Daily Archives: August 2, 2015

Reflections on the Gospel of John Chapter 6: part 2


“It’s boring! Why Ritual?”

Readings for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Exodus 16:2-4
John 6:24-35

Parents who take family car trips on vacation are familiar with the voice of children coming from the back sea,t, repeatedly complaining, “Are we there yet? Are we there, yet!” That’s a bit what Moses must have felt leading the Israelites on their trek through the desert. The folks loved to complain. Today in the first reading it’s “We’re hungry! At least in Egypt we had something to eat while they beat us!”  Then after Moses and God have a conference about the complaint, the solution is “mana” and “quail” everyday. I wonder if after a few weeks if the People of Israel began saying “We’re tired of eating Manna every day! The routine, the ritual of gathering quail and mana is boring!” (Yet this food provided by God, kept them alive!)

I’m giving a “Sermon Series” on getting more out of Mass by understanding better certain aspects of the Mass during August, since the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel we’re proclaiming for 5 Sundays may be a bit repetitious. Every Sunday we hear “I am the Bread of Life” and like dealing with the people of Israel and the children in the back seat of the car I am attempting to provide thoughts that are not repetitious each week that will not elicit “we’re bored!” The sixth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel is his “theology” of the Eucharist.

As I said in my first post in this series, I sought questions I could answer during my sermon series from parishioners through the bulletin but not many folks replied. Yet, the experience of the Israelites leads me to reflect on one of those questions. It’s something I often hear from some of our parents when I ask them to make sure their children get to Mass regularly.

“The Mass is repetitious, it seems like the same prayers are said over and over every week. The ritual get’s boring because it doesn’t change.” To a casual observer the order of the elements are always the same; gather, say I’m sorry of sins, a prayer, three readings, a too long (boring) talk, collection, a long prayer while we kneel, Our Father, shake hands, shuffle up to get communion, blessing and go home. But, why? That’s what I want to look at in my reflection, here.

Human beings need ritual. They always have. Ritual helps people navigate the unpredictability of the world, it gives a sense of predictability about life. In some ways it’s an attempt to order the chaos we experience. Ritual is also a way to get into the realm of deeper meaning, to make contact with that which is beyond the routine-ness of life.

We live in a culture that craves the “new experience.” People, nowadays think we need something new to excite us, stimulate us, to get us to notice something important. People spend hours in front of screens, where the images change every few seconds. Children are getting to a point where they get bored in classrooms or with books because it’s not stimulating enough. Attention spans are shrinking even in adults. So at first glance ritual seems “boring.”

But ritual is so much a part of other events in our life and we don’t object. Every culture has it’s rituals…It’s the way we identify having a connection with others, that we share an interest, we share meaning and purpose. How do most of us celebrate birthdays. It’s almost mandatory that family and friends sing “Happy Birthday.” Some sweet confection with burning candles signifying the number of years of life is presented, candles blown out and food consumed. Presents are given. If this doesn’t take place a person might feel “cheated” or like I didn’t really have a birthday. Maybe even the person might wonder if they were loved!

Or consider the “national pastime” the professional baseball game. It has it’s rubrics (rules) and no one stays away. The game must start with the opening hymn, The National Anthem. The 7th inning stretch is always observed and there’s the singing of another traditional hymn, almost always the same, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” There are “rules” (In church language rubrics) and a prescribed ritual form of 9 innings, 3 outs per half inning on a field that has proscribed dimensions. All this “ritual” enables teams to play together.

Family Christmas traditions are rituals, unique to family, and one invites criticism if the rituals are changed. How often do people feel like it wasn’t really Christmas if the family doesn’t gather, doing things “like we always” do. There’s a disorientation, a sense of loosing our connection with past family members and present relations.

Our secular rituals help human beings to “play together” and sense their commonality in a common purpose. So too, our sacred Catholic rituals actually help us experience our communion with one another as the Body of Christ. Ritual makes it possible for people to get below the surface and not have to worry about what’s going to happen next. It opens up a space, so to speak, where we can contemplate and encounter the mystery of God in our midst and what God does in our lives. It enables us to experience God’s love.

I am glad that I am a Catholic with a predictable liturgy! Please, understand I am not “putting down” or being critical about our brother and sister Christians of other denominations. But, to be honest, I always feel disoriented, almost on edge, at Protestant services…what’s going to take place next? Yet, when you go to enough non-Catholic liturgies I’ve learned even protestant services follow a ritual pattern most of the time. I just don’t know what the pattern is going to be, because it is somewhat flexible from denomination to denomination. The other thing that’s happening in many protestant churches is the appeal to the “surface need” (as opposed to a basic need, essential need) for stimulation and entertainment with the big screens flashing images during worship and music leaders “performing.” This isn’t a comfortable fit with the Catholic liturgy, by the way.

