Category Archives: Prayer

A God of Life Not Death

I know it’s been a least 6 months since I’ve posted…more about why in another post I’m preparing. For now, I invite you to read my homily from the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle C in the Roman Catholic Lectionary.

Homily for the Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle C

Readings for the Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C
1 Kings 17:17-24
PS 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13
Galatians 1:11-14A, 15AC, 16A, 17, 19
LK 7:11-17

Funeral homes are not comfortable places to visit. Anyone who visits the family of the deceased finds it awkward, an uncomfortable duty to go to the funeral home and stand in front of a casket. What do you say? How can I make the wife, the husband, the parent of the person whose body lies in the casket feel better like people naturally want to do?

God, in the person of Jesus has empathy for the funeral home experience. Jesus encounters a funeral in today’s Gospel. Surely, God’s emotional heart revealed in Jesus feels the pain of the mother following her son’s casket to the graveyard. Like any decent human, Jesus most likely was wondering, what do I say, what do I do?

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Nain Widow’s Son is Resurrected by Christ – mosaic in Monreale Cathedral

This story and others like it in the Gospels show us the death of people is not an unknown experience to God. In Jesus, God knows first hand, in an emotional way the pain and grief of death. Jesus encounters human grief and  human death not just in the young man of today’s story but many times Christ comes face to face with death in the Gospels. There is the time he visits the home of a dead little girl and says “Teletha kum” that is, “Little girl, get up!” Another time he cures from a distance the servant of a Roman official who claims he is not worthy to have the Christ enter his house. Of course, the experience of death got very personal when Jesus takes  four days to get to the home of Lazarus only to find out he’s too late and his friend is  already in a grave.

The death of people pulls at the heart of Jesus. Maybe that’s why he was willing to suffer death hoping somehow his own death would destroy death for he had seen how he was able to bring people back to life on numerous occasions. Each of these encounters with death stirs up God’s mercy and is sign of power of Jesus to control death. In Jesus, our God reveals his empathy, God grieves over the human condition that leads to death.

Here is the point of the Gospel. God desires life for his creation. God is a God of life! Death is not something The Lord sends humans, but rescues humans from. Death is not something God does to people (like the prophet Elijah of the first reading seems to imply). Death is something God controls. The Almighty has the final word over death.

Yes, the Lord knows the time of our deaths, but God doesn’t make death happen for death is the consequence of humanity refusing to live in God’s realm from the beginning. Death resulted because humanity refused to submit to God’s authority from day one. (“Hey let’s eat those apples God said not to eat! What’s the worst that could happen?”) You might say humanity brought it upon itself and God had to rescue humanity by becoming human so that he could die and restore order to creation. The Good News revealed in Jesus is that death isn’t as powerful as we think it is. Life is God’s desire for us. By having faith in Jesus Christ, by being a member of his Body we can have some control over our destiny, eternal life or eternal suffering. With Jesus we participate in the restoration of the human person created from the beginning to be alive able to know, love and serve God, without fear of life ending.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Resurrection_of_the_Widow's_Son_at_Nain_(La_résurrection_du_fils_de_la_veuve_de_Naïm)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Brooklyn Museum – The Resurrection of the Widow’s Son at Nain (La résurrection du fils de la veuve de Naïm) – James Tissot – published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.

Because we are the Body of Christ, we also have the power to give life to those who are in the grip of the power of death. Yes, we won’t resuscitate a body like Elijah or Jesus in today’s readings. You and I will never be able to go to the death bed of a loved and make a dead body live, again.

But…
When Jesus resorted life to the young man, the mother was also given her life back. It the culture of Jesus’ day, she would have had to beg to continue to eat, to live. Women didn’t work. The culture of the day dictated that women rely on the men in their family to provide them a home, food and safety. The woman of Nain has no other men to give her life. Her only son is dead and she’s a widow. Jesus gives life to two people in the story.

Everyday we encounter the cultural forces of death that attempt to deny people life till they are born away in their caskets, too.
Hunger…
Illness…
The violence of war remotely revealed on our media screens…

What do we do? Ignore the grief, the suffering in front of us? Or be the Christ who is en-bodied in the church and reach out and touch those affected by death’s influence?

We need to listen to the voice of empathy tugging at the heart of Jesus beating in us that made him stop and touch the casket. We raise up to life those we feed through food banks and Rice bowl collections.We make life more comfortable for the sick person we visit or bring to the doctor or run the errands of a senior citizen who can no longer drive. In voting, in letter writing, being politically involved we have a chance to move our leaders and representatives to build a more just world were peace can take hold instead of resorting to violence. As members of Christ by baptism, we too, like him, can face death declaring God is a God of life.

