my ministerial priesthood, while you stand before it because of your baptismal priesthood, the common priesthood we all share.

Exercising the priestly office effectively requires knowing what we are doing, and doing it consciously. How would you feel if the priest came up to the altar looking completely distracted, gazed off into space while saying the words of the Mass in a half-hearted way? Well, it's not that different when members of the congregation participate—or don't participate—like that.

Yet "the liturgy is the public worship of the People of God offered to the Father through His Son Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Our priestly actions"—mine and yours-- "work in tandem to offer the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the Father. " So it is necessary that every member of the assembled community carry out his or her respective duties.

In the words of the Second Vatican Council, we are called to "full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations." (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14).

What does this "full, conscious, and active participation" look like? We talked about our body language—sitting , standing, kneeling, bowing, and striking our breasts—when the changes were introduced. Even more important than liturgical postures and gestures, though, is the way we respond at Mass. It's been almost three months since the changes in the translation of the Mass, so it's time to quit ducking the challenge of saying the right response. Dropping your voice in case you get it wrong isn't helping things along; if you're going to get it wrong, at least let us hear you get it wrong! As Martin Luther said, if you're going to sin, sin boldly.

Speaking of Luther's famous line, a musical friend changed it by just one letter to provide us with some more advice. He wrote "sing, but sing boldly."

Singing boldly is not exactly what we're famous for at Christ the Redeemer. St. Paul tells us today that Jesus was not "yes and no", but always "yes." If the apostle heard us sing, he'd probably put us down as "maybe."

Our excellent choirs cover our tracks very well, but when I look out and see only one in four parishioners' lips moving during the hymns, I am discouraged. The choirs are here partly to encourage us to sing, not to sit back.

It's almost too well-known to repeat, but St. Augustine's famous line "to sing is to pray twice" contains a powerful truth. Singing makes us vulnerable, it takes a bit of effort, and it allows us at least to try to join the angelic choirs?

There are a few—a very few—who can't sing at all. But most of us can, and when we don't we are shirking our responsibilities as members of a worshipping community. I plead guilty to getting a very slow start on the new Mass setting, but when I finally get it down, I intend to sing more, rather than less, as a part of the rediscovery of the solemnity of our Catholic liturgical tradition.

Everything we do at Mass connects to the world beyond the doors of the church. To quote Blessed John Paul, "If our Eucharistic worship is authentic, it must make us grow in awareness of the dignity of each person…. The sense of the Eucharistic Mystery leads us to a love for our neighbor, to a love for every human being" (Dominicae Cenae 6).

It wasn't accidental that we heard Father Sarmed's moving words at Mass. It wasn't just a convenient time for him to describe the suffering of his fellow Iraqi Christians and to ask our support for a refugee family. There is a seamless connection between our parish Eucharist and our parish charity, the charity that we will express in our collection for the Shaboo family later in this Mass.

Finally, I'd like to say a word about a particular kind of body language and our Christian faith: it's called fasting. Particularly at Lent, the Church reminds us that we are body and soul, and invites us to connect our bodies to our prayer by the ancient penitential practices of fast and abstinence from meat. These practices are recommended throughout the 40 days of Lent, but only required on two of them: Ash Wednesday, which is this week, and Good Friday.

On both these days, every Catholic 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat, while those 18 to 60 are too fast—which means to have one full meal only, with two small and simple meals at other mealtimes. It is not a difficult discipline, so could well be followed even by those not strictly obliged. I think the law was written when 60 was old—and as I draw nearer to that mark, I know it is not!

Some of the thoughts  here are taken from two homilies from Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia: "Revering Jesus in the Mass," and "Liturgical Gestures, Postures Foster Unity, Express Reverence." They're well worth reading.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Monsignor. The thought on active participation brings me back to the wonderful encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy "Mediator Dei" by Ven. Pius XII (Santo Subito!) where he states something to the effect of that the chief element divine worship must be interior and that without a properly formed interior our external actions amount to mere formalism. God bless you, Monsignor!