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THE PRESENTATION OF THE LORD – February 2, 2020

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Malachi 3:1-4
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 2:14-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 2:22-40

Dear Friends in Christ,

And suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire. 
Prophet Malachi

(Jesus) had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God…Letter to the Hebrews.

Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation…
The holy Gospel according to Luke.

St John XXIII, when he summoned the Second Vatican Council, is reported to have said that his intention was to open the doors and windows of the Church and let in fresh air.  The cynics say that a lot more than fresh air blew in through the openings.  As a student in those days, I remember well that my schoolmates and I gathered each day at noontime to pray that the Holy Spirit would guide and empower the renewal that the Council promised.  I remember hearing two opposing opinions about what to expect when the Council adjourned and its decrees were issued.  On the one hand were the scoffers who said that the Church was firm in her apostolic roots.  There would be pronouncements, but they would merely reaffirm the Church as we knew it.  Practices wouldn’t change.  Learn your Latin, they said.  If the vernacular comes, it will not be in your lifetimes.

On the other hand, there were those students of Church history who said we could see some big changes as the Spirit once again, as the Spirit has done periodically in the past, guides the Church through reform and renewal into a springtime of rebirth.

The image of the phoenix comes to mind.  You know the legend of the mythical bird with the life cycle of 500 to 1000 years.  As the life is going out of the phoenix, it builds a nest of twigs and then enters it.  The nest ignites and both burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes.  That is not the end of the story, but only the beginning, as out of the ashes comes a new, young phoenix reborn to live again.  The Church has gone through similar cycles in 500 to 1000 year cycles.  Each rebirth has resulted in a Church that remains in its apostolic traditions, but also sheds arcane practices and embraces renewal.

I remember a professor, in what from this present perspective, seems to have been in a prophetic mode, saying that we could expect a period of great enthusiasm in the days and years immediately following the Council’s conclusion.  Then, some years down the line there would be a reactionary period challenging the Council’s teachings.  Finally, when none in the hierarchy have had a practical experience of the pre-Conciliar Church, the Vatican II Church would emerge.  That, he said, should take about a hundred years.  We laughed.  Little did we know what a seer he was.  Hearing him in the mind’s reservoir seems to indicate that we are in those reactionary days now.

It is true that not everyone welcomed the reforms as they began to affect the Latin Mass, the Tridentine Liturgy that had been offered the same way for 400 years.  Parts of the Mass said or sung in English was one thing.  But it was difficult for some who were used to being silent observers, and often spending their time at Mass in private devotions to the saints or praying the rosary, to now have responses to make; and even more challenging, to have hymns to sing.  All of a sudden there seemed to be singing at every mass.  And some of the hymns sounded like folk music, accompanied by guitars. Then the altar turned around.  The priest faced the people and invited them to full, conscious, and active participation in the Liturgy.  Some just wanted to be left alone in the last pews of the church to pray in isolation.

Some of you might remember the first days when the Greeting of Peace was introduced.  The Church reminded us that those at Mass were an Assembly, a people come together to be the Body of Christ and to celebrate Eucharist.  The Greeting of Peace acknowledged that reality, effected reconciliation where estrangement might have reigned, and, acknowledging the risen Christ in our midst, prepared us to journey together in procession to receive that Body and drink the Blood that would make us ever more one in Christ, and ever more sent to be that presence in the world through acts of charitable caring.

Prior to the days of renewal, silence dominated the experience in church.  Jesus’ presence in the tabernacle with its burning vigil lamp, demanded silence.  Some thought it was sinful to talk in church, a matter worthy of confession.  Suddenly, not only were people singing in church, some actually began to speak to those with whom they were assembling, even as they said, Peace be with you, and embraced their spouses and children, or shook the hands of those near by.  Many rejoiced with these changes even as they struggled to understand them.  Sadly, often the changes were initiated without explanation leaving the people to wonder why?

Ah, but as I said, some are saying that we are in that reactionary or revisionist period now.  A few weeks ago I watched as an irate pastor, having processed into the sanctuary, waited for the last verse of the entrance hymn to be sung before chiding the people for having engaged in conversation in church before mass began.  “After all,” he said, “this is not a communal experience.  We are here to worship Christ.  From now on, please keep silence in this space so your neighbor can pray.”

