For you and for all [men]…

The other day in Presiding at the Eucharist class, the instructor corrected one of the guys who was using an older Sacramentary.  At the words of institution, he said "for you and for all men" … the word "men," of course, having been omitted years ago.  Someone said "well, 'men' means everyone," and the instructor nodded.  I said "so does 'all.'" 

I'm not sure I fully understand why all the Liturgy purists insist on ticking people off.  "All men" is a phrase that would make some women feel excluded.  So if just plain old "all" works as well, is gramatically correct, and conveys what the Latin intends, why do we have to insist on using phrases that irritate people?  It makes me wonder if there's an agenda, or at least a passive-agressive tendency, to these folks and their arguments. 

Somehow, I think Christ's teaching, the whole of the Gospel, would counsel against intentionally irritating others and excusing it with the alleged intent of Liturgical purity.

Singing During a Homily

As you may know from my last post, I decided to sing parts of the Exsultet in my homilies last weekend.  That was a controversial decision for me; since I was thinking better of it after I had made the decision.  One of the parish staff members was good enough to share her own reaction to the homily, which I appreciated, and I responded to her by giving what amounted to my operative theology of homiletics.  Here's the gist of it:

1. The Exsultet is intended to be sung. If we're going to use the Liturgy to interpret the Liturgy (which is an important homiletic technique), we have to use the interpreting pieces as they were intended. If I decided NOT to sing the Exsultet pieces, I would not have used the Exsultet at all, and then it would have been a different homily.

2. I worried about singing it all the way up to the Ambo, but as I centered myself in prayer during the silent spaces of the Liturgy of the Word, God's answer was that I prayed for a homily that would say what God wanted me to say, and that I needed to trust that what was on that page was the answer to my prayer. It's an act of faith, but I do have to trust that given my own prayer and preparation, the word that is given is what someone needs to hear.

Given all that, I would probably do it again the way I did, because it conveyed the message I felt like I was being led to convey, and I have to be faithful to that. BUT, I never would sing parts of my homily, or even all of it (God forbid — and yes, I've heard that done — ick!) on a regular basis. The homily is never about me. Yes, it uses me and my life and my words, but always through the action of the Holy Spirit — more or less, according to my own faithfulness. Preaching is always risky. If it isn't, then it's not done faithfully.

Now a word about getting solid, honest evalutations of one's preaching.  If you're lucky enough to have a parishioner or staff member who is able to do that honestly, as I do, thank God for it!  People who do that for you are contributing to your homiletic ministry in ways that maybe even the two of you don't fully appreciate.  That kind of feedback is so much a part of the way the Holy Spirit writes our homilies, and it simply isn't appropriate to do without it.

Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday): Rejoice!

I preached two different homilies this weekend: one for the regular Sunday (Cycle B of the Lectionary) and the other for the Second Scrutiny (which uses Cycle A of the Lectionary).  Both are given below.  I took special care to mention Laetare Sunday, the concept of rejoicing, which I looked at through the lens of the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation, which is sung at the Easter Vigil Mass.  The lines in bold are from the Exsultet, and yes, I sang them, which was a little scary at first (who on earth sings their homily?), but it worked out okay.

Cycle A Readings: For the Second Scrutiny Mass

Whenever I read today’s first reading, I always think of my father. Dad has a way of seeing in people things that others don’t see. There’s almost nowhere we can go with Dad where we don’t find someone he knows – I think it’s an Irish thing: he never met a stranger. This can be very irritating when we have a thousand errands to do and Dad’s chatting with someone he knows while we’re hauling the groceries out to the car. But his vision is certainly a gift from God, and so many people are grateful for what he’s seen in them, and have been inspired to do things they never thought they could because of that vision.

That’s the kind of vision that is required in today’s first reading. Jesse and Samuel were all taken by Eliab, who was tall and good looking and radiating confidence. Surely Eliab must be the one to be anointed king. But God had them slow down and realize that he hadn’t chosen Eliab, or any of the other of Jesse’s seven sons. He had chosen David: the lowly little kid out tending the sheep. It turns out he made an even more splendid appearance than Eliab or any of his other brothers. What was truly splendid was what God saw: his heart. The beauty of what was inside him qualified him to be the special king of God’s choosing.

