Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Community of the Holy Spirit: Ministries for the Liturgy

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Year B
Vigil: Ex. 19.3-8a, 16-20b Ps. 104 Rom. 8.22-27 John 7.37-39
Day: Acts 2.1-11 Ps. 104 1 Cor. 12.3b-7, 12-13 John 15.26-27; 16.12-15

If you can remember all the way back to Easter – on April 12 this year, seven weeks ago – if you can remember back to Easter, you’ll remember that we have been on a journey here in our parish, a journey through the homilies of the Easter Season toward helping us better understand the meaning of the Mass, the importance of the Eucharist. Over the past fifty days, we have talked about why we come to church each week and what it means to say that we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We have looked at Scripture, the Word of God, and it’s role in the Mass, and we have asked why we pray and what we pray for. We have remembered that we are a broken people, broken just like Christ in the Eucharist, striving each day to love not just the people who love us, but especially the people we have a hard time loving. And we have talked about how the three human beings mentioned at every Mass – Mary, Pontius Pilate, and the Pope – help us understand what is unique about the Catholic liturgy. Really, this whole journey has been about figuring out what it means to live in the presence of the risen Christ, what it means to allow Jesus Christ to continue to live and work through us. Which brings us to today’s feast, to Pentecost, the end of the Easter Season and the celebration of the Holy Spirit.

It is often said that the first Pentecost was the birth of the Church – from the moment the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they became in a very real sense Christ’s Body on earth, the community of the faithful gathered together in Christ and sent forth with the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel. It certainly takes a community, a group of people to be the Church – we meet God not just in private prayer and meditation, but in the midst of a community, wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name. And the same thing is true for the Eucharist. In giving us the gift of his Body and Blood, Jesus ensured that it would be a communal gift. Christ does not enter into a vacuum – to celebrate the Eucharist, we need a community, the Church, gathered together. With a priest standing in the person of Christ, together we ask the Holy Spirit to come among us, to make the gifts of bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist makes no sense if it is celebrated privately. The Eucharist makes no sense if there is no one to receive it. It takes a whole community to worship well. We need lectors to proclaim God’s word and cantors and musicians to lead us in song. We need servers to assist at the altar and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to distribute Christ’s Body and Blood. We need ushers to guide us, greeters to welcome us, art and environment ministers to make this a worthy place to celebrate the liturgy, and sacristans to coordinate it all. We need each and every person here to pray, to sing, to respond, to open their hearts to receive God’s grace. It takes a whole community to worship well, to celebrate the Eucharist well – no one can do it on their own.

For many of us, this weekend also marks the beginning of summer. The next two months are typically a down time for many of our parish ministries, the parish schedule thins out significantly as schools and families take their summer vacations. But we never stop celebrating the Mass – we can never stop worshiping our God – we can never go for more than a week without needing the grace of the Eucharist. Perhaps these summer months can be a time for us all to reflect on how we participate in the Eucharist, as members of the assembly or as ministers called to fulfill one of the many liturgical ministries. But, without a doubt, everything we do as a Church, as a people of God, is centered on what we do here, gathered as a community around the table of Christ’s Body and Blood. If we really understand what the Mass is all about, we can never take a vacation from the Eucharist.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mary, Pilate, and the Pope: The Roman Catholic Liturgy

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Year B
Acts 1.1-11 Psalm 47 Ephesians 4.1-13 Mark 16.15-20

Outside of God himself, there are three people – three human beings – who are mentioned by name at every Sunday Mass in every Roman Catholic church throughout the world: Mary, the Virgin Mother of God; Pontius Pilate, the first-century Roman governor; and the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father, currently Pope Benedict XVI. Along the way, at different Masses, we hear many other names: the names of the prophets and heroes of the Old Testament, the apostles of the New Testament; the saints celebrated on a particular feast day; those in our local community who have died or who are in need of our prayers; and the local bishop. But only three people are named at every Sunday Mass. And these three can help us understand what is unique about the Roman Catholic Mass.

First, Pontius Pilate. It seems strange that this Roman governor who condemned Jesus to death should have the honor of being mentioned in every Sunday Mass at every church throughout the world as we recite the creed. Why should such honor be shown to the man who ordered the crucifixion? But it is a good reminder for us of the original meaning of the word catholic – universal. The catholic church, with a lower-case c, is a universal church, a church for all people, saints and sinners, high and low, rich and poor, slave and free. If we only welcome the pure and holy, then we are deceiving ourselves. As a church, we welcome all people, regardless of who they are or what they have done. We are a church of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and love; a truly universal church. And Pontius Pilate can remind us of that.