Once we say we belong to Christ, we have a decision to make. We must choose to extend the power of Christ over death or we can just walk on by, ignoring the grief of humanity facing a grim future because it seems like we can do nothing. The spirit of Jesus lives in his church, us. Let our hearts beat with the empathy of Jesus, stopping to touch the lives of those under the power of death and bring them life.

© 2016 Joseph C. Rascher

O God, from whom all good things come,
grant that we, who call on you in our need,
may at your prompting discern what is right,
and by your guidance do it.
Through our lord Jesus Christ, your son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the holy spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Opening Collect for the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Roman Missal, 3rd Edition

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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 2

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“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!


Then: Dedicating Sandstones; Now:Rededicating Living Stones

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On December 8, 1953, the building that serves as the “House of the Church” for my parish of St. Mary in Trenton, Illinois was dedicated by The Most Reverend Albert R. Zuroweste, D.D. This past Sunday, December 8, 2013 we commemorated the 60th anniversary of that important day in the life of our parish family during the regularly scheduled Sunday Eucharist. This anniversary has served as the inspiration for a few events this year and as the theme for our observance of the “Year of Faith” observed by the Roman Catholic Church. Our theme has been “Then; Dedicating Sandstones: Now, Re-dedicating Living Stones.” What follows is my homily from the Mass. The readings were those of the second Sunday of Advent, Cycle A in the Roman Catholic Lectionary.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Cycle A
Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

Homily

Remember the day you moved into your new house as a newly married couple? After moving or buying or renting a new home remember the visions you had of the future that would unfold in that house. Someday, there would be children around the dinner table. Perhaps there would be Christmas mornings opening gifts bought with love. One day children raised under that house’s roof would be going out into the world to begin their own new lives.

This is the 60th anniversary of our church building – our house of the parish family. The people who built this building in the early 1950’s moved into this “house of the church” sixty years ago this very day with hopes and dreams, too. They dreamed that for many generations to come the children of God would gather at the table of the Eucharist. Here the family of God would gather to celebrate significant days in the life of the church family; weddings and baptisms. At each of those events God’s gift of Jesus’ love would be revealed in the human love that was so powerfully evident in those who would gather to celebrate. Here, the family of the parish has sent the children of God off into that new world, that next stage of life promised by Jesus, eternal life.

It’s nice to look back and celebrate anniversaries. Married couples do it all the time. The celebration of anniversary is a time to remember the joys and struggles of a relationship and of a family. Wedding anniversaries are a time to marvel at the family that has grown from the coming together of two people. Anniversary parties gather friends for a time to celebrate what has been accomplished. In marriages, sixty years is considered quite an accomplishment. Often the husband will be asked, “How did you make it so many years?” Many the husband who has replied, “By always doing what whatever she said!”

In a way, for a church building, sixty years is just a beginning. Built solidly and with good maintenance this building could last for another 60, 80, or hundred years more. In fact our building is the youngest Catholic church building in Clinton County. In comparison, it’s still a young adult so to speak.

Like any anniversary celebration we could spend our time looking back, marveling at all ritual moments that have taken place in this house of the church. I was tempted to ask our parish secretary to count up so many weddings, baptisms and funerals! That probably would have been interesting but that’s not the point of the celebration this weekend. While it’s good to give thanks to God for what God has done in our midst in this house of the church the scriptures of today remind us that we are not about recalling the rituals celebrated in here or even re-dedicating a building for the glory of God. The readings point us toward a different kind of rededication; a rededication of the people who gather here regularly Sunday after Sunday.

John the Baptist, in the Gospel, gets upset with the Pharisees and Sadducees who show up at his baptism ritual in the desert. Some might say he should just be glad these people show up. John is upset because he believes the Pharisees and Sadducees are participating in the ritual without the corresponding change of life the washing in the Jordan symbolizes. For John and his disciples, their baptism is washing away an old life where God wasn’t at the center of daily life. The people John baptized were expected to embrace a new way of living where they committed themselves to living a different way. In this “new way” God is charge instead of the rules and dictates of a corrupted religious leadership. The religious folks are going through the motions without committing themselves to living what the ritual bath says is happening, change of life. So John calls them out and compares them to a brood of snakes! Remember how Satan appeared to Adam and Eve and lead them astray? As a snake!

