Saturday, December 28, 2013

Keeps on giving

Resolutions come with the New Year, supposedly, but for us Christians they come any time we repent and resolve (resolution, see?) to do better in the future.  This month I have been working to be better at giving thanks, both to God and to people who are good to me.
There is a lot of gratitude to be given now.  First I would like to thank everyone who made our Christmas Masses so beautiful.  While many folks were working hard just to get themselves and their families to Mass, these people made Mass a priority around which the rest of their Christmas responsibilities had to be arranged.  They did it for you as much as for me, and I am grateful. 

Not only did the choirs work for weeks under Rob Barbarino to prepare the music that we all love to sing and hear, but also some kids even postponed their presents to serve at the altar, and families rearranged dinner so we could have lectors and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.  The latter – along with the ushers who gather your offerings to God – are some of the people who have the biggest impact on how long Mass goes.  They all spent a lot of their time to make our sacred time so beautiful!

The rectory staff worked double hard to make sure everything was lined up, and Norma, Dao, Elaine Vining and untold number of helpful hands decorated the church so beautifully.   Our Holy Name guys (and friends) got the crèche set up outside so that even passers-by on the boulevard could adore the newborn King.   And have you ever noticed -- and appreciated – how clean our church always is?  Our cleaners work extra hard before and after Christmas, especially Chief Bottle Washer Mary Konschnik.  The counters came in before they even cleaned up their own homes after the Big Day to handle the gifts that you brought to lay before the King.
Mass takes a lot of work; big Masses on big days take lots and lots of work, and lots of people to do it.  I am grateful, and thank everyone who brought his or her time, talent, and effort to our worship, and I hope you do too. 

But also I want to thank, and direct your thankfulness toward, another effort.  In the month leading up to Christmas, we presented to major opportunities to give.  I think it was more than just “holiday spirit” at work here among you.

The Giving Tree response this year was awesome as ever.  Thanks first to our new Chairman of Social Concerns, Daina Scheider, who led the charge with help from her own Team Scheider, and strong showings too from friends and volunteers, plus emeriti Kelly Hanrahan and Doris Poole.  Initial assessment is that it took six vehicles – two of them pickup trucks – to haul all of the gifts to their eager recipients.  I thank you for this annual demonstration of your genuine care for people close to home.

Also, when we heard of the horrible typhoon in the Philippines, I quickly announced we would be accepting donations from you to forward as aid, even before I knew whether the Archdiocese would be organizing anything.  Your response was immediate and unstinting.  So far, we have forwarded a remarkable $6,629.54 to Catholic Relief Services.  All of it goes to relief.  All of it.  I am grateful we have a way we can be sure our efforts result in aid, and I am grateful to all of you for manifesting your care for people far away.

So this weekend that we celebrate the Holy Family, we celebrate also the holiness of our families, where the work of salvation is done first, as the faith and the truth are shared and lived.  God bless you for the ways you manifest that faith and that holiness here in our parish, and in the world.  Peace to you in the new Year of Grace, and always.

Monsignor Smith

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's about time

We wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!  The two run together so naturally.  Another year; who would have thought it so soon? The parish calendars came in, right after Thanksgiving.  I hope you have picked one up by now; they are pretty good this year.  I am grateful to the folks at Collins for providing them to us each year!

Already it is going to be 2014.  Since I am a history buff, my mind runs immediately to realize this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.  We are also still in the midst of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.   Okay, that may not be what is on your mind as we celebrate these holy days of peace and joy, but in my own defense I ask, how better to mark what peace we do have, than by recalling some of the alternatives?

But a day, a date, a calendar  -- they signify something.  What will this year mean when folks look back on it?  What great historical events will have unfolded before us?  Closer to home, that question is easier to answer, especially for some of our families.

June 4, July 22, July 25, September 12, November 9, November 23, and December 8 are already marked as world-changing, at least for the MacMillan, Mariconti, Baker, DellaCrosse, Beegle, Dennis, and Petnuch families, respectively.  On those days, they welcomed newborn family members, new lives, never before seen on the face of the earth; lives whose unfolding lies before them, wrapped in mystery and promise.

Their calendars are already marked, though not by pen or text.  Their calendars are marked by life and grace, and those days forever changed.