But we aspire to something more. We aspire to holiness, and Mary can remind us of where we long to be. She is the perfect model of a disciple, attentive to the voice of God, willing to give up her own life for the sake of her son, faithful through the darkest days to the glory of the resurrection. We long to be like Mary – to be a model disciple – but we need help along the way. We need God’s grace, we need the wisdom of the Scriptures, we need the strength and nourishment of the Eucharist. Mary was the first person to have the privilege of receiving Christ into her very body, and in the Eucharist, we can do the same. We often hear that people don’t get anything out of the Mass. But if you know what the Mass is all about, that can never be true. The community might act like zombies, the preaching might put you to sleep, the readers might be unintelligible, the music might make you long for silence – but we always have the Eucharist. The Body and Blood of Christ is the heart of the Mass – and as long as Jesus is present, what else do we need? If we focus too much on preaching or on music or on hospitality – and all of those are good things – but if we focus too much on them, we lose the centrality of the Eucharist. And it is the Eucharist that makes the Mass Catholic.

Finally, the Holy Father. At every Mass in every Catholic church all over the world, we pray for the pope, the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter. That prayer for a very human person unites Roman Catholics as one church, one people. No other church can claim that truly world-wide connection, a world-wide presence, a unity of belief, a unity of morals, a unity of prayer and worship. When we pray for the Holy Father, we remember that we are not just one small congregation of Catholics in southern Indiana – we are part of one church uniting people of every time and place, a church of saints and sinners, a church aspiring to holiness, a church gathered around the Body and Blood of Christ.

So then the three people: Pontius Pilate, to remind us that we are sinners and that the church is universal; Mary, to remind us of the true disciple we want to be; and the Holy Father, to remind us of the unity of the Church. But it all comes back to the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, we are nothing. Without the Eucharist, why come to church at all?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Broken Body of Christ: Living as a Eucharistic People

Acts 10.25-26, 34-35, 44-48 Psalm 98 1 John 4.7-10 John 15.9-17

Sometimes I think we get off too easy. To be a good Christian, we say, all you have to do is do the best you can to be a good person – a nice person – a loving person. And, of course, we know that we’re not perfect – we’re sinners, we’re human – and so, when we fail, when we’re not nice or not loving, we ask for forgiveness, and we try again. And as long as we come to church, be a good person, perhaps say a prayer or two every once in a while – well, then everything will be okay. It seems awfully easy to be a good Christian. It doesn’t cost us much of anything. I’m okay – you’re okay – we’re doing the best we can, after all – who can expect us to be perfect?

You might call it apathy, or indifference, or being satisfied with being mediocre. And since God loves us all the time – since God is good all the time – then God loves the half-way Christian just as much as the fully-committed Christian. And it’s true, God does love each of us, no matter what we’re like. But that love comes with a responsibility – it comes with a challenge. Jesus had only one commandment – “love one another, as I love you” (John 15.12). And boy, can that be hard. Most of us do pretty well if we look at how much we love the people who love us. We do pretty well when we’re among like-minded friends, we do pretty well with the way we act around people who are generous and respectful and warm and loving toward us. But what about everyone else? What about the people who avoid us or whom we try to avoid? What about the people we harbor resentments against, or the people we just don’t like? What about the people whose presence leads us toward anger or fear or suspicion or just plain indifference, people who have hurt us or excluded us? It’s one thing to love someone who adores you, it’s quite another to love someone who would rather you didn’t exist. Love one another, as Jesus loves us. Jesus was well known for eating with tax collectors and prostitutes; he gravitated toward the adulterers, the thieves, the unwanted foreigners, and the people who wanted him dead. And he loved them all – he loves us all. If we are supposed to love as Jesus loves, then we must love everyone – but especially the people it is hardest to love. The true measure of a Christian is in how well we love the people who hate us, ignore us, hurt us, betray us, and refuse to forgive us. And there is nothing about that kind of love that is easy.