John’s message is the same to us. Don’t just do ritual in your building. Let your ritual, every time you celebrate it, set you anew on the path of Jesus who saves! Let your celebrating Mass and baptism and confessions and weddings and funerals in this room be a turning back to the way of Jesus and a commitment to being Jesus in the world, his Body of Christ. Our anniversary is an occasion to remember that sandstones were dedicated sixty years ago to God’s glory, but now God will be given the glory if the living stones that are the church, you and me, live lives of daily conversion of heart. We are to live in the reign of God while in the midst of the world. Let this anniversary be the time we rededicate ourselves to living every day proclaiming the love of Jesus in our deeds and words lest we hear the words of John rebuking us for doing ritual without corresponding actions.

Apparently John didn’t blend into the his time’s culture. He stood out in his camel-hair clothes with his odd diet. But people were attracted to him. People sought out John because there was something different about him. That’s what the church made of living people stones should be; a group of people different that stand out from the culture, that proclaims the truth that is different but appealing. A church of living stones, as Pope Francis reminded us in his recent apostolic exhortation to the church, The Joy of the Gospel, the church (including its parishes), must be a people excited about the mercy of God offered in Jesus where people are welcomed to encounter the joy of this “Good News.” It’s like the first reading from Isaiah said, the mountain of the Lord, His “dwelling,” would be sought out by all sorts of people tired of a human existence without meaning, full of war and sadness. There are people looking for something more than empty rituals. People in our world, in our midst are looking for something that will sustain them on their journey through life. As your pastor I must cry out with John. I believe Jesus’ word to us on this sixtieth anniversary is a challenge to you and me to be a church of living stones, a people who stand out from the crowd and draw people to Jesus. May Jesus not just be someone we worship in this building. Let our hearts be daily converted to his kingdom. Let him be worshiped by our being a church that stands out in the midst of our community and world drawing all people to himself who offers a life richer than can be imaged by any human built building or imagined by any human wisdom.

As we have been praying in our parish mission prayer and through out this year of faith preparing for this day, “Then we dedicated stones. Now, today, we must rededicate ourselves as living stones.”

This is the prayer our parish has been using for our parish mission week in November and occasionally throughout our 10 month observance (which began on our parish patronal feast day, The Presentation of Jesus and Purification of Mary in the Temple, February 2, 2013)

Prayer in honor of
the 60th Anniversary of the
Dedication of St. Mary Church, Trenton

Sixty years ago, O Lord,
our parish dedicated to your glory
a building of stone
to be our house in which to
offer you fitting worship.

Now, as we rededicate ourselves
to being the living stones of
the household of Christ,
make us stones that shout
His Good News
with words and deeds
beyond the walls of our building
to Trenton and all people.

May your Holy Spirit to make us
increasingly more faithful to our
mission of fire with the
love of Christ, your Son,
 Through whom we pray,
who lives and reigns forever.

 


Persistence Pays Off

A Reflection for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle C based on the readings of the day in the Roman Catholic Lectionary

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
Luke 11:1-13

It seems to be natural for human beings to try to negotiate with each other to get what they want. The human inclination is to change the mind of the person they are negotiating with in order to get the transaction to work in their personal benefit. The buyer says to the seller at the dealership, “I’ll buy this truck if you knock off $1,500.” The child says to her mother “Mom, if I clean my room will you give me a cookie?”

So here’s a question. Can you negotiate with God? Can a human being get God to  change his mind to the benefit of the human. It would seem so if you interpret the scriptures of today in a literal way. God looks to be negotiated down by Abraham (What if there’s only 45, 40, 30, 20, 10 good people in the city of Sodom? Will you still destroy the city?) It’s like a reverse auction. In the Gospel pericope from Luke people have tended to see God as the head of the house badgered or worn down by neighbor into giving bread in the middle of the night. “I’ll give you what you want if you just stop asking!” Many people approach prayer as negotiation and badgering.

Or, there is another way of looking at these readings and prayer…a more biblically correct way.

The stories speak of a God who is consistent. The God of the Sacred Scriptures we proclaim as Christians persists in showing mercy to those who seek, to those who are righteous, that is in “right order” with God and neighbor. It is God’s nature to be merciful, to always preserve life. In a proper biblical relationship with God people are persistent in their conversation (prayer) with the Father. Only when we are disciplined in a prayer life, continually turning to the Father in union with Jesus  are we able to discern the unchanging, enduring nature of God to be merciful and discover again and again a God who is just, who knows what we need and will make sure all things turn out right in his big picture of eternity.