I always pray for vision like that. It’s so easy to go with what we like to see. We tend to hang around with people who are like us and are drawn to activities that give us pleasure. We collect the things that look nice to us and tend to create the kind of world we’d like to see. But that first reading calls us to overcome this blindness and catch the vision that God uses: a vision that sees to the very heart of people and the world. When we fall short of having that kind of vision, we are afflicted with a kind of blindness that severely afflicted the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” That’s the crucial question in today’s Gospel. You don’t have to do a great deal of study to figure out that the blindness Jesus is talking about is not mere physical blindness, but the Pharisees don’t get that. Which is why they are truly blind.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision. We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision. Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see. In baptism, the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World. During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer. At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him. Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship. We make this same journey ourselves. From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith. The vision that worked for us when we were young no longer suffices and we must be set aside old ideas to make room for newer, bolder proclamations about the power of Christ’s light in our lives.

From another point of view, this Gospel reading is almost comical. Here are the disciples and all the religious authorities – the Pharisees – standing around discussing amongst themselves this man born blind. First, the disciples wonder how it is that he came to be blind and asked Jesus if it was the man’s sin or his parents’. Then we have the Pharisees fretting about the man being cured on the Sabbath. And next they’re questioning everyone they can find to see how it is the man came to see. While they are discussing the matter to death, Jesus is quietly not only healing the man’s physical blindness, but also attending to his faith. And at the end of it, they’re all still wondering how this came to be.

It’s the behavior of the Pharisees that illustrates what Jesus considers to be true blindness. Physical blindness is easy enough to overcome; but this blindness that starts in the heart tends to remain, just as it does in the lives of the Pharisees when we leave them at the end of today’s Gospel. They, like Samuel and Jesse in the first reading, would do well to remember that the source of true sight is God himself, who sees into the heart.

This reading is a wonderful point of reflection for us during Lent. We are called to look back at our baptisms and see once again the Christ who cleared our eyes and longs to overcome whatever darkness reigns in us. During Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on the parts of our lives where our vision is severely limited, and allow Jesus to help us move into real light. Lent is the time to journey with our Catechumens and renew ourselves in the faith, clearing away whatever prevents us from seeing Christ and responding to his grace in our lives.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated by the wearing of rose-colored vestments, rather than the Lenten violet. However, I decided to pass on the opportunity to purchase rose-colored deacon vestments for the one time in my life that I’d ever get to wear them! But still, this is Laetare Sunday, and it reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing. It might be good, then, to ask ourselves, what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

In a few weeks, the Mass of the Easter Vigil will begin by telling us all the reasons we should rejoice. That Mass begins with the sung Easter Proclamation – the Exsultet – which tells the whole story of God’s mercy and sings God’s praises. It is sung in the darkened church, proclaiming that, even in the darkness of our world, the light of God’s mercy still reigns and has power to overcome everything that keeps us from the true Light of the world. It begins: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!

That proclamation of the Exsultet almost seems out of place in our world today. All we have to do is pick up a newspaper to be convinced of the darkness that pervades our lives. Wars and terrorism claim the lives of innocent people and young soldiers alike. Crime in its many forms takes its toll on our society. Injustice and oppression still exist in our own nation and abroad. The poor still hunger and thirst for the basic necessities of life. And then we could look at the darkness that seems to reign in our own lives. Sin that has not been confessed. Bad habits that have not been broken. Love and mercy that have been withheld. All of these darken our own lives in ways that we don’t fully appreciate at the time, but later see with sad clarity. Our world and our lives can be such dark places in these days. But to that darkness, the Exsultet sings: Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!

What’s great about the Exsultet, I think, is the kind of “in your face” attitude it has about joy. Yes, the world can be a dark place, but it is no match for the light that Christ brings to the world. Yes there is sorrow and sin and death, but they are no match for the joy of Eternal Life, the life that comes only from Christ’s triumph over the grave. Of this kind of joy, the Exsultet sings: What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son.

