Saturday, December 20, 2014

Make it acceptable!

Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.
This exhortation is familiar enough to you all; the priest says it immediately after preparing the offerings on the Holy Altar.  Clearly, he refers to the gifts that are on the altar: the bread, and the wine mixed with water.  Clearly, there is the anticipation that they will be acceptable to the Father.  But how, why is that? 
The gifts we bring to the altar, ordinary as they are, become acceptable to the Father by the working of the Holy Spirit through the action of the Church, who is the body of Christ, when they become the Body and Blood of His Son, offered once and for all in the one and only acceptable sacrifice on the Cross. 
Our salvation is made present for us from our own humble offerings.  This marvel is even greater than at first it seems, as it includes not only the miracle on the altar, but also so many works of the faithful united in worship around it. 
My sacrifice and yours – thanks to the improved translation we received in 2011, we hear this in that exhortation of the priest.  This indicates that not only the central sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist, the bread and wine that become Christ’s Body and Blood, is made acceptable and salvific; but also along with it the sacrifices offered by all of the faithful.  The monetary offering you place in the basket is neither dues nor fees, but your sacrifice to be offered too.
My sacrifice and yours – every small penance, charitable act, or suffering freely borne that we bind to that central act of offering by the priest, is bound to the one and only offering that obtains mercy and life.  This is the sacrifice that is at the heart of our worship of the living God, which manifests how the Mass is the unique and necessary action of the Church that is the assembly of the redeemed.
This past week we saw expressed more clearly than usual how our individual and collective charitable actions are united by our worship into more than the sum of their parts.  Not that the sum was negligible by any standards: 46 backpacks or duffel bags full of school supplies or personal hygiene items; 1,500 lbs. of non perishable food; toys, games, and gifts for 100 children; 50 pajamas; 30 pairs of socks; 40 sets of towels; 60 blankets; 50 pillows; 250 lbs. of cleaning supplies; 10 umbrellas; and $5,250.00 in gift cards, cash, and check donations.  As Daina Scheider said, who along with her family coordinated the effort: It was a good Sharing Tree year! 
But as many lives as you touched with your generosity, you touched even more souls with your sacrifice, because you made it one with Christ’s.
The gifts we give in this and every act of ecclesial charity take on eternal value because they accomplish far more than simply alleviating a worldly need or lack.   Community outreach and government programs strive to solve problems; Christian charity contributes to the salvation of the world.  Human efforts, however well intentioned or organized, fall short of their mark, cause unintended harm, or simply deteriorate into dust.  The work we undertake in union with Christ, united by our Eucharistic worship to His perfect and effective sacrifice, bears not only good fruit, but fruit that will last  -- unto eternity.   
Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ruling on the Play

Rules are often seen as bad, and the enemy of freedom and of fun.  But consider this: games are fun.  And for the game to be fun for everyone, or for long, every game has to have rules, and those rules have to be followed, and even enforced by referees.  The rules put the form to the activity, and are necessary for anyone to participate or even understand, and therefore have fun.
While “fun” is not the goal of the liturgy, joy is – and peace, and communion with God and our neighbor. The rules put the form to the liturgy, and are necessary for anyone to participate and understand.  Participation is at the heart of the liturgical undertaking, and that requires some understanding.   It does NOT mean that to participate, everyone must have a visible role, like lector or altar server.  And while it does mean uniting oneself with the visible actions of the body of worshippers – kneeling, standing, responding, and singing -- it does not mean that one always need be visibly doing anything.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, before he was elected to the See of Peter, wrote: One of the principles of the (Second Vatican) Council’s reform was, with good reason, the participatio actuosa, the active participation of the whole “People of God” in the liturgy.  Subsequently, however, this idea has been fatally narrowed down, giving the idea that active participation is only present where there is evidence of external activity – speaking, singing, preaching, liturgical action.    Yet (it) also speaks of silence as a mode of active participation.  We must go on to say that listening, the receptive employment of the senses and the mind, spiritual participation, are surely just as much “activity” as speaking is.  Are receptivity, perception, being moved, not “active” things, too?  What we have here, surely, is a diminished view of man which reduces him to what is verbally intelligible, and this at a time when we are aware that what comes to the surface in rationality is only the tip of the iceberg compared with the totality of man. 
This touches on why the liturgy is so different from almost anything else we do.  We are engaging “the totality of man,” everything that we are in our very being.  We are interacting with the Creator of our being, and the source of everything good in our lives and in all creation.  So our words and gestures are out-of-the-ordinary, because our conversation is out-of-the-ordinary, as is the One with whom we are conversing: the All-Holy One, who calls us to be holy. 
Our prayers and our gestures, and the whole act of worship itself, are different from anything going on around us here and today.  However, this act unites us with our brothers and sisters around the world and across history who not only “worship in the same way” but actually participate in the same worship.  It is timeless, like the One we worship who is timeless.  And it is universal (that’s what “catholic” means, after all), because it is proper to everyone, everywhere.
Similarly, the music we offer to the glory of God is necessarily different from what we might listen to on the radio while driving, over speakers while shopping, or on our iPods while working out.  Its goal is to draw us out of the ordinary and elevate our minds and hearts to God.  Pope Benedict set the goals of our music very high:  The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the Cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved. 
That’s the nature of this game, and much more rewarding than having fun: making the Cosmos glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.  It is what we are about in our worship here, which is far more than the sum of some rules.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Why settle?

