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.

A Pre-Lenten Preparation for Priests and a Request for Prayers from the Faithful

Priests need to prepare for Lent too. The Book of the Prophet Malachi provides a kind of mini-examen for them.

As we consider the sins of the priests enumerated below, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed as meaning that all or even most priests are like this. Sadly, though, sins and shortcomings are far too common among the clergy. As priests must strive to be better and more holy, so must the laity remember to pray for us.

With that in mind let’s consider the sins of the priests (as described by Malachi) in three basic areas.

Shoddy Sacraments

A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? So says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised thy name?” By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. Oh, that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised (Malachi 1:6-12).

Those are strong words indeed. While the injunction regarding blemished and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem remains: careless celebration of the Liturgy and the sacraments.

One of the most common complaints from the faithful regards priests who violate liturgical norms and/or allow others to do so. Few things offend charity and unity as much as the open, sometimes egregious violation of liturgical norms. Although some violations are minor, why not just celebrate the Liturgy as it is set forth in the books? There are of course options, and not every complaint of the faithful is accurate or fair, but God’s people have endured several decades of exotic and often egocentric liturgical experiments, which are not approved and which take the focus off God and the proper worship due Him.

A priest cannot be expected to clear up every problem in the Liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of the faithful with due regard to charity and patience is one of his essential tasks as pastor of souls—and he should begin with himself. The liturgy, both its mechanics and its spiritual significance, should be his study and his great love.

Another problem that can emerge is inattentiveness to the dignity and beauty of the Mass and the sacraments. Proper attire and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one another. Priests should be properly vested, prepare their sermons prayerfully, and avoid mannerisms that are inappropriate or overly casual. Opulence is not necessary, but priests should ensure that liturgical appointments are clean, in good repair, and of proper dignity.

Decades ago, poor immigrant communities sponsored the construction of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest art and liturgical implement. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach the faithful to follow the example of these recent ancestors of ours by seeking to build and maintain worthy churches, erected for the glory of God and not just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by the senseless “wreckovation” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God, many people today are growing in their appreciation of older churches and are seeking to preserve them.

If God was offended by the offering of a lame or sick animal, why should we think He is pleased with just “any old stuff” in the Sacred Liturgy? God does not need our gold chalices or our tall churches, but He knows that the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.

Priests must avoid all conscious violation of liturgical norms, make central the devoted study of liturgy, and inspire respect among the faithful for the Sacred Liturgy. St. Paul summarizes well his liturgical teaching of 1 Cor 11-14 by concluding with this: But all things should be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40).

Burdens not Blessings? Behold your Barrenness!

“What a weariness this is!” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts … And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name (Malachi 1:13, 2:1-5).

The priests of that ancient time had families, and God warned that if the fathers did not obey, their children would suffer many curses. While priests today do not have children of their own, many call us “Father”!

In our day, the sins and omissions of priests surely have brought trouble upon the faithful. We have been through a period in which too many priests have been rebellious, unfaithful to Church teaching, slothful, unprepared to preach, un-prayerful, and irreverent. Some have even been guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. In addition, far too many priests and religious have left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.

All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some are discouraged and angry; most are poorly catechized and ill-informed on critical moral issues. Many are confused by priests and bishops who have openly dissented, who do not listen to God or lay to heart His teaching and stand in awe of His name.

In this way, the flock is often harmed by this poor priestly leadership and example. Eighty percent of Catholics no longer attend Mass. Many of those who do attend are barely in communion with the Church’s teaching and struggle to live the glorious vision set forth in the Gospel.

Sadly, this text from Malachi echoes a similar one from Zechariah: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray for them fervently. Not only are priests subject to targeted attack by Satan, they are also especially susceptible to grandiosity, pride, and the sin of craving human respect.

Pray that priests do not become weary of exhortation or speak of their office as a burden. Pray, too, that they do not succumb to modern notions that the Gospel is too burdensome for the faithful and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful to live it.

Sacerdotal Silence

True instruction was in [Levi’s] mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction (Malachi 2:6-9).

Silent pulpits are all too commonplace in the Church today. Some priests prefer to “play it safe,” fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Others do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent; by preaching corruption they cause many to stumble.

It is tragic as well that so many priests are permitted to mislead the faithful without being disciplined for it by their religious superiors.

The text says that a priest should guard knowledge. That is, he should protect it from those who would distort it; he should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in balance with other truths in Scripture and Tradition. St. Paul says this of a presbyter: He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).

The text of Malachi also warns against partiality, wherein a priest chooses which truths he will teach or emphasize and which he will not. St. Paul said to the elders at Miletus, Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Yes, the whole counsel, the complete truth, is to be taught by the priest.

Some of these rebukes concerning partiality must still be made today. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them; give them support even if they challenge you. The job of a priest is not to be popular but to be a prophet. It’s tough work and it isn’t always welcomed. Even the prophets needed support from the 7000 who had still not bent the knee to Baal or kissed him (cf 1 Kings 19:18). Pray for priests and encourage them to announce the whole counsel of God.

