Saturday, December 29, 2012

What the Family offers

The last weekend of the year is for the family.  We save this weekend for the Family of the Lord, that is, the Living God who entrusted himself to a mother and a foster father and counted on them to care for Him and teach Him.  All that the Lord allowed Himself to need, he trusted His family to provide. 
We too rejoice in these days in our families.  Those on whom we depended for everything, and who depend for everything upon us, are at the center of our schedules in these days after Christmas and before the new year commences to grind away.  This is what I think of when I think of “quality time.” 
I want to ask you to join me in thanking our family member here in the parish for all they did that you may or may not have noticed to bring so much beauty to our family Christmas.  Our church decorating team, who gives of their limited Christmas Eve hours, and the Holy Name men who assembled the outdoor crèche, and to the “arrangers” who arranged for things to be beautiful in the rectory as well as the church. 
The choirs, musicians, and their director; the leaders of the Children’s Liturgy; the ushers; and all the Extraordinary Ministers who helped distribute Holy Communion, especially at the vast Vigil Mass Christmas Eve.   I am particularly grateful to my altar servers, who are awesome in their skill and service, and who make our Masses so good without drawing attention to themselves.  That is a gift!   All of this is true service.
Our sacristy team – first, second, and third string, all of them mobilized – and staff worked like fiends, or at least elves, to handle all the logistics.  Picture what you would have to do if nine hundred people were coming to your house for dinner!  Then do it four more times.
I also want to ask you to I would like to ask you to join me in thanking two priests who have helped me in these last weeks when I was guarding the fort alone:  Msgr. Thomas Olszyk, of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, who helped with several 6:30 Masses (6:30 in the morning!), before he headed back to Wisconsin to visit his family; and Father William Gurnee, who helped with weekend and weekday and Christmas Masses, and kept me company over Christmas Eve night to boot.  He’s my hero!
Also, while we are meditation on family this weekend, I get to thank my family for coming to visit me.  Normally I dodge off after Christmas to inflict myself on my parents and at least one of my sisters, but not this year.  Can’t.  Only one here.  So, Mom and Dad decided to check and see if I was faking my excuse, or truly was holding down Fortress Saint Bernadette solo.  As usual, they’ll be lurking inconspicuously, so good luck finding them, but join me in thanking them for working to keep up my morale!
I also want to thank you for all the care and patience you have shown me personally over the last few weeks.  The gifts and goodies, the cards -- especially the ones with pictures, and double-especially the ones with newsletters (I really read and enjoy them all!) -- and for the invitations and encouraging words.  I appreciate the sympathy for being on my own this year, and am grateful I have the opportunity to be your priest.
There is no better way to nurture your own family ties, to thank and earn the gratitude of those who give you most and count on you most, than to come together to the Holy Mass.  In this great Family Feast, we receive the very life of our souls and our selves, and to receive Him together unites us in flesh and faith.  The frequent family dinner table is second only to this feast in building up what makes family, family; that includes gratitude.
And so as you offer your thank-yous to everyone who gave to you in recent weeks, join me in giving thanks to everyone who made it possible and beautiful and delightful to do what we the Church do that no other family can do, that is, in the Holy Eucharist on the feast of Christ Himself, give thanks to God.
Monsignor Smith

Monday, December 24, 2012

Preparing our Nativity Scenes

A friend of mine is expecting his first child any day now.  I met him a long time ago, when he was an undergraduate and I was in seminary.  We each pursued our life’s adventures far and near, losing touch and making contact over the years, until just a few years ago I was pleased to help him and his splendid wife prepare for marriage.  Her pregnancy brought them back to Washington this summer, and I have been pleased to visit with them several times.  As the due date grew near and I was checking in by email, I expressed my hope that we will see one another soon, writing: I gather you'll be around here over the coming weeks, building your own Nativity scene.  Can't wait to see.
Only as I was writing that, did I realize the ramifications of what I was saying.  Now, he may in fact be setting up somewhere in his home a little diorama of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, perhaps with a king or camel.  It may even be elaborate, but I doubt it requires as much skill and effort as the one our Holy Name men put up in front of the church each year!  But that was not what I was talking about.
One day I helped them carry things up to their third-floor apartment, and then they gave me the grand tour.  They showed me the room that would be for the baby, and some of the furniture and other items that they were preparing even back in summertime.   But even building a crib, or the purchase of what these days pass for swaddling clothes, was not what I had in mind
He and his wife are preparing to welcome the arrival of their child, a nativity that will change them, and moreover, it will change the world.  This new relationship will take first place in their lives, and will level demands upon them without articulating a word.  The demands of love cannot be resisted, nor can they be resented.
Just as I was impatient for news from my friend, our eagerness for Christmas, the anticipation of Christ’s birth, reveals the particular delight God elicits from us by coming as a tiny child.  But we can no sooner turn away from His ongoing requirements once He presents Himself, than parents can from their own child.  God who has revealed Himself to us first as a loving Father, now enters our lives as a dependent child.
My friend is reordering his life to make a space for this new-born life, as if building a new home.  It is a nativity scene that is not frozen in time, but extends farther than he can plan or even picture.  This is what he and his wife is building now for their child, and this is what God gives us an opportunity to do for Jesus at His birth.
God’s sign is simplicity.  God’s sign is the baby.   God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us.  This is how he reigns.  He does not come with power and outward splendor.  He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help.  He asks for our love; so he makes himself a child.    (Pope Benedict XVI)
Without hammer or nail, without statue or figurine, may God help you build a Nativity scene this holy day.  Let Christ be born to you and yours, and may he reign over you in His small, simple way.  Without a word, he demands only your love; this is the yoke that is easy, and the burden that is light.  Behold, He comes.  A blessed Christmas to you!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The voice of one crying in the wilderness

