Category Archives: Opinion

Transfiguration Day Thoughts from a Hill

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Gospel reading for the Feast of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36)

For about 4 weeks I have been residing and taking part in a mini-sabbatical at St. Meinrad Archabbey and School of Theology in southern Indiana. The program I attended is called Stoking the Fire. As the web site describes the program, “For priests at midlife, Saint Meinrad’s Institute for Priests and Presbyterates has an integrated four-week sabbatical program to help you relax, recreate and recharge your spiritual life, update and expand your theological intellect, and renew your fire for pastoral ministry.” It accomplished this to a degree for me but the fire could still be hotter, too. You see, I enjoyed my time back at my seminary alma mater relaxing, recharging, praying often with the Benedictine monks whose community sponsors the seminary and School of Theology located here, and in general just being away from the responsibilities of the parish for a while. But, I find myself in an emotional place, today, the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is a day after the program ended and two days before I return home and I’m not feeling quite ready to return to my parish.

Don’t get me wrong. I have missed being with my parishioners who I love. I have been moved to deeper prayer by the chanting of the various liturgies of the monks. Yet some days I  wanted to celebrate a more parish like liturgy. The sabbatical sessions were informative and lead me to some good insights about my priestly ministry, spiritual life and human experience. This lead me to understand a bit better my life situation and see where I need to go. But, like the Peter, James and John who experienced the transfiguration of Jesus upon the hill/mountain that today’s feast commemorates I’d like to erect my tent and stay here for a while more and not go back down into the villages and towns of the Diocese of Belleville and St. Mary, Trenton. Here’s what makes the analogy even more real for me. Saint Meinrad is built on a tall hill! I’ve been reflecting on the mature, fully realized vision of priest and pastor, enjoying the conversation with elders of the tradition akin to Moses and Elijah. It’s kind of nice to get away, to see what is possible in my life like the apostles were able to see what Jesus would become after his journey to Jerusalem was fulfilled. Who honestly wants to leave a comfortable, non-stressful place when he or she knows that some hard work, perhaps some difficult times and stressful days are going to happen very soon. It’s very natural to want to live in the world of the ideal now and always while avoiding the struggle of the journey that will eventually get us to the goal. We can’t avoid the cross! Sometimes death, sacrifice and conversion of heart must take place in our life’s journey. Jesus invites us to walk with him the journey of discipleship in good times and bad. Hill top visions are given to sustain us as we walk in the valley of death, the everyday stuff of parish pastoring.  transfiguration

The reason Jesus allowed some apostles to see his post-resurrection self before the crucifixion, in a narrative sense, was to give them the courage to face his crucifixion, to give meaning to what would seem to be meaningless death. The truth is the apostles didn’t get the full meaning of their hill-top experience until later after they had gone back to following Jesus in the “real world” of ministering to people’s needs eventually ending up in Jerusalem and getting unjustly murdered.

I know I will better understand what I have experienced for four weeks on the “holy hill” of St. Meinrad at some point in the future. The experience of sabbatical doesn’t end when I drive off the hill on Monday morning. It was given me to sustain me as I begin another chapter of my Gospel story doing the work of growing spiritually, humanly, intellectually and pastorally.

I’m grateful for my time on “The Hill.” Don’t hold it against me that I sometimes think about staying. The voice of the father said “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” and he’s saying it’s time to get back to the journey of being more a authentic human, disciple and priest in my parish. The fire has been stoked a bit. I’ve realized some things I’ll need to do to keep it warm and bright so that it may warm me when the day-to-day life of this pastor gets a little difficult until the next time I can visit on a hill with those who can help stir up the flame another time.  Life is a continual series of hills and valleys. Eventually, those who persist in the journey will see themselves not having to leave but forever in the presence of the light who is the fire of  desire in our heart, Love incarnate, Jesus the Lord.

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Keep Celebrating! Christmas is not over

May I suggest reading an article by the Rev. Christopher Keating of Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church in St. Louis that appeared on the Saturday edition Religion page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Rev. Keating writes about how the Christmas Season continues through January 10th (the Baptism of the Lord) and how many in our culture have a difficult time pondering over time the mystery of what we begin to celebrate on Christmas day. We need to time to contemplate with Mary the mystery of God become man.

After Christmas It’s Vital to Keep Hope

http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/civil-religion/faith-perspectives-after-christmas-it-s-vital-to-keep-hope/article_3f02a67e-9dfb-5f83-9637-3e78280a2fea.html


Why ritual? Doesn’t it get boring?

