I know some of you have been thinking: “The Fr. Kevin Reflections are going off into areas that I have a hard time grasping…what is he doing?” Well, that thought goes right along with this week’s readings at Mass. God is constantly reminding us: It’s His reality…not ours…that counts. As Elijah understands…God is not in the wind storm. Nor the earthquake, nor the raging fires that make mankind tremble in fear…it is in the whispering sound that causes Elijah to hit the ground. The same is true with Peter…he gets in trouble when he allows “earthly reality” to cloud his thinking.
With the reflections for the next few months, I am going to ask you to suspend the “practical” way of reading the reflections…and be a little impractical. Let the mind escape from the way the world thinks…and focus on the “rules of the game” that God sets before us in the practice of: our worship, our liturgy…our faith.
You may remember me referring to the liturgy and the worship of God as a “play” or “game”. There are rules that come with playing any game. To play it right, you have to suspend our day to day routine and join the rest of the team. This is similar to the liturgy. We “play” as God wants us to “play the game”. This application of the “play-theory” distinguishes the liturgy by its essence from the ordinary kinds of playing (which doubtless always contain a longing for the real “game”) for a wholly different world in which order and freedom are the same (compared to the superficial, utilitarian, or humanly vacuous aspects of ordinary play.) The “play-theory” of our liturgy brings out what is special and different about that “play” of Wisdom the Bible speaks about, (the actions found in the Bible that can be compared to the liturgy). I have to admit…this analogy still lacks something, something essential. The idea of a life to come appears only as a vague assumption. The reference to God, without Whom the “life to come” would only be a wasteland…remains quite uncertain. Let me try another approach, this time starting from specific biblical texts.
Those particularly who have been at the Bible study on Tuesdays may remember the accounts of the events leading up to Israel’s flight from Egypt (as well as in those that describe the flight itself)…the Exodus appears to have two distinct goals. The first, which is familiar all of us, is the reaching of the Promised Land, in which Israel will at last live on its own soil and territory (with secure borders, as a people with the freedom and independence proper to it). But we also hear repeatedly of the second goal…God’s original command to Pharaoh runs like this: “Let my people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (cf. Ex 7:16). These words—“Let my people go, that they may serve Me”—are repeated four times, with slight variations, in all the meetings of Pharaoh with Moses and Aaron (cf. Ex 8:1; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3). In the course of the negotiations with Pharaoh, the goal becomes more concrete. Pharaoh shows he is willing to compromise. For him the issue is the Israelites’ freedom of worship, which he first of all concedes in the following form: “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land” (Ex 8:25). But Moses insists—in obedience to God’s command—that they must go out in order to worship. The proper place of worship is the wilderness: “We must go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as he will command us” (Ex 8:27). (In other words…telling the government and its leaders…we have to worship the way God wants it…no one else…no other power). After the plagues that follow, Pharaoh extends his compromise. He now concedes that worship according to the will of the Deity should take place in the wilderness, but he wants only the men to leave: the women and children, together with the cattle, must stay in Egypt. (He is assuming the current religious practice, according to which only men are active participants in worship.) But Moses cannot negotiate about the liturgy with a foreign sovereign, nor can he subject worship to any form of political compromise. The manner in which God is to be worshipped is not a question of political feasibility. It contains its measure within itself…that is, it can only be ordered by the measure of revelation, in dependency upon God. That is why the third and most far-reaching compromise suggested by the earthly ruler is also rejected. Pharaoh now offers women and children the permission to leave with the men: “Only let your flocks and your herds remain” (Ex 10:24). Moses objects: All the livestock must go too, for “we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there” (10:26). In all this, the issue is not the Promised Land: the only goal of the Exodus is shown to be…worship, (which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise).
Like Elijah…most would see the storms, the earthquake, the fire…but ignore (in ignorance) the whisper of God.
In the celebration of the Transfiguration, Jesus shows the Apostles what life is going to be like in heaven. It seems earthbound…but…it’s not. It seems ordinary…but it is, in fact, extraordinary. Peter couldn’t take it in all at once. Jesus had to show him. And, for us 2000 years later, it is the same with the Mass. What seems ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary and not really of this world.
So…what is the Liturgy? What happens during the Liturgy? What kind of reality do we encounter here?
In the 1920s the suggestion was made that we should understand the Liturgy in terms of “play”. The point of the analogy was: a game has its own rules; sets up its own world (which is in force from the start of play but then, of course, is suspended at the close of play). If you don’t believe me…ask anyone (especially a wife or girlfriend) before, during and after a Super Bowl Game.
