Being in Church is Essential, Governor. Virtual is Not the Same as Real.

Many of us have heard expressed the formulaic regret by someone declining to attend an event: “Though I can’t be there, I’ll be there with you in spirit!” Two reactions usually occur to us who receive such a reply:

1 That’s unfortunate.

2 Whatever the phrase “there in spirit” means, they probably won’t be present in spirit either.

We human beings are body and soul. It is our dignity to combine the two orders of creation: matter and spirit. Angels are pure spirit, animals are matter, but the human person gloriously unites both orders in our one person.

For the human person, physical presence is important because we are not disembodied energy and while absences are sometimes necessary, it is usually thought of as less than ideal when we “phone it in” or go virtual.

Many people forget that the word “virtual” originally meant, “sort of like, but not really.” So, we might say, “He’s virtually a genius.” This is a form of hyperbole where we speak of his qualities that are like a genius though he’s not actually one in the full sense of the word. Lately “virtual” has simply come to mean “electronic” or “online” communication. But we ought not lose the original insight that computer (“zoom”) meetings are sort of like meetings but not really. They lack important aspects and subtleties when people share a room together and are physically present. There’s usually more buy-in in actual meetings. Interaction is livelier and people can’t get away with some of the multitasking going on in the background of virtual meetings. There is also something about being away from your usual desk or location with all its distractions and being in a room that is both neutral and designed for meetings.

To be sure, some meetings work well online, especially those that are brief and to the point. Travel time is often saved as well. Zoom and other platforms have been a great help in this time of plague. But recent studies have shown that online classes are terrible for students, especially the younger ones. Others too are wearied by all the online time that has been asked of us. And while I have given many online talks in recent pandemic months, I miss the dynamic of being in the room with people where I draw energy and get subtle feedback by their postures and expressions. Obviously masks also hinder this feedback greatly.

But of all meetings where physical presence is most required, the Sacred Liturgy is most important. One cannot receive sacraments virtually. You simply have to be there. How discouraging it was to hear the Governor of Virginia seek to school religious leaders and their congregants recently on where and how they should experience God:

Worship outside or worship online is still worship….  You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers,” ….Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. [*]

It is more than annoying for this radical pro-choice governor to play theologian and liturgist. He certainly shows little knowledge when it comes to Catholic Sacraments, all of which require physical presence to be conferred. You can’t get baptized online, receive Holy Communion online, or even absolution. Physical presence is required. All the sacraments touch the body in some way, whether through the laying on of hands, pouring of water, anointing with oil, or reception of Communion. The Christian faith is incarnational. Christ did not come among us as a ghost, a meme, or a Zoom host. He does not simply livestream and is not merely an idea. The Catholic Mass and Sacraments touch and interact with the body. Presence is crucial.

Even for most Protestants whose belief in sacraments is minimal and whose services are more apt for livestreaming, they still see fellowship as important. You can’t get real fellowship online, you just have to be there for one another.

Christ has a mystical body and it is essential that the members of his Body gather every Sunday: Christ the head, and his members together. In the Catholic Liturgy we experience the presence of Christ in the faithful gathered, and in the priest through whom Christ ministers. We hear his voice in the Word proclaimed and are fed by his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.

I do not expect the Governor to know all this. But, all the more reason for him to act with care and not speak so publicly of things he knows not. Catholics and other Christians are not frivolous in our need to gather. Our souls are just as important, if not more so, than our bodies. Sacraments and Sacred worship ARE essential in our lives, despite what some other governors and mayors have asserted. We should be expected to engage in prudent precautions like anyone who goes anywhere else. But government officials should not under-estimate our need to assemble for Sacred Worship even if they do not personally understand or share our beliefs. Our beliefs and practices far outdate this pandemic, this Country, and this culture. We will be here when all these things pass, as worldly things do. But the Word of the Lord remains forever.

Mass on the Move – A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

N.B. There is a video version of this homily below

In today’s Gospel we encounter two discouraged and broken men making their way to Emmaus. The text describes them as “downcast.” That is to say, their eyes are cast on the ground, their heads are hung low. Their Lord and Messiah has been killed, the one they had thought would finally liberate Israel. Some women had claimed that He was alive, but these disciples have discredited those reports and are now leaving Jerusalem. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is sinking low.

They are also moving in the wrong direction, West, away from Jerusalem, away form the resurrection. They have their backs to the Lord, rising in the East.

The men cannot see or understand God’s plan. They cannot “see” that He must be alive, just as they were told. They are quite blind as to the glorious things that happened hours before. In this, they are much like us, who also struggle to see and understand that we have already won the victory. Too easily our eyes are cast downward in depression rather than upward in faith.

How will the Lord give them vision? How will He reorient them, turn them in the right direction? How will He enable them to see His risen glory? How will He encourage them to look up from their downward focus and behold new life?

