Wednesday, December 31, 2008

With Mary, Looking on the Face of Christ

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Vigil Mass, 31 December 2008

Numbers 6:22-27

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:16-21


            The Octave Day of Christmas, this special feast in honor of Mary, Jesus’ Mother, celebrated eight days after His birth, on the day He received His Name and was bound to the Covenant through circumcision, this day which in modern times has been celebrated by the Catholic Church as the World Day of Prayer for Peace, finds us once again teeter-tottering on the brink of a New Year, 2009. As believing people we gather tonight to sing “Thank you, God!” for all that has been in 2008 and “Please, God!” make 2009 even better! Our lives and our world are indeed in His Hands.

            The Holy Father closes his message for tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for Peace with these beautiful words addressed to people everywhere, Catholic and non alike: “At the start of the New Year, then, I extend to every disciple of Christ and to every person of good will a warm invitation to expand their hearts to meet the needs of the poor and to take whatever practical steps are possible in order to help them. The truth of the axiom cannot be refuted: ‘to fight poverty is to build peace.’”

            Earlier in his message, Pope Benedict mentions a series of points that have to be addressed in fighting poverty. Among them is child poverty, which is, I think, an appropriate topic to address on the Octave of Jesus’ birth. The Holy Father writes: “When the family is weakened, it is inevitably children who suffer. If the dignity of women and mothers is not protected, it is the children who are affected most.” What to do? Besides finding ways to serve the most vulnerable in our midst, maybe we need to remind ourselves once again of who we are, where we come from, and what is most important in our lives as Catholics.

Poor Mary and Joseph, Joseph especially, must have been aghast, almost desperate, at having to bring Jesus into this world in a stable. Jesus came to us as the poorest of the poor. Lots of Nativity art work shows poor Joseph sitting there, holding his head, struggling to figure this all out: the mystery of God come to birth as a man and here in this humble stable. And yet… the stable at Bethlehem was a point of light which drew the visit that night of the shepherds alerted to this blessed event by the angel of the Lord. We heard about it this evening in Luke’s Gospel: “As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.”

            Why did God, in the fullness of time – at the high point in His work of salvation, why did He expose His Only Begotten Son to dire poverty? How do we make sense of the challenge all of this must have represented to the Mother of our Lord? Why was Jesus born in a stable? Well, simply explained, knowing us as He does God could settle for no less than this high price. God’s sacrifice to restore mankind to Himself and God to mankind was total: the Father did not spare His only Son, but delivered Him up for the sake of all of us. It was a true sacrifice – from end to end: from the cradle to the grave, as they say, and of course in victory beyond the grave for Jesus and for us in the glory of the Resurrection.

            I saw an advertisement on TV for a new reality show, which is supposed to be starting in the New Year (no doubt to replace some show which flopped in the first part of the television season). My bet is that this new one will flop too; at least you’ll never find me watching it. At any rate, it’s another one of those TV programs where the contestants compete for weeks on end to become somebody’s best friend and thereby share his life of liming and carefree partying. I’m sorry, but why would anyone want to do that? It’s just too little to get excited about! Moreover, it all seems terribly unreal and leads me to believe that my dictionary must be out of date, because in mine I can’t find a definition for this grand old word “reality” to fit this sort of folly. Even if I bought a new dictionary that provided a new definition of “reality”, I’m sorry, I wouldn’t accept what the movie and television industry is trying to sell me. It’s simply wrong and way too shallow to waste one’s time on. Ultimately, if that were the only tradeoff for poverty, I would think you would be better off poor and in a stable.

Channel-surf all you want and Google-search until you drop, my bet is that you will never find anything bigger or better than what “Mary… treasured … and pondered … in her heart”: life with Jesus, True God and True Man. Not only was her life reality, but the Blessed Mother looked God in the face at Bethlehem, held Him in her arms, fed Him, kissed Him and tucked Him in to sleep when His tiny eyelids got heavy; she watched Him grow; she pondered the mystery of her Son for thirty years and more.

            Recently, I read one of those silly little filler stories newspapers buy to make copy. It was about some movie star who insisted on doing himself a bungee-jump in an upcoming film, instead of leaving it to the stuntman. He classified the experience as “one-time” and “life-changing”. The only drawback, he said, was that now he’s having recurring nightmares about dying. Bungee-jumping the ultimate? Guess again! No matter how intense and exciting the here and now may be, to set your heart on this side of the grave (eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die) is too little for a full life. “In death”, as the preface for the funeral Mass goes, “life is changed, not ended”.

On her feast, let us look to Mary and the love with which she bore and brought to birth the Promised One. In the course of Jesus’ relatively short but intense lifetime, Mary shared first His little joys, and later His great sufferings and His victory. We need only look to Mary and understand that in her the Church is prefigured in all its glory, as are we the various parts of that great body. Mary participates in God’s work of reconciling the world to Himself through His Son and we can too, born again through water and the Holy Spirit, if we so choose and as Saint Paul says, make up in our lives through personal sacrifice for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world. It does not get any better. That is reality, far more than an unforgettable bungee-jump or an everlasting lime. Would that we were eager above all else to live as Mary did! Poor, yes, but not spiritually impoverished!

            The newspapers and the yearend reports of radio and TV ask despairingly again and again about the whereabouts of peace: too many killings, too much violence! … Why despair? Granted, the battle for peace will not be absolutely won until the end of time. Meantime, if we make life easier for mothers and their babies, if we give children a chance to grow healthy, strong and loved, if we give a joyful answer to all who ask about our concern for the needs of the less fortunate and thereby better illustrate the reason for our hope in everlasting life, we might be able to help others to wonder at those things which Mary pondered with such profit in her heart.

            Strive in 2009 not only to be worthy of your inheritance, as St. Paul would say, heirs in God and heirs with Christ, but strive to be eager to receive the blessing, the only blessing which is really real (far beyond a constant search for entertainment, beyond health, good looks and money), receive the blessing which God instructed Moses to teach to his brother Aaron, the high priest, and which Mary in her life knew in its fullness: “May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace”. Strive in 2009, as Mary did in her day, to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation (God become Man) and through your understanding and faith help to bring Christ to a waiting world.

            The Blessed Virgin Mary had a life in this world worth more than many a Magnificat and now she sits with her Son on His Throne in glory. Material poverty and disadvantage in this world must be fought, fought with a loving and expanded heart.

Who is poor, really? Poor indeed is the child who does not know the stable at Bethlehem and its Light. Poor indeed is the person of any age who thinks reality lies elsewhere but in the manger.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Humble Heart You Will Not Spurn

Christmas Night - 2008 - Rosary Monastery


            The first verses in one of the Advent responsorials (taken from Psalm 25 and Zechariah 7:9) goes to the heart of that essential exchange between us and God. It goes like this:

            “The Lord leads the humble to justice; he teaches the meek his ways.

-Mercy and truth are the Lord’s ways, his witness to all who seek him.”

When we speak about Christ’s birth in a stable at Bethlehem, we’re used to speaking about His (namely Jesus’) humility, that the Almighty and Eternal God emptied Himself to come among us as a man, and a poor man at that. This notion is key, but it is no less essential for us to recognize that the other side of that coin is the importance of our own humility as we go to meet the Lord Who comes, as we make our way to the stable in Bethlehem. If we want to know the Lord’s ways, if we want to be His children above all else, then we have to be humble.

            “The Lord leads the humble to justice; he teaches the meek his ways.

-Mercy and truth are the Lord’s ways, his witness to all who seek him.”

The author of the spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, offers us a powerful insight into this virtue (humility) not only in terms of how it can help us to appreciate the great mystery of Christmas but for how essential being humble is to living in God’s love the whole year through:

            “God protects and frees a humble man; he loves and consoles a humble man; he favors a humble man; he showers him with graces; then, after his suffering, God raises him up to glory. He reveals his secrets to a humble man and in his kindness invitingly draws that man to himself. When a humble man is brought to confusion, he experiences peace, because he stands firm in God and not in this world. Do not think that you have made any progress unless you feel that you are the lowest of all men.”