The sound of my own voice has never had the hypnotic power over me that some may have attributed to it.  I am under no illusion as to its beauty or tone.  Nonetheless, entrusted with the solemn task of leading the great prayer of the Church that is her Holy Eucharist, I do insist on singing.  As I have introduced to you before, not simply songs, but the Mass itself is meant to be sung, by priest or people or both together.  And no part of the Mass is more appropriately set to song than the Preface.
Some parts of the Mass are Commons, which are part of every Mass, such as the Sanctus (Holy Holy Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God); or of every Mass of a certain type, like the Creed for all Sundays and Solemnities, or the Gloria (Glory to God) for all Feasts and Sundays outside Advent or Lent.  Other parts are Propers, which change according to the day or season. These include the Collect at the beginning of Mass; the Prayer over the Offerings (right after the people say, May the Lord accept the offering at your hands…), and the Post-Communion.  The Preface stands somewhere in between; some are proper to a single day (the Assumption of Our Lord); some pertain to a broad range of days (Sundays in Ordinary Time I - VIII); and there are even six called Common Preface I - VI.
Other prayers begin with a simple Let us pray.  The Preface is the beginning of the Great Prayer of the Church, the Eucharistic Prayer, and is introduced by a dialogue between priest and people that sets what follows at a higher level of importance and formality:  The Lord be with you. - And with your spirit; Lift up your hearts. - We lift them up to the Lord; Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. - It is right and just.  Then a formula common to most Prefaces makes it very clear what we are doing: 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.
We are here to give thanks and praise, and the Preface unites the voices of the priest and the people in doing that.  It then cites the particular reason for this great Thanksgiving (Eucharistia), often a particular mystery in the life of Christ, as in the one we are using now for the first part of Advent: For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.
With the voices of our earthly assembly thus united in thanks and praise, the Preface concludes by announcing our union with the company of heaven, where the praise and thanksgiving to God is constant and perfect.  And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim: Holy Holy Holy!
So having begun by acknowledging our duty (It is right and just!) to give thanks to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit; we then announce to all present, and even all the earth, the saving work in which we rejoice particularly that day.  Finally, we dare to use the very words related to us by the Prophet Isaiah and Saint John the Evangelist, to unite our voices to those who rejoice at the Banquet of the Lamb, as without end we acclaim: Holy Holy Holy!
Voices united in thanks, praise, and giving glory - so singing the Preface could hardly be considered my idea.  Besides, with all that noise, how could I possibly hear the sound of my own voice?
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, November 29, 2014

How it all gets through

There are four candles in the advent wreath, but this First Sunday of Advent marks three years since we received the new translation of the Roman Missal.  I think everybody has grown accustomed to the changed responses, we have learned most of the service music, and even “consubstantial” veritably trips off the tongue. 
To write this, I pulled out my archival copy of the old Sacramentary and was shocked at the cheapness of the book in look and feel, and the choppy poverty of the language.  How quickly we forget!  The new Missal is a major upgrade in every way.  I hope as the words, phrases, and formulations become more familiar, you are better able to appreciate and apprehend the content.  The prayers of the Mass are not only a reflection but also a source (literally, a theological “font”) of our belief as Catholics, and that richness is now revealed.
One thing about the new Missal that has been catching my attention is the end of every prayer.  For the collects, the proper prayer the priest says immediately before everyone sits to listen to the first reading, the formulation is now: 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.
So at least once every Mass, we articulate and are reminded how it is that we pray, and to whom.  We pray to the Father, and we do so through the good offices of His only Son Jesus Christ.   We can do this because of the work of the Holy Spirit, who has united us as His body to Him our Divine Head.  Especially as we settle into Advent, it is beneficial to remind ourselves that there was no such interaction possible with God for man until the coming among us of His Son in the flesh.  The sense of longing that we find in our Advent prayers echoes desire not only for the birth of Christ, but more fundamentally, for the very possibility of authentic prayer itself!
There is one major difference from the prior translation.  We used to say, We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ.  This betrays a certain self-centeredness that afflicted the old translation (We ask this – as if it’s about what we do!).  It thus overlooks what God does, which would seem to be what any good prayer is about.  The actual Latin formulation, now presented accurately in our English, has double meaning.  Not only do we pray through Our Lord Jesus Christ, but God acts now, in our world, answering our prayers, through our Lord Jesus Christ.  From all eternity, He has always so acted.
We should never fail to value this intentional ambiguity, which reveals to us our dependence upon the communion of the Holy Trinity for our communion with God in every prayer we make, and every work God effects in our world.
Our translation is from the authoritative Missal in Latin, which Pope Saint John Paul II issued in 2002 in the Third Typical Edition.  I have a Latin Missal as well, and have been amused to note that nowhere in it is there printed the entire text of the closing of the collect, even once.  All you will find is: Per Dominum.  (Through Lord). The priest is expected to know the rest by heart!  How he should be expected to learn it is a question that I have not yet answered, but it does indicate how basic is the truth this formula presents. 
Fortunately for most people, they will never have to speak this formulation in Latin to assure liturgical completeness.  It suffices simply to know that we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, every day, and the provident Father responds, working His will through the Son, in the power and working of the Holy Spirit.  This three-year-old phrasing gives shape in our words and our minds to the nature of our communion with the living God, day by day, year after year, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Monsignor Smith