“Praying Without Words”
Gospel for the 20th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle B
Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing what Protestants might call a “sermon series.” The homilies (probably better called “teachings” in that sermon series language) I’ve been giving are reflections on things pertaining to the Eucharist we celebrate, in an effort to help people get more out of the Mass. I’ve chosen to do this because we’re reading from the sixth chapter of John for several weeks during August, that part of John’s gospel where he explains what the Eucharist is about by having Jesus call himself “The Bread of Life.” This Sunday I’d like to focus my reflection on the “praying without words” that takes place during Mass.
There’s a saying “It was a picture worth a thousand words.” We understand what it means to say something is a “picture worth a thousand words.” You’d need hundreds of words to express the message or the experience that is captured in a single picture. Wether it’s a photograph or a painting, there’s more going on in the image than can be expressed even with thousands of words. Or think of a sunset you’ve seen. “A picture that is worth a thousand words.”
The same can be said of some of the ritual actions that are prescribed to take place during the Mass. Not all prayer involves words. Sometimes an action, a gesture is worth a thousand words. A simple gesture can sum up what would take many words to say. We, you and I, need to do these simple gestures to deepen our experience of the love of God that is being revealed in these few moments at each Mass.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t use the gestures prescribed by the instructions for Mass contained in the missal (and your hymnals, by the way) for the congregation to do to express more deeply what could be going on in their praying the Mass.
Let me mention a few…
During the Penitential Act (you know when we say “I confess to almighty God” after the first hymn), the church asks EVERYONE to strike their breast at the words “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” Why? Striking the breast (either once or three times, it doesn’t matter) expresses sorrow. Striking the breast is a symbolic penance and disciplining of the body and mind that lead us away from God by our sins. Maybe it could mean my choices have not expressed the love in my heart for Jesus. It could mean we realize we’ve broken Jesus’ heart by our lack of living as he desires. Whatever it may mean to each of us, we’re asked to “strike” the breast to intensify our expression of the words we’re saying, “through my fault.”
Have you noticed in the middle of the Creed we pray after the homily that there’s an instruction to “Bow slightly” at the words “and became incarnate of the Virgin Mary?” Why do we bow then? Hopefully, a simple bow says what’s going on in our heart and mind. I’m in AWE of such a mystery, God becoming like me, a human. Our humanness has been raised up to be like God. WOW! I want to honor the God who “lowers” himself to my state so I can be “raised up” (recalled in coming out of the bow to a standing position) to the nature of God in my resurrection promised because I take into myself the Bread of Life. Then too, what do people do when they want to honor and important person, like a king or superior? We might bow to show respect, our willingness to be of service. We humble ourself before the superior or important figure only to have him ask us to rise as an equal or to accept our honor.
Receiving communion…here’s were our actions speak volumes of words, and it’s not always positive as I observe communicants in many parishes.
The church has asked us to show reverence for what we are receiving, what we are doing in the communion procession. We are taking in our hands and mouths JESUS, the BREAD of LIFE, SAVIOR of our lives from death, GOD in our Midst. That should give us pause and have us mind-fully approaching the heavenly banquet food we are about to receive. Unfortunately, many Catholics by their manner of receiving common seem to be saying, “This is not a big deal!” receiving communion by the casualness of their actions. Sometimes, I compare how many Catholics receive communion to the drive through lane at McDonald’s, “Give me what I’ve been waiting for in line so I can get on with my day.” It’s not a very reflective or reverent type of action going on. The communion procession is not utilitarian like getting a snack, it’s a crossing over to another realm, the banquet hall of heaven and dining with God.
Let’s remember how we are to go to communion.
As the person in front of you moves away from the minister of communion,
a simple bow (even of the head) is to be done, to show respect for the presence of Christ before the communicant in the Eucharistic Bread and Wine. Approach with palms held one over another, as an early Church father said, as a throne to receive the King of the Universe upon which to recline. We Catholics, by the way, don’t “Take” communion. The Body and Blood of Christ is a gift. We “receive” a gift in our hands or mouth.
We also don’t eat on the run. Ideally, to give us time to reflect on what we have been given, we step to the side, STOP and consume the host while NOT MOVING our feet. Why? To show respect, to ponder what we’re doing, to be stopped in our tracks by the wonder of taking God into our bodies and being united to Christ in love. Don’t most people stand in amazement at a moment of beauty, or a when they see something that moves their heart, their inmost being? Isn’t this what communion is about? People often talk about an experience that made them stop in their tracks.
Only after a brief stop and consuming of the host do we move to the chalice. where a bow is also required. Don’t forget to say Amen! It’s necessary before a minister can give you communion. The minister needs to know you believe what we as church believe so that he or she can give you the host or chalice, an action that expresses our unity not only with Christ but with each other who are members of the Body of Christ.
Children often learn more by the actions of their parents than the lectures and words parents preach. People who visit our church will only know that we believe in some wondrous, mysterious thing happening in our church not only by our words but especially by our actions. Let our actions, not just our words be an authentic expression of our prayer and what we believe!