Today’s Liturgy is a call for all of us to attend to our vision. Do we see others as God sees them? Do we even see ourselves as God sees us? How do we see Christ at work in our lives and in our world? Where we encounter obstacles to the clear vision that we must have in this darkened world, we should set them aside and allow Christ to anoint our eyes so that we can see as God sees, this God who sees into the heart. Then as the darkness that exists in our own lives is transformed to light, maybe our little corner of the world can know compassion amidst sorrow, comfort amidst mourning, mercy against intolerance, love against hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk. May we carry the flame of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow. May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all humankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Cycle B Readings: For the regular Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Lent

 

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated by the wearing of rose-colored vestments, rather than the Lenten violet. However, I decided to pass on the opportunity to purchase rose-colored deacon vestments for the one time in my life that I’d ever get to wear them! But still, this is Laetare Sunday, and it reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing. And today’s readings do deal with some heavy topics, but clearly and always through the lens of rejoicing in God’s mercy. So that’s how I would like to look at today’s Liturgy: what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

In a few weeks, the Mass of the Easter Vigil will begin by telling us all the reasons we should rejoice. That Mass begins with the sung Easter Proclamation – the Exsultet – which tells the whole story of God’s mercy and sings God’s praises. It is sung in the darkened church, proclaiming that, even in the darkness of our world, the light of God’s mercy still reigns and has power to overcome everything that keeps us from the true Light of the world. It begins: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!

That proclamation of the Exsultet almost seems out of place in our world today. All we have to do is pick up a newspaper to be convinced of the darkness that pervades our lives. Wars and terrorism claim the lives of innocent people and young soldiers alike. Crime in its many forms takes its toll on our society. Injustice and oppression still exist in our own nation and abroad. The poor still hunger and thirst for the basic necessities of life. And then we could look at the darkness that seems to reign in our own lives. Sin that has not been confessed. Bad habits that have not been broken. Love and mercy that have been withheld. All of these darken our own lives in ways that we don’t fully appreciate at the time, but later see with sad clarity. Our world and our lives can be such dark places in these days. But to that darkness, the Exsultet sings: Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!

You see, this darkness is exactly the darkness in which the people of Israel found themselves in today’s first reading. Notice what that reading says about the people – it’s not flattering at all! It says “in those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.” Note particularly the use of the word “all” in that first sentence: had just some of the people been unfaithful? No: all of them had. Did they practice just some of the abominations of the other nations? No: they practiced all of them. But God in his mercy sent them messengers and prophets to warn them away from their sinfulness. Did they listen to them? No – and not only did they just not listen to them, but they ridiculed and derided those messengers of God, “despised his warnings and scoffed at his prophets.” Certainly God would have been justified in letting his chosen people go to hell in a hand basket. But he didn’t. Though he punished them with exile for a time, he brought them back to their own land to worship their God once again. When darkness seems to affect even the Church, the Exsultet calls out: Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory! The risen Savior shines upon you! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!

Back at Christmas time, we heard the beginning of the Gospel of John giving us reason for our exultation: even in the darkness of our world, the Light shines through. John proclaims: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Today’s Gospel reading is from John also, and shows us the source of that light: Jesus Christ who is lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. This line refers to a passage from the book of Numbers [Num. 21:8-9] in which the people were complaining about the way God was feeding them in the desert. So he sent seraph serpents among them, and people were being bitten and falling ill and dying from their venom. As a remedy, God told Moses to mount one of the serpents on a pole, and anyone who had been bitten would get better if they looked at the serpent lifted up on the pole. John compares this to the remedy that we receive for our many sins when we look upon our Savior, lifted up on the pole of the Cross. But even better, the lifting up of the Son of Man is God the Father, raising Jesus up from the dead, to destroy the power of sin and death in our world. Either way you look at it, the joy is irresistible: the darkness of our sin and the finality of our death are destroyed when we look upon Jesus our Savior lifted up for us. Of this, the Exsultet sings: This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death, and rose triumphant from the grave.

Which brings us to the heart of today’s Gospel reading, maybe even to the heart of the whole Gospel. That would be the line: “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” If you have seen any sporting event, in person or on television, you have seen the reference to that line: posters that read “John 3:16.” And clearly, that is the heart of the Gospel for all of us: that God
so loved the world – not just the good part of the world, the pristine part, the beautiful part – but every part of the world. He loves the parts of the world that are polluted, or embattled by crime, or rife with injustice and oppression, or debilitated by sickness and disease, or destroyed by war, or mourning death, or lamenting sin. That is not to say that he loves the pollution, crime, injustice, or any of that. But he loves the world – the whole world – despite all that darkness. He loves the world for what he created it to be, he loves us as the people he made his own. And to that world, that people he loves, he sends his only son, his beloved, so that we might not perish in our darkness or disease or injustice or sin and death, but might have eternal life – the life he longs for each of us to share with him. Any other message would be completely disappointing, and our God does not disappoint! What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son.

