Monday, November 26, 2012

Sharing His Mission (Christ the King.B)

I have a good friend—we’ll call him Father James—who comes from an old aristocratic family in Britain. So he wasn’t nervous when one of his parishioners invited him to dinner with the Queen.

But perhaps he should have paid a bit more attention to royal protocol, which prescribes that no-one leaves a party before the Queen does. Once Father James had finished his dessert, he politely explained to Her Majesty that he had the early Mass, and said good night.

A few centuries ago, that kind of mistake might have cost a priest his head, or at least given him some time to think it over in a royal dungeon. Nowadays, I am sure Her Majesty takes it in her stride.

Most of us don’t have to worry about meeting the Queen, but all of us must meet the King of the Universe whom we celebrate today.  We will, of course, be face to face with Jesus Christ when He comes in judgment—on this feast day last year we heard the parable of the Shepherd-King separating people on his right and on his left.

But we are also called to meet the Lord here and now. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us in that those who love him will keep his word, and that the Father and he will make a home with them (Jn 14:23), and in the Book of Revelation he promises “if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rv 3:20).

Each one of us, therefore, has a personal invitation to a royal audience. Although the King is a judge and surrenders nothing of his might and majesty, he calls us to an intimate encounter with him. That’s more than enough reason to rejoice today; but our King is not satisfied just to dine and dwell with us. He offers to make us royalty.

Here’s what he says, right after promising to live with us:  “To anyone who is victorious I will grant a place beside me on my throne” (Rv 3:21). Think about that: if we persevere in the battle against sin, we will be rewarded with a share in the Kingship of Christ—we will share his throne with him.

I’ve scarcely started my homily, and I want to stop. We could well spend the next ten minutes thinking about the nobility and dignity that Jesus grants to his faithful disciples. But we can’t stop here, because our second reading today contains an equally astonishing offer: we are called not only to share Christ’s throne, but also to share his priesthood.

We are, St. John tells us in the second reading, not only a kingdom but a kingdom of priests. We share not only in Christ’s kingship but also in his priesthood. As St. Peter writes, Christians are “a royal priesthood” called “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

It all sounds very impressive—but what does this mean to us? What does it mean particularly to lay people, who don’t normally think of themselves as rulers and priests in the Church?

There’s a whole bookful of answers right in my hand. It’s Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, often known by its Latin title Christifideles Laici. Yesterday we were blessed with a visit to the parish by Abbot John Braganza of Westminster Abbey in Mission, who spent the whole day unpacking this remarkable document for an eager audience.

Father Abbot described the book—written by the Pope after the 1987 synod on the laity—as a real hidden treasure that needs to be much more widely known. (When he mentioned that no-one ever hears about it in church, his listeners nodded in agreement until I pointed out that I had spoken about it three times in the past year! That might help to explain why I am doing so again, but my real reason is that I agree completely with the Abbot: Christifideles Laici deserves more attention than it has received, here or elsewhere.)

If you asked me to describe the subject of this book in one sentence, I’d reply “What baptism calls us to be and to do.”

Blessed John Paul actually began his ministry as Pope by reminding us of the same central truth I’ve just been talking about. In his first homily, he spoke of the fact that everyone, the whole people of God, shares in the threefold mission of Christ—Priest, Prophet-Teacher, and King.

His apostolic exhortation, subtitled “On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” is basically an attempt to spell out concretely what it means to share in this threefold mission.

Here’s an excellent example. What does it mean to share in the kingly mission of Christ? First of all, Blessed John Paul tells us, it means to spread Christ’s kingdom in history. As we begin “Catholics Come Home,” the Archdiocese’s bold effort at evangelization, we stand bravely beside our King as he advances into hostile territory with his message of peace and salvation.

Even more importantly, we exercise our kingship as Christians in the spiritual combat by which we seek to overcome in ourselves the kingdom of sin so that we are worthy to serve such a great Sovereign and our brothers and sisters in whom he is present.

Abbot John had more than four hours to present an outline of the lay calling yesterday. I have to be somewhat briefer this morning. So let me end by speaking of just one of the responsibilities that belong to you by virtue of your baptism and the share it gave you in Christ’s own mission.

Here it is in a nutshell: “The lay faithful are sharers in the priestly mission for which Jesus offered himself on the cross and continues to be offered in the celebration of the Eucharist for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.”