This same pastor is not alone as he attempts to bring back many of the artifacts of the pre-Conciliar years.  Six large candles now line the front of the altar and crucifix of significant size is in the middle.  The effect?  He has erected a wall between the Celebrant and the Assembly.  The Presider’s chair no longer faces the people, but has been turned to face the altar.  There may not as yet be a communion railing to separate the laity from the priest’s place in the sanctuary; but the arrangement of furniture and candlesticks effectively accomplishes the same thing.  And, to be sure, the altar railing is returning in some churches.

From the earliest days in the Church, the Assembly stood to pray as a sign of their belief and participation in the Lord’s Resurrection.  The Missal of Pope Paul VI directed that the Assembly should stand from the Preparation of the Gifts (formerly the Offertory) until the last person in the Procession has received Communion.  Some found that difficult in the beginning, but soon realized that the posture changed their attitude and helped them enter more fully into the celebration.  Their sense of oneness with and responsibility for the others with whom they gathered  was also augmented.  The icon of the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus made ample sense.  Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way?  We knew him in the breaking of the bread.  That is to be our experience each time we gather to celebrate.  

It is difficult for me to understand why there are those who want to turn the clock back and restore that pre-Conciliar Mass experience.  Having the Assembly return to the kneeling posture does serve to humiliate them and emphasize the transcendence of the God who comes to us in Christ.  Standing helped the Assembly experience God’s immanence and Christ’s presence in their midst and their union with each other.  Now it seems that only the ordained should stand, ontologically different as some see themselves to be, while the laity are returned to their subservient position of humble adorers.  So much for the awakening in the people to their Baptismal Priesthood that altered them ontologically as well.

Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way?  With the Second Vatican Council came a renewed emphasis on Sacred Scripture, Hebrew Bible and New Testament Scripture alike.  What used to be called the Mass of the Catechumens became the Liturgy of the Word.  In former days, the number of readings was limited to two – always a Gospel reading and most often a reading from one of Paul’s Epistles.  Rarely would there be a reading from Hebrew Scripture.  Responding to the Catechumens idea, the sermons were primarily catechetical, that is instructional for those preparing to become Catholics.  Most often the preaching had little or nothing to do with the readings.  The baptized could fulfill their Sunday obligation even if they missed the Mass of the Catechumens as long as they got to church in time for the Offertory.

The renewed and restored service declared the Liturgy of the Word to be on a par with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Three cycles of readings helped us to journey from Advent to the end of the Church Year with either the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  John’s Gospel tends to dominate the Easter season and occasional Sundays in Ordinary Time.  The readings from Hebrew Scripture are linked by theme to the Gospel readings.  The preaching should be homiletic and should break open the Word with the Assembly and provide the transition to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Alas, the word “should” seems apt even as it seems to be increasingly ignored.

A friend, a convert of two years, fervent in his newfound faith, told me recently that he had stayed home from Mass one Sunday and by the next had decided that he could no longer attend the church of his Baptism.  He said he longed to have the Scriptures unfolded and applied to his daily life.  What he was experiencing was thin, at best, and of little importance in terms of application.  He was determined to make a journey of considerable length just to find a community where those needs would be met.  He and his family now journey an hour each Sunday to the parish where the preacher conscientiously prepares his homily and helps the Assembly to make the appropriate applications.  Now it makes sense to move for the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist.  And he and his family are prepared to face the new week with hope.

Many who have left the Catholic Church either to join another denomination or simply to leave and be unaffiliated, have done so because the preaching is lackluster, inane, or vapid.  I don’t know that many of the clergy would say that preaching is unimportant; but some do boast of spending little time in preparation, some even saying that they do not know what they are going to preach until their first words after the Gospel.  St. Paul said that there are many gifts (charisms) but one and the same Spirit.  Preaching is a charism and does not come automatically with ordination.  All the posturing in the world will not make that so.

Many of today’s Catholic Christians are well informed theologically.  That has increased their expectations for substantive preaching and well-developed and prepared Liturgies.  When both are lacking they become disenchanted, disillusioned, and discouraged.  So, many leave.  Or, they stay on, clinging by their fingernails lest they slide away.  And they pray for change.