Lent is certainly a time for us to be mindful of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s call. Last week’s look at the ten commandments provided each of us, I think, with plenty of reflection on how we can better live God’s call. But this week’s Gospel puts all of that in perspective for us: we don’t dwell on our sins and shortcomings just to remind ourselves how miserable we are; we reflect on our sins and shortcomings because we know that God can transform them. We don’t strive to become better people in order to be worthy of God’s love for us; we strive to become better people because God loves us and that love calls us to a much better way of living. Today’s Liturgy says to us that yes, we have sinned; yes, we have fallen short; yes, we have been hard-hearted; yes, we have failed to respond to God’s love; yes, in particular we have failed to show that love to others. And yes, we are deserving of punishment for our sins. But, our God, who is rich in mercy forgets the punishment and remembers compassion for the people he created. He sent his only Son to redeem us and bring us back from our darkness into everlasting light. Our God even uses the darkness and transforms it to be a source of Resurrection for his people. At that Easter Vigil a few short weeks from now, we will remember that The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.

On this Laetare Sunday, let us remember that even in the darkness of our world as it is, we can remember the joy of the Light that is to come. Let us reflect on God’s everlasting mercy, which is stronger than sin and death. Let us respond to the compassion that God has shown for us, his chosen people. Let us live that mercy and love in our own lives, sharing it with others. Then as our own darkness is transformed to light, maybe our little corner of the world can know compassion amidst sorrow, comfort amidst mourning, mercy against intolerance, love against hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk. May we carry the flame of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow. May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all humankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Third Sunday of Lent: Zeal for Your House will consume me…

I think today’s Gospel story is very strange to many of us. It presents Jesus in a light that we don’t often see – kind of a violent light, in fact. I’ve often heard this story explained as a kind of justification for anger: that Jesus in his humanity was exhibiting the very human emotion of anger. And that would be comforting, I think, for all of us who struggle with anger, if that was what the story was about – but it’s not.

In fact, nowhere in today’s Gospel does it say that Jesus was angry. We guess that from his behavior, but that’s not what was going on. The disciples figured it out – most likely after his resurrection – by remembering the words of Scripture, zeal for your house will consume me. He was demonstrating zeal, not anger, and that’s a whole different package of emotions.

So what was really going on here?  First, we should note that these merchants were not conducting their business inside the temple, as we tend to think of it. No, they were making their transactions in the outer parts of the temple, where commerce related to the Temple was permitted. Second, we have to understand that they were providing a needed service. People would come to make their pilgrimage to the Temple, and that pilgrimage required them to do two things: to offer an animal sacrifice, and to pay the Temple Tax. Some of them would travel quite a distance to get to Jerusalem, and for them it would be impractical to bring along the animals for the sacrifice, if they even owned those animals to begin with. So it made sense for them to purchase the animals outside the Temple, then go in to offer the sacrifice. Also, the coins that were in general use bore the image and inscription of Caesar, which was considered idolatrous – those coins would have been inappropriate currency with which to pay the Temple Tax. So they needed to exchange the coins outside the Temple. Given all this, the sellers of oxen, sheep and doves, and the moneychangers, were all providing a needed and legitimate service. So what was the problem?

Zeal for your house will consume me. That’s what the disciples remembered afterwards. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand. That Kingdom required a worship that went beyond mere legalism, beyond being able to make a pilgrimage, buy an animal for sacrifice, pay the Temple Tax, and be done for the year. Worship and sacrifice in the Kingdom of God needed to take the form of a specific way of life, a way of life that Christ modeled for us on the Cross, the kind of sacrifice that comes from laying down our lives for others. So the days of needing people to sell sacrificial animals and exchange currency outside the temple were over: instead, people needed to reform their lives.Which brings us to the matter of the Ten Commandments in today’s first reading. For us, it can be easy to just tick them off and feel like we’ve done our duty. We went to Church this week, we didn’t kill anyone, we didn’t rob any banks and didn’t lie in any court proceedings. So we must be okay. But to that kind of thinking, Jesus fashions a whip out of cords, cracks it to get our attention, and says, ‘not so fast’’