These are some of the sins of priests that God sets forth, but let us not forget that the world has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these passages remind us, priests can lose their way. They can forget the glory of the liturgies they celebrate, refer to their office and the gospel as burdensome, and grow silent out of fear or laziness.

Pray for priests!

A Sobering Reminder on the Liturgy from the Book of Leviticus

There is a sobering passage in the Book of Leviticus that speaks to the need for priests to be faithful to the prescribed liturgical norms. While the offense described in this passage is complex, the main point is clear enough: The liturgy is revealed by God and is not the personal plaything of the priest or the congregation. Although some of the liturgical edicts of the Old Covenant have been fulfilled and are therefore no longer binding, only the Church, in careful discernment, can set liturgical norms; God’s priests and people must not stray from them.

Let’s take a look at the text consider its sobering reminder:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Wow, two priests struck dead by God for a liturgical violation! The severity of this moment ought to make us more cautious about brushing off liturgical abuses as “no big deal.” And while not all liturgical errors are equally serious, intentionally dispensing with sacred norms is highly displeasing to God.

The sin of Nadab and Abihu is complex and the nature of their offense is somewhat debated. A common explanation sets forth the following problems with what they did:

  1. Although the wording is not completely clear, it is likely that Nadab and Abihu each took “his” own censer rather than the sacred thurible of the sanctuary. However, it is also possible that the “his” referred to Aaron, and that Nadab and Abihu each took Aaron’s censer (see # 3 below).
  2. They seem to have offered it together, whereas the incense was generally offered by only one priest at a time.
  3. They intruded upon the functions of the high priest, who alone burnt incense in a censer (see Leviticus 16:12-13; Numbers 17:11). (Although ordinary priests sometimes burnt incense, it was only on the golden altar in the holy place (Exodus 30:7-8) or on the brazen altar as a part of the memorial (See Leviticus 2:2-3; Leviticus 2:16).)
  4. They offered the incense at an unauthorized time (apart from the morning and evening sacrifice).
  5. They offered “strange fire,” meaning that they filled their vessels with common fire instead of taking it from the holy fire of the altar, which was always to be used in burning incense. (Others think that the phrase “strange fire” denotes fire not offered according to the prescribed law (see Leviticus 9:24; Leviticus 16:12).)
  6. Later on in Leviticus, the text indicates that Nadab and Abihu had partaken too much of the drink offering and were likely intoxicated (see Leviticus 10:9).

The above enumeration may seem like “inside baseball” and the technicalities described arcane, but we should be most concerned about the last line of the Scripture passage: Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’”

In other words, the purpose of the liturgy is not to glorify man. It is not to entertain. It is not to serve as an occasion for priests to boast or to engage in unauthorized and egocentric displays. The purpose of the liturgy is that God be glorified and known as holy.

Sadly, many people today see the liturgy as a stage upon which man is to be exalted and entertained. Much time is devoted to announcements, self-referential hymns, self-congratulatory outbursts. Liturgical norms are often set aside in service of human preference or the ego of a priest who thinks his own words and gestures far outshine what the “institutional” Church and sacred tradition have directed. Speed, convenience, and comfort seem to far outweigh any notion that the liturgy involves offering a sacrifice to God in gratitude and obedience.

This does not mean that the sacred liturgy has to be unreasonably severe, slavishly robotic, or wholly unconcerned with the good of God’s people. Charity and prudence both require that the liturgy also manifest God’s mercy, goodness, and truth in ways that are intelligible and helpful to God’s people. In general, though, the balance has tipped so far away from glorifying God that we must constantly reminded ourselves that God is the point, not us. When He is the point we are blessed, for we look beyond our often petty and vain pursuits and come to find our true selves in God.

This passage from Leviticus should remind us that misconstruing the sacred liturgy is displeasing to God—not because He has a big ego, but because such abuse harms us. We were made to glorify God and find true happiness in so doing. Liturgical abuse in service of anthropocentric interests makes our liturgies small-minded and insular. Ultimately it is we who are deprived of our truer and greater joy, which is God Himself.

The Biblical Roots of the Assumption of Mary

While the actual event of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is not recorded in the Scriptures, there is a biblical basis for the teaching that, considered as a whole, confirms Catholic teaching as both fitting and in keeping with biblical principles. Let’s ponder this feast in stages:

The Assumption Explained To be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into Heaven. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary was taken up into Heaven. We do not just acknowledge that her soul was taken to Heaven, as is the case with the rest of the faithful who are taken there (likely after purgation); rather, Mary was taken up, soul and body, after her sojourn on this earth was complete. There is no earthly tomb containing her body, neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful. This is our ancient memory and what we celebrate today, Mary was taken up, body and soul, into Heaven.

The Assumption Exemplified – While Mary’s Assumption is not described in Scripture, several other “assumptions” are; thus the concept itself has a biblical basis. The actual event of the Assumption is not described in Scripture. However, there are “assumptions” recorded in the Scriptures and thus the concept is biblical.

EnochEnoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God (Hebrews 11:5).

ElijahAnd as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven … And he was seen no more (2 Kings 2:11).

Moses – Some say that because the location of Moses’ grave is not known, he too was taken up into Heaven. We read in Monday’s first reading at daily Mass: He was buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt. 34:6). The text of course does not say that his body was taken up, and if it was, it occurred after death and burial. The Book of Jude hints at this: But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses … (Jude 1:9). Some further credibility is lent to the view of Moses being assumed by the fact that he appears with Elijah in the account of the Transfiguration. Some of the Church Fathers also held this opinion. Further, there is a Jewish work from the 6th century A.D. entitled The Assumption of Moses. In the end, though, the assumption of Moses is not officially held by the Church.

The Assumption Evidenced (John Sees Mary in Heaven) There is one other scriptural account that may provide evidence of Mary’s whereabouts. Today’s second reading, a passage from the Book of Revelation, features John’s description of his sighting of the ark of God:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads …. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter (Rev 11:19 – 12:5).

The woman in the passage is clearly Mary, since the child is obviously Jesus (although she also likely represents Israel and Mother Zion). And where is Mary seen? In Heaven. Some argue that this does not necessarily indicate that her body is in Heaven; they say that it might be referring only to her soul. However, the physical description of her seems rather strong to support such a view.

Others believe that because John mentions the ark and then continues on to describe Mary (the woman clothed with the son), that he is in fact still describing the ark. (I have written on this elsewhere: Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant.) If Mary is the ark described, then she is clearly in Heaven.

So, the Bible, while not specifically recording Mary’s Assumption, does present other assumptions, thus showing it to be a biblical concept. Further, Mary’s physical presence in Heaven seems at least hinted at, if not directly described, in the Book of Revelation.

The Church does not rely solely on Scripture. In this case, what we celebrate is most fundamentally taught to us by Sacred Tradition; the memory of Mary’s Assumption goes back as far as we can remember.

The Assumption Extended to Us The Feast of the Assumption is of theological interest and provides matter for biblical reflection, but eventually these questions are bound to arise: So what? How does what happened to Mary affect my life? What does it mean for me? The answers are bound up in nearly every Marian doctrine. Simply put, what happened to Mary will also happen to us in the end. As Mary bore Christ into the world, we bear Him in the Holy Communion we receive and in the witness of His indwelling presence in our life. As Mary is (and always was) sinless (immaculate), so too will we one day be sinless with God in Heaven. As Mary cared for Christ in His need, so do we care for Him in the poor, suffering, needy, and afflicted. Finally, as Mary was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven, so too will we be there one day, body and soul.

After our death and subsequent purification, our soul goes to Heaven; our body, though, lies in an earthly tomb. But one day, when the trumpet shall sound, our body will rise and be joined to our soul.

For we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” … Thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:51-57).

So our bodies shall rise; they shall be assumed and joined to our soul.

Improved model! An older woman once said to me, upon hearing that her body would rise, “Father if this old body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!” Yes, indeed; me too! I want a full head of hair, a slim build, and knees that work! I want an upgrade from this old, general issue model to a luxury edition. In fact, God will do that. Scripture says,

  • He will take these lowly bodies of ours and transform them to be like his own glorified body (Phil 3:21).
  • But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body …. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power …. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Cor 15:35-49).
  • I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another’s (Job 19:25-27).

The assumption of our bodies, prefigured by Christ in His own power and also in Mary by the gift of God, will one day be our gift too.

The following song is an African-American spiritual and describes that “great gettin’ up morning” when our bodies will rise. If we have been faithful, our bodies will rise to glory!

I’m gonna tell you about the coming of the judgement (Fare you well) There’s a better day a coming …. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well! Oh preacher fold your Bible, For the last soul’s converted …. Blow your trumpet Gabriel …. Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right calm and easy Do not alarm all my people …. Tell them to come to the judgement …. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well. Do you see them coffins bursting? Do you see them folks is rising? Do you see the world on fire? Do you see the stars a falling? Do you see that smoke and lightning? Do you hear the rumbling thunder? Oh Fare you well poor sinner. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well.

How the Liturgy is Healing Medicine for Strident Times

One of the most concise and cogent descriptions of these often strident times came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986. It is contained in, of all places, his treatise on the theology of sacred music in a book called The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986). His comments have been republished in a larger compendium of his works, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014, Vol 11).

It is hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.

To be sure, every era has had, and has needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.

However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.

Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. Ratzinger paraphrased an insight of Gandhi’s, applied it to his analysis of our current times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:

I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.

Today – I would like to add – we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth.

The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. . . .

Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).

This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.

As Ratzinger pointed out, though, we too often are preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world. But the liturgy – good and proper liturgy – trains us in all three and accomplishes the balance that is so often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.

Read and carefully consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection. It will bless your soul; I know it has blessed mine.

Here is a song of the heavens: