Friday, December 24, 2010

Better to give

The day is here. Whatever you have been doing over recent weeks to prepare for Christmas, now you have to stop, because it is Christmas. You may not have finished – I know I haven’t -- but the day is here, not waiting for what we say or what we do. The day is real of itself, and does not depend upon our permission.

The moment has come. Have you prepared gifts? Pause to think, review the inventory. What are you giving? Something you bought, or something you made? Something you have had yourself for a while – re-gifting something you couldn’t use, or handing on a treasured heirloom. Perhaps some token of a gift that will arrive later, a gift card, or maybe a promise of some action or opportunity in the future, like a trip, or taking the kids for a day. Perhaps you have written a note, signed a card, or even composed a poem or story. Something large or small, heavy or intangible – what will you give to the ones you love?

Odds are, even the youngest among us can point to some gift he is giving to someone. Harder to put your finger on in most cases would be what is behind any given gift; you know, the thought – the thought that counts, as the saying goes. That is what the gift points to, but when asked to explain it, we can only point to the gift.

If the gift is the wrong size, or a color that doesn’t suit, it still is there; it still is a gift. If the gift is a duplicate of something you already have, or something you could never possibly use, nonetheless it is a gift. It would be ridiculous to say something is only a gift if it is that near-mythical thing, “just what I always wanted!”

This concrete reality of gift-giving makes Christmas pre-eminent among all the holidays. It is what people get so excited about – especially the little ones – and it is what makes some people panic. One can reject it outright – we call that being a Scrooge – but it cannot be finessed, or ignored. There is very little room to hide.

Perhaps it is this ubiquitous, unavoidable aspect of Christmas that brings about what sniffing pundits call “the Christmas wars.” One side has stormed the bastions for the elimination of Christmas from all public schools and public squares, and the eradication of the word “Christmas” from all greetings in the marketplace and our common vocabulary. Even faithful Christians now wish one another happiness in some generic “holiday.”

The other side countercharges with “Keep Christ in Christmas” stickers on car and home, and erects nativity scenes in their yards, with a Star of Wonder, Star of Night dangling from the dormer. Commentators seem to suggest that there wouldn’t be any “war” over Christmas if these agitators for religion didn’t insist on touting their personal beliefs out loud and in public; if they just kept their faith properly private, then there would be peace on earth.

I try not to get too agitated by any of this. Sure, I won’t say, Happy Holidays, but that’s hardly aggressive – I think. But recently I have seen some photos “from the front,” if you can call it that – pictures of weapons in this “war on Christmas.” And I have noticed that the one side can get awfully negative – putting up billboards that says Christmas is just a myth; erecting signs that say religion is superstition, and it hardens hearts, so one would be a better person without it. How is it that their use of their “equal time” tries to erase Christmas, but fails to offer anything positive? What are they celebrating, what are they offering?

Today we celebrate something, an event – the birth of Jesus to Mary in Bethlehem. It happened; it is real, and concrete. You can almost smell the barnyard. Some snipe that it is foolish to think it happened on December 25th, but even the argument emphasizes that it did happen. When we sing songs about it, display little cr├Ęche models of it, and commemorate it, we do something positive about something positive.

It took years and years, and many people working together, for us to understand the gift God gave us that first Christmas. Jesus Himself explained it, the Apostles experienced it, and the Holy Spirit inspired us – and still it took an awfully long time, with plenty of trial and error. It seems we never have been good at reading directions!

If the gift is the wrong size, or a color that doesn’t suit, it still is there; it still is a gift. We give gifts – concrete, actual gifts -- on Christmas because, first, God gave us a gift, and second, because in so doing, he made it possible for us to offer Him gifts. It would be ridiculous for someone to say Christ’s birth is not a gift because it is not, “just what he always wanted.” One can argue about how suitable a gift is, but you can’t say it does not exist.

Part of the beauty of this gift is that it does not have to be accepted. A true gift freely offered, it points to “the thought” in the heart of the giver, and to the Giver Himself; but it imposes nothing on us to whom He offers it. Nonetheless, in its concrete reality and existence, it stands, not to be ignored and not to be erased, across the ages of time.

We need not engage in any so-called Christmas wars, but we do need to respond to the reality of what God has done in giving us Jesus. He is the Christ, His Son. To recognize and rejoice in the gift is a response and a positive act that can only be made in freedom.

Just as the response cannot be forced, so neither can it negate the offer. The vocal few who struggle to negate the gift can change neither us who receive Him nor Him who gives. They might just as well try to negate the joy we offer when we wish them Merry Christmas! It is just another gift that they may accept or reject in their freedom, but it is real, and we offer it.

This concrete reality of gift-giving makes Christmas pre-eminent among all the holidays. It is what people get so excited about – especially the little ones – and it is what makes some people panic. One can reject it outright – we call that being a Scrooge – but it cannot be finessed, or ignored. The folks who fight it only emphasize it.

The day is here, not waiting for what we say or what we do. Christmas is real of itself, and does not depend upon our permission. Thank God.

Christ is born. We see Him in the manger. The longer we look at Him, the better we come to know Him, the more we see Him reflected in the eyes of our children, the better we understand who He is. Hope. Peace. Repair of every damage we have done, and bearer of every wound we have suffered. Just what we always wanted.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:14) This Holy Christmas, may every gift you offer be received with joy, and may you have to the full the joy of accepting the Father’s gift to you. For Father DeRosa and Father Nick, for all of us here at Saint Bernadette who work to understand and share with you the depth and breadth and beauty of this gift, I offer you and you loved ones our hope and prayer for a joyous, peaceful, and beautiful Christmas.

Monsignor Smith

Sunday, December 19, 2010

We've Got the Giving Going

We interrupt our Advent series on the Sacred Liturgy to bring you important news of other sorts. Here at Pastor Central, there are a couple of things that need to be gotten out “onto the street.”

First, our Archbishop, who was so recently honored by our Holy Father and created a Cardinal, has honored one of our own, and by doing so, honored Saint Bernadette. His Eminence Cardinal Wuerl will bestow the Manifesting the Kingdom Award on our very own Norma Thomas, in a special ceremony on Epiphany at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In recognizing people from around the Archdiocese who by their lives and by their efforts reveal the grace of God at work in our midst, and further that work in a tireless and selfless way, Cardinal Wuerl is helping us to see how, in these witnesses, the Kingdom of God is very near to us.

I cannot help but think you all know Norma. If you think you don’t, you probably do, but only haven’t been introduced. She’s in the sacristy, and RCIA. She “helps out” here at the rectory office – about thirty hours a week. She visits the sick, and leads a prayer group. She also keeps track, and keeps in touch – she whispers in my ear many of the situations and intentions that I need to pray about or visit. And she smiles – a lot. She is and does much more besides, but I have to stop now. Come to the Basilica on the afternoon of 2 January to show that we recognize the Kingdom breaking in on us when we see it!

Secondly, thank you very much for your good-natured attentiveness to Father Bonifacio of the Missionary Fraternity of Mary, from Guatemala. Like you, I was very impressed by him and the missionary congregation he described to us. Only twenty-five years old, it is growing by ten priests a year, and dispatching missionaries beyond the boundaries of its home country, not only to the heart of Africa, but to the heartland of America – Wisconsin!

How could I tell you were attentive? Well, I get to see the count on how you responded: $4,331.45, so far. That is the largest second collection we have had all year! As I promised at the Mass I celebrated, if you weren’t able to respond at that moment, you can get a contribution to us any time, marked in any way (in the official envelope, or just with a note) and we will transmit it to them.

Every other year, our Archdiocesan Missionary Cooperative assigns our parish one of the many organizations seeking to ask for help in our churches. Saint Bernadette is the only parish in which they were allowed to do so this year. So it is a good thing for them that you are so helpful!

You can’t imagine how many organizations would just love to speak at our Masses just so you might have the “opportunity” to support them. I am a pretty strict gatekeeper though, so this is the only mission appeal you’ll get – till two years from now.

You were also most receptive to the appeal for help for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, last month. And the pile of gifts under the Giving Tree last week was another time when you responded to a genuine need that had been put before you.

You are so good. I am running out of space, but two quick reminders before I send you out into the Week before Christmas: one, there will be no five o’clock Saturday evening Mass on Christmas Day. And two, since the five o’clock Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve is so crowded, please try going to one of our other Masses if you do not have children who have not yet received their first Holy Communion. God will reward you – and more folks will get a seat. Have a great week – and if you haven’t already, go to confession! See you Christmas.

Monsignor Smith

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Words and Music

The First Sunday of Advent next year, 2011, the Church throughout the English-speaking world will begin using a new translation of the Mass. This is the third bulletin letter I have used to start getting you ready for this big change.

You will be pleased to know that the Our Father will not change at all. But a lot of things will change that you say now from memory, including the Gloria, and the Creed. Both of them change in small but substantial ways.

