The First Sunday of Lent: Remembering Who We Are

Today’s readings

Perhaps the greatest sin of modern times, maybe of all time, is that we sometimes forget who we are. Politicians forget that they are elected officials, given the trust of the people they serve, and so they become embroiled in a scandal or sell themselves to special interest groups. Church leaders forget that they are ordained by God for holiness and so they give in to keeping up appearances, and bring scandal to the Church. But it’s not just these people; all of us fall to this temptation at one time or another – maybe several times – in our lives. Young people forget that they have been raised in good Christian, loving homes, and in their quest to define themselves, turn away from the values they have been taught. Adults forget that they are vocationally called to love their spouse and their children and so get caught up in their careers to the detriment of their family. Think of any problem we have or any scandal that has been endured and deep at the core of it, I think it stems from forgetting who we are.

Forgetting who we are changes everything for the worse. It makes solving problems or ending scandal seem insurmountable: we have to constantly cook up new solutions to new problems, because we’ve gone in a new direction on a road that never should have been traveled. That was the scandal of Eden, and the scandal of the Tower of Babel, among others. Once we’ve forgotten who we are and acted impetuously, it’s hard to un-ring the bell.

One of the consequences of forgetting who we are is that we forget who God is too. We no longer look to God to be our Savior, because we instead would like to solve things on our own. Perhaps we are embarrassed to come to God because we are deep in a problem of our own making. We see this all the time in our lives: who of us wants to go to a parent or boss or authority figure – or anyone, really – and tell them that we thought we had all the answers but now we’ve messed up and we can’t fix it and we desperately need their help? If that’s true then we’re all the more reluctant to go to God, aren’t we?

This forgetting who we are, and forgetting who God is, is the spiritual problem that our readings are trying to address today. Moses meets the people on the occasion of the harvest sacrifice, and challenges them not to make the sacrifice an empty, rote repetition of a familiar ritual. They are to remember that their ancestors were wandering people who ended up in slavery in Egypt, only to be delivered by God and brought to a land flowing with milk and honey. And it is for that reason that they are to joyfully offer the sacrifice.

St. Paul exhorts the Romans to remember who Jesus was and to remember his saving sacrifice and glorious resurrection. They are to remember that this faith in Christ gives them hope of eternity and that, calling on the Lord, they can find salvation.

But it is the familiar story of Christ being tempted in the desert that speaks to us most clearly of the temptation to forget who we are and who God is. The devil would like nothing more than for Jesus to forget who he was and why he was here. He would have Jesus forget that real hunger is not satisfied by mere bread, but must be satisfied by God’s word. He would have Jesus forget that there is only one God and that real glory comes from obedience to God’s command and from living according to God’s call. He would have Jesus forget that life itself is God’s gift and that we must cherish it as much as God does.

But Jesus won’t forget. He refuses to turn stones into bread, remembering that God will take care of all his real hunger. He refuses to worship Satan and gain every kingdom of the world, remembering that he belongs to God’s kingdom. He refuses to throw away his life in a pathetic attempt to test God, remembering that God is trustworthy and that he doesn’t need to prove it.

The way that we remember who we are as a Church is through Liturgy. In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear the stories of faith handed down from generation to generation. These are the stories of our ancestors, from the Old Testament and the New. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we re-present the story of Christ’s Passion and death, and as we do that, it becomes new for us once again. There is no better way for us to remember who we are as a people than to faithfully participate in the Sacred Liturgy.

And so we come to this holy place on this holy day to remember that we are a holy people, made holy by our God. We remember who we are and who God is. We rely on the Spirit’s help to reject the temptations of Satan that would call us to forget who we are and instead become a people of our own making. We have come again to another Lent. Lent is a time of conversion. For the people in our Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – RCIA – it is a time of conversion from one way of life to another. For the rest of us, Lent is a time of continued re-conversion. Our Church teaches us that conversion is a life-long process. In conversion, we see who our God is more clearly and we see ourselves in a new, and truer light – indeed we see who we really are before God.

That is life in God as it was always meant to be. Remembering our God, remembering who we are, we have promise of being set on high, as the Psalmist proclaims today. This Lent can lead us to new heights in our relationship with God. Praise God for the joy of remembering, praise God for the joy of Lent.

The Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I love it when the Gospel has a curious story in it because it’s fun then to peel back the layers of the story, kind of like an onion, and get at what’s inside.  Today’s Gospel story is just like that.

When our modern ears hear this parable, there are surely things that seem odd about it, aren’t there?  First of all, as the wedding banquet is finished, the guests have to be summoned to the feast.  But in those days, they probably had received a formal invitation previously, and then had to be let know when the feast was ready.  But then we come to this very curious issue of the invited guests not wishing to attend.  What could possibly be keeping them away.  Even if they weren’t thrilled by the invitation and honored to attend, you’d think they would show up anyway because of who it is that is inviting them.  You would think they would want to keep the king happy.

But they don’t respond that way, and so now the banquet is ready and the guests are well, unavailable shall we say…  So the king sends the messengers out to all the public places in order to invite whomever they find.  And who are they going to find?  Well, probably pretty much what you’d expect: peddlers, butchers, beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, shop owners and shop lifters, the physically impaired and sick … in short, not the sort of people you’d expect to find at a king’s wedding banquet.

So, to me, it’s not all that shocking that one of them is not appropriately dressed for the banquet.  What is shocking is that the rest of them are, right?  Some biblical scholars have suggested that perhaps the king, knowing who was going to show up, may have provided appropriate attire, and that one person refused to put it on.  We don’t know if that’s the case but if it were true, we could all understand the king throwing that person out.

So what is this story really about?  Putting the parable in context, the banquet is the kingdom of God.  The distinguished invited guests are the people to whom Jesus addressed the parable: the chief priests and the elders of the people.  These have all rejected the invitation numerous times, and would now make that rejection complete by murdering the messenger, the king’s son, Christ Jesus.  Because of this, God would take the kingdom from them, letting them go on to their destruction, and offer the kingdom to everyone that would come, possibly indicating the Gentiles, but certainly including everyone whose way of life would have been looked down upon by the chief priests and elders: prostitutes, criminals, beggars, the blind and lame.  All of these would be ushered in to the banquet, being given the new beautiful wedding garment which is baptism, of course, and treated to a wonderful banquet, which is the Eucharist.  Those who further reject the king by refusing to don that pristine garment may indeed be cast out, but to everyone who accepts the grace given them, a sumptuous banquet awaits.

So guess who are the beggars, prostitutes, criminals, blind and lame?  If you’re thinking they are you and me, well, now you’re beginning to understand what Jesus is getting at.  Our sinfulness leaves us impoverished, and hardly worthy to attend the Banquet of the Lord.  It would only be just for our God to leave us off the invitation list.  But our God will do no such thing.  He washes us in the waters of baptism, brings us to the Banquet, and feeds us beyond our wildest imaginings

Today, Father Steve and I are continuing to unpack the new translation of the Mass which I think by now you probably know we are going to begin using on the first Sunday of Advent, which is November 27.  We were going to talk about the preface dialogue and the preface, but today’s readings are going to take us to a slightly different place.  So I have written about the preface dialogue in today’s bulletin.  If you want to know why we will be saying “and with your spirit” instead of “and also with you,” then be sure to check that column out.

Today we’ll talk about some of the prayers that come just before the preface, and some of these are prayers you don’t ever get to hear, because the priest is to say them in a low voice, and they are usually covered by the Offertory hymn.  These prayers are changing, too, and so you may notice, for a while, that we have to look at the book to say them, rather than by memory as we are able right now.