There will not be a return to those heady days following the Council.  The Church has moved beyond that.  But neither will the attempt to re-impose the Tridentine Liturgy last.  It is appalling to hear those clergy say that it is time to let go of those who are leaving.  When they are gone, the few who remain will be the core Catholics who will keep the true faith alive.  It is sad for me to think this, but we  might be moving toward the day of the phoenix when the nest of twigs will be fashioned.  There may be a great conflagration.  But I do believe that the phoenix will rise again and the Church of Vatican Council II will re-emerge and flourish.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus 

THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – January 26, 2020

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 8:23-9:3
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 1:10-13,17
A reading from the holy gospel according to Matthew 4:12-23

Dear Friends in Christ,

This Sunday when you listen to the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, you might conclude that Isaiah is proclaiming to the people as they return to Jerusalem after the exile, the suffering and oppression are over.  That would be a mistake.  The people who first heard the prophecy were still enslaved, still suffering.  But Isaiah’s prophecy served to rekindle hope in a broken people.

Given the difficulties people face today, no wonder there is despair.  But, wonder of wonders, the darkest nights can result in the greatest transformations.  The lesson to be learned is that we must trust Jesus and imitate him.  We might have to leap into the void in order to find the God who lifts us up.  There are paths that none of us would chose to walk.  Circumstances compel us.  As we trudge along, we might be tempted to cry out to God, “Why?”  Silence may be the only response.  Yet we continue the trek, sinking deeper and deeper into the mire until we hit bottom.  Then something miraculous happens if we embrace and accept the silence.  Peace enters.  We come to know a new presence of God and a new conviction that God loves us.

Ask the martyrs.  They will tell you.  Ask anyone who has suffered persecution or has been unjustly condemned.  They will tell you that by the grace of God they were able to shrug off the oppression and emerge to walk in a new light that they could never have imagined or concocted on their own.  Ask anyone who has made that journey.  They will tell you that it is about grace.

Isaiah tells us that the worst of times, in God’s plan, can give rise to the best of times.  Places once destroyed can be rebuilt and reborn.  An enslaved people can break the chains of oppression and smash the yokes and come to know intense joy beyond their wildest imaginings.

Isaiah’s prophesy of the great light coming out of the darkness is fulfilled in Jesus whose ministry begins in this Sunday’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.  It is a ministry to the Gentiles – as well as to the Jews.  In other words, through Jesus the world will come to know that God’s love is for all people, Jews and Gentiles; all are called to walk in the freedom of the children of God.

In the second reading we witness Paul’s anxiety over his beloved converts in Corinth.  Having been away from them for a time, he has heard that the community is divided.  Certain gifts of the Spirit are exalted.  Others are looked down upon and considered inferior.  Instead of one community in Jesus, there are factions of those whose pride depends upon from whom they heard the Gospel proclaimed.  “I belong to Paul.”  I belong to Apollos.”  “I belong to Cephas (Peter).”  By design, Paul finishes the litany with, “I belong to Christ.”  Is Christ divided, he asks?

Hearing this proclamation we can wonder how such divisions could possibly have happened.  Certainly such divisions would not happen in our times.  Alas, do not be too quick to conclude that.  Pope Francis has angered some in the Church by voicing his vision for a renewed Church, a poorer church, a servant church in which the shepherds smell like the sheep, and shepherd in the midst of the sheep.  How dare Francis declare that there are many paths that lead to God.  He declared that Jews remain the Chosen People.  Moslems could go to God if they strive to live good lives.  So, too, could atheists.  God loves gays who try to live good lives and search for God.

We must continue to struggle and so learn the meaning of the Cross of Christ.  That is why many pray for a return of the former translation in the Institutional Narrative in the Eucharistic Prayer.  Rather than “for many” they , we, long to hear again that Christ’s blood is shed for all.  God’s love in Christ is unconditional and universal.  That is what the Eucharist is meant to proclaim.  Or some among us believe.  And that is what your parish should proclaim to all who enter into your midst for worship and the experience of community in Christ.

The Gospel opens at a crisis moment.  Jesus reacts to the news that John the Baptist has been arrested.  Remember, John baptized Jesus and that became the occasion for the Spirit’s descent and the proclamation from on high that Jesus is the Beloved One.  Matthew is placing Jesus’ relocation in the midst of Isaiah’s prophecy.  Jesus goes to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulan and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled:Land of Zebulan and land of Naphtali… the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light… in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.

