Sunday, May 30, 2010
When we find ourselves faced with calamity, it is hard to know what is more fundamental, the relationships we have with those around us or the brute and unavoidable facts and physical realities of the affliction itself. Of course, we value the personal relationships more, and we talk as though we thought them most important of all. Even so, it is hard to escape the fact that, even should others mean us well or support us in our times of distress, the calamity remains the same as ever.
This is certainly clear in cases of global concern, like the ongoing spillage of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. To be sure, we can, if we like, understand this ongoing crisis as a political, which is to say an interpersonal one. We might, that is, wonder what might have happened had everyone involved been more open, more transparent to one another. However, in the end, what we seek is a technical, physical solution. Even if every concerned party were in perfect accord with one another, there will be no good for anyone so long as oil continues to spill. The same goes as well for our personal calamities. We may value and appreciate those who love us and our hardships may be easier to bear in light of the solidarity of others with us, but in the end we want a cure, a solution, the end to what afflicts us. In short, whatever we might say, in many ways we feel and behave as though what is most important, most fundamental, is the impersonal world around us, and not the fellowship of persons within it.
However, insofar as we think this way, we have deceived ourselves. We have seen with the eyes of the spirit of this world when we imagine that raw, brute, impersonal facts are the foundations of the universe to which personal relations, however valuable and noble, are added, like gold leaf to so much lead. The truth which we celebrate on this solemn day is that of the Holy Trinity. That is, we proclaim to the world the mystery that is at the heart of all that is, for of him, and by him, and in him, are all things. At the very root and cause of all things that are, that have been, that ever will be are not brute facts, but the three divine Persons of the Holy Trinity.
This means that the most fundamental question is always the question of personal relations. There is no deeper reality to which we can appeal. There is no fact so basic that it lies beneath our acts of love and fellowship with one another. Rather, it is Love, essential and subsistent Love, the Love who begets, the Love who is begotten, the Love who is breathed forth from all eternity — this is who lies before, behind, beneath, in and through everything. It is just this tripersonal Love who has called us who believe not merely to echo, nor even merely to image, but to have a true share for all eternity in that relation of Persons who is the one, true God.
This is why we bear up with even the worst the world has to offer. There is no created reality, no set of circumstances, which is more foundational than our fellowship through Baptism with the Blessed Trinity. This is the heart of the Gospel. This is the central and crowning mystery of the Christian faith that we have been commissioned by our Lord himself to proclaim to every living creature. This is our saving faith and our undying hope. Blessed are you, O Lord, that behold the depths and sit above the cherubim. Blessed are you, O Lord, in the firmament of heaven, and worthy of praise for ever!
Sunday, May 16, 2010
They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God. (Luke 24:52-53)
The departure of a dear friend seems hardly a motive for rejoicing. Some joy, perhaps, if the friend is off to do something great and wonderful, or has been delivered from some terrible fate. But when that friend has been the source of joy and happiness?
It's even more worrisome when the one who departs is not only beloved, but also the one in charge, the one with answers, the one who can respond truly, effectively, rightly to the troubles that face us. How often have each of us been placed in charge of something or someone — the office, the priory, an important project at work, a younger brother or sister, managing the details of a family reunion — because the one whose responsibility it is has been called away? It can be flattering, of course, and we may surprise ourselves at how well we have accomplished our task, even be glad to be of service. But, glad that the one who is directly responsible has been away, seeing this as a cause for great joy? Hardly. Inevitably, something comes up, some question, some puzzle, some unforeseen and unplanned for event, and we fear and find we have no answer. What should we do? What are we supposed to do? How long can we keep holding off a response until the one in charge, the one who knows what is to be done, can come and set things right? It's not that I cannot make decisions by my own, but I am supposed to put into place his decision, his plans, and they might not always be obvious.
So, the Ascension of the Lord may strike us as an odd motive for keeping festival. Wonderful for Christ, perhaps, but how wonderful for the disciples? How wonderful for us? The disciples, after all, were not tasked merely with waiting for the Lord's return. They were promised, and indeed given, power from on high, and they were to serve as his witnesses, speaking with authority those saving truths he had imparted to them, offering to a ailing and broken world the healing touch Christ had provided in his earthly ministry, one by one tearing down the stones of the fortresses of the spirits of wickedness, the principalities, authorities, powers and dominions, whose might had proven no match for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Nor, apparently, was this gift for them alone. As Paul reminds us, we too are to have knowledge of Christ, with our hearts enlightened. We too are to be witnesses of the saving teaching and deeds of Christ. We too are to know not only our call, but our destiny of glory with the saints and the greatness of his power exercised here on earth, not least in his deliverance of the sick and ailing from their ills.
