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Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Pentecost Pensive

From this weekend's edition of "The Lewis County Catholic Times"
We have spoken on a couple of occasions about the four axes of the liturgical year—both historically and in our modern times—on which the entire Mystery of the Life of Christ reveals itself through our common worship.  These days are Christmas, Epiphany, the Paschal Triduum, and Pentecost.  Each in their own way manifests to the world a fundamental aspect of who Jesus is, of what his mission of Salvation has achieved, and how we are called to respond to it.
Of course we know all about Christmas.  Not only is the event poignant and heart-warming, but it also has lent itself to cultural appropriation.  It has joined so seamlessly with our own consumerist mentality, wherein the likes of Charles Dickens, Bing Crosby, Frank Capra, et al., have helped to form the Courier & Ives-esque image of a day that hinges on the retail-industrial complex.  We not only enjoy it—we base our national economic well-being on it.
Easter holds its own and gets a fair amount of attention.  But even though it has traditionally been THE holy day for the Church throughout history, in our culture it always plays second fiddle to Christmas.  The songs just aren’t as catchy as Christmas carols, Easter baskets cannot hold a candle to presents under a tree, and the Easter Bunny is no match for Santa Claus! 
Epiphany has almost become a throw-away day, being transferred here and there on the calendar in order to accommodate the increasingly busy schedules of western Catholics.  As the 12th day of Christmas, it is the day on which the Christ Child is manifested to the whole world as King and Savior through the eyes of the Magi.  But it rarely gets the recognition it deserves.
Historically, as has been featured in this publication before, Epiphany and Pentecost were the two hinges of the “ordinary time” of the calendar.  But those days were far from ordinary, as they were firmly rooted in the theme of the particular days.  So if Epiphany focused on the saving action of Christ in his earthly ministry, then Pentecost is given to us for the purpose of taking that message out to the world.
Pentecost (which means “fifty”) was celebrated by the Hebrew people to mark 50 days after Passover.  One of the three pilgrimage feasts of Israel (cf. Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy 16), it was not originally associated with an historical event, a la Hanukkah or Passover.  In Leviticus it is called “The Feast of Weeks,” a one-day festival that marked the beginning of harvest season.  Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy stress that, during the harvest, special consideration was to be given to provide for the poor and the aliens in the land (Lev. 23:22, Deut. 16:11-12).  Based on dates that we can glean from Exodus 19:1 (when the Hebrews arrived at Mt. Sinai) the feast of Pentecost was expanded to include a commemoration of God giving the Law to His people.  The Book of Ruth, with its themes of harvest, was often read at this time in Jewish tradition.  For Catholics, our own liturgical tradition yielded Rogation Days (which exist in law but rarely in practice), which were days of intense prayer directed by a Diocesan Bishop principally for the intention of a good crop yield.  For reference, the Rogation Days which were built into the liturgical calendar up until 1969 would have been observed just a couple of weeks ago.
Often when we think of Pentecost we link it to thoughts of the Birthday of the Church.  On the day of Pentecost, according to the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, God poured out the Holy Spirit on Our Lady and the Apostles, endowing them with the Gifts of the Spirit that they would need to fulfill his Great Commission to go out and make disciples of all nations. 
This day, then, should be an occasion for us as the Church of Christ to celebrate.  And yet what is generally regarded as the day dedicated to “the forgotten Person of the Trinity” often becomes just another Sunday.  When we contrast the pomp and circumstance of Christmas and Easter with the relative silence of Pentecost, it is more than just a little perplexing.  Perhaps a cynic might view the situation according to a consumerist model: “If we can’t use it to buy/sell stuff, then it has no value.”
Perhaps we have forgotten the words of Jesus: “…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).  Jesus Himself tells us that the coming of the Holy Spirit is going to be the best thing that ever happens to us.  The outpouring of the Spirit is the capstone to everything that Jesus began in His earthly ministry.  He, who became incarnate, was revealed to the nations, was crucified, buried, raised, and ascended, is now enthroned in Heaven, and from that throne He sends His Spirit to enshrine in our hearts the New Covenant which He established in His Church.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lrod.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the House of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances…” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
And so the day that was originally identified with the giving of the Old Covenant Law now marks the New Covenant in action!  The giving of the Law, fulfilled in Christ Jesus, now progresses to the next great age of humanity in which God no longer gives us His Law in stone but writes it in the flesh of our hearts.  The announcement of the harvest now becomes beginning of gathering of the nations into the umbrella of the Church.  The command to remember the poor and dispossessed is fulfilled in the Body of Christ which becomes increasingly diverse and manifests itself in unselfish, self-sacrificial love for others.  The Risen and Victorious Lord, now seated at the right hand of the Father, pours out His Spirit on God’s people!