A further point of similarity was that play, though it has a meaning, does not have a purpose; and, that for this very reason, there is something healing (even liberating) about it. Play takes us out of the world of daily goals and their pressures and into a sphere free of purpose and achievement…releasing us (for a time) from all the burdens of our daily world of work. Play is a kind of other world, an oasis of freedom, where (for a moment) we can let life flow freely.
We need such moments of retreat from the pressure of daily life if its load is to be bearable. Now there is some truth in this way of thinking…but it is lacking. It all depends on what we are playing. Everything I have said can be applied to any game. The trouble is that serious commitment to the rules needed for playing the game soon develops its own loads…leading to new kinds of commitment. Whether we look at modern sports or at chess championships (or, at any game), we find that play…when it is not worn down into mere fooling about…quickly turn from being another world (a counter-world or non-world), to being a bit of the normal world…with its own laws.
We should mention another aspect of this theory of play, something that brings us closer to the essence of the liturgy. Children’s play seems (in many ways) a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity. Looking at it this way, the Liturgy would be a reminder that we are all children (or should be children) in relation to that true life of heaven which we yearn to go. Liturgy would be a kind of anticipation…a rehearsal…a prelude for the life to come. By contrast with life in this world, St. Augustine describes eternal life as a fabric woven, no longer of survival and need…but of the freedom of generosity and gift. Seen this way, Liturgy would be the rediscovery within us of true childhood (an openness to a greatness still to come) which is still unfulfilled in adult life. Here, then, would be the concrete form of hope, which lives in advance the life to come, which is still unfulfilled in adult life. Here, then, would be the concrete form of hope, which lives in advance of the life to come, the only true life, which initiates us into authentic life – the life of freedom, of intimate union with God, of pure openness to our neighbor. This imprints on the seemingly real life of daily existence the mark of true freedom, break open the walls that confine us and let the light of heaven shine down on us (as it did with Peter, James and John).
This application of “play” distinguishes the Liturgy by its essence from the ordinary kinds of play, which always contain a longing for the real “game”, for a different world in which order and freedom are at one.
Do you remember taking Algebra (or Calculus)…a kind of dreading…going to class (or doing the homework from the book)? This was the case I had in the seminary when it came to the Liturgy class we all have to take.
One of the first books I read after starting was Romano Guardini’s first little book (printed 1918): The Spirit of the Liturgy (and from then until 1957 it was constantly reprinted). This slim volume may rightly be said to have started the Liturgical Movement in Germany (and the Vatican II changes). Yes, its contribution was significant. It helped us to rediscover the Liturgy in all its beauty…hidden wealth and time transcending grandeur…to see it as the animating center of the Church, the very center of Christian life. It led to a striving for a celebration of the Liturgy that would be “more substantial” (one of Guardini’s favorite words). We were now willing to see the Liturgy – in its inner demands and form – as the prayer of the Church, a prayer moved and guided by the Holy Spirit Himself, a prayer in which Christ unceasingly becomes contemporary with us, enters into our lives. (And…like my calculus class…I dreaded it when I had to study it.)
I should like to suggest a comparison. Like all comparisons, it is in many ways inadequate…and yet it may aid in understanding. We might say that in 1918 (the year that Guardini published his book) the Liturgy was rather like a fresco painting in a building somewhere. It had been preserved from damage…but it had been almost completely overlaid with whitewash by later generations.
In the Missal from which the priest celebrated the Mass, the form of the Liturgy that had grown from its earliest beginnings was still present; but…as far as the faithful were concerned…it was largely concealed beneath instructions and forms of private prayer. The Liturgical Movement (and in a definitive way…Vatican II) cleaned and cleared the fresco. For a moment its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions. In fact, it is threatened with destruction, if the necessary steps are not taken to stop these damaging influences. Of course, there must be no question of its being covered with whitewash again, but what is imperative is: a new reverence in the way we treat it…a new understanding of its message and its reality…so that rediscovery does not become the first stage of irreversible loss.
My purpose in writing these reflections for a while is to assist this renewal of understanding. Its basic intentions coincide with what Guardini wanted to achieve in his own time with The Spirit of the Liturgy. The only difference is that I have had to translate what Guardini did at the end of World War I (in a totally different historical situation) into the context of our present day questions, hopes and dangers. I am not attempting (any more than Guardini was) to involve myself with scholarly discussion and research (… I am not a dreaded Calculus professor). I am simply offering an aid to the understanding of the faith and to the right way to give the faith its central form of expression in the Liturgy. My hope is to encourage, in a new way, something like a “liturgical movement”, a movement toward the Liturgy and toward the right way of celebrating the Liturgy (inwardly and outwardly)…then the intention that inspires the coming reflections would be richly fulfilled.
All too often, we (as Catholics) will come to Mass or in a common prayer without understanding why. (How often do you hear from a non-Catholic: “Why do you, as Catholics do (blank)?” (Make the sign of the cross, say memorized prayers, use incense, stand, sit…you can fill in the “(blank)”. And our response is something like: “I don’t know…it’s just what we do.”
The “great prayer of the Church” the Mass (or the Liturgy of the Hours), I want to give the parish unique insights on many areas of the Liturgy to help everyone to rediscover the hidden spiritual wealth (and transcendent grandeur) of the Liturgy as the very center of our Christian life (our Catholic life). While other denominations express prayer in their own method, the Liturgy is distinctively ours (given to us over 2000 years). It is not to be seen as a museum piece that is viewed from a distance…or just walked by as painting on a wall done by a famous artist. Our Liturgy is something we touch, see, smell, hear…taste. It is ours to take and experience.
Among the many liturgical areas we are going to look at in the next few reflections, I hope we can discuss fundamental misunderstandings of the Second Vatican Council’s intentions for liturgical reforms (renewal), especially the focus of prayer at the Mass, the placement of the tabernacle, the posture of kneeling, etc.
Other areas of interest: the essence of worship • Jewish roots and (2000 years old) new elements of the Christian Liturgy • sacred times and places • the historic and cosmic dimensions of the Liturgy • the relationship of the Liturgy to time and space • art and music…and the Liturgy • (the often misunderstood concept even among religious and clergy) – “active participation” of all the faithful • gestures, posture, and vestments. I hope…in the reflections to come…when you are asked to fill in the “(blank)”, each of us will be so excited to explain the “(blank)” – others will want to learn the steps of the Dance with us and join the music and the excitement. And, even more important, when you are tempted to think (or worse … say out loud): “Does God really care? Does what we do at Mass only get in the way of worshipping God?” …you will have the knowledge to expel that demon.
One of the keys to loving Jesus is taking the time to appreciate how much He truly loves us. Yes, we know the historical facts and truths that He taught. We can easily read them over and over again in the Bible. But it always comes down to our response to Jesus. There are many things that we do in our lives and there are many different attitudes and reasons. We can act out of love, joy, hope, and gratitude or we can act out of duty, convenience, regret, anger, guilt, or fear or a host of other motives or impulses. The best reason to act of course is love. We love the people we are with and we love to do the things we do. To truly grow in our life with Jesus we need to ask these questions: Do I pray because I have to, want to…or love to? Do I come to Mass because I have to, want to…or love to? Obviously there is a great difference in the reasons we pray and come to Mass. We know the best reason, but is that in the forefront of our minds and hearts? With all the activities in our daily lives it takes discipline to find the time to pray. The fact is we do find time to do the things we want to do and like to do. When and where we find the time to pray every day becomes easier to carve out when we understand how much Jesus loves us and wants us to be part of His life. We can spend hours on the Internet, watching TV, or even reading a book. At times we recognize that we are centering our lives around what we like and our own agendas. But too much self-centeredness leads us to put off what is really best for our spiritual, physical, and mental well being.
This was well-illustrated in a story I read – about mosquitoes and bees:
Once upon a time, some mosquitoes and some bees had an exchange about their views and aims in life. The mosquitoes said: “We do not toil as you bees do, nor have we any desire to do it. We have a leisurely existence. In the night, slowly and unnoticed, we intrude into people’s habitations, and then we sting them and suck their blood. That is what we do. We know that we cause them itching and pain, none of us could care less. As long as we get what we want, it is all right with us. We know that people hate us, but this does not bother us.”
The bees retorted in horror: “Our way of life is just the opposite. Night and day we work hard and struggle to support ourselves from the fruit of our labor. We hate to be a burden or nuisance to anyone. On the contrary, we are delighted to share the surplus of our labor with others. Our aim in life is to support ourselves as well as to give comfort, nourishment, and sweetness to one and all. Flying from flower to flower, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the light of the day, collecting scented nectar and making honey is truly an exhilarating and worthwhile way of living. It is in working for ourselves and others that we find meaning and happiness in life.”
Our response to the goodness and love of others is gratitude and a desire to love them in return. That is the ultimate response to Jesus: to love Him in return. When that happen (as it does when we choose to love others) we make Him the center of our concern and look forward to spending time with Him. Our will is fueled by a desire to do what is truly good for others and Him. Their well being becomes an important part of our thoughts, words and actions.
Both this and last week’s Gospels can cause a person to think about Jesus as CS Lewis had. Jesus (when it comes right down to it) was one of three realities: He was insane. He was a liar. He is what He said He was…the Son of God. (“You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God…but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” from Mere Christianity)
One of the insights we all grapple with is that we are not in control of so many things in our personal lives, in the lives of those we love, and in the lives of our country and our world. Peace only comes when we rise above the frustration, disappointment, anger, and vengeful thoughts that fill our minds when things do not work out the way we think they should. I have been reading a book quoting Henri Nouwen who had this profound thought: “Keep your eyes fixed on the Prince of Peace, Who doesn’t cling to His Divine Power, Who refuses to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights, and rule with great power. See the One Who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind; Who speaks words of forgiveness and encouragement; Who dies alone, rejected and despised. Keep your eyes on Him Who becomes poor with the poor, weak with the weak…and Who is rejected with the rejected. That one, Jesus, is the source of all peace.” Was Jesus able to find peace in this world and, even more bring peace into our world? Of course He found peace, the peace that came from the prevailing thread revealed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures and the four Gospels – God never takes no for an answer. God never gives up on us. God never stops reaching out to us. His love is divine, merciful, unconditional, and life giving. Jesus experienced rejection in the form of not being welcomed from the first moment He came forth from Mary’s womb (you know…there was no room for them at the inn). After bringing joy to the shepherds in the area who responded to the angel’s announcement about Jesus’ birth, and to the Magi with their humble, grateful gifts…Joseph had to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus. Rejection that caused Him to be a refugee did not stop Him from coming back to God’s chosen people…His people…the Jews.
When I conclude my morning prayers, I like to reflect on the paradox of the Jesus Christ that Lewis presented…he is great in giving me the hope, inspiration, and the foundation to rise above frustration, disappointment, anger, and vengeful thoughts as I start the day. (Sure, at times I do not always succeed…but the lack of success or right judgment are lessened and the next day I once again have hope.) After praying morning prayer in the breviary, I read the Paradoxical Commands that come from a book by Kent Keith entitled “Anyway.” (St. [Mother] Teresa of Calcutta had these hanging in an office she used.) I read them thinking about how Jesus lived them. The Paradoxical Commands are a good guide that will help us find the peace Jesus came to bring into our daily lives, a good guide to commit ourselves as we leave the Easter Season (and think of the lessons of this week’s Gospel). The Paradoxical Commands:
People are unreasonable, illogical and
self-centered. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish
and ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and
true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be
honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building may be
destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People really need help. They may attack you if
you help them. Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you may be
repaid with indifference. Give the world the
best you can anyway.
As the Fortnight of Freedom 2017 comes to a close, as a nation of faithful Catholics and Christians, we continue our prayers for our United States. There are so many who are confused and misguided with the lies of “choice” and “conscience”.
Reflect, if you will on the story of Norma McCorvey. A woman who no one knows by name. She is the woman who is Roe in the Supreme Court case of Roe vs. Wade (the case that made abortion legal in our nation on January 22, 1973). Her road to notoriety started with an unplanned pregnancy. She originally said she was raped, a factor she thought would strengthen her case. Her lawyer was a pro-abortion feminist. It is interesting and encouraging to see how the life of Norma McCorvey has played out.
First of all, Norma never had an abortion. The child in her womb was too far formed. When she asked her doctor for an adoptive/foster attorney, that attorney put her in touch with the pro-abortion lawyer. Ironically, Norma McCorvey never stepped foot in a courtroom. She had signed an affidavit in Texas and was used as a pawn. (So much for “women’s’ rights”) She read about the legalization of abortion in the newspaper and was never contacted after the signing.
In 1995 Norma McCorvey declared herself Pro-life. In an account of a banquet of citizens for life that met in Alabama there was this observation: “In a 1995 Nightline interview, she explained that after working in four Dallas area abortion centers and learning a lot more, she started having inner-conflicts with herself. From that time on, Norma has completely moved her position from “a woman’s right to choose…to…upholding the right to life of the preborn baby.”
In the end people of good will see the light. Now is our challenge and time to witness to the truth of human life in the womb. I encourage you to say the prayer I put at the end of last week’s column (inspired from this week’s first reading): “Thank You Father for the gift of life. Thank You for the gift of Your Son Jesus. May my gratitude inspire and sustain me in doing everything I can to respect the lives of all people and to do all in my power to end abortion…and everything else that harms, abuses, or threatens human life. Give me the courage and strength to live in Your image each day. Amen.”
Psalm 69 has simple words to contemplate (the Psalm verses from last week): For Your sake I bear insult, and shame covers my face. I have become an outcast to my brothers, a stranger to my children, because zeal for Your house consumes me, and the insults of those who blaspheme You fall upon me. I pray to You, O LORD, for the time of Your favor, O God!
In Your great kindness answer me with Your constant help. Answer me, O LORD, for bounteous is Your kindness; in Your Great Mercy turn toward me. “See, you lowly ones, and be glad; you who seek God, may your hearts revive! For the LORD hears the poor, and His own who are in bonds He spurns not. Let the heavens and the earth praise Him, the seas and whatever moves in them!”