Saturday, April 18, 2015

Renovation

Behold, I make all things new, says the Lord.  It never ceases to amaze me how Jesus follows through on that promise.  You would think that after fifty Lents and Easters, seventeen of them as a priest, I would have a pretty good grip on the range of possibility for this annually recurring holy day.  You might think it is just one big checklist of Things To Do, tweaked and improved after every year's efforts.   Indeed I do have scripts and lists that meet that description for all the liturgies of Holy Week, and that would be the sum of it if Easter were about what I do.  Yet despite how it does require much of my doing, that is never the biggest part of Easter.
Major among these other parts is always the group of souls who are entering full Communion with the Risen Christ in His Church.  Every year it is the same: an assortment of folks, coming together from the widest variety of starts, by way of various possible paths and programs, making time and grappling with talks and teaching, books and meetings, getting to know one another and the Mystery of Faith; all those lives and all that preparation converge in the three days of Christ's Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  And that's where it happens: Easter.  The Resurrection.  Christ makes all things new.  Every year it is completely different.
This year I was amazed again at how the prayer of the Church, especially at Mass, focuses with increasing intensity on these souls as she moves toward and through Easter.  As the day nears, her prayer is that they be not only prepared and fortified, but indeed defended from the enemy who would lead them away, stir up doubt or fear, or simply convince them they cannot or are not good enough.  After Easter Sunday, the prayers of every Mass mention the newest members of the Body of Christ and beg that the new life they have received be sustained and bear great fruit. 
Even with these prayers in front of me year in and year out, and indeed coming forth from my mouth, somehow I forget what the church insists on remembering, which is that the Resurrection of the Dead is not a past moment among the deeds of Jesus, nor a future event which we all rightly dread and hope for; but it is also and no less importantly a present reality brought about in our midst and with our cooperation in the lives of souls newly born in Christ, and in our lives.
Being present with and instrumental for these rising and transformed souls is for me a renewal bordering on complete renovation.  My faith and my life are touched, shaped, and changed.  I think you would receive a similar observation from the sponsors and other helpers along the way who share this privileged participation.


Payton Akin
Benjamin Freedman
Alexis Mafnas
Chi Tran
Michael Gingell
Courtney Collis
Anthony Condon
Benjamin Flores
Jasmine Kuzner
Constance Roby
Kimberly Temoche-White
Lindsay Aaronson


I wish all of you could know all of these, our newest brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as I have come to know and enjoy them.  But my experience with them is passing, and yours lies ahead.  They are changed and newly alive in a life that may seem old to you.  Meet them, welcome them, invite them into your lives; and they will bring to you the newness they have received. 
One of my favorite prayers in the treasury of the Church is, Oh God who did so marvelously create human nature, did so much more marvelously re-create it through Christ our Lord.  Resist the temptation to think that this re-creation applies to some other person at some other time.  Christ calls you, now, with His promise: Behold, I make all things new.  Truly He is risen!  Alleluia!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 11, 2015