The beauty of Catholic ritual (or any ritual for that matter) is that a group or pastor doesn’t have to recreate the wheel each week. Ritual helps us experience being part of a long tradition, connected with our ancestors and our descendants. We’re family across the ages, brothers and sisters in Christ! (Sort of like that Christmas, Birthday experience I mentioned, earlier.)

And Mass isn’t always “the same” In each celebration: the words change, various options for certain prayers can be used. The music selections change (but a common set of familiar music is needed so the congregation is comfortable singing together, not feeling like they don’t know the songs). Yes, the “pattern” is the same, the music is familiar, but there are differences from Mass to Mass.

Even there, though, the words used are prescribed by the whole church, not the individual pastor. A ritual book approved by “the Church” (The Roman Missal) is used to pray from. That is so the congregation is assured that they are being asked to pray in an orthodox way, expressing the one truth the church holds to and not the opinion of an individual pastor. The ritual is your and my assurance we are not veering into heresy or something we don’t believe in common. The books the priest prays from, the scriptures we read are agreed upon by the whole church and therefore a sign of our unity now and across the ages in our belief.

The ritual pattern, since we’re not worrying about what’s going to happen next or what to say or do, this gift of ritual, enables us to listen more deeply to the words, to listen to what God is saying through the familiar actions, to speak to him in the silence and hear God’s reply. If we let the ritual carry us along, we’ll find ourselves transported to a place where we are guaranteed to meet Jesus Christ! It’s worked for 2000 years, so why throw it out?

The people in the Gospel, John 6:24-25, were like modern people whose attention span is shrinking and who want to be constantly stimulated by something new, are looking for the fast fix, the quick solution to a problem, getting food to fill their stomachs another day. Jesus offers them something more, to fill a deeper need. When we stop wanting to be entertained, when we cease looking for a new way to be stimulated, then we’re beginning to be ready to hear and receive what God wants us to experience gathered at the Altar-Table; that God loves us and wants to satisfy our deepest need. That need is to know God loves us ,that Jesus wants us to live in a new way, a way that is without the distractions of suffering and death, forever!

My Parish Is On Facebook!

Well, thanks to initiative taken by our parish’s Coordinator of Religious Education, Mrs. Kim Moss, who often has to deal with my tendency to procrastinate, my parish of St. Mary in Trenton now has a “Facebook page.” I’m not sure how it all works, but I’ve been learning and have even managed to post a few items. It seems, nowadays, having a Facebook presence is practically essential for a business or church. It’s a way to get information out “there.” It’s a way to engage people with your mission. So, go check out the parish’s Facebook page. Maybe you’ll even “like us.” Click the link below.

Facebook link

Reflections on the Gospel of John, Chapter 6: part 1

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes painted by Lambert Lombard (1505 0r 1506-1566)

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes painted by Lambert Lombard (1505 0r 1506-1566)

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve published here on the blog! Let’s get back to work.

For several Sundays in Cycle B of the Roman Catholic Lectionary the church proclaims the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. This is sometimes called “The Bread of Life” chapter. On the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time the first verses of the chapter (John 1:1-15) are read which tell the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish that feed a huge crowd. This sets up the rest of the chapter as a time for Jesus to teach about himself being the Bread of Life.

The story of the “multiplication” of the five loaves of barley bread and two fish, some scripture scholars say, is St. John the Gospel writer’s story of the institution of the Eucharist. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus do this on the last night before his death. But John uses the story of a miraculous feeding of thousands as his story about the Eucharist the Church continues to celebrate. There will  always be enough of Christ’s body and blood to feed his church down through the ages through the miracle of the Mass. The rest of John 6 is a “theology” of the Eucharist. The rest of the chapter which is read over 5 weeks can sound a bit repetitive, though. “I am the bread of life!” I AM the bread of life!” I am the BREAD of life!” I am the bread of LIFE!” This sequence of readings becomes a challenge for a preacher (like me) to find something to say and not sound repetitive, too. Repetition can have a congregation tuning out. “Didn’t we hear this last Sunday?”