The wonder of Jesus as Messiah that was proclaimed in the preceding weeks of Epiphany emerges as he preaches that there is need for repentance for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  People, even Gentiles, must turn around, empty themselves, and be open to God’s love; they must begin to live as signs of that love coming into the world.  Of course we know that Jesus is setting out on a path that will lead to his tortuous death.  We also know that it will not end there, but will culminate in resurrection and new life.

Notice what is the first thing that Jesus does as he enters into his ministry.  He calls others to share the burden.  Also, notice the type he calls.  By today’s standards it would be expected that an elite and specially gifted group would be called and so be able to impress others with the possibilities for success that will come if they too follow.  You have heard of the Gospel of Prosperity?  But Jesus reaches out to ordinary folk, fishermen laboring by the Sea of Galilee.  Their response is a model for us if we wish to be successful as they eventually were.  Each one left behind everything familiar as they began to follow Jesus.  Those most ably proclaim the Gospel who are least mindful of themselves, those who have become less and less that Jesus might become all in all.

Hear again what Pope Francis has to say.  It seems that Simon, Andrew, James and John are chosen once-and-for all: yes, they were chosen!  At this moment however, they had not been faithful to the last.  After being chosen, they went on to make mistakes.  They proposed un-Christian things to the Lord.  They denied the Lord – Peter most glaringly, and the others out of fear.  They were afraid and they ran away.  They abandoned the Lord.  The Lord prepares – and then, after the Resurrection – the Lord needed to continue this journey of preparation up until the day of Pentecost.  Even after Pentecost, some – Peter, for example – made mistakes, and Paul had to correct him – but the Lord prepares. 

That was true in the beginning and remains true to this day.  The Lord continues to call us to take part in his ministry of proclamation and the living of the Gospel so that others might come to know and to believe.  We might make mistakes along the way;  We are sinners after all.  But in our weakness the Lord lifts up and strengthens and urges us to continue the work.  The fact is, the weaker we are, the more apparent it is that Jesus is the source, the way, the truth and the life.  Years ago there was a bumper sticker that said it so well: Christians aren’t better; they’re just forgiven.  And in forgiveness there is life and light.

So we come to the Liturgy of the Eucharist where all, in Christ’s mind, are welcome.  We come broken.  We come in fear.  We come in sorrow and even in near despair.  As church we pray over the elements broken and poured out before us, the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.  We take and we eat.  We take and we drink.  The Spirit transforms us into what we have ingested.  But it is not for us to linger in the moment, lulled and satisfied.  The moment is for us to realize that from this gathering we are sent forth to be what we have celebrated, the dying and rising of Jesus, calling all the world to realize the love of God that is universal and eternal.

It is difficult not to fear the darkness.  But when you feel yourself being overwhelmed, know that the Light is stronger and that you were called to live, not in darkness but in light.  Forever.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – January 19, 2020

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 49:3. 5-6
A  reading from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians 1:1-3
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 1:29-34

Dear Friends in Christ,

With the celebration of the Second Sunday in Ordinary time, we have concluded the Christmas Season.  That happened last Sunday with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Here is an alert.  There is a risk involved if we make this journey through the Liturgical Year and complete the cycle of readings.  The danger is that we might not be at all the same at the conclusion as we were on this Second Sunday.  Perhaps that is stating the obvious.  The fact of the matter is, conversion is the risk we run each time we gather to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

It amazes me how casually and nonchalantly people can come together for Liturgy.  What if the action works this time?  What if the Spirit rushes through the Assembly as the people hear the call in a Gospel proclamation, hear it, as it were, really hear it for the first time?  What if the Spirit accomplishes the same transformation of the Assembly as that that happens with the bread and the wine?  The faithful are very ready to venerate the Body and Blood of Christ present in the Eucharist.  Are they, we, ready to venerate the Christ present in the Assembly?  If it works, the Liturgy, that is, then Christ is present in those who have gathered, those who have listened, those who have eaten and drunk, and who then are sent.  Perhaps the realization takes time.  But how long will it take to transform the Assembly?  If it works, about the same length of time it takes to transform the Bread and the Wine.

The human experience is one of gradually unfolding and of growing awareness.  The potential plant is contained in the seed.  Watch the seed sprout and the plant grow and the blossom burst forth.  You know that your understanding and appreciation has grown as well through each stage of the plant’s development.  That is what happens when we journey in faith and yield to the Spirit.  Our understanding grows with each step we take, with each celebration of the Word and of Eucharist, even as we are transformed.  Perhaps it would be better to say, if we respond.