In the Church, we like to say that we’re all part of the Body of Christ – all of God’s children, no matter what we’re like and how we act. But when we come to the Eucharist, we see what it really means to be the Body of Christ. The bread that we share here is a broken bread, a broken body, broken for us, so that we may be one. The cup that we share is blood that has been shed, a life and unity that has been lost, so that others may live. There is no doubt that we are a broken people, a hurting people, a divided people. It is only though the love of Christ that we can be one – it is only though the love of Christ that we can break free from our daily patterns of brokenness, and love not just our friends, but our enemies, too. Look around, if you can – unless you have changed parishes or Masses to avoid someone, or unless you’re new to our community, there is probably someone here in this church who has hurt you, or avoided you; someone you are resentful of or just dislike. If nothing else, there are people here who you don’t know, who are strangers to you. We are a broken community. And yet, when we come forward to the table of Christ’s Body and Blood, we are one – we share in the same Eucharist as someone we hate or someone who hates us. We receive the same grace as the person whose actions however long ago ruptured our friendship. We come before the same God, sinful and sorrowful, as does the stranger, the enemy, the friend, the person whose lifestyle we judge. We are sinners, we are broken, we are all part of the Body of Christ. But here, is this school of the Eucharist, we can learn to love. We can learn to set aside whatever divides us and recognize Christ in each person, not just in a few. Here, in the presence of the God who died for us and rose from the dead so that we may have life – here, we learn to be like Christ, who loves us all to the end. This is Christ’s body, we are Christ’s body, broken and made whole.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Asking God for Help: What do we pray for?

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
Acts 9.26-31 Psalm 22 1 John 3.18-24 John 15.1-8

How many times have you been asked a question like this: Will you say a prayer for my mother – she is having surgery next week? Or: Will you pray for my son, he just got laid off and is looking for a job? Or: I have to make an important decision soon- will you please say a prayer for me? I imagine that, for many of us, we get these requests often, and we may even be the person asking for the prayers. It’s a natural part of who we are as Christians, to pray, and especially to pray for one another. But why do we do it? And what is the purpose of these prayers? If we say we believe in a God who knows everything – past, present, and future – why do we bother telling Him things He already knows? And if we believe that God is all-loving and all-merciful, why do we need to ask him to love someone, as if he could decide not to be loving? And then there’s this line from today’s gospel: “Ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.” Yeah, right – we know that doesn’t always work. So what are these prayers all about?

Intercessory prayers – those prayers in which we ask for something – can help turn us away from ourselves and toward others.* By praying for another person, we attune ourselves to that person’s needs, to their hurting or suffering, to their worry or anxiety. We learn compassion. As individuals, we each have a connection with every other human being – we are all made in the image and likeness of God, each and every one of us is made to be like Christ. And so when we pray for someone else, we make a connection to the other person through Christ, the one who connects us – when we pray for someone, we touch them on the level of the soul, a level that is much deeper even than physical contact. That connection – that prayerful presence – is more powerful and effective than anything else we could ever do. That part of prayer – the connection – is easy. The challenge of intercessory prayer is figuring out what to ask for. Too often, in our prayer, we try to tell God what to do – let the biopsy show that there is no cancer; help me get an A on this test. But what we think is the best thing that can happen in a given situation is not always the case when you look at the big picture, when you see things from God’s perspective. God only wants what is good for us, but often we are blind to how something that seems to be causing pain or suffering can be good. Intercessory prayer connects us to Christ, and it helps us to understand what God intends for us – it makes the connection between us, another person, and God clear and strong, helping us find God in whatever situation we find ourselves.

But intercessory prayer not just something we do on our own, as individuals. Right in the middle of the Mass, there is a time set aside for prayer. These prayers are sometimes called different things – General Intercessions, Petitions, Prayers of the Faithful. I like the term General Intercessions, because it describes what these prayers are supposed to be. They are intercessions – we are asking God for something, not thanking Him or praising Him. And that is an important thing to do – to ask – to look both at ourselves and at the rest of the world to see where we most need God’s help. But they are also general – they are not just my own prayer, but prayers for the whole world, for all people, for peace, for life, for the sick and those who have died. These prayers should be ones that we can all pray – and they should be prayers that we all need to voice. The General Intercessions at Mass always follow a pattern – they begin with prayers for the church, followed by prayers for the world, for those burdened by any kind of difficulty, and finally for the local community. Of course, we each bring our own prayers to each Mass – sometimes, they may be included in the General Intercessions, sometimes not. But we should still pray for those personal intentions. As baptized people, we bring our common prayers before the Lord, and as we pray the General Intercessions, we each add the personal prayers that come from our hearts, and together we lift them up to the Lord.

So what about that line in the Gospel – that whatever we want will be done for us, as long as we ask. It is true, but we also have to look at the line that comes before this one – Jesus tells us that as long as we remain in him, then whatever we ask for will be granted. That’s the key – we must remain in Christ. When we ask God for something, we try to find out God’s will, because He always knows what is best for us. And we find that the best prayer of all is the one that comes at the beginning of the prayer Christ taught us: “Father, thy will be done.”