One of the “complaints”  or excuses I often hear from Catholics about why they don’t go to Mass regularly, or have left the Church entirely for a more mega-church style of worship with praise bands and screens and the like, is that the Mass doesn’t engage them. These folks often say the “sameness” of the Mass from Sunday to Sunday, it’s repetitions and ritual doesn’t help them connect with God or even is dull enough that they don’t get anything out of going to Mass. Such comments always make me sad. I try to explain they’re missing something about the value of ritual repetition, it’s how humans find meaning and can connect with the Holy. Catholic liturgy isn’t about being entertained (as it appears to me much of the mega-church style of communal worship seems to be) but putting our individual effort into being engaged, actively listening, participating and being carried on the wings of familiar ritual to another place, so to speak. You can’t just come to Mass to be passively handed something. To be Catholic, to get something out of Mass, you have to bring your whole self to the experience and give some of your self, too.

I say this because I read on another blog, today, something that expresses my thoughts in another way, that maybe some folks will relate to, from an unexpected source. It was posted on a blog I regularly read, Pray Tell – Worship, Wit & Wisdom, that is written and moderated by a Benedictine Monk, Fr. Anthony Ruff, O.S.B. at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN. If you have a couple of minutes, click over to this entry

Liturgy and Tradition: Liturgical Wisdom from an Unexpected Quarter.

It is a bit liturgy geek speak, and I am one of those, but I found it a good explanation of why the repetition of liturgical ritual is such a good thing and a Catholic thing.

 

 


Thanksgiving Eve Thought

Watching a crew of plumbers and large equipment operators replace a sewer line from our office building to the city line, today, I realized I’m grateful that there are people who are skilled at such manual labor. Also, watching these men in the trench I was reminded I’m definitely not cut out for such jobs and thankful for my own vocation. Each person has his and her role to play in society for the common good of all. On this Thanksgiving eve I give thanks for all who are able to share their skill and hope many more who are unemployed, homeless and hungry will have their human dignity respected by those who can help them. Blessed Thanksgiving, everyone!

 


Future of Fear or Hope

Sometimes, after the Sunday Eucharist, greeting members of the assembly as they leave the church building, one or two will complement me on the homily. Even more rare is a request for a copy of the homily. It’s flattering when that happens, but it can also make me wonder if my other homilies on other weeks didn’t touch the heart or stir the thoughts of those who listened and I failed to proclaim the Word of God in a way that can be heard by the contemporary parishioner so that they will go out into the world experiencing a conversion of heart, the goal of all preaching. This weekend was one of those where there were comments and a request. For some reason the following stored the hearts of a few folks. Thanks be to God for letting me be the messenger who spoke his word that changes hearts and proclaims Good News!

"Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.

Homily for the Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B

Readings for the Thirty-third Sunday of the Year, Cycle B
Daniel 12:1-3
 and Mark 13:24-32

People have a conflicted relationship with the future. Some people say they don’t want to know what’s going to happen in the future because such knowledge might immobilize them in the present. If they knew when, where and how they were going to die, they might shut down and never leave the house. Such folks relationship with the future are based on fear. Other people are almost fascinated with the future and say they want to know what’s going to happen so some sort of prophetic prediction will enable them to be prepared. But usually such predictions are full of fear or produce anxiety. Think of people who try to interpret the “symbolic” language of a 16th century writer named Nostradamus. His writings are often read for clues to foretell the future, a future that is full of tribulation. T.V. preachers tell of a terrible time to come as they claim to be able to see the future foretold in book of Revelation. Such supposedly enlightened so-called religious characters usually predict a future to full of fear. Pay them no attention! They’re totally misusing the Word of God! Their method is a total mis-reading of the last book of the bible – it tells of current events at the time it was written in such a way as to strengthen Christians under persecution. Revelation is like a pep-talk to Christians fearful of current events to stay strong during persecution. Jesus wins! Romans, those who claim earthly power lose! That’s how it should be read today, not as a fortune teller’s script.

Even the Gospel and first reading of this Sunday’s liturgy seem to talk about fear and anxiety as hallmarks of what’s to come. Wars, natural catastrophes will occur. A time of tribulation will be the sign of Jesus’ future return.

So, is this the time of tribulation? Terrorists blow up and shot innocent people out for a night of fun in Parish restaurants, theaters and outside a soccer stadium. The message seems to be fear for your future for you have offended us! Violence, fear become the method of choice to send a message about the future.