So, here at St. Mary where I am pastor, this year I am going to spend a few weeks talking about different aspects of the Mass, to try to go a bit deeper into our appreciation of what is actually taking place in the liturgy we come to each Sunday and maybe begin to get a little complacent about or just go through the routine and miss the wonder of what’s happening. I can tell you those folks who were fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish weren’t complacent. They were in awe about what had happened. I hope maybe my parish will be a bit more in awe, too, at what takes place at the altar Sunday after Sunday when we’ve finished what some churches would call a “Sermon Series.”  I asked for some input about  what to talk about in my sermon series in a survey that was published in the parish bulletin throughout June and July. Unfortunately, I got all of two responses. I hope that doesn’t mean that my parishioners are not curious about learning more about the Mass! But some of my reflections over the 5 weeks will be related to one of the responses I did get. The person carefully hand wrote a page and a half of questions. Not all were about the Eucharist, but maybe his or her thoughts will inspire a couple of other homilies. This first reflection on preaching John 6 reflects another concern the person expressed about how to get adult children who choose to not attend Mass to come to the Eucharist more often.

First let’s talk about why we even attend Mass. That’s the point I want us to contemplate this first week. Why do Catholics need to come to Mass? We can get to the heart of the answer by paying attention to a detail in the story of the feeding of the thousands. Jesus was responding to a NEED. The people were hungry. They had a recognizable physical NEED. .

Now a small host and sip of wine isn’t going to fill you up when you attend Mass. That’s because we’re not at the Eucharist because of the need of physical hunger. Some people might be hungry who come to Mass because there’s not enough food in the house. Or the hunger is a result of the Eucharistic fast of an hour we’re supposed to observe to remind us of our need for what we receive in communion. Just as we need food to survive in the body, our souls, our spiritual relationship with God needs nourishment. That’s what we find here at the table of the Lord Jesus. Food for our souls to strengthen us to live what we are baptized to be, members of Christ, witnesses to his resurrection. Here, we encounter the risen Jesus in person (a real presence of Jesus) so that we can tell others the truth. Jesus lives and you can live perfectly with him, too.

Our presence here is a response to a NEED. Our need is to encounter Jesus, to be feed to become what we eat for the sake of the world.

We hopefully don’t attend Mass to be entertained by a witty pastor (although that’ might get people in the door). It’s not to be moved by a great praise band (while that might make the time seem to pass more quickly or lift our hearts to God). We’re not at Sunday Mass, I hope, out of fear of punishment for a sin (although it is a sin to miss Mass. But adults, hopefully, don’t do things to avoid punishment but to satisfy a need to do the right thing).

If we’re here at Mass  because of need…then how do we encourage others to attend, especially adult children? First, we don’t try to guilt people into participating in the liturgy. Guilt won’t work. They’ve decided to be absent, probably because it’s not fulfilling a felt NEED in their lives. All the excuses about not attending Mass (It’s boring, it’s repetitious, I don’t get anything out of it, I want to sleep in, I put my time in, in Grade school) are just that, excuses. What strikes me as odd is that we don’t stop eating after we’ve had a couple of meals as a child. We keep eating to stay alive or we stare. We NEED to help others see they NEED to be fed, to be strengthened, that they only get what they need, hope, peace, a better way to live, AT MASS, sitting down with Jesus and sharing the meal of his Body and Blood.We must help people who don’t attend Sunday Eucharist to meet Jesus and want to get to know him better. We have help them to have a significant relationship with Jesus that gives meaning to life, a reason to live unselfishly. Instead of the “knowledge” about Jesus and the theology we pour into the heads of children in Catholic Religious Education we have to help the non-attending see they can have and NEED a deeper RELATIONSHIP with Christ. Knowledge about religious things doesn’t save you from death and give life to the soul. Being united to Jesus, does. And you can’t be united to the one who loves you without being by staying away from his Body experienced both in the assembly of the faithful and in receiving the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine changed into his Sacred Body and Blood.

That’s more difficult to do than guilt, or the bells and whistles of praise music or amazing preaching.  Tell people how the Mass leaves you feeling closer to Jesus, how the Eucharist gives you a sense of God’s love. Maybe then others will want to share in this banquet.

The boy in the story of the feeding of the thousands was willing to give away what he had and Jesus did amazing things with the gift. Give to others what knowing Jesus means to you. Tell non-attenders, with love, about how you meet Jesus and encounter at the Mass, how the Mass fulfills your needs to you and maybe the crowds will come to our Eucharistic banquet rooms seeking to be nourished and with their needs met, perhaps needs they didn’t even know they had!

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