Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

FROM THE PEWS

 

Is it perspective that changes when you are retired and find yourself in the pews amongst the faithful, experiencing Liturgy at which you used to preside?  I’ve found myself muttering interiorly that it couldn’t have been like this then.  What I always thought of as a communal celebration that invited full, active and conscious participation from the assembled seems now to be a ritual that reduces the assembly to mere spectators.  What used to encourage the people of God to recognize God’s imminence and the presence of Christ within and uniting us now seems bent on focusing us on God’s transcendence, a Christ becoming present to be adored.  In fact, with tabernacles being returned to the altar or to the wall behind the altar, the focus as the people enter the worship space is no longer on the altar which was the principal symbol of Christ, the altar that was reverenced as people took their places in the Assembly, the focus now is the tabernacle that houses Christ’s presence in the consecrated bread.  It is not an uncommon happening that, when it is time for the Communion Procession, the majority of the Assembly receives from the Hosts reserved in the tabernacle and not from the Bread consecrated during the Liturgy.  I was present for a mass when only the priest received from the Host on the altar.  Everyone else, from the tabernacle.  Then there are those parishes that are repressing Communion from the Cup.  For forty-five years, I believed that the church assembled to celebrate Eucharist and so realize Christ becoming sacramentally present in the bread and the wine transformed by the invocation of the Spirit.  And having shared in the meal, the people were then sent to continue Christ’s presence in the world, to love through the pouring out of self through service.

In several churches where I have tried to worship in the past several months, I feel that there has been a time warp and conciliar reforms of Vatican Council II have vanished and the pro-council church has re-emerged.  I have exited church after mass concluding that I missed mass again.  Some of the clergy are wearing cassocks and surplices again, or cassocks and lacey albs.  And I think, wow, I haven’t seen vestments like that in many years.  It wouldn’t surprise me to seem maniples and birettas’ return, too.  For what purpose?  To set Father apart?  I haven’t experienced it yet, but I have heard that in some churches the communion railing is returning so that the people can be separated from the sanctuary and keep their proper places in the nave where they can adore on bended knee.  The Church’s mandate that the Assembly stand from the conclusion of the preparation of the gifts until the last person has received Communion as a sign of their participation in the Resurrection of Christ widely has been repressed and the people are told to kneel.  It seems to have been forgotten that in the Church’s history, when some in the assembly knelt, it was a sign that they were not going to receive Communion, a sign of non-participation.  Alas.

I won’t even talk about the preaching except to say that I have found much of it to be banal and condescending.  Seldom does the preacher break open the Word as a homily is supposed to do to help the assembled be transformed by the Word.  In some cases I have been embarrassed for the preacher as historical and dogmatic errors spew forth from him.  And then there are those who think that the homilist is meant to entertain and give everybody a good laugh.  Humor is not a bad thing unless it is the only thing.

What started me off on this tirade was a conversation I had with a friend the other day.  She told me about a parish not far from where I live where women are being put back in their proper place.  I guess I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when I remember that the rector of the cathedral announced that girls would no longer be allowed to be altar servers.  That would be reserved for the boys because boys’ serving would lead some of them to pursue priesthood.  The girls from then on could serve as sacristans so that they might be inspired to become nuns.  That announcement was in the local secular press.  If I had thought about all that, I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that in this parish women have been told to wear hats or lacey doilies on their heads when they come into church.  Hands are to be properly folded with fingers pointing heavenward.  Kneeling is the preferred posture.  And, of course, silence is to be maintained in the sacred space.  The ordination of women has long been a forbidden topic of discussion in the Church, as has been discussion of married priests.  The Vatican directed inquisition of Nuns in this country, and the bishops investigation of the Girl Scouts seem to fit right in with this “vision” of women’s proper role.

The Pew polls have revealed that thousands of people are leaving the Catholic Church for other communions.  It has been a fact for some time in the United States that the largest denomination is Roman Catholic.  The second largest is Former Catholics.  Some are wondering if it won’t be long before the Formers outnumber the Catholics. 