If you are prepared to “see” it, the Lord will celebrate Holy Mass with them. In the context of a sacred meal we call the Mass, He will open their eyes and they will recognize Him; they will see glory and new life.

Note that the entire gospel, not just the last part, is in the form of a Mass. There is a gathering, a penitential rite, a Liturgy of the Word, intercessory prayers, a Liturgy of the Eucharist, and an ite missa est. In this manner of a whole Mass, they have their eyes opened to Him and to glory. They will fulfill the psalm that says, Taste, and see, the goodness of the Lord (Psalm 34:8).

Let’s examine this Mass, which opens their eyes, and ponder how we also taste and see in every Mass.

Stage One: Gathering Rite – The curtain rises on this Mass with two disciples having gathered together on a journey: Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus (Lk 24:13). We have already discussed above that they are in the midst of a serious struggle and are downcast. We only know one of them by name, Cleopas. Who is the other? If you are prepared to accept it, the other is you. So, they have gathered. This is what we do as the preliminary act of every Mass. We who are pilgrims on a journey come together on our journey.

It so happens for these two disciples that Jesus joins them: And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them (Luke 24:15). The text goes on to tell us that they did not recognize Jesus yet.

The Lord walks with us, too. It is essential to acknowledge by faith that when we gather together at Mass the Lord Jesus is with us. Scripture says, For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matt 18:20). For many of us, too, although Jesus is present we do not recognize Him. Yet he is no less among us than He was present to these two disciples who fail to recognize Him.

Liturgically, we acknowledge the presence of the Lord at the beginning of the Mass in two ways. First, as the priest processes down the aisle the congregation sings a hymn of praise. It is not “Fr. Jones” they praise; it is Jesus, whom “Fr. Jones” represents. Once at the chair the celebrant (who is really Christ) says, “The Lord be with you.” In so doing He announces the presence of Christ among us promised by the Scriptures.

The Mass has now begun and our two disciples are gathered; the Lord is with them. So, too, for us at every Mass. The two disciples still struggle to see the Lord, to experience new life, and to realize that the victory has already been won. So, too, do some of us who gather for Mass. The fact that these disciples are gathered is already the beginning of the solution. Mass has begun. Help is on the way!

Stage Two: Penitential Rite – The two disciples seem troubled and the Lord inquires of them the source of their distress: What are you discussing as you walk along? (Lk 24:17). In effect, the Lord invites them to speak with Him about what is troubling them. It may also be a gentle rebuke from the Lord that the two of them are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the site of the resurrection.

Clearly their sorrow and distress are governing their behavior. Even though they have already heard evidence of Jesus’ resurrection (cf 24:22-24), they seem hopeless and have turned away from this good news.

Thus the Lord engages them in a kind of gentle penitential rite, engages them about their negativity.

So, too, for us at Mass. The penitential rite is a moment when the celebrant (who is really Christ) invites us to lay down our burdens and sins before the Lord, who alone can heal us. We, too, often enter the presence of God looking downcast and carrying many burdens and sins. Like these disciples, we may be walking in the wrong direction. In effect, the Lord says to us, “What are thinking about and doing as you walk along? Where are you going with your life?”

The Lord asks them to articulate their struggles. This calling to mind of struggles, for them that day and for us in the penitential rite, is a first step to healing and recovery of sight.

Again, we see in this story about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Mass that is so familiar to us.

Stage Three: Liturgy of the Word – In response to their concerns and struggles, the Lord breaks open the Word of God, the Scriptures: Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).

Not only does the Lord refer to Scripture, He interprets it for them. Hence the Word is not merely read; there is a homily, an explanation and application of the Scripture to the men’s struggles. The homily must have been a good one, too, for the disciples later remark, Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32)

So, too, for us at Mass. Whatever struggles we may have brought, the Lord bids us to listen to His Word as the Scriptures are proclaimed. Then the homilist (who is really Christ) interprets and applies the Word to our life. Although the Lord works through a weak human agent (the priest or deacon), He can write straight with crooked lines. As long as the homilist is orthodox, it is Christ who speaks. Pray for your homilist to be an obedient and useful instrument for Christ at the homily moment.

Notice, too, that although the disciples do not yet fully see, their downcast attitude is gone; their hearts are now on fire. Pray God, that it will be so for us who come to Mass each week and hear from God that the victory is already ours in Christ Jesus. God reminds us, through Scripture passages that repeat every three years, that although the cross is part of our life, the resurrection surely is, too. We are carrying our crosses to an eternal Easter victory. If we are faithful to listening to God’s Word, hope and joy build within our hearts and we come, through being transformed by Christ in the Liturgy, to be men and women of hope and confidence.

Stage Four: Intercessory Prayers After the homily, we usually make prayers and requests of Christ. We do this based on the hope, provided by His Word, that He lives, loves us, and is able. So it is that we also see these two disciples request of Christ, Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over (Luke 24:29).