So, with all of this responsibility placed on our shoulders, why would Christ's going away, departing from his earthly presence, be a good thing?
The truth is that not every absence is a cause for concern, not every parting a motive to feel abandoned. Even in our daily lives, we know the countless ways that our life is easier, our hearts rest more secure, and our actions can be done with freedom and confidence precisely because someone else, someone whom we love and whose word we trust, someone who keeps his promises, is even now attending to those things that we cannot.
The mother in the hospital attending day and night to her sick child who knows that her husband, her sister, or her dearest friend is attending to her other children and keeping her home in running order;
The traveller who can seek after lost luggage and confused reservations, knowing his wife can and will ably see to it that the family enjoys the day, regardless;
The soldier who endures difficult nights in the territory of a dangerous enemy, knowing that the family and people he loves and serves are, even now, enjoying a cookout, going to church, or doing their homework.
In these and so many other ways, we know that for one's beloved to be away, even when our own times and tasks are difficult and daunting, can be a cause not only for relief and assurance, but even of great joy.
So it is with the Ascension of the Lord, but in an even more wonderful way. Jesus did not depart from us to leave us alone and without comfort. He did not leave us a saving truth only to leave us to grasp at even the smallest bit of what it meant. He did not provide his hallowing and healing ministry only to withdraw it when he rose up into even. Rather, in the Ascension we can know that his whole work of redemption, everything he promised, all that we have hoped for even from before the day we knew his saving name, has already been accomplished in him. And that, surely, is good news! It means that redemption is not some future event, something we simply hope and wait for God to do. It means rather that, in Christ, redemption is already here, that the healing of the nations, the healing of our every ill, is already come to pass in the glory of his body and of the souls of the holy ones who await the resurrection. It means that everything he taught us is trustworthy and true, and we need not fear to bear witness to him and his saving teachings to all the nations. And if true in him, if already a reality in Christ our Head, then it is no less a reality here and now for us who are the very members, the limbs, organs, bone and tissue of his body. Our is already his call, ours the glory, ours the surpassing greatness of his power.
In the mystery of Christ's Ascension, our redemption, the final crowning of our return to God has been achieved in Jesus our Head, and we have cause for exceeding great joy. This morning at our altar, and every day of our lives, let us like the apostles in the temple be continually praising God. Let us clap our hands and shout to God with cries of gladness, for Christ our head is with the Father, and where the Head has gone, the Body cannot fail to follow.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Ad multos annos!
Friday, May 7, 2010
Acts 15:22-31 / John 15:12-17
At the very end of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, we overhear a conversation between the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the once mysterious stranger who had drawn him into the grand adventures of the book, now his dear friend, the wizard Gandalf. Bilbo, mind you, who began the novel as something of a bachelor homebody who liked nothing better than the comforts of his humble if spacious home in the Shire, had, through Gandalf's prompting, assisted a band of dwarves in winning back their ancestral treasure from a terrible dragon. Along the way, he managed to evade being eaten by trolls, escape the clutches of goblins and worse under the mountains, discover a magical ring that made him unseen, be transported by giant eagles, rescue his companions from wicked, giant spiders, deliver them from the dungeons of the Elf King, send a crucial message that enabled the slaying of the terrible dragon, and unite the warring bands of elves, dwarves and men against their common enemies. While his share in the slain dragon's hoard was far greater than he could ever imagine, even the modest wealth he brought back home was more than he could dream to use in a lifetime. So, sitting with his friend Gandalf, enjoying a smoke with their pipes, Bilbo has much he could be proud of, much that he could rightly say would not have come to pass without his contribution. Ancient enemies were restored to the friendship of even more ancient alliances, and the evils that threatened the peace and security of those of good will had been vanquished, and none of it without that specific blend of common sense and uncommon courage, of a desire for adventure coupled with a deep love of home, that was Bilbo Baggins.
As they speak, Gandalf reminds Bilbo of the prophecies of old that have come to pass as a result of Bilbo's exploits. Bilbo, of course, finds this just a bit ironic. After all, he had a hand in all of that, did he not?
'Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!' said Bilbo.
'Of course!' said Gandalf. 'And why should they not prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were manages by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!'