It is difficult not to be cynical, remembering as I do those glory days, the years immediately after the Council that began fifty years ago, summoned by a pope who believed that the faith resided in the people and it was important for the Church to assemble to discern that faith, to open the windows and let in fresh air.    Sure, there were difficulties in the transition.  Some struggled with the vernacular and folk hymns.  Some resented seeing lay people, even women, participating in the Liturgy as lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.  Even the most resentful couldn’t mistake the renewed enthusiasm sweeping through the Assembly as they were reminded of their Baptismal Priesthood and were empowered to exercise it.  There may be an attempt to turn the clock back, so to speak, to restore former times.  But we must remember that the Church is a living organism that continues to evolve as she moves through history.  To turn the clock back and impose devolution on the living organism is to impose a death sentence.  Organisms that devolve die.

There is reason to hope.  We must remember that Christ said to the disciples, “I am with you always, until the end of the World.”  The Holy Spirit still inspires the faithful calling them to full life.  There are parishes that continue to be welcoming communities, inviting all and welcoming all.  Some homilies still break open the Gospel of repentance, reconciliation, and hope.  Some assemblies still are invited to gather around the table and to co-celebrate the Eucharist and so enter into Mystery.   Women continue to serve as Lectors, as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and as altar servers and ministers of hospitality.  Some may be leaving in frustration and finding their solace elsewhere.  But some are forming “underground” churches, celebrating, as they believe the Church calls them to celebrate. 

And we persevere believing that there will be another Pentecost, another breathing forth of the Spirit, another fire.  Then the Church of Vatican Council II will come to full stature as she continues to evolve, continues to grow into the full likeness of Christ whose Body she is.

Sincerely,

Didymus  

THE FEAST OF PENTECOST – May 27, 2012

The Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13

The Holy Gospel according to John 20:19-23

We were talking about Pentecost.  I had read today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles and then asked the class what they thought.  How would they respond to what Luke said had happened in that upper room.  There was a long pause before a boy near the back of the room raised his hand and asked, “Was there a lot of damage when this was over? Was anybody injured?”

Not bad questions, really.  Think about it.  There came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind and it filled the entire house where they were.  Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.  I don’t know about you, but the combination sounds a bit terrifying to me.  The lad’s vivid imagination caught that, too.  Icons of Pentecost usually depict a tranquil group of men gathered with Mary calmly sitting while neat little flames hover over each head.  Is that what the reading suggests?  Place yourself in the scene.  Hear the wind howl as it does in a violent storm as that sound rumbles through the house.  What would it be like to sit serenely while fire danced right near your head?  I think I would be terrified.  How about you?  Wouldn’t you wonder what you had gotten yourself into?  With powerful signs like these whipping around you, wouldn’t you wonder what would happen next, even as you felt this strange dawning awareness surging in your heart?

We’re very used to thinking of church as a tranquil place of serenity and calm.  We get irritated if a baby cries, fracturing the silence, especially if the parents don’t repair to the crying room (an awful invention, really).  If you think about it, there ought be nothing tranquil about it.  What would it be like if what we believe transpires in the course of our Liturgy were actually to happen?  Imagine the heavens rending.  Hear God’s voice which in the Scriptures often has the rumble of thunder about it.  Think about how you would feel if you saw clearly the gap between the Gospel’s challenge and the life you are living.  The Eucharist celebrated is about giving thanks to God in the midst of dying and rising and transformation.  We lull ourselves into passivity by dulling the words’ meanings.  Dying?  Rising?  Transformation?  All many Assemblies want to do is get through the hour, and if mass lasts under an hour, so much the better.  That way the important activities for Sunday can begin.

“Was there a lot of damage when (Pentecost) was over?”  Sure there was.  The lives of each person present would never be the same.  The former reality and manner of perceiving had been blown away.  A fire now burned in their hearts and they knew they could not contain it.  They had to rush out into the public places and begin to live in the new reality.  That is what we are supposed to do at the conclusion of Eucharist.  We’re sent to live what has transpired through this outpouring of the Spirit.  We are sent to be the Body of Christ in the market place, the Body, blessed, broken, and distributed for all to eat.  The common language that all those people from those various places heard from those transformed disciples in the Pentecost event was love.

Pentecost has happened for most of us.  It happened when we came out of the font, when the oil flowed over us, when we were called by name as God’s beloved.  We responded to God’s action in our lives.  What happened was not the result of our own doing.  That’s what Paul tells us in the second reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians.  No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.  In other words, no one can be even an incipient believer except by the grace of God.  But that grace comes with the expectation that it will translate into action that will reveal the one Body of Christ continuing to act in these times.