Is this not what we are doing when we say, in so many words, “Stay with us, Lord, for it is sometimes dark in our lives and the shadows are growing long. Stay with us, Lord, and with those we love, so that we will not be alone in the dark. In our darkest hours, be to us a light, O Lord, a light that never fades away”?

Indeed, it is already getting brighter, for we are already more than halfway through the Mass!

Stage Five: Liturgy of the Eucharist – Christ does stay with them. Then come the lines that no Catholic could miss: And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them (Luke 24:30). Yes, it is the Mass to be sure. All the basic actions of the Eucharist are there: He took, blessed, broke, and gave. They are the same actions that took place at the Last Supper and that we repeat at every Mass. Later, the two disciples refer back to this moment as the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35), a clear biblical reference to the Holy Eucharist.

The words of Mass immediately come to mind: “While they were at supper, He took the bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to His disciples, and said, “Take this all of you and eat it. This is my Body, which will be given up for you.”

A fascinating thing then occurs: With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight (Luke 24:31).

It is the very act of consecration that opens their eyes. Is this not what Holy Communion is to do for us? Are we not to learn to recognize Christ by the very mysteries we celebrate? Are we not to “taste and see”?

The liturgy and the sacraments are not mere rituals; they are encounters with Jesus Christ. Through our repeated celebration of the holy mysteries, our eyes are increasingly opened, if we are faithful. We learn to see and hear Christ in the liturgy, to experience his ministry to us.

The fact that Jesus vanishes from their sight teaches us that He is no longer seen with the eyes of the flesh, but with the eyes of faith and the eyes of the heart. Although He is gone from our earthly, fleshly, carnal sight, He is now to be seen in the sacrament of the altar and experienced in the Liturgy and in other sacraments. The Mass has reached its pinnacle for these two disciples and for us. They have tasted and now they see.

Consider these two men who began this Gospel quite downcast. Their hearts are on fire and they now see. The Lord has celebrated Mass in order to get them to this point. So, too, for us: the Lord celebrates Mass in order to set our hearts on fire and open our eyes to glory. We need to taste in order to see.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. … Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalm 34:4-8).

Yes, blessed are we if we faithfully taste in order to see, every Sunday at Mass.

Stage Six: Ite Missa Est – Not able to contain their joy or hide their experience, the two disciples run seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell their brethren what has happened and how they encountered Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They want to, they must speak of the Christ they have encountered, what He said and what He did.

Note that this liturgy has reoriented them. They are now heading back east, toward the Risen Son.

How about us? At the end of every Mass, the priest or deacon says, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace.” This does not mean, “We’re done, go home and have nice day.” It means, “Go into the world and bring the Christ you have received to others. Tell them what you have seen and heard here, what you have experienced. Share with others the joy and hope that this Liturgy gives.”

Have you ever noticed that part of the word “mission” is in the word “dismissal”? You are being commissioned, sent on a mission to announce Christ to others.

Finally, the Lucan text says of these two disciples, So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them … Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:33,35). How about us? Does our Mass finish that well, that enthusiastically? Can you tell others that you have come to Christ in “the breaking of the bread,” in the Mass?

Jesus has used the Mass to drawn them from gloom to glory, from downcast to delighted, from darkness to light. It was the Mass. Do you “see” it there? It is the Mass. What else could it be?

Here is a video version of this homily

Abbreviated Breviary? Pondering Omissions from the Current Breviary

liturgy-of-hoursOne of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.

But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.

Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:

Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).

Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).

Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58[57], 83[82], and 109[108]) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.

Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”

A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:

First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.

Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.

Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.

So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)

To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).

Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.

It is as if God is saying,

I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.

It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.

As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.

Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.

Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 [108]) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.

Sermon Lengths Should Vary

A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center shows the rather unsurprising fact that sermons at Catholic masses are much shorter than those at Protestant and Evangelical services. The Catholic News Agency reports:

An analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons, given across a variety of Christian denominations during the months of April and May this year, found that the median length of a sermon was 37 minutes, but for Catholic priests, the average length was just 14 minutes.

Pew found that historically black Protestant sermons had the longest median length of 54 minutes, while mainline Protestant sermons were an average of 25 minutes long, with evangelical churches falling in between at 39 minute [sic] per sermon (CNA).

Catholic clergy are generally considered to be poorer preachers than their Protestant counterparts, and I would argue that the shorter sermon length has something to do with that. The expectation that a sermon be brief, about twelve minutes, affects what is said and how it is said. It also makes a number of forms of preaching, some of them among the most satisfying for the congregation, impossible.