            He reveals his secrets to a humble man…” The shepherds outside of Bethlehem on this holy night were certainly humble from a social standpoint. If they hadn’t been, the angel might not have spoken to them or if he had, they might not have heard his voice. It’s not that the shepherds had cultivated a life of prayer which opened them up to this experience, but rather that they were men without pretense, men who had no demands or expectations they could put on anyone else. That is what made them the most eligible to receive a visit from the angel of the Lord later to be joined by the heavenly host. On this night the shepherds really got a shock; you might say they must have had the original or the biggest “Hey, you! Who? Me?” experience of all time as the angel of the Lord spoke to them and they recognized who it was who was speaking to them.

            “In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were terrified…”

            Singled out they were, those shepherds, to receive a one time and for all times message: “Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.”

            Many times it seems as though the world has changed so much that I’d be afraid to presume a child of today has the same perception of things around him as I did as a child. Most of us as children would have been innocent to the plight of those shepherds and most pleased to receive a visit from the angel of the Lord. We were affirmed and loved enough perhaps that the angel’s appearing would have been awe-inspiring, yes, but no great shock should we have been singled out by God to hear first the glad tidings of great joy. Our home environment may not have been perfect, but thanks to our Baptism and life within the community of the Church, we certainly lived in God’s Universe and had every reason to believe that an angel might just come calling with some renewed expression of God’s love for us, His dear children.

            I’d like to believe that’s how children today as well perceive the account from Luke’s Gospel of the birth of the savior and the announcement in the night to the shepherds of this most blessed of all events in history. It came, however, as a real shock for the shepherds and a real fright: they were on the fringe of society, nobodies so to speak, who were not accustomed to being spoken to by the better half of society let alone by heavenly emissaries. These coarse, most likely totally unschooled men and boys, disregarded by everyone but perhaps the dogs who helped them watch the sheep, were on this night caught up in something cosmic: “And suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favor’.”

            St. Paul tells Titus and us in tonight’s Second Reading: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race… our great God and savior Christ Jesus… He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.” We can always speculate on why the angel of the Lord was sent to the shepherds and why they were singled out for the shock of being the first outside of the Holy Family to know of God’s love for his people expressed in such an extraordinary way. The point is that they the shepherds were chosen; no doubt God chose them as the humblest of all the people in that area; they the least of God’s people were singled out to hear the message of an angel. “No ambition except to do good” St. Paul says: maybe you have to be down and out like a shepherd to be able to set your hopes on God in that radical kind of way: “No ambition except to do good”.

What about the better half of society? Why exclude the wealthy, the powerful, and the successful from this type of exchange? In point of fact, we do not want to exclude anyone, but we do want to look reality straight in the face. By way of illustration, let us look for a moment at the present world economic crisis, which has saddened Christmas for so many this year and has uncovered numerous crimes of greed and deception such as the case of fraud attributed recently to a once very wealthy and successful businessman who seems to have cheated investors out of (some say) as much as US$ 50 billion – that’s more money than all of us together if we worked hard for weeks could ever throw away or burn. I don’t know, let us just say that perhaps wealth and glamour distract too much. Maybe only the lowest on the totem pole can hear angels sing!

            We do not want to exclude the possibility of a “Hey, you! Who? Me?” experience for anyone. The prophet Isaiah in the First Reading speaks about “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”. How do you get your mind around the depth of God’s love for us, each and every one of us regardless of who we are, Love shining forth from the cave at Bethlehem unless you label His love “jealous”? There is nonetheless the question of whether I, to the extent that I am comfortable in this world, I even really care about God’s love for me. It seems to be true that people’s heads are turned by “baubles, bangles, and beads” (sportscars, Blackberries, and bling – you fill in the blanks). Being terribly vain or really comfortable in this world would seem to put a damper on one’s yearning for heaven. Being of this world, being worldly, seems to be an inoculation or immunization against the things of the world to come, heaven.