I suppose it is a wonderful thing for us to take pride in that there are a billion of us Catholics in the world.  What do you think would be the impact on the world if all one billion of us let the grace of Pentecost, the grace of our Baptisms dictate how we lived and what would be our relationships with our brothers and sisters at large?  How could wars continue if a billion people determined to love their enemies and do good to those who hate them?  What would happen to starvation among two thirds of the world’s population if we believed that we did not have a right to abundance as long as our sisters and brothers lacked basic necessities for survival?  To whom is Jesus talking when he says, I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me?  How long would it take for a difference to become apparent if one billion people became convinced of their responsibility for the well being of the planet?  Would it take that long for a reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases?  Add any other of the evils that plague society, those that are a result of human decision-making.  If love ruled, every one of them would be impacted.  I believe that.

As you stand this Sunday in witness to Christ’s presence in the Word, hear Christ say to you, As the Father has sent me so I send you.  It’s much easier to stand there and imagine that we are listening to an account of a historical moment.  But that is not what the Living Word means.  What you are hearing is now.  Jesus, risen, speaks to this Assembly in this upper room.  Jesus speaks to you and to me.  We are sent to act in Christ’s behalf, or better, as Christ’s other selves.  We have saints in our Church’s calendar.  Who are they?  What are they?  Unfortunately for many they are icons, distant and remote, serine with halos around their heads.  It’s true that some of them should be left that way because there is little in their lives with which to identify.  But most of them are saints because they did ordinary things in an extraordinary manner.  Some of them endured difficult personal struggles.  Some of them knew the reality of conversion.  The real saints faced human issues and responded heroically and practically.  Maybe practically isn’t the right word.  They responded with love.  As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  The saints took that as the norm.  So ought we.

Pentecost has happened for most of us.  Maybe you didn’t hear the wind or see the fire, but the Spirit took up residence in your heart.  Jesus breathes on you over and over again and says, Peace be with you.  Peace comes with the Spirit.  The gift of God’s peace means we have nothing to fear as long as we act in union with Christ.  Just as Jesus faced death on the cross, confident of the Father’s love for him, so can we face whatever terrifies us confident of that same love.  That does not banish struggle from our lives.  It just assures us of the final outcome and resolution.

Just imagine the difference after this Feast of Pentecost if one billion of us went out and committed ourselves to being reconcilers and forgivers.  That is the challenge of the Gospel we hear.  That is what Jesus expects of those upon whom he breathes, of those he sends.

Will there be much damage when this Pentecost is over?  I guess it depends on what we are hanging on to.

Sincerely,

Didymus             

FATHER, INTO YOUR HANDS…

I was struck by the look on Peter’s face in Caravaggio’s painting of Peter’s crucifixion.  His executioners have begun to hoist the bottom of the cross to which Peter is nailed so that the final agonizing hours of the saint’s life will be spent as were those of the Master he followed; but Peter will hang upside down.  There is a serene look on his face, even as he appears puzzled by how he came to this moment.  As I looked at the painting I thought of that passage in John’s Gospel that recounts the conversation between the Risen One and his repentant disciple.  You remember Peter’s threefold denial that he was a disciple or even knew Jesus, all this before the cock crowed twice.  All this before Peter wept.  Now Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him.  And each time Peter affirms his love, Jesus commands him to feed my sheep; feed my sheep.  Who knows if Peter had any idea what the feeding might entail.

The Jesus tells him that when Peter was a young man he could go where he willed, but the time would come when another would bind him and take him where he would not otherwise go.  Caravaggio’s painting, it seemed to me, depicted the fulfillment of the Lord’s prediction.  That might be why Peter’s face seems serene, and why he seemed to be looking into my eyes and asking me if I could accept a fate similar to his.  Far be it from me to make that kind of boast.  Yet I hope my answer would be that if the Spirit strengthened me the way the Spirit filled Peter, I might be able to go there.  Peter looks helpless as the cross is being lifted.  I know what helpless means.