In teaching his disciples to pray Jesus does not give them a “magical incantation” that, if said properly, like Harry Potter making a light come out of his wand when he says luminos or causing an attacker to freeze in position when he says stupify! Jesus is not giving the disciples a never fail cake recipe where you follow the instructions, you get what you ask for. Beware the nine day, never-fail novena trap!

The Our Father is more of a guide to the proper stance or attitude of prayer. The prayer Jesus teaches is a prayer where the ones desiring to pray are instructed that prayer is opening the self up to the generous mercy of God what ever God sees in the long run as best. Such prayer trusts God is consistent. God is always willing to show mercy, never causing destruction or bad things. (The bad stuff happens because people are out of sync with the Kingdom of God’s way of life where God, not the creature, is in control. Where Christ’s way of living triumphs over selfishness. The bad stuff happens because we live in a  world that is still under the influence of evil with people who still choose to embrace the false promise of a better life through selfishness.)

Sure there is a sort of set “formula” for prayer that can be discerned in the words given us in the Our Father. Just do approach the text as if it’s meant to produce something like a chemical reaction that produces the results I expect. Think of the Our Father as more of a template, where disciples have been “formed by Divine teaching” experience a reaction in their heart, mind and soul, that gives them reassurance of God’s faithful love that will triumph over evil, that God is in control. Jesus could have said,

God the compassionate,
you’re in control.
We need your help
to see all things set right.
We trust in you to know what to do and will do it.
AMEN.

If we find ourselves negotiating with God (I’ll go to church if you do what I want, God) then we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and instead we are treating God like a vending machine.

Yes, we are to be persistent in prayer, just as persistent as God is in desiring the good of humanity. Through our persistent prayer bartering with God, in the supplication we pour out of our heart day after day hopefully we discover that God is looking out for us even while we live in the midst of trails and brokenness of the this world. If we have this style of prayer well practiced where we open ourselves up to discovering God will never let evil triumph and get the better of Him or us, then we who seek relief will find confidence God will take care of our problems. We who ask for favors will realize how good God has been to us already. The persistent pray-er will discover they’ve already entered through the gates of the Kingdom of God we’ve been knocking on, the Kingdom we say we want to come Every time we pray Our Father…


Making Devotions Fun Since 1981

One of my passions as a priest (who was ordained in 1981 – thus the title of this article) has to been to help people more deeply understand the various liturgical rites of the church. I often try to find new ways to help people to encounter the power of liturgy that shapes and forms us as Christians. This is always done with an eye to the rubrics in the official liturgies (like the Mass) yet to celebrate the rites with full, robust and reverent use of symbol (lots of water at baptism, generous amounts of oil in anointing…). It comes naturally, it seems, for me to think outside of the box when adapting our Catholic rites and devotions. Some ways of doing rites don’t have to be done the same way over and over again just because “that’s how it’s done” or “it’s always been done this way.” My challenge to myself has been study the rite, explore how it’s ritual action can be done in a way that makes the meaning more clear and faithful to the meaning of what is taking place. Ask a few brides how I’ve challenged their concept of what a wedding should look like!

My desire to adapt and think “differently” about the enactment of rituals finds expression especially when it comes to devotional practices like Stations of the Cross and the Rosary.There is a richness to the Catholic ritual and prayer life that I sometimes wonder if people “get.” In particular, I want children to know the beauty of our liturgical and devotional life. I used to have move opportunity to teach and celebrate liturgy with children when I was at my previous parish since it was co-sponsor of a Catholic Grade School. Here, in my present parish, the interaction with children is a bit curtailed since there is limited time in the Parish School of Religion classes and I don’t want to take away too much time from their class time. Yet, the desire to make the ritual and devotional life of Catholics more interiorized and a part of their formation as disciples of Jesus leads me to look for opportunities to creatively have the children experience Catholic prayer that they might not otherwise be exposed to.

Such was the experience of yesterday, the 5th Sunday of Lent, of getting creative with an age-old pious traditional prayer of the church so that the youth (and their parents) would learn something about the history of the prayer, experience the prayer and maybe be moved in the heart by the prayer of The Stations of the Cross. The volunteer catechists were a bit anxious about the activity, I hear from the parish Coordinator of Religious Education, but with her and their help which I greatly appreciate, the morning’s event was a positive experience for all.