Some years ago, a brother priest asked one of his parishioners who had left for a large Protestant denomination why he had done so. “They teach the Word,” was the man’s answer. We can certainly lament that the man would not have left the faith had he understood the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but people also have a hunger for God’s Word effectively taught and presented. For this reason, a good sermon deeply rooted in a biblical text is very satisfying. Long before I was ordained a priest, I listened to recordings of Protestant preachers like Adrian Rogers and Tony Evans. I marveled at how these men could take a text and teach from it line by line, creatively applying it to life. Even if I did not agree with every point they made or thought that they missed something that a Catholic would see, they saw the text as full of meaning and served up rich spiritual fare for their listeners.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen had this ability, too. He’d find a crucial point most others would miss and develop it beautifully. I remember once he noted that the disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them on the boat and emphasized the detail in the text that said, “They had only one loaf with them in the boat.” With the authority that only Sheen could command he proceeded to say, “And the loaf was Christ, who alone is our necessary Bread.” From this insightful teaching he went on to develop four aspects of it.

This sort of teaching and preaching takes time. I would argue that the relative inferiority of Catholic preaching isn’t just that Catholic clergy are poorly trained; it is also the limited time tolerated by the faithful. With such an abbreviated length, Catholic sermons tend to present a single principle drawn from the readings without being able to fully develop it. Good biblically based preaching usually involves going through a passage in the following steps: read it, analyze it, organize it, illustrate it, and then apply it. This sort of preaching isn’t likely to happen in a twelve-minute homily.

I also am told by many Catholics that priests need to teach more from the pulpit. There is a very long list of topics that they want to hear preached about more. I would argue that this also requires more than a mere twelve minutes.

I do not say that every member of the clergy should preach longer. Some simply don’t have the skill to do so. Others are in situations were a longer sermon is not possible due to the overall Mass schedule. There are also going to be ethnic/racial differences that factor in. So, neither do I argue that longer sermons teaching in depth out of a biblical text should be used in all situations. However, I do argue that if they want the “better” sermons of the denominations noted for excellent preaching, more Catholics might want to consider tolerating a longer sermon, at least at certain Masses.

I have spent most of my priesthood in predominantly African-American parishes. In such congregations, longer sermons are assumed. The people have high expectations of the sermon; they also interact with the preacher through encouraging interjections such as “Amen” and “All right now.” In these settings I routinely preach about thirty minutes; it is a great luxury. This permits me to preach through a biblical text examining its stages or exploring several aspects of the teaching it sets forth. Most of you who read my Sunday sermons posted here or listen to them online know this. One sermon might cover four aspects of discipleship derived from a Gospel pericope. Another might explore the stages of faith the man born blind goes through in the Gospel of John. Most of my parishioners would be surprised if I gave a ten-minute sermon, wondering what had happened. Once when I gave a short sermon a woman playfully rebuked me, saying, “Father, you left too much fruit in the tree this morning. We need a better harvest next week.”

Some Catholics have told me that they think long sermons are a mistake no matter who is in the pulpit because the purpose of the Mass is not to be a glorified bible study; it is an act of worship. Perhaps, but isn’t the Lord being worshipped when the faithful are attending to His proclaimed and preached Word with devotion?

Over the years, I have found that people have pretty strong opinions about sermons, both length and content. I suppose the best way for me to end this piece is by saying that perhaps we can all make a little room for one another in the Church. Some priests preach longer and are good at it. Some are not and better off keeping the sermon short and to the point. Other priests preach brilliant, memorable homilies that are quite brief. Vive la différence! Even in my own parish, not every liturgy is the same: our 11:00 AM Mass runs well over an hour, while our 7:00 PM Mass is no longer than forty-five minutes. Hence, in my own sermons, both content and length vary.

The one thing that is most clear to me is that rigid declarations that no sermon should be longer than a certain number of minutes (8, 10, 12, or whatever) are disrespectful of legitimate differences across cultures, liturgical traditions, and even personal temperaments. Pastors and congregations can and should work out their own situations and provide variety even there. Live and let live.

This sermon clip shows that, when I have to, I can preach in under four minutes. This was a half-hour TV Mass and only four minutes for the sermon is allotted. I certainly don’t consider it one of my better efforts and would liked to have developed the possibility that St. John did have supernatural grace. But all that one can do in so brief a moment is to throw out a few thoughts and exit gracefully. In my written online sermon I developed, in three stages, going from the imperfect gift we merely want to the perfect gift that God is actually offering.  In my recorded parish homily, given the generous time allotted in that setting I was able to sample well from the Prophets as well as the Gospel text itself. 

Modern Problems File: Losing God as the Center of Our Worship

“Mirror baby”. Licensed underCC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I have noted before on this blog that one of the trends in modern liturgy is the shift of focus from God to “the assembly.” Too much of liturgy today is anthropocentric.

Back in the 1990’s, in his book Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day observed that modern liturgy often amounts to “the aware, gathered community, celebrating itself.” Many songs today go on at great length about how we are gathered, we are the flock, we are God’s song, etc. When God is mentioned it is more in relation to us, rather than the reverse. He is all about us, and this seems to please us greatly.

The emphasis has shifted too far in this self-centered direction. If in the past the people were something of an afterthought or were reduced to spectators (as some detractors of the older forms say), now it seems that we are the excessive focus. If something doesn’t “speak to the people” it must either be ditched or dumbed-down.

Even our architecture has given God the boot. Circular and fan shaped churches began to dominate after 1950. The tabernacle was relegated to the side; altars became largely devoid of candles or a cross, and it became almost an insult for the priest-celebrant not to “face the people.” Seeing and interacting with one another became the goal. God was invited, too, but His role seemed more to affirm what we were doing and to be pleased with us; or so we sang, on and on and on. Surely God was happy when we were happy!

I exaggerate, but only a little.

Several years ago, I was fascinated to read of similar concerns in an unlikely place. It was an article in Baptist News in which Baptist minister J. Daniel Day expressed consternation with the state of Protestant worship. In effect, he argued that it is barely worship at all. Day is a retired senior professor of Christian preaching and worship at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C. and is the author of the book Seeking the Face of God: Evangelical Worship Reconceived. Here are some excerpts from his remarks in the article at Baptist News, shown in bold, black italics, followed by my comments in red text. The full article is available here: Reviving Worship.

“Worship can be facilitated and used around any kind of style,” says Day, a former pastor of First Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. The music and sanctuary decorations can be tailored to fit the tastes of the congregation. “But the question becomes … ‘where’s the beef?’” By that, Day says he means the object of worship, which should be God. But over the centuries, the purpose of worship in many evangelical churches has been to attract and evangelize new members.

How perfectly and simply stated! The worship of God has become the secondary focus. People are certainly important, as is evangelization, but worship is more important; it is the first and chief work of the Church. The worship of God does not demote man; it elevates him. Scripture says that we have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:12). In other words, we were made to praise God, and in this worship, we are fulfilled; we reach our highest dignity and discover our true self in Him. God is not our competitor; He does not steal the stage. Worshiping Him is not a distraction nor is it in opposition to the assembly.

Further, making the liturgy more about evangelization than worship (where it too easily devolves into entertainment designed to draw numbers) belies the experience of the early Church. In the early days, one did not gain admittance into the liturgy, into the celebration of the mysteries, until after baptism. Evangelization was accomplished through the witness of changed and holy lives in combination with preaching and witness. The goal was to gain admittance to the sacred liturgy so as to worship and encounter God and be transformed by that encounter. If worship “evangelized,” it was instead a deepening of faith already confessed. The deal had already been sealed and the liturgy served to deepen and further immerse a person into the life of God and His Body, the Church.

 Another major shift away from historic Christian worship came even earlier, he added. “The whole emphasis coming out of the Reformation was to convert worship into an educational experience,” Day said. “So you had these didactic, Calvinist lectures that became the models for today’s teaching sermons that go on for 45 minutes to an hour.” At that point, churches ceased being places of worship. “The sanctuary becomes a lecture hall.”

Indeed. And while I support Catholics learning to “tolerate” longer sermons, we ought not to lose our way. Homilies in Catholic parishes should teach more than they do, especially with the demise of Catholic Schools and family life in general.

However, the Mass is fundamentally an act of worship directed to the Father. Christ, the head of the Body and high priest, and we, the members of His Body, turn to the Father at the high point of the Mass (the Eucharistic prayer) and worship Him. Head and members worship the Father together.

This is why it is misleading for the priest to face the people during the Eucharistic prayer. Too often the impression is that the prayer is being read to the people. Not only is the priest facing them, but often priests, by their tone of voice and eye contact, give the impression that they are in fact talking to the people. Heaven forfend that the priest lower his voice such that someone in the back couldn’t hear the words or that he pray the canon in Latin. We must remember that the prayer is directed to God the Father, who is neither hard of hearing nor ignorant of Latin. While the vernacular has its advantages and helps the faithful to unite heartfully to the action, it is not a disaster if the priest is less-than-fully-audible or prays in a language other than that which the faithful understand well.

The Liturgy of the Word is rightly directed toward the people, yet it is also marked with worship; it is not just readings and instruction. The psalm (gradual) and the alleluia (tract) are worshipful responses of the assembly to what has been proclaimed, and after the homily, the creed and/or prayers also invite the worship of prayer.

So, yes, the liturgy is more than a bible study or a lecture.

Or [beyond a lecture hall, churches] become entertainment centers, Day says, where worship is about “being impressed by the magnificence of the place, the costumes and the jumbo screens.”