The exhortation adds a quotation from Vatican II about the connection between the Eucharist and daily work, prayer, service, ordinary married and family life, and even sorrows and hardships.  The council taught that “During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. Thus as worshippers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God.”

Is this how we approach our Sunday Mass? As an opportunity to unite our weekly joys and sorrows to the perfect sacrifice of Christ? For that’s what the Church teaches—that’s what it means for the lay faithful to have a share in the priestly mission of Christ.

Sometimes practice and theory seem very far apart.  We come to Mass in a rush, we are distracted by our kids, and it all seems a long way from the Kingdom. Yet we must keep trying, week by week, to participate in the liturgy in a way that reflects our dignity as baptized persons given a royal, priestly and prophetic mission.

Here’s what Pope John Paul wrote about the parish: “It is necessary that in light of the faith all rediscover the true meaning of the parish, that is, the place where the very ‘mystery’ of the Church is present and at work”—even if at times it seems crowded or chaotic.

“The parish,” he taught, “is not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather ‘the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit,’ ‘a welcoming home,’ ‘the community of the faithful.”

He explains why all this theology we’re speaking about today matters so much: “Plainly and simply, the parish is founded on a theological reality because it is a Eucharistic community.”

The meeting room was beautifully decorated yesterday so that we could celebrate our parish feast day together after Mass today.  You could explain that in sociological terms: generous volunteers dedicated to a community of friends. You could distinguish very sharply between what’s going on here inside the church and what will take place afterwards. But you’d be wrong. It’s all about the Eucharist. The Eucharist is what our parish is for, and all the other good things we do flow directly from that.

On our parish feast day, we do well to reflect on the words of Pope Paul VI, who said that the parish has an indispensable mission of great importance: to create the basic community of Christian people; to initiate and gather them for the liturgy; to conserve and renew their faith; to serve as the school for teaching the saving message of Christ, and to put into practice humble charity for our brothers and sisters.

Not one of these good works is carried on at Christ the Redeemer by the priests alone, and many are carried on entirely by the lay members of the parish. But none of them will endure or be truly fruitful if we don’t continue to call each person to “that full, conscious, and active participation” at Mass “which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” (Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14)

I hope that I’ve shown, through the Scriptures and papal teaching, that “full, conscious, and active participation” is something deeply spiritual, rooted in the understanding of who we are and what we’re called to as baptized Christians. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the more obvious signs of participation: singing, our responses at Mass, and our posture in church.

Christ the Redeemer parish welcomed the new Mass translations, and I think we have done a good job of learning the new texts. Soon those cards in the pews will disappear—they’re getting pretty shabby—and we will try to rely more on memory. At the same time, we have a long way to go with singing. Perhaps because of a shortage of hymnals, or for other reasons, only about one in three parishioners seem to open their mouths during the hymns.

(I thought of our own parish when I read an article that described the assembly at the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin as sitting quietly, “like anglers waiting for a fish to stir”!)

Our response to the sung parts of the Mass is certainly stronger than our hymn-singing, so we will try to emphasize that in the coming year, with the help of new music sheets.

There has also been a great response to the Church’s invitation for a reverent bow before receiving Holy Communion; it’s a simple gesture, but it can prevent us from going to Communion in an absent-minded way. Our parish is far better than most when it comes to people standing during Mass instead of taking a pew, but the ministers of welcome will begin working a bit harder to remind people that we are a family, and like most families we sit together when we celebrate.

The number one reason why we must enter fully and deeply into the mystery of the Mass is very clear: it’s our call, our duty and our privilege as members of Christ’s royal priesthood. But let’s not forget an important reason for active outward participation: Catholics Come Home.

Here is a scary thought: how you celebrate Mass will soon be as important a means of evangelization in this parish as how I celebrate Mass.  If someone “comes home” to Christ the Redeemer will he or she find people to the left and right who are singing and responding with joy and conviction? Will he or she admire the reverence of those in the pew ahead, and the seriousness of the servers and readers?

Next Sunday begins a new liturgical year.  It’s a perfect time to take stock of how we participate in the liturgy, and to resolve to enter more deeply into the mysteries we celebrate as we worship Christ, our Lord and King.

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