Thursday, December 24, 2009

O Holy Night!

O Holy night. There is something particularly evocative about this hymn, which is the combined work of an obscure poet and a famous composer. In the original French, it’s called Minuit, chr├ętiens, or Midnight, Christians, calling our attention not only to the night, but the very moment of the birth of our Savior.

O Holy night. It makes me sense the beauty and intimacy of the birth of Jesus, and the humble harmony of the surroundings as the barn animals, the shepherds, and the heavens themselves rejoiced to welcome Jesus into the dimly lit and chilly stable. What a pleasure and reassurance for me and for you to be able to join in that harmony as we, too, come to adore Him.

If we move past the sweet lyric we all know and welcome, there is also a shock to our egalitarian senses, as we consider the proposal that one night should be holier than any other. If anything, we might concede any specialness to this night because we ourselves make it so: our traditions and our memories, our songs and our celebrations, make it sacred. We ourselves can make things sacred, but remember, this night is in fact holy, touched and changed by God. One objective action occurred in one moment, an action originating in no human hand nor mind. God came to us, and became one of us.

The cold, clear darkness of December, the barren trees, and the precious value of warmth and light help us all to share the sentiments of that moment, the moment when the barren darkness of human life was pierced by the radiant spark of divine life, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The hardy souls who staffed our Christmas tree lot this month – a particularly soggy and chill one – learned how precious are the moments one can huddle by the fire. By contrast, most of the time, our forays into the cold and dark are usually brief, and voluntary; we can quickly return – or choose not to leave at all – the comfy confines of our homes and offices, muzacked malls and the climate-controlled conveyances that shuttle us and our abundances from one pampering place to another. This ease we enjoy in our shirtsleeves can fool us into forgetting how far we have wandered from the sun.

We who enjoy the delights and security of the most prosperous society ever to dwell on this earth remind ourselves of our need for that light and warmth that comes only from God. So not only here, where it is winter -- even in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is high summer, and the tropics, where the sun always shines, the need is still great for the warmth and the light of Jesus.

Our moment, this moment, is needful of divine interruption as was that first Holy Night, when God and Good were far away and all we could manage on our own was disaster. The world around us still bears evidence of our chronic state of failure. It is tempting to think that the right personality, the right plan or program, and enough can-do spirit will bring about peace and security. But we know better; we know that the darkness is too much with us in our human nature.

No wonder so many folks prefer to come to celebrate the birth in the night, whether in the evening, as we wait for the holy moment; or at midnight, the time of mystery and marvel. The dreary desolation of a world who had abandoned God is achieved in a winter’s night, and the futility of human striving summed up in the recurring season of scarcity that surrounded Mary and Joseph as they made their way to Bethlehem and vainly sought rest and warmth of human making.

It is so good to know that whatever darkness is in our lives, whatever relations have gone cold, God takes the initiative to pour Himself into our world and forever change it, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye. As we remember and relive the moment that Jesus was born on earth, let us look to God for a moment when He erupts into our lives, a holy moment, a life-changing moment, a moment of divine peace and reconciliation.

This night, together as God’s people on earth, we have the privilege of recalling the circumstances that preceded the moment of Christ’s birth, and the change that moment wrought on every instant of every life that followed. The weather, and the long dark night, cooperate to remind us what we need from Him, and what, or Who, he gives us. O night divine, O night, when Christ was born!

For Father DeRosa and Father Nick, Ryan, Delfina, Jackie, Margie, and the whole rectory crew, please allow me to convey to you my heartfelt prayers that you and your dear ones know the touch of our Divine Savior this holy night. God bless you all with joy, and merry Christmas!

Monsignor Smith

Friday, December 18, 2009

Angels we have heard

Gloria in excelsis Deo! No, the angels of Christmas Eve are not here a week early; it is what happened in our own church this past weekend as the bags and boxes of gifts accumulated under our sharing tree. Glory to God in the highest is what was given by each and every act of generosity, and Glory to God in the highest is what we proclaim when we unite in His work as the Body of Christ on earth.

Et in terra pax hominbus bonae voluntatis, for this is the fruit of doing the work of Glory. You should have seen all the gifts that were piled up; each and every one of them will touch a heart with peace, for it is the result of human care for another. And on earth, peace to men of goodwill: God’s glory and the service thereof result in peace, and that peace will take hold of all who are willing to receive it.

So, my thanks to all who participated in this glorious work, and Doris Poole, Kellie Hanrahan, Lizanne Ganiban, and all who worked so hard to give us this opportunity to live our Christian love.

Gloria in excelsis Deo! Everybody, not only Catholics, knows this opening of the Angelic Hymn in Latin. These lines we sing or say after our penitential beginning of Mass are the angel’s greeting to the shepherds that holy night, and Latin is the language of the Church who sings it into our own day. Since I’ve been writing lately of some of the things that the Second Vatican Council forty-five years ago changed about our celebration of the Mass, we should note that Latin too has virtually disappeared.

Except, of course, that was not what the Church wanted, or asked for. Sure, we’re allowed to use English here in the US – or Spanish or Vietnamese or whatever we speak -- insofar as it helps us understand or participate in certain texts of the Mass, especially the Scripture readings. In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and "the common prayer," but also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people, according to the norm laid down. But did you know that the very next sentence is of this Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is: Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass that pertain to them. (Article 54)

So, for more than ten years, here at Saint Bernadette, during Advent and Lent we have used the simple, unadorned Gregorian Chant for those parts of the Mass we say every day, the meaning of which we all know in the language of our hearts. We also during the rest of the year sing that same Gloria in the setting known as “the Mass of the Angels,” in Latin, but familiar to us all. The beautifully sung Ave Maria everyone wants at funerals and weddings is only a small part of our Latin-language inheritance we all treasure. This is the treasure we need to maintain.