It is our day of victory, our day of joy, our day in which—once again—God fulfills His promise to His People.  May we all receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts with the joy and enthusiasm of the Apostles, that we, too, might go out to the world and make disciples of all nations!

Friday, April 28, 2017

What Just Happened?!

The dust finally seems to have settled from the celebrations of Holy Week and Easter, and I find myself left with the lingering question of what I just went through.  As some have observed, the lead-up to the celebration of Sacred Triduum can be somewhat of a traumatic experience for the priest—not in the sense of an actual trauma, but because the liturgies leading up to Easter represent the culmination of intense preparation and are some of the most beautiful and complicated ceremonies that the Catholic Church has to offer.  While most are at least marginally aware of the amount of work that goes into making Holy Week and Easter a spiritual experience of grace and mystery, the majority of Catholics observe the liturgies and do not think much about the behind-the-scenes “nuts and bolts” that make them such moving expressions that highlight the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord.  I say this not to in any way seek sympathy or commiseration, but because it underscores an important reality in how we worship.

What happens during Holy Week is unlike anything else in our liturgical year.  The liturgies are complex, rich in history and tradition, and their length and breadth are truly epic in proportion.  In living out in a very real way the very mysteries of the Life of Christ, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem to his final meal with his Apostles to his betrayal, death, and burial, to his glorious Resurrection, we walk the path of Christ and enter into a profound experience of Faith that does not happen outside of Holy Week.  But it should!

Every celebration of the Mass—whether the simplest spoken Mass or the most complicated High Mass imaginable—leads us into those same Mysteries that we commemorate so palpably during Holy Week.  But we seldom take notice, do we?  Does our frequency of Mass attendance (I hope!) lead us into a certain routine?  Absolutely.  But the intention is not that we should become complacent or participate in a perfunctory manner that excludes mental and spiritual engagement.  Quite the opposite!  The routine of the Mass is much like the repetition of Hail Mary’s in the Rosary.  Its intention is not mere repetition, but is to provide a background to lead us into a deeper spiritual reality. 

If we were to consider the ceremonial of the average parish Mass as the background on a canvas, the intention of the artist serves what purpose?  To provide activity?  Sure.  But more importantly, it gives context and meaning to the principal figures.  What we see in the Mass, when well-celebrated, are actions and rituals that highlight and bring to the fore the profound reality of what we celebrate.  When a priest incenses the bread and wine at the Offertory, it’s not merely “something extra” that is used to make the Mass “more solemn”—it gives greater context to the otherwise ordinary action that calls attention not just to what we are offering, but to whom we are offering it.  The same is true when torch bearers accompany the Book of the Gospels.  They are not there merely to provide extra light, but like the virgins with their lamps that go out to meet the bridegroom and bring him to his bride, they draw our gaze to the Eternal Word of the Father, the Bridegroom Himself, as He is made truly present to His Bride, the Church in the proclamation of the Word. 

Sometimes it becomes easy for cynics and “low church” Catholics to denigrate or write off as superfluous or silly the rich ceremonial of the Church.  But those attitudes are often based either in a poor understanding of what the act of Divine Worship truly is, or out of a sinful and overly-developed Pride that allows one to justify giving the least amount of devotion to God as possible whilst still convincing oneself that “God understands” or that “God doesn't need all of that stuff!”

Ultimately, our attitude toward the Mass ought to be one of awe and wonder at the fact that the True and Living God of all Creation, at the invocation of the priest, descends upon the altar of sacrifice and makes Himself truly present in our midst in all His majesty and glory.  It is a miracle to behold, and we are all partakers.  Yet, do our actions and dispositions always reflect the reality that we acknowledge at least intellectually if not spiritually?  For some, yes.  For others, perhaps not so much.  If we are truly a people of Faith, however, the manner in which we comport ourselves throughout the act of Divine Worship should reflect the deep belief in His True Presence that we are called to accept and believe.  And, like the Apostles on Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit and unable to contain their excitement, our external actions—how we sit/stand/kneel, what we wear, how we participate, whether we take the time to prepare for Mass or make an act of thanksgiving afterward—they ought to serve not as “proof” to others, but as acts of discipline and reminders to ourselves of what we are encountering, of whom we have come to worship and encounter, and of why we return day after day, week after week to the same, unchanging ritual: because the Mass, our act of Divine Worship, is never about us, but always about, directed to, and principally about the One Supreme Godhead, to whom be all glory, honor, and praise forever!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Passiontide: A Time to Feel Lent

This article was posted last week, containing several errors.  Originally I considered passing them off as an early April Fool's joke.  However, those errors were simply the result of my own poor memory and, in my haste, I did not consult sources as I ought.  I apologize for any confusion, as well as for any misinformation that has been perpetuated by my own lack of vigilance.