Several weeks ago I suggested to our parish Coordinator of Religious Education that since the stations of the Cross were originally a pious practice that pilgrims to Jerusalem actually walked the “via crucis” of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem to Calvary and then to the place of his burial, we should have the students experience walking from station to station outdoors. For centuries, thanks to the Franciscans who initiated the practice of setting up stations of the cross at churches in other places other than Jerusalem for people to “make the pilgrimage” to Calvary, generations of Catholics have symbolically been able to retrace the steps of Jesus. But, what has happened, in most places is that when the stations are prayed people stay put in their pew while a cross and two candle bearers walk the stations in the place of the assembly. This is how I experienced the Stations as a child. Whenever we hold stations in my parish I encourage people to walk along with me and the assisting ministers around the church.

I wanted the children to know the roots of the devotion and to see the norm is walking during the stations. Also, I wanted them to be more involved in making the stations their own than just saying someone else’s words while looking at someone else’s artwork. Since we don’t have a set of outdoor stations of the cross like some churches and retreat houses I decided the youth could make their own stations of the cross. I envisioned simple crosses drawn on the pavement of our parking lot with chalk. With the help of our CRE and catechists, the idea grew and so did the artwork. The catechists were given a card the CRE had found with pictures of the 14 traditional stations (I originally had planned to use the newer 14 designated by John Paul II which this parish is not familiar with, apparently). The youths were divided into groups, mostly by grade, and assigned a station to draw on the pavement that spans a city block. 30 minutes later the “stations” were ready and a short catechesis was given by me. The children were taught the traditional call and response “We adore you O Christ, and we praise you.” “By your holy cross you have redeemed the world” and how to genuflect during its recitation. We learned a simply sung refrain to sing while moving from station to station “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” At each station, a student read the name of the station and a sentence about it which I followed up with a short spontaneous prayer. Nothing elaborate was the intent. Just be simple and show that they could do the same thing on their own (in church or at home). With a word to be prayerful (the group was!) and no talking between stations, we were off to the first station and a journey into discovering the power of devotion, re-imagined, yet traditional and centuries old. It was a good experience for the parents, the youth, the catechists and the priest. I hope the children remember it as another way to encounter the mystery of Christ’s love. Perhaps we’ve begun a new annual tradition here at St. Mary, too.

Chalk Drawing of First Station of the Cross, Jesus is Condemned to Death

The First Station, Jesus is Condemned to Death

Chalk drawing of third station, Jesus falls the first time

The Third Station, Jesus Falls the First Time

Children's chalk drawing of the Fourth Station, Jesus Meets his Mother

The Fourth Station, Jesus Meets his Mother

Fourth Grade PSR Class with their drawing of the Third Station

Fourth Grade PSR Class proudly exhibits their depiction of the third station, Jesus falls the first time. (Photo by Mark Moss)

Kindergarten PSR class drawing their depiction of the 4th Station

Kindergarten PSR class drawing their depiction of the 4th Station (Photo by Mark Moss)

Confirmation Candidates draw the Twelfth Station

Confirmation Candidates draw the 12th Station, Jesus Dies on the Cross

Since the stations will stay on the pavement a couple of days until it rains or they’re worn off by cars and children from the middle school playing on the pavement I did tell the youth who attend school in our building that’s rented to the public school district that it was their duty to “evangelize” their classmates who were not Catholic. Surely, their friends and teachers would want to know what the pictures were. Even children, as members of the baptized, are to proclaim the Good News and this was going to give them an opportunity to live out their baptismal vocation in a unique way. Who knows what seed will be planted to bear fruit in the future because we decided to re-imagine a traditional devotion on the parking lot.

PSR Students, Adults and Pastor genuflecting around a chalk draw "Station of the Cross" on the parking lot at St. Mary

We adore you O Christ, and we praise you,
Because by your holy cross, You have redeemed the world!


Feast of St. Joseph

Sometimes, I’m not always quite “with it” when I wake up in the morning or even know the date. And, if I don’t happen to celebrate Mass in the morning, I might not realize what day it is in the Church year till later in the day. Today, March 19, it was a few hours before I looked at a calendar and remembered that it was the feast day of my patron saint, St. Joseph! In my spiritual life, it’s a biggie day. Oppps!