The Gloria will begin: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will. We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father. Which is a better rendition than what we have been using of: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi, propter magnam gloriam tuam, Domine Deus, rex caelestis, Pater omnipotens. You don’t need to be a Latin scholar to see that.

The Profession of Faith will change right at the beginning from We believe to I believe. That better translates the word in Latin, Credo, which is in the first person singular, and reflects that while we all believe it together, we speak of our own, personal belief. Some of the things that we will profess to believe will be changed in formulation as well, including all things visible and invisible; and the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. There are changes like that throughout the Creed. I don’t know about you, but will probably be about ten years before I try that without having the text in front of me!

Right before the Eucharistic prayer, when the priest says Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, you will respond, It is right and just (Dignum et iustum est) instead of It is right to give Him thanks and praise. In the Holy, holy, holy, one little thing will change – Lord God of power and might will become Lord God of hosts. The Priest will leave out, Let us proclaim… and just say, The Mystery of Faith!; then, every one of the memorial acclamations that you can say in response will change, at least a little.

Because all of these texts are changing, something else that we are all familiar with will be changing as well: the music. The musical settings of the English Mass parts that we have all grown accustomed to will be left behind with the old texts – it would be too confusing to try to squeeze new words into old melodies, and new melodies will help us learn the new words. Our music leaders and I will begin working soon on finding the best new settings for us to use. Don’t worry, we will do what it takes to help you learn them – even if that means practicing!

In the face of this change, we of Saint Bernadette have an advantage. We already are familiar with the Mass in its original form, since we have been singing the Latin commons (Gloria, Sanctus, etc.) for over a decade. Did you notice last week that Fr. Bonifacio had no trouble singing along with our Gregorian chant? It is a link for us to Church members around the world whatever languages they speak. And that union in prayer will continue to be enhanced as we plunge more deeply into the Mass and its meaning. God bless you to sing His praises!

Monsignor Smith

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Gears to shift

The First Sunday of Advent next year, 2011, the Church throughout the English-speaking world will begin using a new translation of the Mass. For those of you who were traveling, I introduced this bit of news in my column last weekend.

This is going to be difficult. Our words and actions in the Sacred Liturgy become ingrained in us and come forth without conscious evaluation or decision, so to change them will require an increase in our level of attention. It’s similar referring to “the Archbishop,” and calling him “Your Excellency,” and then having to change to saying, “the Cardinal,” and greet him as, “Your Eminence.” Tricky stuff!

This is going to be good. Challenging though it will be, it will result in more of the meaning of the Mass being revealed in the words that the people and ministers use in its celebration. Almost fifteen years ago, Father Brainerd and I sat down to attempt our own translation of the Mass, for a contest. I learned then how much was in the Mass that our English texts were mis-stating, reducing, or leaving out altogether!

It will require more work of the priests and deacons, I think, because more of the changes are in our parts. But there are changes in the responses of the congregation, too, and at first that is going to mean reading along, and working hard to overcome old habits
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Are you ready for the big one? Whenever the priest says, The Lord be with you, the people will respond….And with your spirit. That makes perfect sense, since the original dialogue is, Dominus vobiscum – Et cum spiritu tuo. That’s familiar Latin even for folks who don’t know the Latin Mass. In Italian, it is E con il tuo spirito; in Spanish, Y con tu espiritu; in French, Et avec votre esprit; and in German, Und mit deinem Geiste. They all say, pretty obviously, and with your spirit.

One might reasonably ask, where did we English-speakers get, And also with you, -- and why have we been using that all these years? I can’t answer that, but I can say again that the original English translation was done in a great hurry, and intentionally dropped some words and concepts that we now know are pretty important and integral to our prayer. Returning the word spirit to our greeting will acknowledge the spiritual aspect of what we are doing in the Mass, that it is not a social gathering.

Increased fidelity to the Mass prayers in their original form is not the only thing that we will gain; there will also be a greater fidelity to the Scriptural roots of the Mass. One of my favorite examples comes when the priest holds up the consecrated Host just before Communion. He will say, Behold the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb. And the people will respond, Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.

I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof is not only a direct translation of the Latin, but it is a direct quote of the Roman centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant (Mt 8:8 and Lk 7:6). It makes clear not only that we are not worthy, but that we are nonetheless going to receive a great guest “under our roof” – in our own flesh!

Don’t worry about memorizing these just yet; I am only giving you examples to help you prepare mentally for all the liturgical preparation we will be doing next year. I hope you’ll be eager enough for the good this will bring, that you will happily share the work of making it happen. God bless your openness!

Monsignor Smith