When the main goal becomes keeping people happy so they will come back, things really start to go off the rails. People are fickle; our culture is obsessed with the latest trends (particularly in the U.S.). We seem to need more and more exotic things in order to be impressed. A lot of the megachurches note that although people come once or a few times, they don’t often keep coming for long. There is only so much you can do when you’re surrounded by an entertainment culture.

Eventually, those who have been attracted by trendy notions get bored, figuratively saying, “Peel me a grape.” When fresh ideas aren’t forthcoming, the bored move on to the next phenomenon or the latest star preacher. Many of them end up dropping out of religion entirely, although some return to the Catholic parishes they left for greener pastures.

Entertainment-based churches eventually either run out of ideas or lose out to trendier churches with bigger budgets. Most of the megachurches of the 1990s here in Washington, D.C. are now closed; newer, bigger “centers” and “campuses” have opened to cater to the latest notions. These are quite difficult to maintain financially and will likely close as well.

Again, the central point of liturgy is not to impress or entertain human beings; it is to worship God. Even the supposed praise songs of many such churches look and sound more like entertainment. Some of the lyrics are actually not bad in terms of content, but many are riddled with catchphrases.

In the Catholic Church, too, a lot of contemporary liturgical trends seem to have “the people” in mind more so than God. He’s invited, too, but pleasing the people is more the point. Otherwise, why is trendy liturgy (especially music) such an issue? Does God change and need new forms? Does He get bored with the older hymns and chants? No! All of this trendiness is more about us.

To be fair, this problem is not new. The big orchestral masses of the Baroque period were quite the item back then. Eventually, they were criticized for trying to be more like opera, trying to impress donors rather than to be suitable for the worship of God. Even early polyphony got so artsy that the Church had to warn composers that the text being sung was more important than the musical artistry designed to impress the people.

Every now and again, the Church needs to throw a penalty flag on the field and say, “Back to God!” This is surely one of those times in both Catholic and Protestant settings, which are so powerfully influenced by our anthropocentric, consumer-focused culture.

A growing number of scholars from a variety of traditions are exploring the value ancient approaches to worship can have in modern times, he adds. One is to provide a sense of authenticity and rootedness in the history and practice of the ancient church.

Sadly, I doubt that our Baptist brethren will look to Catholic antiquity. But hey, it’s a start! It never hurts to value ancient approaches. Those who look to these sources may well discover how Catholic the early Church was. Let us pray. God bless the good Reverend J. Daniel Day in his search and for his admonitions to us all!

Not all contemporary Christian music is bad. In fact, I like a some of it quite well (e.g., “Still,” “You Never Let Go,” “Shout to the Lord”). But a good portion of it is poor. Here’s an amusing video that pokes fun at it:

What Is the Significance of the Veil Moses Wore?

The readings toward the end of the week in daily Mass come from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In it, he spends substantial time developing the fact that Moses wore a veil to cover the afterglow of God radiating from his face.

In most traditional Catholic settings, we think of the veil as something a woman wears as a sign of traditional modesty. In this sense most of us consider it something good and positive, though perhaps some are less enthusiastic than others.

In Exodus, however, the veil is presented in far more ambivalent terms:

As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the LORD. … the children of Israel … were afraid to come near him. … he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses entered the presence of the LORD to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the children of Israel all that had been commanded. Then the children of Israel would see that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the LORD (Exodus 34).

The mere afterglow of God’s glory was something that the people of old could not tolerate, so Moses wore a veil to shield them from it. Man, in his sinful state, is incapable of withstanding even the afterglow of God’s holiness.

The humility that they demonstrated is in many ways admirable. Unlike many people today, the ancients knew that God was utterly holy, and they were not. Many and varied were the rituals they carried out that recalled God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness.

An often repeated (but disputed) tradition is that the High Priest who went into the Holy of Holies once a year on the feast of Yom Kippur entered with much incense lest he catch a glimpse of the Holy One and be struck dead on account of his sins. It is also said that he wore bells sewn into his garment so that when he prayed, bowing and moving as he did so, those outside the veil knew that he was still alive. It is further said that he had a rope tied around his ankle so that if he were to be struck dead, he could be dragged out without others having to enter the inner sanctum and risk their own death in order to retrieve the body!

Whether this is true or not, it is clear that the ancient Jews understood that it was an awesome thing to be in the presence of the living and holy God, for who can look on the face of God and live? (cf Exodus 33:20)

How different this understanding is from that of us moderns, who manifest such a relaxed and comfortable posture in the presence of God in His holy Temple! Almost any sense of awe and holy fear has today been replaced by an extremely casual disposition, both in dress and in behavior. If the ancient Jewish practice was at one extreme, we are clearly at the other.

However, it would be a dubious position to hold that God expects the kind of fearsome reverence manifested in ancient Israel. Jesus came to grant us access to the Father through the forgiveness of our sins. Scripture says that as He died on the cross,

… Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split (Matt 27:50-51).