After finishing my last post, I decided I’d like to post a picture or reflection on St. Joseph. Rather quickly I stumbled onto this picture of St. Joseph that I found to be a bit different from the usual more “pious, saccharine” images of traditional Catholic “art” and holy cards. I was attracted to it, probably, because it shows a younger (Middle-aged like myself”) Joseph and Jesus as a young teenager. It is not often that artists portray that age of the subjects. I was drawn, too, to the intimacy, the affectionate way that Jesus is holding the hand of his foster-father.

picture of St. Joseph as middle aged man with hands on shoulders of Jesus portrayed as a teen

St. Joseph and Jesus

The picture is taken from an Archdiocese of Washington web-site and blog. The particular blog entry is authored by a Monsignor Charles Pope who wrote the entry St Joseph: Model Husband and Father – A Reflection for the Feast of the Holy Family. I’ve done a quick read of the article and find it a very nice meditation on St. Joseph as a model for Catholic men, especially those called to the vocation of marriage (leaves me out, but some of the points still can be applied). There’s a short video embedded at the end of the blog entry that is worth watching, too.

Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that by Saint Joseph’s intercession
your Church may constantly watch over
the unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation,
whose beginnings you entrusted to  his faithful care.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Taken from the Roman Missal, Third edition English Translation
Collect for the Feast of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, March 19


Prayer on Wheels

This past week I was on retreat at Kings House in Belleville with many of the priests of my diocese. Normally, I don’t like to leave the retreat house during the week, but some of us decided we should pay our respects at the wake of the mother of the head of the religion department at Mater Dei Catholic High School, Breese IL where many of our parishioners attend, since the visitation was just down the street a couple of miles. Four of us priests got in a car and went to the visitation. On the way back, one of the men suggested that since the rest of the retreatants were praying evening prayer at that time we should also pray. Of course none of us had our Liturgy of the Hours prayer books with us.

So, I thought this priest was just joking around, to be honest, but said “Well, I’ve got my Liturgy of the Hours app on the phone, so if you really want to…” and this priest started saying the opening verse which we all knew by heart, “O God, come to my assistance,” to which everyone in the car replied “O Lord, make haste to help us!” “They are serious” I said to my surprised self, and so we began, me reading the psalms from my i-phone app, they responding with an antiphon I’d proclaim for them to repeat in a responsorial form of psalmody. It was a first for me, praying the hours with brother priests while in a car. What at first I thought was just kidding around became serious, sincere prayer, thanks to the technology of smart phones and applications downloaded to them. Welcome to the 21st century. It was a unique experience for me of the brotherhood of priests, being able to pray together a prayer we’re obliged to say by our ordination promises in that particular time and place because technology made the text of the prayer available where it would not have been accessible without a book just a few years ago (you know, in that ancient time of the 20th century). And the spontaneity of the moment seemed to make it an occasion of grace prompted by the Holy Spirit moving one of us to suggest prayer and me remembering that the liturgy of the hours is now available on my i-phone and taking a chance that my fellow traveling companions were serious about praying together instead of just presuming we were kidding around as priests often are prone to do in each other’s presence. That kidding around, by the way, may have something to do with being about to “let our hair down” with just in the company of other priests in a way we might not in the presence of laity, due to the desire to appear “priestly.”

Then there was another image that came to mind. I’m told that in the “old days” nuns and priests would often pray the rosary while traveling together in order to keep their minds focused on the Lord (hopefully the driver was focused on the road!) and to make a productive use of the time in the car instead of “wasting it” doing nothing, like engaging in idle chatter.

I remember when I was child, every trip in the family care outside the city limits of my hometown began with a set order of prayers being recited and lead by my mother. That’s how I learned the Memorare (“Remember, O most gracious virgin Mary, that never was it known…”). A Memorare, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be and a short Litany of the Saints always ending with the petition “St. Christopher, protect us” began each out of town trip. I continue the practice, today, mostly when I find myself on an airplane, during take off!

St. Paul did say to “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) And I’m sure he spent many hours in boats and on horse in his journeys reciting psalms and singing hymns. Be it the rosary or a homegrown oder of prayer while beginning a trip or technologically assisted Liturgy of the Hours in a car the injunction to pray always continues to be observed as God’s people travel here and there. May that prayer be a reminder that the whole journey of life needs to be accompanied by prayer helping us to safely reach our destination, The Kingdom of Heaven.