You have a greater than Solomon here

Everyone likes cookies.  Cookies are good.  But some cookies are better than others; bakery cookies are better than packaged, and specialty store cookies better yet.  But you can’t beat homemade goodies made by the hands of someone who knows and loves you, and made with you in mind. 
Last weekend as we ate one of the quick meals we shoehorned in amongst the liturgies of the Triduum, Fr. McDonell, seminarian Ben Petty, and I were all marveling at the genuine and human reality that marks our liturgical worship.  Every element is personal and presented live and in the moment; nothing is prefabricated, prerecorded, or packaged.  Nothing is live-streamed from elsewhere, or broadcast to audiences who are elsewhere. This makes our worship an action of the moment, and once it is over, there is nothing left.  Even if you could catch it later on YouTube, it would not be the same thing.  Nope, it is done, and then gone like a puff of smoke.   Let my prayer rise before you like incense, the raising of my hands like an evening oblation. (Ps 141:2)
The music we enjoy and participate in is a perfect example.  It is all made live and on the spot.  If it were at a concert, tickets would be expensive for the level of music we enjoy.  People who know us and love us, and who know and love God, offer this to God, with us and for us.  Heck, most of it does not even go through any electronic amplification on its way to your ears, and God’s!  And last week it was marvelous.
All this personal immediacy requires a lot of persons.  You should have seen the swarm of folks that came out under the leadership of Jessica Barsch to put flowers in our sanctuary.   The folks who put out the reception on Easter Sunday, beginning very, very early – or cleaned it up after everyone else had gone home to their own celebrations.  The Scouts who kindled the New Fire at the beginning of the Great Vigil.  The ushers who helped with the collections and many more logistics besides.  Don’t forget the lectors, who brought all those Scriptures of both the prophecies and their fulfillment, to life and light for us. 
I particularly want to draw your attention to my altar servers, who worked very, very hard and did a brilliant job with all the complicated liturgies.  All required preparation and practices, hours of work you didn’t see, so that you could witness the Paschal Mystery made manifest in your midst.  And it looked like they do it all the time!  They were a pleasure to work with and made me very proud, but most of all, their offering was pleasing to God, for whom they did it.
Our regular crew of rectory and parish staff all work extra hard in the days leading up to and through Easter, especially Anthony Dao, and all our sacristy and sanctuary workers, especially Mary and Norma.  There is a good reason the offices are closed on Easter Monday – everybody is exhausted.
The Risen Christ chose to manifest himself to us not in a box or in a book, much less a recording or reminiscence, but in the common experience of something that most closely resembles dinner of a large extended family.  And like that festive meal, this one required a lot of work and a lot of love from a lot of people.  And they served it to you. 
You have something better than the best homemade cookie here!  So, all these people whom you know well and with whom you share so many activities and interests, who know you and love you, went to all this work whether while you watched, or beforehand, or behind the scenes, just to make this gift to you and to God for and with you – and me.  Join me in saying Thank you.  And thank God!  Truly He is risen!  Alleluia!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Truly. Verily. Really!

When I was a puppy priest assigned in my first parish, which looked an awful lot like this one, I taught everyone the ancient Christian Easter greeting, Christ is risen!, and its response, Truly He is risen!   Still used in certain cultures, it can sound ancient when you say it in Greek, exotic when you say it in Russian, and alarming when you say it in German.  But all those languages carry the good news that formed their civilizations, that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. 
To announce that to everyone you meet is an expression of joy, and to receive the joyful acknowledgement is to find deep communion in the encounter.  What a splendid manifestation of a society founded upon Christ Jesus!
When Saint Paul was struggling to right the course of the oft-straying Church in Corinth, he reminded them of this bedrock foundation in what is now considered one of the earliest and clearest formulations of the kernel of our Christian Faith.   There was no question left as to what was the one indispensible thing: Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast -- unless you believed in vain.
What precisely is this Gospel… in which you stand?  It is this:  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Christ Jesus died, was raised on the third day, and appeared to these people, who have passed it on to you.  That is the kernel, the core of our faith.  Without it, we have nothing, and we are the most ridiculous people on earth: If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Saint Paul, who was never one to mince words, brings everything to a fine point:  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.  But of course, that is not the case. 
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  (all quotes from 1 Corinthians 15)  That is precisely what we celebrate today: that Jesus is raised from the dead, and as we say every Sunday in our Creed: I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Because Christ is raised, and because we are baptized into Christ, then we are raised – and we will rise, in our flesh, on the Last Day.
This reality, this life-changing, world-altering reality, has been handed down to us, just as it was handed to Paul and he handed it on to the Corinthians.  It means that we who have received it live differently from those who are not aware, and who have not been raised.  This is the source of our liberation (from death) and our responsibility (for eternal life). 
That Christ is raised sets us apart from the mass of our contemporaries more than it has since ancient times, for this is the Gospel that we have received, and they have rejected; in which we stand, and which they disdain.  For that it is all the more important not only to conform our lives to the reality revealed in Christ, but also to realize why our lives are and must be different.
Not only for divine blessings and favor here, not only for the joys and beauties of a “neighborly” society formed around Christ’s “teachings”; but more: for the life eternal that is already begun in us since our Baptism, and nurtured in us by His risen Body and Blood. 
And that, as they say, changes everything.  May the reality of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and of you, transform your lives and give you abiding joy.  May the Holy Spirit, dwelling within you, guide and fortify you.  And may God our Father, who is faithful to His promise, bless you and all your families in these holiest days. Truly He is risen!  Alleluia.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Still here