It wasn’t easy for Peter to let go of his presuppositions about the Messiah as he left everything and began to follow the One he believed was sent by God, Jesus, the Anointed One, the Christ.  Peter thought power and prestige would come to those who would be with the Messiah when he came into his rule.  Each time he witnessed something that seemed to support that concept of Messiah, the Transfiguration, for example, or the raising of Jairus’s daughter, he was told to tell no one about what had happened until the Son of Man rises from the dead.  Remember the harsh reprimand heaped on Peter?  Get behind me, you Satan, and learn from me.  What did Peter have to learn?  That this Messiah came to serve, not to be served.  This Messiah washed disciples feet and commanded his followers to wash one another’s feet.  This Messiah would be rejected and condemned and would carry the means of his execution to Calvary’s top.  And if Peter would be his disciple, he would have to pick up his cross every day and follow Jesus.

Are those the thoughts whirling through Peter’s head as his crucifixion begins?  At least he had the experience of the Risen One to keep in mind as he faced the ultimate darkness and challenge to faith that would be similar to a descent into hell.

I believe that it is almost always in retrospect and seldom in the moment that we have insights that illumine our faith walks and help us recognize transformative grace.  In the moment we can be flooded with anxiety, resentment, anger, and even desire for revenge.  To have to stand silently before the accuser and be powerless to voice anything in your defense but denial, with reflection time, becomes a share in the Passion when Jesus stood before Pilate and heard himself denounced as a sinner, one who welcomed sinners and ate with them.  To have a friend turn away and choose to be friend no longer becomes akin to that moment of abandonment in the Garden when Jesus watched his disciples flee into the night.  To have one whose feet you washed betray blisters like Judas’s kiss.  And then there is the moment of judgment and condemnation.  It sounds like, Crucify him!

Jesus’ lifeless body lay in the tomb for three days before the Resurrection.  Some of us take longer.  I don’t know how long by tomb time was.  Much of that period was one of numbness and darkness akin to despair.  I had read about the experience of the Dark Night of the Soul.  I don’t pretend to boast that that was my experience, but I now know what it feels like to abandon hope and wonder at God’s distance and silence.  I read Job and understood the temptation to accept guilt and see what was happening as a fit punishment for sin, mine or those of my ancestors.  Sometimes there were tears in the night when sleep would not come.  Sometimes there were prayers for vindication.  Sometimes there was the urge to condemn and cry out for God’s vengeance on those that had brought about this ruin.  And there was the thirst for peace.  At times even death seemed desirable – not suicide, mind you.  That thought never crossed my mind.  But if a terminal illness had been diagnosed, I think I would have welcomed that.  And it was hard to pray.  There were long periods of silence and nothing more.

Then one day the night was over.  The dawn did not come suddenly.  But in a moment there was a sigh, a deep breath, and I knew the sun shone.  I had tohe grace to imitate Jesus and do what he did in his agony.  Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  The peace I had prayed for flooded my consciousness as I realized that I had let go of it all, of the anger, the resentments, and the denials.  I knew what it meant to forgive and banish any desire for revenge.  Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us.  I don’t know about the doing good, yet; but I do know that I love.

I would not wish my experience on anyone else.  Yet I wonder if in someway each person of faith might have to walk a path similar to mine.  The Cross is at the heart of our faith, just as is Eucharist.  In both we share in Jesus’ dying and rising.  On the Cross Jesus became sin and so destroyed the power of death forever.  As we embrace the particular Cross in our own lives, we have to remember our Baptism where we died with Christ to rise and live his life.  We are endowed with the Priesthood of the Baptized that can never be taken away from us.  We enter into Eucharist to give thanks to God through the dying and rising of Jesus.  The Bread is broken.  The Cup is poured out.  If we share in the Eucharist we have to accept being broken and poured out.  As they say, it goes with the territory.

I believe in the Lord Jesus.  I believe that we have to abandon thoughts of aggrandizement coming to us in this world even as we must abhor lording it over anyone.  The Church Christ began is a servant church that welcomes all, forgives all, and reconciles all in the human family.  I believe that we are called to imitate Jesus as feet-washers.  I believe that we are called to recognize Christ in the lowliest and most vulnerable, in the least desirable and outcast members of society and to love Christ there.  Pouring out the self in service makes for vulnerability.  And Christ is our strength.

I am surprised where this reflection took me.  It wasn’t my intention when I began.  I feel surprised by the Spirit.  One thing is certain as I share these thoughts with you.  My belief in the Resurrection is stronger now than ever before in my life.  Life is stronger than death.  Love conquers hate.  I treasure the memories of what once was.  And I know one day we will know even as we are known – in God’s good time.  There is peace in that.

Sincerely,

Didymus