* This paragraph is indebted to Fr. Mark O’Keefe, OSB, Priestly Prayer: Reflections on Prayer in the Life of a Priest (Saint Meinrad School of Theology 2002), Chapter 2: Priest as Intercessor.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Learning how to read from a 108-year-old monk: Scripture at Mass

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B
Acts 4.8-12 Psalm 118 1 John 3.1-2 John 10.11-18

Early on Wednesday morning this past week, Fr. Theodore Heck slipped from this life into eternity. Fr. Theodore was a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, and at the time of his death on Wednesday he was the oldest living Benedictine monk in the world at 108. He had been a monk for 87 years, and in just three weeks would have celebrated the 80th anniversary of his ordination as a priest. Inevitably, over recent years countless people would ask Fr. Theodore the secret to his longevity. He first of all attributed it to prayer and the stability of monastic life. But I think there was something else that kept him active for so long – his love of reading. As a student at Saint Meinrad, I would often see Fr. Theodore wandering among the stacks of books in the library. He was a voracious reader, often reading a book a week. To help guide his reading, each year he would pick a particular subject to study. One year, he studied aviation, and read every book he could find that explains how airplanes fly. When he was 99, he decided to learn Spanish. And at 100, he studied computer technology; not just how to check e-mail – which he did daily – but the technology behind the computer screen. Fr. Theodore’s love of books and his love of reading kept his mind sharp throughout his long life, and probably helped add years to his lifespan. The written word can be a powerful thing.

But Fr. Theodore would also tell you that the books he read on a weekly basis to gain knowledge were never the most important books in his life. As a monk, his life was structured around prayer – especially prayer from the Book of Psalms. And as a priest, his life was structured around the whole of Scripture – the seventy-three books inspired by God and contained in the Bible. This Easter Season, as we have been exploring the Mass, we have recognized that the goal of our lives as Christians is to become more and more like Christ. The nourishment and grace of the Eucharist helps us to do that. But at an even more basic level, the only way we can become like Christ is to learn about Christ, to know what he is like and how he calls us to follow him. Like the sheep who know the voice of their shepherd, we must listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow him. And the primary way we listen to the voice of Christ is through reading and listening to the words of Scripture, both at Mass and in our own prayer and study.

The first half of the Mass is called the Liturgy of the Word. On Sundays, there are always three readings from the Bible, plus a sung response from the Book of Psalms. The first reading is generally from the Old Testament, although in the Easter Season it comes from the Acts of the Apostles. The second reading is from the New Testament writings of the apostles – generally from one of the letters or epistles. The third reading is always from one of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The particular readings that are used are set by the Church in what is called a Lectionary, the official order of readings for Mass. This way, no matter what Catholic church you go to anywhere in the world, you will hear the same Scripture readings proclaimed on the same Sunday. But it’s not just in Catholic churches – many mainstream Protestant churches have also adopted this Lectionary, including the Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist churches. The Lectionary is set up in a three-year cycle, with the gospel readings in each year taken from Matthew, Mark, or Luke; readings from the Gospel according to John are read in each of the three years during Lent and Easter. Right now, we are in Year B, or the Year of Mark – when the Easter Season is finished, we will resume a page-by-page reading from Mark’s gospel. The first reading is always chosen to complement the gospel reading. For example, if the gospel reading is the story of Jesus cleansing lepers, the Old Testament reading might also be a story of lepers being cleansed. The second reading, from the New Testament letters, does not necessarily correspond to any of the other readings – it is what is called a semi-continuous reading, so that we read from the same letter over the course of several weeks.

The goal of the Lectionary for Mass is to give us a wide selection of Scripture to help us hear how God has spoken to us over time. Before the most recent revision of the Lectionary, Catholics heard less than 1% of the Old Testament and only 14% of the New Testament if they went to Mass every year for their entire lives. In the current Lectionary, we hear 4% of the Old Testament and 40% of the New Testament every three years. We still don’t hear everything, but we do hear the most important and significant parts of the Bible. But if we are truly intent on listening for the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd, then we need to do some work on our own. Ideally, each of us should be reading all of the Sunday scripture readings each week before coming to Mass – you can find the list of the next Sunday’s readings in the parish bulletin, in The Criterion, and on the internet. If we have read these readings beforehand, then we are in a much better position to listen to them here at the Mass with open ears and open hearts. But what about the 96% of the Old Testament and the 60% of the New Testament that we don’t hear at Mass? That is a great source for our own reading and prayer. Perhaps, like Fr. Theodore, we could take a book or two of the Bible each year, reading some each day or each week, and over time, we would have read through all of Scripture. The more we read the Bible faithfully, the better we will hear the voice of God, and the easier it will be to let the voice of God guide our lives. And the more we are formed by the Word of God at Mass, the more we will become like Christ.