The Gospel is not meant to scare us, but to be Good News! That’s what “Gospel” means in Greek, “Good News!” Remember, every age has had its doomsayers predicting terrible times. Every era of human history has seen wars, has experienced natural disasters that cause human misery. The Good News is evil doesn’t win in the end. Jesus triumphs with love. The cross and resurrection are the sign of love’s victory destroying hatred and death. Good News! Sacrificing yourself like Jesus, in union with Jesus who are members of by our baptism, brings peace.

The evil things that happen to innocent people out for a carefree Friday night killed by terrorists are a sign…A sign that humanity needs the love of Jesus to come and bring his kingdom of harmony, NOW. The bad stuff that happens in any age is a sign that Jesus is the one we await and need to set right the mess we humans have made of our human family. Sin, human hubris, the expression of hate that happens in every age is a message to be taken to heart…Jesus can not doesn’t want this to continue. He is coming, be ready. He is already here, standing on the threshold of a new order of humanity already entering human history through his body the church. Change, or be ready to experienced the consequences.

How do we get ready for the appearance of Jesus, to meet him both not and in the future judgement? Make a choice…

either give into hate rooted in selfish pride, continue to increase the division of humanity into it’s tribes that try to conquer one another and suffer the consequences; be separated from God forever in unimaginable misery (Tradition calls such existence Hell)…

or…live life as Jesus revealed as the way to the fullness of living where dying to self for the sake of others well-being is the opening up of a life that cannot be defeated by death.

Those who follow Jesus have a Future full of HOPE, therefore they are not afraid even of the present troubling events.

If we live in the present seeking to reconcile people who are estranged, if we strive to bring justice (right-ordering of human relationships where no one is stronger or has power over another, or abuses the human dignity of others), living lives of compassion and service to the poor our joyful future with Jesus is pretty much assured. Because Jesus Christ is just. He will know you served Him in the poor, you didn’t deliberately try to destroy life that was no threat to your personhood respecting the human dignity of all, Christ will give the fullness of life. Jesus is merciful, overlooking our selfish poor choices and wiping them out of existence so they do not hinder our ability to pass through the threshold of eternity.

Those who are in Christ fulfilling the mission of the Church the best they can, forgiven of sin don’t worry about the future. God is there already and has prepared a new life for us. In the Creed we say at Mass we profess, “I ‘look forward’ to the resurrection of the dead.” “Look forward” has the connotation of excited expectation in this context, a “I can’t wait, it’ll be wonderful” sense. Concentrate on living in the present as a person who shows compassion and mercy. Then the future won’t be something to fear.

 


Recommended viewing to learn about the Eucharist

For five weeks I’ve been posting my homilies (or perhaps they should be called “teachings”) from my “sermon series” that I’ve called Reflections on the Gospel of John Chapter 6: Understanding the Eucharist More Deeply. 

communion-clip-art-gg62933764I’d like to recommend some videos that can help people go another step in their undertending of the Eucharist. I referred to one of these in my 5th installment of the series. The videos are each about 10 minutes and produced by the organization Word on Fire which was conceived of by a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who will soon become Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles Bishop-elect Robert Barron. Please, give them a view. Fr. Barron explains things in a way that is very accessible and understandable. Check out some of his other videos and homilies and articles posted at the web site.

THE SACRAMENT OF THE EUCHARIST AS REAL PRESENCE

THE SACRAMENT OF THE EUCHARIST AS SACRIFICE

THE SACRAMENT OF THE EUCHARIST AS MEAL


Reflections on the Gospel of John Chapter 6: part 4

 Isaac Luttichuys (1616-73) ''Still Life with Bread and Wine Glass'' 17th century

Isaac Luttichuys (1616-73) ”Still Life with Bread and Wine Glass” 17th century

“Praying Without Words”

Gospel for the 20th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle B
JN 6:51-58

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!


Reflections on the Gospel of John Chapter 6: part 3

S._Apollinare_Nuovo_Bread_and_Fish

“S. Apollinare Nuovo Bread and Fish” by anonymous – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Silence, Be Attentive” 

Readings for the 19th Sunday OT Cycle B – 2015

1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:41-51

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.”
Jn 6:45

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!


Reflections on the Gospel of John Chapter 6: part 2

737px-Stoneware_Jug,_Wine_Glass,_Herring_and_Bread._Claesz

“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!


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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