'Thank goodness!' said Bilbo Baggins laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
Now, we might think Gandalf's words here are apt of Bilbo, but when turned upon our own selves, we are far less certain. After all, we have not spent years — few, several or many — nor the resources — money, yes, but also time and a sense of peace, within ourselves and with those we love — we have not spent so much of great cost, have not forged with trial and adventures, with near escapes and occasional failures, an identity as theologian, as minister, as catechist or healer, as preacher simply to be quite a little fellow in a wide world. We have — and our mentors, our teachers, our colleagues and peers have both thought and said as much — we have great things to offer the Church as we proclaim to the world the salvation won for us in Christ Jesus and made ours in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We have not come this far to be without impact — in the theology we teach, in the works of love we minister, in the identity we have in the community of Christ's members, the holy Church of God.
Lest we think on this point we have slipped into a grandiose and ultimately unhelpful view of self unhappily proportioned against the truth, we remind ourselves of the wisdom of our brother Thomas. Did he not remind us that every created thing, every created thing, has some good, some unique good which it, and it alone, has to offer, not only for its own flourishing, but for the completion of the whole of creation? And does he not remind us what Paul had taught us long before, that this is all the more true of the order of grace, that there are no superfluous gifts, no works of the Spirit of Christ in our lives that are merely reducible one to the other, or replaceable, however simply they may seem? So, we think, we have been sent — sent to teach Christology, ecclesiology or doctrine of God, our pastoral plan for liturgical life, our best system to hear the wisdom on the lips of children claimed by Christ in baptism, our vision of what Catholic health care is or ought to be, our insight into the best way the Gospel can be preached and the Great Commission fulfilled. We've worked for it, after all! We've earned it! Look out, Church, here we come!
Except ... except we then turn to God's inspired word today, and we hear something else. There we do indeed hear of those who had their own Christology, their own ecclesiology, their own liturgical and pastoral plan for the Church, their own preaching — but these are the ones who are not praised, but who fall under the censure of the Twelve: they have gone out without any mandate, they have upset with their teachings and disturbed the peace of mind of the faithful. It is not the unique, the novel, the radical rethinking of the Gospel that is praised here. No, on the contrary, those appointed theologians and ministers, Barsabbas and Silas, are sent to teach not their insights, but the teaching of the Apostles and presbyters. It is not from their own inner sense nor from an open community committed to seeking and searching, but from the decision of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles that they are to restore peace and unity to Antioch. It is just this sort of obediential ministry, a theological proclamation not produced of one's own but received lovingly from God and those whom God has appointed and empowered to guide us in authentic witness to the salvation in Jesus Christ — this is the preaching that brought delight to the Christian community.
We should not, of course, be surprised at all. We hear the same teaching from the lips of Christ himself in the Gospel. If we serve one another in acts of love, we do not do so in ways unheard of and without model, but rather we love as Christ has loved, we pour out our lives in service as Christ has already done for us, we minister, that is not from ourselves, but only because it is Christ who has loved first in us and in our ministry. So, too, our witness, our ministry of presence — Christ reminds us with a clarity that may be painful to our egos but is cooling and sweet delight to our souls: It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.
So, is that it? Do we have nothing to say but what we have been told, no way to love except on a pattern set by another, no identity to claim save what has been decreed in the hidden counsels of God Most High from before the dawn of time? Must all of the hopes and dreams we have as theologians and ministers, all our private projects, plans and goals, be set aside, willingly perhaps in light of a greater good, but still remain untapped goods? Are we simply in the end quite little fellows in a wide world after all?
To speak and think that way is to speak and think the language of servants. The servant, after all, does not in the end pursue his own good nor the handmaid her own projects. It may well be that the master knows what will be at least not contrary to their flourishing, and may even promote something of what the servants desire. However, in the end, the servant does the master's bidding, the handmaid's good is subordinated to the fulfillment of her mistress' goals and plans.
How different it is with friends! Friendship, love, is not competitive. If friends spar with one another, it is to outdo one another in kindness. The victory of a friend, the fulfilled dreams of the beloved, is not indifferent to the lover. The deeper the love, the richer the sharing in hopes, dreams, projects and plans. In perfect love, the love God has already bestowed on us in Christ and which we, in halting and fumbling ways now, but on that last and glorious day hope to experience in fulness through the transforming power of the Spirit — in perfect love there is no worry of mine or yours, but a blessed sharing and rejoicing in the good wherever it is found, a good we can, in love, rightly claim as our own, not in envy, but in confidence and joy, which the lover concedes to us, not with resentment, but gladly and with delight.