The very year that begins, 2014, is marked by the count of years since the world was changed by a life who is Life Himself.  The way, the truth, and the life lay suckling at the breast of the mother who gave Him flesh.   The world was changed, but the unfolding of that life still lay wrapped in mystery and promise.

We call it AD 2014, or Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord.  Every day, every date is changed by that day and what it welcomed into the light of day.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  (Jn 1:5)

Our celebrations of this day and this birth unfold in real time.  The liturgy of the Church marks hour by hour the entry into time of the eternal, that is, timeless God.  Listen to the prayers, listen to the texts at the Mass you attend. 

The five and nine o’clock Masses on Christmas Eve are Masses of Vigil, that is, keeping watch for what is about to happen.  Christ is about to be born, and all the promises and prophecies of God to come and live with, come and save his people, are pregnant with the expectation of fulfillment.
It is in the silence of the night that God arrvives.  The Mass at Midnight welcomes the birth of Christ.  So few witnesses are present for the actual event; only the parents, and the animals of the stall, in whose feed-trough He is laid, foreshadowing the Eucharistic food His flesh is to become.  Even the first to come, the shepherds who receive the news from the angels, arrive after the fact.

And so do all the other witnesses, all the rest of the world, learn about the birth of the Savior when the long darkness of the winter night gives way to the morning light.  The Mass at Dawn, here at 8:15, rejoices in these encounters.

And ever since, we have lived in the light of love of God, made visible in the person of Christ.  The Mass of Christmas Day, at eleven o’clock in the full light of the midwinter sun, weak by comparison, finds the work of salvation already underway, much as is the day itself, the feast, and the celebration well underway by that late hour.  Those who come are already rejoicing, their anticipation satisfied, the gift received, the great Guest welcomed.

Each hour, each Mass, has a distinct character, as time itself is sanctified by the arrival of the living God.  Each is a new encounter, a new beginning of salvation.
Each day God, who has entered the world and entered time, arrives to enter our lives.  Each day new lives are welcomed into His world, arriving as he did, helpless, but bearing hope.  Every life has the promise of the fullness of joy, the delight of peace, and the perfection of life that this one life made available that one day.

So we mark all our days and all our years from that day of that year.  This Year of the Lord can and will be for each of us also a Year of Grace.  Because God is with us.

And so speaking for Fathers McDonell and McCabe, all the pastoral staff and parochial team here at Saint Bernadette, it is my happy duty and blessed pleasure to assure you that I pray for you and your family, those closest to you, and those who are too far away, all the peace and joy of this truly holy day, and with an eye on the hand of the Infant King upon you, to wish you a Merry Christmas, and a happy, holy, and joyful New Year.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 21, 2013

May the circle be ever broken

If you get some quality time with your beloved, whether for a first date or a fiftieth anniversary, do you fill that time with monologues about yourself?  This can be the yardstick we use for our conversation and communion with the One who loves us, loved us first, and loves us more. 

Back in the 1960’s, Father Avery Dulles, SJ, was living and working in Baltimore, and helping out at nearby Ss. Philip and James Church.  It was the time of turmoil after the Second Vatican Council, and the lid was off the liturgy.  Experimentation and self-expression were the watchwords.  He arrived at the parish one Sunday to find that someone had hung a banner from the ambo (remember the halcyon days of handmade banners?) that proclaimed “God Is Other People.”

Later in his remarkable life, when he was widely recognized as the leading theologian of the United States, he received the “red hat” from Blessed Pope John Paul II and became Cardinal Dulles.  He enjoyed recounting that incident in Baltimore, saying he wanted nothing so much as to have a large marker, so he could lean down from the ambo and put a comma after the word “other.”  God is other, people!  God is not us. 

So, yes, in fact, “We Are Called,” and “We Are the Body of Christ.”  Both are true.  But who is the subject of such songs, and who the intended audience?  Both enclose in their circular gaze the self-centered singers, and thereby close out the One toward whom all glory, laud and honor is due.

