Thursday, April 17, 2014

Devotion and Participation: Holy Thursday

When I was a layman, I would sometimes have to confess that my attention had wandered during Mass. But I was always quick to add “of course not during the homily, Father” so the pastor wouldn’t be tempted to give me a hard penance!

Most of us, priests included, get distracted at Mass. But on this Holy Thursday I asked myself whether there was something more we could do about it than asking forgiveness.

After all, the Sacrifice of the Mass is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (LG 11) and “the sum and summary of our faith” (CCC 1427). As St. Thomas wrote, the Eucharist is our “sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of the life to come is given to us."

So how can our hearts be more engaged when we celebrate the Mass, Christ’s gift of himself for our salvation?

Tonight’s Gospel provides the first answer: by service of others, as Jesus showed at the Last Supper. Speaking of the Eucharist, St. Augustine exclaims “O bond of charity!” True worship makes up more loving, and true love makes us more worshipful.

Jesus could have washed the feet of the apostles—and told us to follow his example—any old time, and got across the importance of loving service. But he did so at the Last Supper to teach the unbreakable link between the Eucharist and humble charity.

It’s easy to think of the good works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, our Refugee Committee, our busy sandwich-makers and cooks, even our busy knitting brigade as just the generous activities of good people. Of course they are that—but much more: they are a Eucharistic community in action.

Those second collections that seem to come one after another: are they “fundraising” activities? They are—but so much more. There’s a reason they are taken up at Mass: because the money donated to relieve suffering or help the needy or strengthen the faith is Eucharistic charity, presented at the altar together with our gifts of bread and wine.

But I don’t want to focus on that first answer this Holy Thursday. Tonight I offer two other ways we can enter more fully into the Mass and all that it means for us: devotion and participation.

Notice that I started with “devotion.” We talk a lot about participation in the liturgy, but when’s the last time you heard the word devotion? Yet St. Augustine hailed the Eucharist with the words "O sacrament of devotion!”

Devotion is the desire to respond to God with gratitude for his gifts. It’s a readiness to serve him. It’s a fervent movement of the heart—more than a feeling, but not only something intellectual.

It’s a bit hard to define in a phrase, so let’s look at the word “devout.” We know what we mean when we say someone’s devout, don’t we? It’s something outward that reveals something inside. In non-religious usage, we say that someone is devoted to a person or cause. And we know what that means also.

Christians must be devout—devoted to the Eucharist. For one thing, devotion draws us to its power and grace. The Catechism says that “every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins.” (CCC 1437)

In the liturgy, Christ the great high priest offers himself to the Father on our behalf. But we, as a priestly people, must also have something to offer. St. Leo the Great speaks of “the spotless offerings of devotion” we make on the altars of our hearts. (Sermo 4,1)

Even our ways of acting can increase devotion. Certainly we shouldn’t act pious for show, but devout practices—like making the sign of the cross with deep reverence, genuflecting with real purpose, and staying reverent and silent in church—can help to bring about the attitudes they signify.

And of course devotion is not something that exists only at Mass. What we are devoted to isn’t the liturgical action itself, but the person Jesus. Michael Buble recorded an old love song called “The More I See You.” The song reminds us that it’s not really absence that makes the heart grow fonder, but a deep relationship sustained over time. One of the verses asks “Can you imagine/How much I'll love you/The more I see you/As years go by?”

There are no limits to the love we can experience in our Eucharistic friendship with Jesus, but we need to use every means to deepen it, including daily prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass, and the healing sacrament of penance. There's a reason that we call Benediction and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament “devotions.”

Participation is the final part of the answer I propose to the question “how can our hearts be more engaged when we are at Mass?”

The Catechism offers three principal criteria for liturgy that glorifies God. The first two are beauty that expresses prayer and the solemn character of the celebration. Responsibility for this lies with priests, servers, sacristans, singers, readers, organists and architects.

But there is a third criterion that depends on each person in the church: “the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments.” Participation is crucial to the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful. (CCC 1157)

One of the ways we participate is by singing. St. Augustine is often quoted as saying “he who sings, prays twice.” Actually, he didn’t say that. What he said was “singing belongs to one who loves.”

More powerfully still, he tells us in his autobiography that singing was part of his conversion:

“How I wept,” he speaks to God in the Confessions, “deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face—tears that did me good.” (Confessions IX, 6, 14)

Notice how liturgical music increased his devotion.

Not everyone can sing, but I’d judge in our parish that many who can, don’t. And this might well be explained by a lack of understanding of the benefits of participation—benefits not only to the one who participates but, as Augustine notes, often to the onlooker. Would a visitor being called into the Church find inspiration in how we respond to the parts of the Mass, and in how we join in our songs of faith?

The first reading tonight describes the Passover liturgy of the Chosen People. But it speaks also to us as we celebrate the sacred meal given to us by Christ—for if the liturgy that foreshadows our own is to be celebrated as a festival, how much more must we strive to make the Mass a true celebration of the Paschal lamb?

On Monday night I shared the Seder, the Passover meal, with Jewish friends. Everyone at the table, Jew or Gentile, had a part to play. Everyone was involved. Tonight, and every Mass, should be no different. Let us together offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to the Lord, fulfilling our baptismal vows as a priestly people.

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