Having looked briefly at the overall structure of the calendar, and in order to avoid boring even myself, I have elected at this point to deviate ever so slightly and begin to focus on the upcoming Paschal feasts.  Next weekend we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday, which sometimes is referred to as Passion Sunday.  More on that in a moment.  Next week’s liturgical musings will provide an in-depth look at many of the sights and sounds that we can expect throughout Holy Week as we enter into the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
Today, however, we focus on this current Sunday, which in the calendar that was in force up until 1969 was called Passion Sunday (Dominica Passionis I).  The last two weeks of the Lenten observance have been given the title of Passiontide as the focus of the liturgy now turns more fully to contemplating the Passion of Our Lord.  The first week of Passiontide would be spent in heightened preparation for Holy Week.  Dom Prosper Gueranger suggests that this week has been observed since possibly the third century, citing St. Denis of Alexandria, who lived at that time.  Penances were increased.  Even the rules of fasting were intensified.  
With the reform of the liturgy, the intensity of the prayers and readings of the Mass mostly remained, but the title of Passion Sunday was dropped from this Sunday and applied to Palm Sunday to highlight the first proclamation of Our Lord's Passion of Holy Week.  In 1969 the Lectionary, as it was reformed, was expanded to a three-year Sunday cycle, and now only two chronicles of the Passion are proclaimed each year (Palm Sunday and Good Friday).  Prior to the liturgical reform all four Passion narratives were proclaimed during Holy Week.  The Passion was heard on Palm Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, and Good Friday.  Thus, all four accounts of the Passion were incorporated into the liturgy, progressively getting shorter.  This was to show the passage of time, wherein the events that already happened (e.g., Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday) were not proclaimed after the fact—an effect that would leave those hearing the words of the Passion with a sense that the events proclaimed were taking place at that moment, and not merely as an historical chronicle. 
Ultimately this serves to touch on a central issue relating to the calendar, which we may explore in the future—namely, the fact that the Sacred Liturgy itself, being a Divine institution and participating in the Heavenly Supper of the Lamb, mystically takes place outside of time and space.  Thus, whenever we enter into the Sacred Mysteries, the action of the Mass—the events re-presented (not represented)—are not occurring as an historical re-enactment, but are happening, as St. Paul suggests, once and for all time.  While we experience the action of the Mass according to earthly time—characterized most especially by those who insist on checking their watches periodically—the actuality is that we are transported mystically outside of time and space as Heaven comes to earth, and we engage in all of the events proclaimed within the Mass as they are actually occurring.
This concept of time as it relates to the Mass is a complicated one, and I encourage everyone to pick up a copy of Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper to get a better sense of the reality of the Mass.  In it, Dr. Hahn uses the writings of the Fathers of the Church to craft an accessible and rather complete explanation of this very principle.
Having deviated significantly from what I intended to propose, I want us to look at this Sunday—old Passion Sunday, if you will—and the time commonly referred to as Passiontide.  The first thing that most people will notice is that the statues and sacred images of the Church are veiled.  This ancient tradition corresponds to a distinct change of tone in the readings and texts of the Mass, where in Jesus is now actively hiding himself in order to avoid persecution by the Jews before His time has come.  Having explored earlier this year the practice of veiling various items within the Church, the practice of veiling these images makes clear a sobriety and starkness that should visually impress upon us the somber nature of the season.  Statuary and images are meant to draw us into the mysteries of Christ and His Saints.  But now they are hidden from us.  The call of psalmist, “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” now demands of us a greater searching, a deeper interior movement that forces us to see no longer with our physical eyes, but the eyes of Faith. 
At Rome on this day, Solemn Vespers continues to be celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica, which  is the Lenten Station Church for the day.  The celebration begins with the great hymn, Vexilla Regis.  This hymn, while often sung at snail’s pace due to the fallacious perception that Gregorian Chant should always be slow and meditative, is actually composed musically in the style of a military march, which more accurately reflects the text: “The Royal Banners march forth, the Mystery of the Cross shines resplendent, where the enfleshed Creator of all flesh on the gibbet was hung.  Hail, O Cross, our singular hope! In this Passiontide Grant justice to your pious ones, and grant pardon to the guilty!”  This glorious hymn of triumph was first sung on November 19, 569 (not 1569!), as a relic of the True Cross of Christ given by the Byzantine emperor Justin II was solemnly processed into the monastery of Saint-Croix in Poitiers, France.
Toward the end of Vespers, all of the relics of the Basilica are placed on the altar and are incensed, after which a procession forms and beings to move throughout the cavernous space, while the Litany of the Saints is sung.  This particular Litany is one of the great musical treasures of Christendom, as it features only the Saints whose relics are housed in the Basilica!  In addition to being culturally and historically significant, it is also noteworthy that this litany is extremely long!
Finally, when the procession returns to the middle of the Basilica at the Papal High Altar, one of the more curious and significant events in the City of Rome occurs.    A small bell rings, and then high above the crowd, from the loggia that sits atop the pillar over Francesco Mochi’s dramatic statue of Veronica, two of the canons of St. Peter’s appear.  They

raise up what appears to be a large picture frame, and bless the crowd.
  Contained in that frame, revealed for all to see is one of the most precious relics of St. Peter’s Basilica: the Veil of Veronica, imprinted with the image of the Holy Face of Our Lord!  In centuries past, the Church placed so much importance on this relic that, at one point being blessed with it carried an indulgence of 10,000 years off Purgatory (if memory serves)!

I communicate all of this for good reason.  In the modern liturgy it is very easy to see this Sunday merely as the Fifth Sunday of Lent.  But it is so much more.  Historically, liturgically, and culturally this Sunday is the gateway to the holiest time of year: Holy Week.  It is the portal through which we must all pass to enter more fully into the Paschal Mystery.  And everything about this day makes more and more clear that we are descending deeper and deeper into the darkened Tomb, our bodies now weary with fasting and penance, our minds becoming increasingly clarified, and our hearts burning even more with desire—desire for redemption, for relief, for blessed resurrection.  See, then, in this Sunday not merely one more marker in the countdown toward Easter, but a hallmark of the Church’s liturgy that is given to help us not only observe Lent, but to feel Lent in a way that is visceral and meaningful.