But we cannot lose hope! As vain as a child or youth can be, vanity (no matter how old we might be) does not totally exclude the possibility of our loving God taking that heart of ours by surprise with a “Hey, you! Who? Me?” Hence the logic of speaking about: “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”! I suppose God can touch a person’s heart, speak to a person anywhere, maybe even in a nightclub or at Uncle Scrooge’s accounting desk. When you think about it, more often than not God has sent his angel to people who are to be found most anywhere but between the altar and the sanctuary. Just look at our shepherds! They were almost too humble for religion, you might say. They may not even have been presented in the Temple as children, let alone brought back there for the feast of Passover each year. No, “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts” can take us by surprise, rich and poor alike, most anywhere. Nonetheless, if you live without pretense the odds are better in your favor.

By the same token, I assure you that if you are a regular practicing Catholic, a man, woman or child, who not only goes to Mass every Sunday, but confesses his or her sins regularly, says his or her morning offering, bedtime prayers and grace before meals, that is, if you, as we said before, live in God’s Universe, then your chances are even better. Moreover, I want to share with you an ever stronger longing on my part not only for beautiful liturgy, for sacred worship, but also for maintaining our churches as sacred spaces, as quiet beautiful places of prayer, as room consecrated to God and open for people to come in and visit Him. St. Edith Stein said that what moved her to want to be Catholic was stopping in to look at a Catholic Church (I think it was in downtown Speyer, Germany) on a work day just as a lady coming from the market stopped in to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. All the objections of this young woman agnostic and all her sophistication melted away in a moment as she watched this woman set down her groceries and kneel for a moment of quiet prayer. Edith had her sign, all of a sudden, just like the shepherds had in the baby they found in the manger.

            Although they are only excuses, how is it possible for people to withdraw themselves from worshipping at Mass every Sunday except by ignoring or denying that in the Catholic Church they have been granted entrance to the forecourt of heaven? I’m not talking fireworks and pageantry, but an experience tailored to the likes of those humble shepherds: “And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”. The Mass is not a gilded or otherwise jewel-encrusted affair, it is not a show or a major production, but as the old farmer told his pastor when the priest asked him what he prayed about in church he said: it’s simply that “I look at him and he looks at me”; it is about presence. Israel had a sense of God’s presence as it wandered through the desert for 40 years; Judah had a sense of God’s presence in His holy Temple in Jerusalem. We’ve got the baby! We’ve got the child, the youth, the man: God, Jesus, one like us in all things but sin, present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar!

            Rejoice, rejoice, and rejoice at Christmas! Be an angel, if you can, to someone else this Christmas and give to him or to her the only sign they need to understand “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”. Were those shepherds pious souls? Did they pray? I doubt it. Their world certainly would never have had room for something as stiff-necked as atheism, but by the same token, as I mentioned before, I doubt if they could have imagined a visit from the angel of the Lord. I hope and pray this Christmas that everyone in your family circle, your circle of friends, would be open to the angel’s message and open to an encounter with God in the Person of Jesus, born of Mary the Virgin, born for us at Bethlehem and for us given. We pray that people will get back to basics; we pray that a baby can be a sign for somebody today; we pray for the best of all gifts at Christmas for one and all: a humble heart.    

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Zeal for Your House Consumes Me

A very good priest friend objected to my recent stance in favor of a reform of the liturgical reform. I hope I am not putting too much into his words when I say that he was more than skeptical about the benefits to be gained from a return to Divine Worship ad Orientem, priest and people together praying with their eyes and hearts lifted to Christ. He rightly pointed out that priests gave scandal and abused the liturgy back before the Council too. He is an earnest man and a truly good and zealous priest; he would be one of those priests of the older generation who suffer from the estrangement (lack of mutual understanding typical of our day) often found to exist between his contemporaries and a younger generation of priests, many of whom are drawn to the usus antiquior in their search for worship in Spirit and in Truth. Although the two of us disagree on the priority I give to reforming the reform through a return to Divine Worship ad Orientem, both of us agree that shepherding after the mind of Christ is first and foremost, seeking out the lost sheep, binding up wounds, and pasturing the flock entrusted to our care.