Our Holy Father writes just like he talks.
I must confess that I was having just a bit of fun at his expense today, as I was discussing his latest book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  It is the third volume of his reflection on the person of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels, and I am reading it with some zeal in hopes of gleaning insights and observations that will help my preaching now during late Advent and at Christmas. 
To tell the truth, I was talking about how the writing in the book is so much like his speech: soft, gentle, and even.  Add a German accent, and it is almost a caricature.  Every word is carefully chosen, every sentence is nuanced and balanced with insight and information; nothing is too heavy or complicated.  He never repeats himself, even for emphasis, and exaggeration is not one of his tools.  He writes just like he talks, with care, and attention, but also with fascination and delight.  The delight is something he wants to share with you; the fascination is something we want to share with him.
You see, I can do a bit of a German accent myself, and I know what his soft voice sounds like.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?  I can reel off a line or two from the book and it sounds just like Pope Benedict XVI is talking to you.  Sort of.
That this came up in conversation today is a clue to just how intimate an experience it is to read what our Holy Father has written.  He has even published it under his baptismal name, Joseph Ratzinger, rather than the name he took upon being elected Successor to Saint Peter.  It is almost as if his office of Sovereign Pontiff and all the attendant ceremony did not exist at all.  
This book is not only a chance to learn what it would be like to have a personal conversation with the Pope because of how he writes, but also because of what he writes about.  These are obviously the thoughts and reflections that he most enjoys exploring and understanding.  Savoring the words of Scripture and drawing closer to the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph whom they reveal is his great delight.  And he wants us to take part in that delight with him.
Do not miss the opportunity to give your mind and your heart this richer experience of the Birth of Our Lord.  Of all the books, articles, labels, and signs you will read this month, there is none that will do for you nearly as much good as this personal conversation in print with the wise and learned man who also happens to be head of Christ’s Church on Earth.  Grab a copy for yourself, and a few to give as late Christmas gifts, and then put aside anything else you have been reading to walk through the beginning of Christ’s life on earth with such a guide.  It is less than 150 pages; you can give that much time and energy to the Newborn King, can’t you?  He will doubtless reward your attention.
You might chuckle at the Holy Father’s gentle and direct writing style, especially if you read it with a slight German accent.  You will definitely share the joy he shows in uncovering such wondrous aspects of the coming of God as Man.  But while this book will teach you something about how our Holy Father speaks, you will also learn something else very characteristic of him. 
If you talk to people who have been in a conversation or conference with Joseph Ratzinger before or after he became Pope Benedict XVI, they will tell you how carefully, respectfully, and delightedly attentive he is.  Before he speaks, and far more than he speaks, whether to the Word of God or the words of any man, with his heart as well as with his mind, our Holy Father listens.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Comin' up rose