Yes, the veil in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. Extra-biblical traditions (e.g., Josephus) also hold that after the earthquake the large brass doors of the temple swung open and stayed that way.

Isaiah said, On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the shroud that covers all nations (Is 25:7). This prophesy is fulfilled at the moment that Jesus dies on the cross on Mount Moriah (Golgotha) and the veil of the Temple is rent. On account of the cleansing blood of Jesus that reaches us in our baptism, we gain access again to the Father. Therefore, we have a perfect right (granted us by grace) to stand before the Father with hands uplifted to praise Him.

The veil is parted, torn asunder by Jesus. Thus, the veil that hid Moses’ face has a dual quality. While it does symbolize a great reverence, it also signifies a problem in need of resolution. We were made to know God, to be able to look on His face and live. Sin made us incapable of doing this, so the veil that Moses wore was one that ultimately needed to be taken away.

St. Paul speaks of us as looking on the face of the Lord with unveiled faces:

Setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. … For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:2-6).

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. … And we, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:13-18).

For some the veil remains; it is a veil that clouds their minds. It is not a veil of modesty or reverence; it is a veil of “unknowing,” which must be removed by the gift of faith.

In the Exodus account we have a kind of “veil in reverse.” Most of us, at least those with a traditional bent, think of the veil as something beautiful and reverent—and it is—but the veil of Moses spoke of the sins and sorrows of the people; it was a veil that needed to be removed.

That said, I think that we moderns must find our way back to a greater degree of reverence and awe before the presence of God. Even in the New Testament and after Jesus’ resurrection, there are stories of both St. John and St. Paul encountering the glory of the Lord Jesus manifested from Heaven. So awesome was this theophany that both of them were struck down. Paul, as yet unbaptized, was also blinded. John, though not blinded, fell to his face.

The removal of the veil of Moses is both necessary and prophesied. Cringing fear must give way to hopeful confidence and joy in the presence of the Lord. Especially in these proud times, when self-esteem is an inordinate focus, we must come to realize that we are in the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

As the ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says, All mortal flesh must keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His, Christ our God to Earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

The veil of Moses is removed, but the “veil” of reverence, whether physical or metaphorical, must remain.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  What Is the Significance of the Veil Moses Wore?

The Role of the Angels in Every Liturgy

Ghent Altarpiece – Jan van Eyck (1429)

This is the second in a series of five posts on the angels and their role in our lives. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching at the Institute of Catholic Culture on the mission of the angels. Angels are ministering spirits mystically present and active throughout creation, in the events of Scripture, in the liturgy, and in our lives. The fundamental source for these reflections is Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. The references to the Fathers in my posts are fully footnoted in his book, but some of the scriptural passages below represent my own additions. In today’s post we ponder the presence and role of the angels in the Sacred Liturgy.

Origen reasons that if the angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear Him and shall deliver them (Psalm 34:7), then it is probable that when many are assembled legitimately for the glory of Christ, the angel of each that fears God encamps around him. Thus, when the saints are gathered there is a twofold Church: that of men and that of angels.

We cannot see the multitude of angels because our eyes are dimmed due to sin; nevertheless, Scripture attests to their presence. For example,

When the young servant of Elisha the man of God got up and went out early in the morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. So he asked Elisha, “Oh, my master, what are we to do?” “Do not be afraid,” Elisha answered, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw that the hills were full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:15-17).

So, there are multitudes of angels who gather with us, though our eyes, blinded by sin and sensuality, cannot see them. Scripture says further and thrillingly,

The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary. (Psalm 68:17).

Because the Mass is a participation in the heavenly liturgy, we are further assured that there are myriad angels and many saints round about. Scripture says of the Sacred Liturgy,

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly, to the congregation of the firstborn, enrolled in heaven. You have come to God the judge of all men, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:22-24).

The Fathers, tapping into these traditions, speak of the angels’ presence:

  • Origen warns that the angels are listening to the homily and judging it.
  • Theodore of Mopsuestia sees in the deacons who arrange the sacrifice on the altar an image of the invisible powers of the angels also ministering.
  • St John Chrysostom says that the angels surround the priest, and the whole sanctuary is filled with angels honoring Christ, present in the Eucharist. He adds that we, though lowly, have been deemed worthy to join the powers of Heaven in the worship of the Lord.
  • The Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer also attests to the presence of many angels. For example, “And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts …” (Common Preface I). St John Chrysostom says of the Preface, “Reflect upon who it is you are near and with whom you are about to invoke God—the Cherubim! Think of the Choirs you are about to enter. Let no one have any thought of earth (sursum corda). Let him lose himself of every earthly thing and transport himself whole and entire into heaven. Let him abide there beside the very throne of glory hovering with the Seraphim and singing the most holy song of the God of glory and majesty.”
  • St John Chrysostom further notes that the Gloria is the song of the lower angels and that even catechumens can sing it. The Sanctus, though, is the song of the Seraphim in the very sanctuary of the Trinity and is reserved for the baptized.
  • John Chrysostom also says, “For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more the Church! Hear the apostles teaching this when he bids women to cover their heads with a veil because of the presence of the angels. … The angels exult, the Archangels rejoice, the Cherubim and Seraphim join us in the celebration of [the] feast … What room is there for sadness?”