Hear the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah and marvel.  This is from the second of four poems referred to as Servant Songs.  Each of the songs heralds a mysterious servant who sometimes is Isaiah; sometimes Israel.  In other words, sometimes the servant is an individual.  Sometimes it is the community.  Hear that the servant was formed in the womb and called to bring back Israel to be gathered to the Lord.  The amazing work that the Servant will accomplish makes it too little for him to be referred to as a mere servant.  This one will be a light to the nations, that (the Lord’s) salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.  

Recall the images put before us in the Gospels of the Christmas Season.  Jesus came forth form Mary’s womb in Bethlehem.  A light for the nations appears in the sky and draws Gentiles to Bethlehem.  Shepherds, the shunned of Israel, receive the message from angels and go and adore.  Peace and good will are proclaimed.  Hope is restored.  Through the Baby, God begins to draw the people, all the people, to God’s embrace.  But those changed had to listen.  They had to read the signs.  They had to respond.

At the beginning of each person’s faith walk, s/he is called by God by name as the seed of faith is planted in the human heart.  In the Assembly there are veterans to the faith, those who have made the journey many times.  There are those struggling with doubts of faith.  There are those new to the faith, those preparing for Baptism come Easter.  It is the role of the Assembly to support each other in the faith.  The Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) process is meant to provide the atmosphere and means for those awakening to faith to understand the call to Baptism and along the way through the witness and action of the catechists and the parish Assembly to come to understand what believers do and how they worship.  It is a process that entails journeying with Jesus who is calling them and they learn what it means to follow.

In these troubled times, both within the Church and beyond, some in the Assembly may feel their faith waning, doubt entering their consciousness, wondering if they believe at all.  Again the Assembly, responding to the Word, reaches out in support, attests to the ways of forgiveness, and attest to God’s faithfulness in love.  Jesus, in his Body, the Church, is not judgmental.  The call goes out to all the nations and to every class of people.  All are welcome in this Assembly.  Love is the dominant force.

We come to the second reading, the beginning of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians.  What a beautiful declaration of faith he makes as he accepts his vocation and its implications.  Notice, too, that he does not see his call in isolation but as part of the Church.  He writes in union with Sosthenes to the Corinthians inviting them to hear their call to holiness with all those every where who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Here is a challenge.  As you prepare this reading put your own name in place of Paul’s.  In place of Corinth, put your own city or parish.  I say that not to open the door to pride.  Rather I invite you to humble recognition of your own calling to be an apostle of Christ Jesus when you were baptized.  It is an invitation and a challenge to live your Baptismal Priesthood.  The love you live will be a source of peace for those you meet, peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Sit with that in silence for a while.

The Gospel’s link to the first reading is clear from the opening declaration by John the Baptist.  Jesus is the one through whole the glory of the Lord shines.  John declares Jesus to be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  The image of the lamb comes from Isaiah, the lamb who will bear the sufferings of others, the Suffering Servant who will be led like a lamb to the slaughter.  John’s first encounter with Jesus was to baptize him in the Jordan where he saw the Spirt come down on Jesus and remain with him.  Listen as we hear John tell us what he came to understand about Jesus in that Epiphany moment.  Jesus is the Lamb of God.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus is filled with the Spirit.  Jesus is above John and existed before him.  In other words, Jesus is Lord.

What we hear proclaimed in the Word happens in our midst now.  The challenge for us is to hear John’s witness and take it to heart and to believe.  Then we remember that we are united with Jesus through our Baptism.  Christ dwells in us.  The Spirit is with us.  We now have Good News to proclaim.

As we celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Spirit is poured out transforming the Bread and the Wine, and us, the Assembled into the Body of Christ.  If we yield to the Spirit, each member of the Assembly, by taking and eating and drinking in memory of Jesus can be empowered to exercise more than abundant charisms to meet the needs of the many, the poor, the disenfranchised, the stigmatized and wrap them in God’s love, lifting them up as our sisters and brothers in the Family of God.  And those in the wider community will look on in amazement at the signs and they may begin to believe.

Your Baptism calls you to be signs of the glory that is to come with the Kingdom of God.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus