Saturday, December 27, 2014

From that most gracious hand

‘Tis the weekend after Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature is stirring, except for the Blessed Mother’s pen, scratching out thank-you notes.  Being conceived without sin means never putting them off until things calm down.
Of course all the shepherds get personal notes, and because she is who she is, she probably has a kind word and a treat for the ox and ass, and all the creatures of the stall.  There is even a special something in store for the little drummer boy.  This way, she will not be flustered next weekend, when those unexpected guests arrive bearing gifts, so there is no danger the tags will get lost in the giftwrap, or that she might confuse which king brings gold, and which brings myrrh.
While I dedicate the central effort of my day to giving thanks to God in the Mass, never was the marvel of the Immaculate Conception more clearly distant from my own circumstance than when it comes to the basic work of thanking everybody else.  Faced with the outpouring of grace and glory that is Christmas here, I am grateful for the many generosities and gifts that were offered to God, and to all of us, including me.
First of all, let be noted the amount of hump-busting on the part of the parish staff in the ramp-up to Christmas.  By the time the singing starts, they are all with their families, but a lot of their precious December effort and energy is spent on making this place ready to welcome a newborn King – and all of us who adore him.
Speaking of singing, I would like to thank our singers and musicians without whom it wouldn’t sound like Christmas.  John Henderson, our new music director, showed confidence that it would all come together splendidly, and so it did.   I would like to offer a special shout-out to the kids of our fledgling youth choir.  Speaking of the younger folks, I am never less than bursting with pride in our servers, and the dedication and reverence they contribute to our worship – even in the middle of the night! 
Our church decorators, led by Elaine Vining, Kelly Weisgerber, and Margaret McDermott, had a number of younger helpers, too, many from our Religious Education program.  Many hands make light work and all that, but still: since we do not decorate until it is actually Christmas Eve, they gave a large chunk of that precious day to effect the marvelous and near-instantaneous transfiguration of our church for the celebrations. 
Ushers, lectors, and the dedicated souls who clean and polish the church all take time from their own families to make our corporate worship more complete.  I can’t leave out the Holy Name guys and their helpers who put together the outdoor crèche – and the gentle souls who lovingly restore our ancient, crumbling Nativity figures.  And all your gifts need to be tracked properly, so let’s hear it for our dedicated and only occasionally rowdy counting crew!
Reflecting as we do this weekend on the Holy Family makes me keenly aware of what I have in common with Saint Joseph.  Think about it; living as he did with God incarnate and His Immaculate Mother, whenever anything went wrong around the house, it was pretty clear whose fault it was.  It’s the same around here, but for me.
Every Christmas, every Mass, I see your faces, and hear your voices, and bask in your joy.  I am deeply grateful for you, your presence, your fidelity, your generosity, and your support.  So if anyone, or anything, got left out, not only of this column, but of the opportunity for grace that is the divine life of this parish, that would be my fault.  With my characteristically late and insufficient apologies for the oversight, I promise that I will immediately and without procrastination take the one and only action that has a chance of bearing you the good fruit you deserve: I will ask our Blessed Mother to look after you with a particular grace and gift.  I have no doubt she will quickly come to your aid, because she has already long since finished her own correspondence.

Monsignor Smith

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Erupting into No Man's Land

The array of practices and traditions that surround the celebration of Christmas is so vast as to be impossible to catalogue, from trees and gifts to cookies and carols and beyond, into those unique domestic rituals and inside jokes that every family nurtures without fully knowing quite how they started.  They are individually and collectively delightful and marvelous evidence of our human ability draw together to rejoice with one another.
One look around you over the past four weeks was enough to indicate that something was underway that pulled people together, uniting them in purpose and intention.  Even the generic greeting that public etiquette permits -- “Happy Holidays!”-- speaks in its ubiquity to the power of this season to draw people out of themselves and toward one another.
Happiness and holidays are good things, good for people and good for society, and I try not to go all Grinch on people when they invoke that happiness when I am immersed in Advent and Christmas.  Still I long to say, But wait, there is more, if I may quote an old advertisement. 
A recent column by the Archbishop of Denver, Samuel Aquila, drew my attention to the difference between holidays and holy days.  They draw our attention beyond the horizon of all that we have done and are doing, toward what God has done and is doing.
A … quality of feasts is that they recalibrate our perception of what matters by drawing us out of our everyday existence. When we celebrate holy days, we recall the past events, words and miracles of God, but we also turn our hearts and minds to our future. Doing this reminds us that God loves us, and points us to our ultimate goal in life—living in intimate communion with him forever in heaven.
There is no more basic example of a holy day than Christmas.  It is not when God took flesh as Man (that would be the Annunciation), nor is it when he did his most awesome work of sacrifice for our salvation (that would be the Holy Triduum at Easter).  It is simply when God was born an infant, not so much simply emerging as rather erupting into our human existence.  This direct and simple, immediately recognizable event has amazing power in lives young and old even in our own day.
The proper response, the natural response, the human response is self-evident: O come let us adore Him! as the song so often and so clearly says.  At the heart of our holy days is the holy act of giving God what we owe Him, which in fact is the same as what we long to give Him: our devotion, thanks, and love.  The Christmas Mass is in some way the most natural, most basic, and most intelligible action the Church does.  Thus the Christmas Mass is also in some way the most natural, most basic, and most intelligible action that we people can do.
This divine aspect to our celebration, this Tradition at the heart of our traditions, adds something to our celebration that goes deeper, accomplishes more, and lasts longer than the human fellowship and fun that so many people legitimately but limitedly enjoy in their holidays. 
Archbishop Aquila, whom I have known for years, went on to quote another person I have long venerated:  In his book “Dogma and Preaching,” Cardinal Ratzinger expressed this dimension of feasts beautifully. He wrote, “It means that for the moment he is freed from the stern logic of the struggle for existence and looks beyond his own narrow world to the totality of things. It means that he allows himself to be comforted, allows his conscience to be moved by the love he finds in the God who has become a child, and that in doing so he becomes freer, richer, purer. If we were to try celebrating in this fashion, would not a sigh of relief pass across the world?”
One hundred years ago today, the nations of Europe were at one another’s throats, five months into the First World War.    Hundreds of thousands had already died of the millions who would eventually fall.  But that Christmas, troops on opposite sides of No Man’s Land, soldiers who had been murdering one another, emerged from their trenches and greeted one another with carols and cheer, to shake hands, laugh, talk, and even play sports together.  It was The Christmas Truce of 1914, an example of the “sigh of relief” that Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned. 
The day and the truce passed, and the war in all its savagery ground on. The subsequent Christmas, far less charity was to be found; and Christmases after that, none at all.  I fear that relentlessness set the tone for the century since. 
However, the same grace, mercy and peace that prompted that divine interruption of human misery is as alive and potent as He ever was.  Many of our neighbors will be united in the fun and festivity of the holidays, but that will pass with the brittle trees at the curb and bags of crumpled giftwrap.  You will have at the heart of your traditions that divine infant, that holy child. He will erupt into your family time, into your celebrations, and even into your loneliness.  He will erupt not only into that manger in Bethlehem, but onto this altar in Four Corners.  Come, let us adore Him!  Worship the God who makes your holiday holy days, and gives you joy that will last.
I invite you and your families to turn your minds and your hearts to God, and allow yourselves to be comforted, and allow your consciences to be moved by the love you will find in the God who has become a child.  You will be freer, richer, and purer, and you will be a cause for a sigh of relief from the world.
Any holiday can be happy, but the days touched by God are to be holy.  On behalf of Fathers McCabe and McDonell, and all the generous souls who labor in this parish to bring you grace, I pray that God erupt into your life, and give you and yours, all whom you love, and everyone you encounter, a joyous, blessed, and holy Christmas.
Monsignor Smith

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