The debate is not a new one. If we look to the early Church Fathers we can find any number of impassioned pleas from these great saints for making the care of the poor and neglected Christ in our midst our first priority and not seeking to salve our consciences with memorial gifts to embellish His Altar and the Sacred Liturgy. After setting these priorities, however, the Fathers always go on to urge people and presbyters to do the one without neglecting the other (i.e. the gold chalice, yes, provided that the poor Christ in your midst is fed). What is new, however, and I appeal to the authority of the Holy Father, as well as to others more learned and insightful than me, is the wide-ranging concern shared by many today that we have indeed suffered a loss of the sense of the sacred generally in contemporary worship.

Needless to say, when confronted with this objection to the reformed liturgy as it is often celebrated in the Church today, a priest might experience no small sense of personal disarray. It is indeed a terrible thought that the order of worship given to me by the Church’s highest authority, taught to me in the seminary and (for most priests living today) the mode of worship might be wanting which has made up the better part in years of our lives, has nourished our spiritual life and been the focus of our efforts on behalf of the people. A priest might rightly be thoroughly confounded at the thought that this approach (face-to-face across the altar) might be less than the best or even flawed as a way of worship.

How do you even bring up such a topic? In terms of his leadership, I have unbounded admiration for the gentle hand demonstrated by our Holy Father in dealing with a situation which might confuse some and certainly provoke others to denial. By the same token, I do not doubt in the least that this critique of the liturgical reform, or better, the Holy Father’s challenge to us to find ways to restore the Liturgy to the realm of the sacred is entirely lost on most good priests. What to do?

The objection comes back: but these niceties are lost on the rank and file. Too much attention to the placement of candles and folding of hands can hardly compare with reaching out to youth and bringing them to the knowledge and love of our Lord and Savior. We do one without neglecting the other, as the Fathers have taught us. The point however is that we’re not in the realm of niceties, of things totally lost on our contemporaries. The way the liturgy is celebrated does teach; it is formative. A too informal or colloquial celebration is at counter purposes to our goal: in divine worship we’re seeking admission to the forecourt of heaven, if you will. We cannot “force the door”; it is the Lord Who grants us entrance; it is the Lord Who instituted the Eucharist and gave it to His Church.

Common “wisdom” simplifies the “then” of the Tridentine tradition of worship and the “now” of contemporary liturgy by saying that what has fallen away in our time are the social strictures which kept people back then coming to something they didn’t really get anything out of. In freedom today we need to make liturgy attractive, they would say… I beg to disagree. When the sense of the sacred is lost, all is lost. Entertaining liturgy, creative liturgy, relevant liturgy or however you want to describe an act which accommodates and is embellished with “sound and light”, with bouncy music, mime, dance and lots of hugging at the kiss of peace is unfettered only if that’s how you describe a ship without an anchor; it places itself on the same level as the “competition”, so to speak; it cannot be other than run-of-the-mill. Granted, there is no man or woman of good will and prayer who would not see in these allusions anything other than liturgical abuse.

The ad Orientem discussion however challenges even the best of renewed liturgy. Make no mistake about it, from my experience, there are some truly glorious renewed liturgies, caught up to the Throne and to the Lamb. As I shared my ideas with one young priest, he acknowledged spontaneously: “You know you’re right. How often it seems as thought young priests in particular don’t know what to do with their eyes after the Consecration.” Personally, I’ve sensed for years a real sense of awkwardness myself, that is, a problem with the priest’s focus during the Communion Rite. (When facing the people) where should the priest be looking when he prays the “Libera nos…”? The Sign of Peace opens with a prayer; where should the priest’s gaze be directed at that moment with the Lord Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, right there before him on the Altar?

I must confide that today is a landmark day for me as I received in consignment the central canvas of an altarpiece which will enable me to orient our new chapel here. The other pieces and its frame will be forthcoming in the New Year. Hopefully the Christmas holidays should provide time to write a first draft of my catechesis to be shared with the people who join us for daily Mass. No doubt this catechesis will eventually become a blog posting as well. While the “brick by brick” slogan I have heard repeated by some leaves me cold, I certainly would like to celebrate ad Orientem in a beautiful environment which even my successor might enjoy (as it is or soon will be) for Eucharistic Adoration and hopefully, if he finds my catechesis convincing, also for the celebration ad Orientem of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.