After the priest receives the bread and wine from those bringing forward the gifts, he offers them at the altar.  The prayers after that are the ones you hardly get to hear.  Having finished the offering, the priest bows profoundly, that is, from the waist, and prays:

With humble spirit and contrite heart
may we be accepted by you, O Lord,
and may our sacrifice in your sight this day
be pleasing to you, Lord God.

Which is a quote from the book of the prophet Daniel.  The priest then turns to the servers and they wash his hands as he prays:

Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

I thought about these two brief prayers in connection with today’s Gospel reading.  We approach the Lord with “humble spirit and contrite heart” which is exactly what the chief priests and elders did not do in the Gospel.  They thought that they had heaven in their grasp and that no one else did.  They felt like they had no need of repentance, no sins for which to be sorry.

We can’t be like them, or we’ll never be able to come to the banquet.  The prayers of the Church should always serve to remind us of who we are and why we are here.  We were meant for the banquet, but we weren’t dressed for it.  We have been given that beautiful garment at baptism, which gives us the right to sit at the table.  We just have to be open to receiving it.  We receive it knowing full well that we are in need of forgiveness and mercy.  The most important sacrifice we offer at Mass is always the sacrifice of our lives, of our hearts, giving ourselves completely to our God who gives us everything.  And in return, he gives us everything back.

We are blessed to be able to come to the Supper of the Lamb.  And in the moments during the offering of the gifts, maybe we can take time to be aware of offering ourselves and our hearts, coming before the Lord with humble spirits and contrite hearts.

The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time: The new translation of the Creed

Over the next several weeks, Father Steve, our deacons, and I will be preaching about the upcoming changes to the Mass.  As you know, we will begin using a new translation of the Roman Missal beginning the first Sunday of Advent this year, which is November 27.  We’ve already begun teaching and using the newly-translated musical parts of the Mass, but we can’t begin using the new prayers until November 27.  We can, however, teach them, which is what we’re doing now.  Over the past several months, Deacon Al and I have been writing about the changes to the Missal in our bulletin columns.

Today, Father Steve and I are both preaching about the Creed, which we proclaim as an assembly every Sunday and Solemnity.  The Creed is one of the symbols of our unity as a people.  It’s appropriate that before we come to the Altar together to receive Holy Communion, the most important manifestation of our unity, we take time to proclaim as one body what we believe to be the Truth.  And so, following the exhortations from Holy Scripture, we rise and proclaim our belief in one God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, and our belief in the Church and all that She professes to be true.

Now, like many of the prayers that have become so familiar to us, I think we can find ourselves reciting the Creed without really thinking about it.  How often have we gotten to the end of the prayer, only to think that we don’t remember praying much of it as we went along?  I know that’s happened to me.  This is too bad, because the Creed didn’t just fall out of the sky: it was crafted over many years with many modifications and tweaks to get the language right.  Many arguments happened over the wording in ancient days, and some even gave their lives to defend the faith as professed in the Creed.  To this day, there are a few words in the Creed, with regard to the Holy Spirit, that remain a point of contention between us and the Orthodox Churches of the East.

The full name of the Creed that we pray is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.  This is in reference to the belief that the Creed was crafted, or at least accepted by the Church Council of Nicaea in the year 325 and the Council of Constantinople in the year 381.  At these Councils, the Council Fathers attempted to finalize the wording of the Creed, which had been argued about for many years, in order to put the controversies to rest.

So maybe it’s important enough for us to take a little more care in the way that we pray the Creed.  And rather than beat ourselves up over the way we may have prayed it in the past, maybe we can make a resolution as this new translation comes to us, to pray it more carefully, as carefully as we are able.  Toward that end, I’d like to take a little time today to look at the new translation of the Creed and point out what’s new and explain that a little bit.  So if you take out your Gather books, and open up to the front where we have the new Order of Mass inserted, I would ask you to turn to page ____.  Let’s look at the Creed there together.  I want to point out four new things in the creed.