Christmas Season Reflections

It’s taken me a week to get around to posting my homily from Christmas 2011. It’s been a busy week, not like I planned. Funerals have a way of changing your plans. Anyway…here’s essentially what I preached for the Solemnity at all three Masses. Since the readings for each Eucharist on Christmas (Vigil, Mass during the night, Mass at Dawn and Mass during the day) are different, I try to find a way to preach that will work with any of the sets of readings. This year, it seems that my proclamation could have been inspired by the opening collect of the Mass during the day, that is, if I’d looked at it before I wrote the homily. 🙂 By the way, it is permissible and desirable, according to the General Instruction of the Mass to preach using the prayer texts of the Mass as the source of the homily, which I occasionally do. Here’s the text of the prayer I refer to…

O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature
and still more wonderfully resorted it,
grant, we pray,
that we may share in the divinity of Christ,
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Opening Collect, At the Mass during the Day of Christmas, Roman Rite, 2011 Roman Missal)

This is the text of the homily

If it were possible to transport a person from biblical times to the 21st century can you imagine that person’s reaction to our existence. They would not be able to comprehend what they see. That person would have no words or language to begin to understand what we take for granted. Planes that travel huge distances in the air! Devices we hold in our hands to talk to people far away and take pictures! The sounds coming out of our mouths would sound like gibberish, since language evolves over centuries! Have you ever tried to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original medieval English? To be able to understand what is taking place, to make sense of reality, humans need a language and people need experiences they can relate to. Things outside our experience make no sense until we humans can filter what we’re experiencing through familiar words, concepts and symbols.

Yet, no mater what the century, no matter what the place, certain human experiences seem to be interpreted in pretty much the same way. Such is the birth of a child. A baby evokes responses of love. A baby’s birth stirs the hearts of all who witness it as something sacred. A child’s birth is a sign of life persisting even in a  world filled with death.

You and I are unable to comprehend God, what God is like, what it is like to be eternal. The divine being is beyond our human understanding. It is alien to us. To know God as God is in eternity is impossible for humans. Yet, God desires to be known, to be in relationship with someone outside of himself. That is his nature scripture and faith tell us. To know God, you and I need a way of relating to this reality, of comprehending that which is beyond our senses. If God wants to be known, God needs to use a human language. God needs to make God’s-self known in a context that you and I can interpret. Otherwise it’s like being plopped down in an alien world with no reference points.

This revelation of God in a manner comprehensible to human beings, in a definitive statement humans can understand is what Christmas is all about. God loves us, God invites us into his life. God wants his creation, the children brought for by his love who suffer so much because of human selfishness to live in the perfect life of God, forever.

Jesus Christ is God revealed in human mode. The child in a lowly manger we contemplate on this feast is the love and mercy of God in a form we can comprehend. How profound! A human child, begun in the normal course of human existence growing 9 months in the womb of a woman is the face of God, unconditional love, like a baby has for it’s parents, looking back at humanity who looks into God’s face through the eyes of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and magi. And humanity gets it! This is God’s way of telling us life endures, that there is hope for the future. A child shall lead them (as Isaiah the prophet once said) to a new way of living.

If we’re honest we need a savior, someone not from this earth (not made of the dirt of earth like Adam, the first man, as the story goes). Humanity is broken. There is disease. There is poverty. There is war and killing in fear and jealousy of people not like us. Humanity, no matter how hard it tries can not seem to solve, ultimately, the problems we create for ourselves. Yet if God just popped in and snapped his fingers (if God has them!) to make everything right, humanity wouldn’t really know God or the love God has for creation. We’d miss the message, because it was beyond our ability to comprehend what we experienced. God needed to become human. In order for us to get the message, God had to take flesh, to grow-up into an adult man who suffers and dies. Only then would the reality of God’s love be comprehended by humanity.

And here’s the neat part of the truth we celebrate tonight/today! Because God was flesh in Jesus, all flesh, every human is able to enter into the perfection of life that God enjoys! It’s the only way God could save us from ourselves. The one beyond all understanding, perfect being had to take on human flesh like ours so that humanity would be raised. Because of Christmas humanity can be changed and raised incorruptible. Without Jesus, humanity would never have really comprehended who God is.

Christ continues to take flesh, to use human signs and actions to reveal the Father’s love to a hurting world. Christ continues to reveal God’s love and desire to bring humanity with him to experience a fuller life that is not limited by pain and death. Christ no longer lies in a wooden manger. He no longer hangs from a wooden cross. He lives in the human form of the church. You and I are his hands and mouth for we were made part of Jesus in Baptism. In the body of Mother Church, so to speak, Jesus continues to take flesh. Let us rededicate ourselves this feast of the incarnation to tell the love of God for humanity in ways they can understand. Let us comfort the poor, work for peace between waring people. Let us care for the sick. Then and only then, through the church’s cooperation in the work of Christ, will the world recognize that God dwells with his people leading them to the fullness of life.