Because worship in the Kingdom of God requires much more than that. Those Ten Commandments aren’t cancelled, but they are raised to a higher standard. They look completely different. That standard means that not having any other gods looks like putting God first in every situation, that success and security and comfort aren’t the be-all and end-all of our existence. It means that not taking the Lord’s name in vain looks not just like avoiding blasphemy, but also that we honor God in all our speech, that we not curse one another in the parking lot after Mass. It means that keeping holy the Lord’s day is not just coming to Mass and leaving God behind when we walk out of here, but of truly taking the day for rest and worship, to renew our relationship with God and prepare for the week ahead. It means that the kids’ soccer game or baseball game does not take the place of Sunday worship.

The standard that Christ sets means that honoring one’s father and mother is not just a commandment for the children: it means respecting authority in all its forms whether it be one’s aging parents, or the Church, or one’s boss or any other lawful authority. Thou shall not kill means that we don’t murder or procure an abortion, but also that we respect every single person’s life. It means we avoid racism and don’t bear grudges, because doing those things is like already murdering a person in our hearts. Thou shall not commit adultery is now a commandment not just for married folks, but for all of us, and calls us to live chastity no matter what our state in life, no matter what our sexuality. Not stealing is easy if it means just not robbing a bank, which most of us don’t do. But Jesus’ standard means that we don’t take anything that isn’t ours; that we put in an honest day’s work for a day’s pay, or if we are employers, that we give our employees a salary and benefits that allow them to care for their families, because to do anything less is to steal the food off their tables.

Jesus’ way of living the Ten Commandments means that not bearing false witness requires us to take a stand for the truth in every situation. It means that not coveting our neighbor’s spouse means that we live lives immersed in purity and avoid pornography, lewd talk and anything that leads us to impure thought and action. It means not coveting our neighbor’s goods will see us rejecting ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and instead to use the gifts with which we’ve been blessed to take care of our own real needs, and also the real needs of others, particularly the poor. You see, zeal for God’s house must consume us also.

It’s a high standard that Jesus calls us to live, and if you’re like me, it can be real frustrating when we fall short time and time again. But today’s Liturgy tells us that we can call on our God whose perfect law refreshes our soul and gives joy to our hearts. God longs to show us the way to live and worship in the Kingdom of God, and makes it possible for us to leave our brokenness and failure at the foot of the Cross, and to be nourished with the bread of life. God longs to transform our worship and our sacrifice and our lives so that we can have eternal life in the Kingdom of God that is at hand, here and now.

Things we ought to give up for Lent

A surface reading of Catholic blogs lately has made me ponder the purpose of these things. Since it’s Lent, I thought maybe all of us, bloggers or readers, could resolve to give up some things:

  • The use of the phrase “put the smackdown on…” in reference to religious leaders. For example, “Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul or Cardinal N. or Bishop N. or Father N. put the smackdown on liberals or gays or liturgical musicians or abortionists or anyone else.” Such an image is tantamount to religious “my father can beat up your father-ism” and is totally unbecoming and unflattering to a man who has given his life to be a servant of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself did not delight in putting the smackdown on anyone, which is not the same thing as saying he condoned everyone’s behavior. For example, look at how he dealt with the moneychangers in this week’s Gospel.
  • The ridiculing of anyone who does not share one’s own liturgical sensibilities, most especially one’s own liturgical music preferences, which can be quite subjective. You don’t have to agree with everyone, and you don’t even have to like their music. But ridiculing a brother or sister in Christ does violence to the Church (which is, after all, the whole point of the words of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, “By the ministry of the Church…”) and is completely incompatible with worshipping Christ in the Liturgy.

I noted in another place that such resolutions would likely result in empty blogs (and I guess even message boards) here and there, but maybe that’s a good thing. Lent is a time for conversion; would that we all would pursue that conversion in word and action during these forty days. Perhaps then we could approach worship of the Lord in the Paschal triduum with renewed hearts and minds (cf. Rite of Penance, 13).

I do not wish the sinner to die, says the Lord,
but to turn back to me and live.
(Ezekiel 33)