The first is right at the beginning.  Instead of saying, “of all that is seen and unseen,” we will be praying “of all things visible and invisible.”  So the issue here is that there is a difference between something being unseen and invisible.  Let me explain it to you this way:  you probably cannot see your house from here, so it is unseen.  But I think you’d agree that your house is certainly not invisible!  On the other hand, there certainly are some things that are invisible.  When I discussed this with the third graders last year, they came up with a list, including things like air, which is invisible, but certainly present.  What we are saying is that God created all things: seen, unseen, visible and invisible.

The second issue is a bit tougher, because it’s a word we don’t use in other contexts.  And that comes about a quarter of the way down with the word “consubstantial.”  The words “consubstantial with the Father” replace the words “one in being with the Father.”  This wording is more in keeping with the Latin text of the Creed, and a more accurate translation.  “Consubstantial” is a translation of the Latin consubstantialem, which is a translation of the Greek word homoousion.  Think of homoousion as similar to homogenous, because that is the root word.  Basically it means “of the same substance.”  So what we’re saying is that the Father and the Son are of the same substance of each other.  That’s similar to “one in being,” but I think it goes a little deeper.  There is a sense in which all of us are “one in being” with each other, but we certainly are not of the same substance of each other, certainly not one and the same as each other.  But the Father and the Son are that closely related; they are not Father and Son in the same way as humans are, they are actually of the same substance!

The next difference is about five lines down.  It says that Jesus “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”  This replaces the words saying that “he was born of the Virgin Mary…”  “Incarnate” means a little something deeper than just “born.”  It means taking flesh, being embodied in a human form.  Of course, this is what happens to our souls when we are born, but for Jesus, something deeper happened.  He wasn’t just born in a human way, he lowered himself, and became one of us.  It happened in a supernatural form of conception which was accomplished through the grace of the Holy Spirit.  His incarnation was so much more than a human birth.

The last difference involves a word which might seem to be used in an odd sense, or in a sense we’re not used to.  That comes almost all the way down to the end, about four lines up.  It says, “I confess one baptism…” instead of “We acknowledge one baptism…”  Now when we say the word “confess,” it usually means we are about to tell the priest our sins, doesn’t it?  But the original sense of the word “confess” was something along the lines of “to give witness to.”  The profession of faith used to be called a confession of faith.  And when we “confess” in the Sacrament of Penance, we are giving witness to the goodness and mercy of God and in light of that, reflecting on how we have fallen short.  So the confession has more to do with who God is than what we have done.  So when we “confess one baptism,” we are giving witness to the fact that one baptism is enough: it binds us to Christ who in his mercy calls us to redemption and eternal life.

So that’s what’s new in the new translation of the Creed.  One of the more obvious changes, though is that instead of saying “we believe,” we will be saying, “I believe.”  In this way, I think we can see that we are not speaking for the others around us, but with all of us speaking together, we can hear what “we believe” and can truly become one body, one spirit in Christ.

Easter Wednesday

Today’s readings

“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Today’s scriptures continue to speak to us of the joy of the Resurrection.  The disciples once again have experiences of the Risen Lord.  Today’s experience is one that is really a foreshadowing of the Mass.  Here the disciples walking along the road find that they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and remember how their hearts burned with joy as he explained the Scriptures to them.  That’s the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Liturgy of the Word, respectively.

What’s important about what they experienced is that we get to experience it too, every time we come to this holy place to celebrate Mass together.  We too are on a journey in our life, a journey from confusion to understanding, a journey from fearfulness to faith.  And along the journey, we are nourished just as those disciples were, by the words of Scripture and the breaking of bread.  The Sacred Liturgy forms us in faith as a holy people.

These disciples had been walking away sad, perhaps returning to their former life, disillusioned that their Messiah had been arrested and crucified.  Nourished by word and sacrament, they return to their new life, energized to proclaim the Good News.  That is our task too as we go forth from this Mass to the life God has given us.  We too are called to proclaim the Good News that Christ is risen to all those who need to hear it, everyone God puts in our path.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!