© 2011, Rev. Joseph C. Rascher

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks
Lord, holy Father, Almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For through him the holy exchange that restores our life
has shone forth today in splendor:
when our frailty is assumed by your Word
not only does human mortality receive unending honor
but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal…
(Preface III of the Nativity of the Lord, Roman Rite, Missal of 2011)

Creche at St Mary Church, Trenton, 2011


Praying from Memory and the New Translation of the Mass

A few weeks ago, a young boy asked me on his way out of church as I was greeting people at the door, “Do you have everything memorized?” I suppose he asked the question because he had noticed that I was singing the recessional song without a hymnal in my hand as I processed down the aisle. Perhaps he had noticed several times during the Mass that I was not looking at the Missal on the altar praying the Eucharistic Prayer or that I was not using notes while preaching. I assured the young boy that I really didn’t have everything of the Mass memorized, but that after 30 years being a priest praying the same words in the Missal and singing many of the songs even longer it all just kind of sticks in your head. I bet there are things he remembers from repetition, too, and he just didn’t realize how much he already remembers in his shorter life than mine.

Liturgists tell us that knowing prayers “by heart” is a good thing, a characteristic of ritual that helps us get beyond the words and to experience prayer at a deeper level. I have found this to be true. Not distracted by noticing words on a sheet of paper in a book, the words of the prayer get into our consciousness and open themselves up to being interpreted in new ways. And as sometimes the words aren’t that important, it’s the act of praying a familiar pattern of words and actions that opens the mind, heart and soul to encountering the one who will never be contained or understood through the limitations of words. Such is the purpose of ritual language and actions. They are to be the created vehicles that transport us to the experience of the Holy One beyond words and human understanding expressed in the symbols of words, things and actions we use to pray.

And so it is with a bit of anxiety that I am awaiting next Sunday. The first Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011 marks the day that the English Speaking Catholic Church in the United States begins using the new translation of the Roman Missal. No longer, at least for a while, will I be able to pray the Mass and lead the assembly in the ritual of the Eucharist without looking almost continually at a book. It will be like when I was first ordained. The prayers that in the repetition of thirty years have come to roll effortlessly over my tongue, that have brought me comfort and insight will be different. The words that have opened up meaning and a profound experience of The Holy will be replaced by strange sounding vocabulary and sentence structure, almost like another language. Indeed the new translation is meant to follow as much as possible the Latin words and sentence structure. It will be like going to Mass in another country, I suspect. The ritual will look familiar yet sound different. Still the same Mass, but different.

I guess, as a parish priest, I am grieving. I am grieving the loss of a familiar friend. I am angry that the translation we’ve been given doesn’t flow like the old one because of the insistence of those who oversee the liturgy that the new translation be literal instead of respecting English’s style and use archaic words because of their theological preciseness that people in the pew don’t understand. I am anxious because I want to celebrate well the liturgy, leading people to enter the holy but am afraid I’ll be self-conscious trying to do the “right” words on the page and become a distraction to prayer of the people. Perhaps this is something like how my brother priests of another generation felt after Vatican II when the first translations of the Latin novus ordo of Paul VI began to be used in the vernacular.

Yet, the time has come. Loyal to the church, for the liturgy is not my personal property (as our bishop likes to remind his priests), I will begin the process of learning how to preside at the Eucharist “by heart” anew. Hopefully and eventually I’ll get over the agitation I experience when I try to pray phrases like “ the abasement of your Son” (From the 14th Sunday of ordinary time. Does Jesus live in a house with a basement? That’s what it might sound like if I’m not careful in proclaiming the prayer). I’ll have to concentrate on using the correct words at the consecration (“Chalice” instead of “Cup” and “for the many” instead of “all”) instead of being humbled I am permitted to speak such profound mysteries into being by God’s Spirit and the “order” of the Catholic Community to their priest.

Next Sunday and for many weeks I will be reminding myself that the Mass is still the same re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus and anticipation of the banquet feast of eternal life no matter what words are used. There will still be bread and wine become his body and blood and the assembly will still gather to be feed by word and sacrament in order to be transformed into what they receive.

Calling to mind the big picture, another generation of priests will probably grieve and fuss about another “new” translation that comes their way in 40 years or so. I’m sure all of us priests of every time and place will have a chance at the great concelebration of the eternal Eucharist of Heaven to discuss (and laugh) how inadequately any of our translations lived up to the task of communicating in earthly language and ritual the reality of the bliss of the eternal banquet of life when we see God face to face.


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