This is the weekend that everybody knows: the pink candle, the rose vestments, and the funny name:  Gaudete Sunday.  The first two elements are clear in everyone’s mind.  The pink candle is the third one lit on the Advent wreath, which takes its color from the rose vestments the clergy wear at Mass on this day and this day only in Advent.  Together they reveal a brief brightening in our outlook even as we long in darkness for the coming of light at Christmas.  It is a break, if you will, from the yearning and preparation that characterize the season as we await our Savior, a pause to reflect all the good that God has already done for us.
But why the funny name?  There is no better occasion than today to discuss the element of the Mass called antiphons, because that name comes from the Entrance Antiphon for the Third Sunday in Advent: Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, gaudete.  Deus enim prope est. (Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near.)  Ergo Gaudete Sunday.
The antiphons are the texts of the Mass that are meant to be sung at the entrance of the procession to the sanctuary (the Entrance Antiphon); at the preparation of the offerings (the Offertory Antiphon) and during the Communion of the people (the Communion Antiphon).  They reveal and emphasize the distinctive characteristics of that day’s Mass, often echoing passages from the Scripture readings assigned to that day.  Sometimes they juxtapose elements of two or more of the readings, for example, from the Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament Epistle, to emphasize how they relate to one another to reveal something about Christ.  Whatever the source of their texts, the antiphons are proper to that particular Mass, that is, they are unique and distinctive to that day.
For centuries, these texts have been sung at Mass, set to music that emphasized the meaning of the texts and the mood of the celebration, precisely because they are unique to each Sunday or holy day and therefore convey the essence of what is being celebrated that day.  However, because there are unique antiphons for each major day throughout the Church year, and there is different music for each one of them, it takes many years of using these prayers that occur only once a year before they become familiar.
Last week, I mentioned that the hymns and songs we have been using at Mass for the past forty years were inserted there instead of something; it is instead of these antiphons.  With the change of the Mass to English, none of the hundreds of texts was familiar and none had music for singing it, except in Latin. 
Now, often in conjunction with the release of the new English translation of the Missal, these antiphons are finally available in musical settings for all the Masses celebrated throughout the year.  Because the antiphons are the most distinctive sung element of any particular Mass, their contribution to both our experience and understanding of the Mass of the day is vital. 
We are finally able to restore this indispensible element to our celebration of the Holy Mass here at Saint Bernadette.  Listen to the tone of the music and reflect on the text of each antiphon as it is sung, and you will be drawn more deeply into the mystery of the day’s celebration.  You will find relationships revealed in the Scripture readings and overarching themes clarified.  The working of the powerful prayer that is the liturgical re-presentation of our salvation will be more intelligible.  You will have a richer experience of every Mass throughout the year, and when the pink candle is lit, the joyful command Gaudete will be more than just a funny name.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 08, 2012

What's on your sandwich?

The four-hymn sandwich. It is a nickname for the structure of music at most Masses in the United States over the last forty years, perhaps not a complimentary one.  You know them: the entrance, offertory, Communion, and recessional hymns. 
You may be surprised to learn that hymns are not part of the Mass.   Before 1965, the congregation might be given a hymn to sing at one or two places in the Mass, because there was nothing else for them to do - the priest alone had all the prayers, in Latin, often inaudibly, and for long stretches of time.  But after the changes of the Second Vatican Council, the texts of the Mass were suddenly available in the local language - English in our case – but there was no music for them.  Catholics had always sung the prayers and texts of the Mass, but in the rush to abandon Latin this practice was lost.  So people became accustomed to singing hymns and songs instead.
These hymns and songs inserted were from many sources; some old ones both Catholic and Protestant, and some newly written.  Their suitability for the Catholic Mass, as well as their musical and theological value, was uneven at best.  The reason the Protestants have so many hymns is that their Sunday worship lacks the sacramental, liturgical character that marks the Church's worship, so those hymns, while splendid, do not necessarily enhance the Mass. 
Having grown up entirely in this time of liturgical transition, I have personally experienced almost every attempt that has been made to apply music to the Mass in English.  Some were more successful than others.  One of the things that has bothered me since I was a little kid was the insistence that a communion song be sung by the people while they are receiving Holy Communion.  It was obvious to me as a twelve-year-old, and ever since, why so few people would actually sing then.  First, it is a logistical challenge to carry and read the music while moving toward the Eucharist.  Then, having received, it is no longer possible to sing - it would be the liturgical equivalent of talking with our mouth full!
The other hymn I began to wonder about more recently is the recessional. It struck me once I was a priest celebrant that I didn't know whether I was supposed to leave as soon as the hymn started or wait at the chair or in front of the altar, so I could sing the whole hymn, then walk out.  You all know how much I enjoy singing; that wasn't the problem.  But it wasn't only a problem for me; people didn't know what to do. The priest says mass is over, go - but then, there's more to do!  At the Basilica of the National Shrine, they print a little admonition to respect their tradition and stay until the hymn is finished. That didn't satisfy me either.  The Mass is truly over - look in the missal: after the dismissal, the priest and ministers depart, and that's all there is.  Why add something?  It would seem that everyone else can depart too - though etiquette has always been that the people wait at least until the priest has left.
I encountered a solution to both these hymn dilemmas at a friend’s parish in Greenville, South Carolina.  Instead of singing during Holy Communion and after the end of Mass, have one hymn after everyone has received the Eucharist, before the Prayer After Communion concludes the Communion Rite.  Hands and mouths are free to sing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving.  Then, after the prayer and dismissal (and perhaps some announcements) it is only a moment before the dismissal and the true end of Mass - the priest exits, and so can everyone else.  There is no conflict about whether to sing or depart or anything else, only some walking-out music for everyone, called a Postlude.  It is both more practical and more liturgical.  
And best of all, Mass begins to look more like the Mass and less like a sandwich.
Monsignor Smith