Dialogues of the Carmelites is one of the great operas of the twentieth century.  Francois Poulenc, who composed it in the early 1950’s, used an adaptation of a book by Georges Bernanos that was based on a real event during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.  A convent of Carmelite nuns just outside of Paris was condemned by the Committee for Public Safety for remaining faithful to Christ and their monastic practices, and guillotined one by one before a large mob in a public square.

The opera ends with this dramatic martyrdom, and for more than twenty years I had heard about that amazing scene.  Just this month, I finally had the opportunity to see the opera at the Kennedy Center.   Leading up to the breathtaking finale, we encounter in song the lives of the various women in the Carmel as they grapple with their vocations, community life, and the growing threat just outside their walls.  It is an amazing exploration of human nature and divine faith. 

Mid twentieth-century music, particularly opera, is not everyone’s cup of tea.  This masterwork of art was presented with skill and sincerity in an even more modern, somewhat deconstructed twenty-first century production, in a venue and a culture that has grown immune to, or outright rejected, the Christian faith that underlies so much of the great art that routinely is presented there.  For several reasons, it spoke a truth that could not be ignored by even the most sophisticated, self-obsessed, or secular member of cosmopolitan postmodern arts and intellectual community.
One reason is that Poulenc himself knew what would penetrate the bubble that isolates just such a community, because he himself had been a leading member of France’s intellectual and artistic, and therefore atheistic, avant-garde.  His conversion to Christ came in a remarkably unsophisticated, even tawdry way: a visit to a remote medieval Marian shrine while grappling with the sudden death in a car accident of one of his friends.  He wrote marvelous music for litanies and liturgies, but this dramatization of a historical reality reaches where such devotion cannot.
Another reason is the powerful witness of authentic martyrs.  Bernanos and Poulenc portrayed these holy women wholly, not as plaster statue saints filled with only pious virtue, but rather, real women working out heroism and fear, fidelity and selfishness.  The recognizable reality of human nature made remarkable by real faith in a real, historical act of sacrifice is powerful indeed.
A most compelling reason was the timing.   The Washington Opera launched this production of Dialogues of the Carmelites just days after the Coptic Christians were beheaded on that Libyan beach.  This simple, inescapable fact made it impossible to “bracket” it or buffer oneself against what it portrayed by thinking it was just another over-dramatized fiction, remote and unreal.
I was glad my friend and I attended the opera that evening in our priestly garb.  It was our chance to say, in the context of that heroic act of witness so beautifully portrayed, We are still here!  We, who are Christians; we, who believe; we, who are eager to give witness; we, who are seeing our brothers and sisters murdered for their faith; we are still here.
As we, who believe, unite this weekend to witness Christ’s passion and death on the Cross, Saint Augustine would explain in this way what we recognize and respond to:  Lord, I have cried to you, hear me.”  This is a prayer we can all say.  This is not my prayer, but that of the whole body of Christ.  Rather, it is said in the name of his body.  When Christ was on earth he prayed in his human nature, and prayed to the Father in the name of his body, and when he prayed drops of blood flowed from his whole body.  So it is written in the Gospel: Jesus prayed with earnest prayer, and sweated blood.  What is this blood streaming from his whole body but the martyrdom of the whole Church?

Monsignor Smith