This closed circle was our reality, the reality of all mankind, and it was miserable -- until that moment when God in His wisdom broke in to it.  Where there was only the darkness of sinful man, God chose to pitch His tent, and dwell among us.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  (Jn 1:5)

The other evening I was driving with Fr. McDonell and put on my old mix of Christmas music.  Though I get pretty immersed in the waiting aspect of Advent, I told him that if I do not make an effort to start listening to Christmas music by Gaudete Sunday, I will not have a homily for Christmas. 

That got me reflecting that the treasury of great Christmas music is the best music there is.  This music is so excellent, so beloved, and so irresistible that it makes its way into malls and parties and ice rinks and even television and radio.  Right alongside all the generic seasonal stuff about snowmen and reindeer and chestnuts, trees and parties and cheer, there is the unambiguous announcement of the birth of God in Jesus.

Because God became man, we can sing to Him.  Because He has a face, we can sing about him and describe Him.  Because he has a home and a mother, we can announce and identify Him, and invite people to worship Him -- all with songs that are better than any commercial advertising could ever be.

These songs are loved because they are great, and they are great because they are about Jesus.  He is Joy to the World in the middle of the Silent Night.  Let our voices unite in giving Glory to the Newborn King, for at the heart of our festive assembly is more than the sum of our own efforts, more than just us; here is Emmanuel -- God with us.  O come, O come!

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 14, 2013

do, re, … ME!

Egocentrism is not my thing, so you could legitimately be wondering why I have spent two weeks talking about the use of first person pronouns in the liturgy.  If you have been around here long enough, you know that the Mass is our most important act of worship, and therefore the most important act in our relationship with God.  You know that what we do at Mass both expresses that relationship, and shapes it.

Therefore the words we use at Mass have an impact on our understanding of God and our relationship to Him.  Because they shape and form both, the prayers and verses are carefully chosen; they are the work of two millennia of discernment and direction by the Church.  The priest cannot change, adjust, tweak, or replace the words in the Missal.  So we must also turn a careful eye to the words of the songs that we add to that sacred script.

Over the past fifty years, Catholics everywhere have embraced the celebration of Mass in their own languages.  They have not only composed new musical settings of the words of the Mass, but also added songs.  Not all of these songs have been good.

In the United States and many other English-speaking lands, the texts of these songs have represented a trend in the wider culture toward self-centeredness.  The characteristic cohort of this time period is widely known as the “Me Generation,” and the songs it gave us bear out that nickname.

One of the types of songs that mark this period is what I call, “Songs About Us.”  Perhaps the most egregious of this genre is the old saw, “Gather Us In,” which is ostensibly addressed to God, but spends much of its time focused on, well, the singing us -- culminating in the dubious assertion, “We have been sung throughout all of hist’ry.”  Another remarkably me-oriented song is the very popular, “Here I Am, Lord.”  Really?  Really?  Is THAT the big news of the moment?  The list goes on and on; examine them.  Is the first person used in the songs the way it is in the actual texts of the Mass?  No.

But worse than that is the other type, the “I Am God Songs.”   Not content to be about us as we are, these songs allow us to speak for God, to speak as God.  “Eagles Wings” is a great hit of the era.  But honestly, which of us will do it – “Raise you up on eagles’ wings,” that is?  Much less hold anyone in the palm of our hand.  What about, “Be Not Afraid?”  I, for one, do not go before you always.  Do you know any earthly person who does?  And I want to be clear about another thing:  I know the Bread of Life; I spend lots of time with the Bread of Life; but I am not the Bread of Life.  So I surely will not raise you or anyone else up on the last day!  Do you know anybody who will?  Who could that be, I wonder? 

Check your favorite songs of the past several decades for these tendencies.   Of course they bring back fond memories; of course they are associated with moments of divine grace in your life – because you sang them at Mass!  God happens at Mass, even when we are singing about ourselves!  You remember that grace, and rightly are happy for it.  But these songs did not help you appreciate or receive that grace.  In fact, I submit that they impaired our understanding of it, and maybe even our reception of it. 

Yes, I say “our” because I lived and prayed with these songs for much of my life too.  I have fond memories of some, even.   But it was always a question in my mind, why are we singing about ourselves, if we are here to worship God?  This fixation with us, this assertion of ourselves in the context of Mass has lead to a confusion, and perhaps even sometimes a substitution, of ourselves for Whom we worship.  Worship, like this column, is not about me.

Monsignor Smith