Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunday Mass: Not an Option (Lent 2B)

Almost every Wednesday I have the joy—and the challenge—of preaching to the students of St. Anthony’s at our weekly school Mass.

It’s a joy because they listen with attention, but a challenge because I like to ask them questions and I’m never sure what their answers will be.

Not long ago, I asked “who knows what a seminarian is?” I got the reply “someone from Seminaria.”

I’ve heard a few other amazing answers, though none quite as funny one a priest got when quizzing kids about the Ten Commandments. After explaining the commandment "honor thy father and thy mother," he asked "Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?"

Without missing a beat one little boy answered, "Thou shall not kill."

I can’t always find a message in the daily readings that’s relevant to youngsters, but a couple of weeks ago it was easy – the first reading was about parental discipline. They all listened to that homily, since doing what they’re told is probably the number one childhood difficulty (as every parent knows).

Today, the first reading also has a message all of us can understand. It’s about obedience, something we adults don’t hear about very much.

Abraham obeys God even when he’s commanded to do the unthinkable. Not only does he obey, but he obeys without questioning.

When God calls out Abraham’s name, our father in faith says “Here I am.” His answer and his actions are an example of obedience for all time.

Today, God calls us by name. What’s our answer?

Obviously, those of you who are in church this morning are responding “here I am.” You are here to offer the sacrifice of Christ to his Father.

Many of you are here for reasons of love or gratitude or piety. But others are here out of sheer obedience. You’re tired, maybe cranky, and you want to go walking in the sunshine on the seawall.

But you’re here. Because you respect what’s sometimes called the Sunday obligation—the precept of the Church that says every Catholic is bound to attend Mass every Sunday, unless excused by a serious reason like illness or a sick child.

Some of you are even here because you know that “those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” (CCC 2181)

I could preach for an hour about the positive reasons to attend Mass each Sunday: “it is good for us to be here,” as St. Peter says to the Lord in today’s Gospel.

The Catechism puts it beautifully: Participation at Sunday Mass “is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God's holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 2182)

And, of course, every Mass is the supreme sacrifice which is merely prefigured in the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham; at every Mass Christ is offered to the Father, “who gave him up for all of us.”

But rejoicing in the glory of the Eucharist isn’t the goal of my homily today. What I want to stress is simply this: Catholics are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday—not most Sundays, but every Sunday—unless excused by a serious reason.

Why do I feel the need to say this? There are two reasons why I’m talking about something that was obvious to an older generation.

The first reason is that it’s registration time for our Catholic schools, which offer a reduced tuition fee for active members of our parish. And every year at this time, I get surprised at how some folks define an active Catholic.

“I go to Mass as often as I can,” one person said, meaning once a month or so; another seemed proud of making it to Mass three Sundays out of four.

So the second reason is simply my fear that a generation of Catholics, raised in the “kinder and gentler” atmosphere of recent decades, just don’t know what the Church teaches about this.

As a pastor I’m duty bound to tell you what both divine law and Church law require of every Catholic. And you—who are here this morning—need to help me out with those who aren’t. As a parish community we need to encourage one another to be present for weekly worship; within families we need to remind one another of this solemn duty.

Everyone from Bing Crosby to Paul McCartney recorded the old song that goes “you’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Double-checking the words on the internet this morning, I was amused to discover that it was inspired by a sermon heard by the lyricist, Johnny Mercer.

Today’s Scripture readings accentuate the positive reasons for attending Mass. The Gospel reminds us that at the Eucharist we gather with the saints around the table of the Lord’s word and of his body; it is truly “good to be here.” The first two readings connect our Sunday celebration to the sacrifice of the beloved Son of the Father.

But we cannot entirely eliminate the negative. The basic virtue of obedience demands that we not miss Mass. God commanded us to keep the Sabbath holy, which Christians recognize as being Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Jesus commanded “Do this in memory of me,” and we cannot fail to do so without spiritual harm to ourselves and the community of believers.

The rest of the first verse of Johnny Mercer’s famous song goes like this:

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
But don't mess with Mister In-between.

Haphazard attendance at Mass is well described as “in-between” Catholicism. It’s not for true disciples seeking to live fully the life to which the Lord has called us.

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