In this last point St. John seems to suggest that because a woman’s hair is her glory, it should be covered in the presence of God and the angels. Men, who tend to indicate rank and status with their hats, should similarly shed such distinction in the presence of God and the angels. This is why bishops, priests, and all clergy remove their head coverings prior to entering the sanctuary for the Eucharistic prayer.

Here, then, is but a brief reflection on the role and presence of the angels in the Sacred Liturgy. Tomorrow’s post will be a short treatise on the role of the angels at the Last Judgment.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Role of the Angels in Every Liturgy

Sacraments, Not Social Events

A common pastoral problem today is that many people have reduced the liturgy and the sacraments to ceremonies. To be sure, they have ceremonial aspects, but they are not mere ceremonies. Sacraments change reality; they affect us and effect a change in us that is necessary, real, and glorious. Too often the effects of the sacraments are forgotten in favor of the externals. The sacraments most affected by this mentality are Baptism, Holy Matrimony, and the Mass itself.

As an illustration, consider a man who is about to be ordained a priest. He receives a letter from the bishop calling him to this order; it indicates the date of the ordination Mass approximately two months in the future. What if the man said to himself, “It’s just a ceremony,” and began presenting himself as a priest, even going so far as to hear confessions and celebrate Mass in local parishes? This of course would be an egregious violation and sacrilege because he is not in fact an ordained priest. Something far more than a ceremony takes place on the day of his ordination. A sacrament takes place that actually changes him and configures him to Christ. He is changed such that he is now able to act in the person of Christ and confect the sacraments.

It is similar with Holy Matrimony. In it, God effects a miraculous change in the bride and groom: the two become one. Genesis says that in marriage a man clings to his wife and the two of them become one. Jesus says, “They are no longer two, but one. And what God has joined together, let no one divide.” Thus, a new reality comes to be for both of them. This is also what makes their sexual union true and holy. Prior to the wedding they were two, not one, and thus sexual intercourse would be a sinful lie. After the wedding, the two are one and their sexual union is an expression of the truth, a holy sign of what they really are. The wedding is no mere ceremony, it is a sacrament that changes the couple.

The Sacrament of Baptism was once thought so essential and urgent that mothers seldom attended the baptism of their children. Within a day or two after birth the godparents (often accompanied by the father) whisked the child off to church for the baptism while the mother was still recovering.

This is because something essential and necessary is provided by baptism: the child, fraught with Original Sin, needs the healing power of Jesus to wash away that sin and make him a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and transfer him from kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light. While this urgency was primarily driven by high levels of infant mortality, there was still the sense that the Sacrament of Baptism did something so essential that it could not be delayed, even by the absence of the mother, who was usually welcomed back after her convalescence, forty days later, through a liturgical rite known as the “Churching of Women.”

Today baptisms are too often delayed until a large cast of characters can be assembled. It seems that everyone just has to be there! I have seen families delay baptisms for years because certain extended family members “can’t make it.” Everyone seems to matter more than the child. How can the family gathering go well if Aunt Ethel can’t be there? The party seems more the point than the baptism.

Holy Baptism is a sacrament not a ceremony or an excuse for a party, a family gathering, or photographs. St. Paul says that prior to baptism we are dead in our sins (see Ephesians 2:1). That seems pretty serious! St. Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). That seems pretty glorious! Something essential is needed and it happens in Holy Baptism. The party, the pictures, and the other ceremonials are secondary. Baptism is a glorious sacrament that should be celebrated without delay. Canon law states that parents should provide for Holy Baptism within the first weeks after birth. St. Cyprian expressed surprise when someone wrote to him wondering if baptism should be delayed to the 8th day after birth since it replaces circumcision. He said,

But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man (Epistle 58.2, to Fidus).

Too many people today don’t just wait eight days, they wait eight months. I often ask them why. They usually respond by saying that so-and-so can’t make it until June. “Then send pictures,” I counter. They look at me, dejected. This kind of attitude attempts to reduce Holy Baptism to a ceremony and a social event.

Allow these few examples to illustrate that the sacraments are not merely ceremonies. They are not merely opportunities for a party, family gathering, or group photograph; they are transformative encounters with Christ. When we receive a sacrament, something happens to us; we are changed. Permit this small reminder of the reality of the Sacraments. Some might say that the point made here is obvious, but in my experience, it is unfortunately not so obvious to many people.