“Silence, Be Attentive”
Readings for the 19th Sunday OT Cycle B – 2015
This homily began with at least 30 seconds of silence, with me just standing at the pulpit head down, saying nothing. Quickly, people in the congregation began coughing and shuffling in their seats, clearly uncomfortable with the lack of something being said or some visible action taking place, uncomfortable in the silence.
You were uncomfortable with the silence, weren’t you? It’s normal. Our culture conditions us to be uncomfortable with silence. We’re almost afraid of silence. Our radios are on in the car, the house. Young people walk around with ear buds plugged into our MP3 players listening to music. T.V.’s fill our homes with sound. Silence often means something might be wrong. The power is off, the batteries in our electronic devices are dead. Mom yells at the kids, “It’s too quiet in there. What are you up to?”
As you know, I’m doing something with my homilies during August which in the Protestant Churches would be called a “sermon series.” Since the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel where Jesus says he is the bread of life multiple times is being read over the course of 5 consecutive Sundays this summer I’m giving a series of “teachings,” so to speak, about the Mass. John 6 is the gospel writer’s explanation of what takes place during the Eucharist. Here at St. Mary we’re making this an opportunity to explain some elements of the Mass so that all of us might appreciate better what is happening at the Eucharist we attend each week.
Silence is an important part of the Mass. I’m aware that sometimes people think a priest like me is just drawing out the Mass, making it longer, by observing moments of silence in the Eucharist. “Father, just get on with it! Mass doesn’t have to take as long as it does with you.” Yes, I do get versions of that comment from time to time.
The instructions for how to celebrate The Mass (they’re in that big red book the server holds for me at certain times during Mass) actually specify that there are to be periods of silence during the celebration, of varying lengths. I’d like to talk about a few of those times silence is mandated during the Mass and hopefully give you some ideas on how to become comfortable with the silence.
1. The Penitential Act
Near the beginning of the Mass, the priest directs the congregation, “Let us be mindful of our sins so that we might worthily celebrate these sacred mysteries.” Before we pray “I confess” or another form of the Penitential Act there is silence. We pause at this moment for a variety of reasons, not just to think of what I did wrong lately. That’s one thing to do. But why? By recalling our humanness, our imperfections, we begin to sense why we even need Jesus, why we need to be at Mass. Jesus alone can set right what we make wrong by our human choices. Jesus alone can “reconcile” humanity and bring the peace we long for. We’re in the situation we’re in, needing someone to give us a way out of death, to give us bread that will keep us alive even when death comes calling. This is the time to realize, I’m not God. I need what God gives in Jesus, the Bread of Life. We humble ourselves before God and get ready to offer heart-felt thanks to Him. Otherwise we might just be going through the motions, but our heart’s not in it. Empty praise, thoughtless ritual. If we just rush into saying “I confess” we may not even be aware of what to confess and why it’s essential as we begin Mass.
2. After “Let us pray”
There’s a mistaken notion that the praying the priest is speaking about is just the prayer that he’s going to say after he says, “Let us pray” when it’s time for the Opening Prayer of the Mass. It’s really about something else.
“Let us pray” is an invitation to enter into silence, once more. Everyone is invited to think in their own heart and mind “What prayers do I bring to this particular Mass, today? What ‘grace’ or sign of God’s love or result do I want to have happen during This Mass in my encounter with Jesus in our midst, today?” This is a time to reflectively and silently speak to Jesus, this is what I need right now. Grant me (or those I love or this community or the world) this or that so that in union with all these people I’m standing with we can hope to receive signs of your merciful love that we will give you thanks for in a bit.
Only after he’s given the congregation’s members sufficient time to gather their thoughts and pray privately should the priest speak the prayer. It’s called a “Collect,” meaning, the priest collects all the individual prayers being offered in the room and presents them to God, summing them up in words given by the church for that day. There’s nothing to collect together into a summary prayer if the individual prayers haven’t been given time to be silently voiced by those present. It’s all part of the preparation for what is to follow. We are the humans who need God’s presence to grace our lives, which will challenge us in His Word and lead to our prayer of thanksgiving for what God has done.
3. After each reading & Homily
Ever need a moment to ponder what someone has said before reacting or before replying? That momentary pause can make a difference in the relationship. We do not rush through the conversation of the readings at Mass. Like any good communication between people, it’s not just listening to words, but hearing the meaning of the words that is important. During the readings we’re having a conversation with God who speaks in his Word.
The time of silence after a reading is a time to ponder what has been heard, to get to the heart of what God’s saying to me. Here’s a suggestion how to get more out of the silence. Listen for a word or phrase that you hear in the reading that grabs your attention. Hang onto the word or phrase. During the silence, repeat it over and over in your mind, a kind of rumination. See where your thoughts take you. Like in the first reading “Get up and eat or the journey will be too long for you!” What journey? The journey of life? What do I need to not let life wear me down? Do I need to pray more? Attend Mass more often? What is God telling me, because I’ve been kind of tired of life lately? (By the way, this is called Lectio Divina) Or maybe you can imagine yourself in the story being told. Who would I be? What does Bread of Life mean to me?
After the homily and before we stand to profess The Creed, we have silence, too. This is a time to ask yourself, “What challenge did I hear in Father’s word? Is there something I need to do differently in my life from this point on? I like to call this the “So what?” moment. I’ve heard Jesus speak, not what difference does it make in my life? Think of a concrete way you will live more deeply as a disciple of Jesus during that time of silence.
4. After the distribution of communion.
Perhaps some will think this too graphic an example or too profane. But, don’t husbands and wives, after the most intimate of acts softly talk to each other or even just remain silent in each other’s presence, basking in the intimacy and relishing the love they have encountered in their unique sort of communion? The reception of the body and blood of Christ is a kind of similar moment. Christ intimately enters our bodies and souls, we are joined with our Savior in a unique, intimate way. We, the church, are the spouse of Christ, the bridegroom. In the act of receiving communion we are united to our “lover.” We need to spend time reflecting on what has just taken place. We need a moment of silence to relish and savor the special union we’ve experienced and to give thanks. To rush on with Mass, or even out of the room where the sacrament of union has been experienced is to take for granted what has been given by Christ and we have received, the sharing in divinity (The Bread of Life) that will one day enable us to live like God, eternal where death has no hold on us. Our silent prayers of thanksgiving are an act of love returned to the spouse of the Church. We need to ponder the mystery we’re in the middle of!
“It is written in the prophets:‘They shall all be taught by God.’
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him
comes to me.”
If we’re talking all the time, were not listening. We need some silence during the Mass to hear what The Holy Spirit is saying so that we all shall be taught by God through The Bread of Life, His Son, Jesus. Or as our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Catholic Rites often hear during their Divine Liturgy, “Wisdom! Be attentive!” God help us if we’re so busy talking and waiting for something to happen that we miss the lesson that will give us direction in this life, help us grow as disciples more and more aware of the mercy of Jesus able, in the end, to receive the gift of eternal life. Silence, be attentive!