Dona nobis pacem. This is our prayer at every Mass, and especially poignant as we move closer to the feast of the arrival of that Peace. Grant us peace! We pray; God hears us, and sends His Son. Deo gratias!

Monsignor Smith

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another Favorite Thing

Get me started talking about the Mass and what I love about it, and I will have a hard time stopping. Thank God Jesus called me to be a priest, so I can keep going, and know that I am doing the job He gave me!

Last week I shared with you my delight in the enriched Lectionary that presents our Scriptural texts for Mass throughout the year, and how its three-year cycle is a fruit of the Second Vatican Council that not only enriched the Mass, but also makes sure we Catholics all have greater familiarity with and understanding of the Bible.

Because I have learned and come to like the Mass as it was celebrated before the Council, often called the Tridentine or Latin Mass, I also have an enhanced understanding of and appreciation for the Mass called for by the Council. It’s rather like meeting and becoming friends with the parents of someone who has been your best friend for years; knowing them, you understand him and love him all the more.

One of the things I really missed most in the Latin Masses I was celebrating for my previous parish was the General Intercessions. These prayers, after the Creed, are when we pray for particular and universal needs as a body in worship. It is how we bring prayer to bear on our world, our nation, and our community. We respond to crises far away (a Pacific tsunami) and nearby (a sick baby). We liturgically engage important events that are not liturgical (Mother’s Day, presidential inaugurations). While the prayers are by definition to be general (for the Church, or for the dead), they also give us a chance to mention, in context, particular needs of interest to us (the Pope’s visit, or a parishioner’s dad who died).

Before the change, the Mass texts were all the same, every place, at all times. Now, that is still true – as well as fitting and good -- for much, even most of the Mass. Before, the only things that changed according to situation and community were the homily, and the announcements. Now, with the General Intercessions, there is a means to engage the whole worshipping body and bring the power of liturgical prayer to concerns and considerations particular to the time and place of the actual community.

Recently, while re-reading Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, I was startled to see how few changes to the Mass were specifically identified, but that among them was this: Especially on Sundays and feasts of obligation there is to be restored, after the Gospel and the homily, "the common prayer" or "the prayer of the faithful." By this prayer, in which the people are to take part, intercession will be made for Holy Church, for the civil authorities, for those oppressed by various needs, for all mankind, and for the salvation of the entire world. (Article 53)

So imagine my surprise when, having on my own identified the most important and useful changes made in the celebration of the Holy Mass for the good of the People of God, I found that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council agreed with me all along. And all this they figured out the year before I was born! It takes me back to that time when, having completed my appointed time of being a teenager, I realized that my mom and dad were really pretty smart people after all. Thank God!

Monsignor Smith

Monday, December 07, 2009

Our Richer Fare

Before we could all begin Advent last week, a few changes had to be made in the church. The sacristans and I set about it right after the Saturday morning Mass. You probably noticed the violet hangings and simpler altar cloths, and certainly the Advent wreath. Less visible were the changes in the liturgical books.

Advent begins the liturgical year, so the books from which we celebrate the Mass are all reset to the beginning pages. For the Lectionary, the book from which we read the Sacred Scriptures at Mass, we even had to change volumes. Having just finished Year B, in which the Gospel according to Saint Mark is featured, we are now in Year C, when we hear from Saint Luke. One more year, for Saint Matthew, rounds out this three-year lectionary cycle of readings for Sunday Mass.

Each Gospel reading is accompanied by first reading from either the Old Testament (most of the year) or the Acts of the Apostles or Revelation (during the Easter season.) Don’t worry; we haven’t forgotten Saint John! His Gospel, which is less of a chronological narrative (“synoptic”) of Jesus’ life and work, is featured heavily on Holy Days and other occasions.

That’s only Sundays. On weekdays throughout the year, the readings are on a two-year cycle; we just started Year II. The Gospel selections are the same for both years, but the first readings and psalms change.

This may strike you as arcane information, but just think about it for a second. There is system behind the readings at Mass, and if you attend faithfully for three years, you will hear a broad, carefully charted sweep of the whole Bible. Then, it will be time to start afresh. If you attend weekday Mass regularly, you’ll get even more!

Most of you know that a few years back, I had to learn how to celebrate the old form (Latin!) of the Mass, and that I came to appreciate it. But I also came to a deeper appreciation of particular aspects the Mass since the Second Vatican Council, forty-five years ago. The richer, deeper lectionary is definitely one of them. In the old Mass, the readings were the same every year, and there was only one reading before the Gospel, usually an Epistle. The Scriptural texts were more concentrated, and thematically linked – and shorter! However, this is another example of when less is most definitely not more.

As article 51 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, declared, The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's Word. In this way a more representative portion of the Holy Scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.

While the Council directed the actions only of the Church, you may find it interesting to know that since then, a number of protestant ecclesial communities have adopted similar three-year lectionaries, even some that beforehand had no prescribed lectionary at all to provide Scripture selections for their worship.

As we approach the lavish banquet spread for us by the Lord Jesus, who feeds our hungry hearts, let us be grateful for this richer fare of God’s sacred Word, that continually feeds us with the truth and beauty of His plan for us and our salvation, His grace, mercy, and peace, and His love in Christ Jesus, His Word become flesh.

Monsignor Smith