Said differently, as Christ makes us more and more fully his friends and partakers in his life with the Father, his words, everything he has heard from the Father, become truly and rightly our own. Those saving truths entrusted to the Twelve, and they to their successors and the company of presbyters, these come to us, as they came to Barsabbas and Silas, not as alien words suppressing their own insight, but as the articulation of the very same teaching they happily claimed as their own. So, too, with us, if we will let it. As we grow in our life as theologians, as ministers, catechists, administrators and preachers, each of us growing in friendship with Christ Jesus, we will find that there is no difference between our theology and the saving words of the Gospel entrusted to the college of Apostles, no choice between our pastoral plan and the paschal, cruciform love of the Word made flesh, no need to claim an identity for ourselves, since God's election from before time will become, by the mystery of love, our own choosing.
Brothers and sisters, God has loved us, and in the mystery of the death and rising of his Son, has made us his friends. The world out of which he calls us and into which he sends us, may indeed be a wide world after all. We, however, are not little fellows, but kings and queens, and infinitely more — sharers in the very Triune life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are friends of God Most High who has chosen us and given us the commandment of sharing the Love that is the very being of God throughout the whole world.
Go, my sisters and brothers, go and bear fruit that will remain!
Sunday, May 2, 2010
I should point out a few things. First of all, I have celebrated, but only privately, the Mass in the extraordinary form a few times. Also, I have also celebrated publicly, indeed starting even two weeks after my ordination, the Mass in the ordinary form in Latin, ad orientem, with chant and some polyphony, etc. I cleave to the text of the Missal, try my best to conform my gestures, posture, and the like to the classic forms, make generous use of opportunities for silent prayer (especially at the Offertory), and so on. In other words, my impressions here truly are based on the public celebration of the classic form of the Mass, and not the result of other sorts of factors.
I also want to say, by way of preface, that I recognize that, musically, I had a superb and likely rarely to be repeated privilege of hearing a choir (with portative and instrumental ensemble) sing a setting of the Mass, both Ordinary and Proper, along with motets, likely heard together rarely, if ever, since the time and place of the royal courts in Bavaria and Austria in the late sixteenth century. The music was simply sublime, and I admit that my wonderfully positive and uplifting experience was, at least in part, due to the glorious music supplied by students and faculty from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Even so, I intend rather to speak more directly of my own experience of the celebration of the Mass qua celebrant, i.e. as a priest.
From the outset, when the initial jitters quieted in my stomach, I was impressed existentially by what I already grasped notionally, namely how spiritually useful the whole "fore-Mass" was, and most especially, the prayers at the foot of the altar. There was, once the servers and I began, a real spiritual calm, as well as a clear sense of the seriousness of what I was about to do when I finally approached the altar. To be sure, the vesting prayers and my own other recollections before Mass, which I would do anyway, were important, but this splendid antiphony between me and the servers, the mutual (not merely communal) confession of sins, the at once sobering and yet hopeful words of the Aufer a nobis and Oramus te, all the while not needing to worry whether I was "holding up" the celebration of the Mass, gave me a sense of purpose and intention from the start unlike I have had often before at Mass.
At the same time (this was a Missa cantata) I found real solace in the quiet recitation waiting on the choir to complete its Kyrie and Gloria. It was a kind of waiting that at one and the same time afforded my a space for private, recollected prayer and kept me attentive of my role as servant to the rite. As crucial as my role was, it was not "my" time to direct the action, but my time to wait.
I should mention here that the distinction of the whole Mass of the Catechumens as more vocal, more choral, more audible, if you well, also became experientially apparent, however I already knew it conceptually. What I, and the whole congregation, experienced from the beginning of the Introit through the conclusion of the Gospel was an extended and continuous act of praise and proclamation. To be sure, I wasn't continuously audible, but whenever someone was not singing or chanting, someone else was. I note this because the contrast with the Mass of the Faithful as more remarkable for its meaningful silences (more on that below) became, in the course of the Mass, all the more clear.
One curious note is the feeling of the homily as, not alien or foreign or even inappropriate, but at least a caesura, a Luftpause in the celebration. As any poet or musician will tell you, these are not inconsequential, and can really and truly "belong" where they are placed. Even so, they are breaks, stops, pauses, all the more obvious here ritually in my removal of the maniple, topographically in my movement away from the altar to the ambo, vocally in the shift from the singing of Latin to the speaking of English, and intentionally in the shift away from the words, movements, and gestures received from the Church to my own words, received from the prayerful encounter with the Scriptures in preparation for preaching. I at least "get" now, as I did not before, what homileticians meant in worrying over the older homily as not "liturgical". For the moment, whether this is or is not a good thing, I will withhold judgment. One thing the homily did evoke was how deeply I had entered into the sancta sanctorum I had prayed to enter in the Aufer a nobis since it was a real pulling away from one mental and spiritual place to another (as it involved a leaving not only my orientation but the space of the altar itself), even in ways that the turning at the Orate fratres or the admonition and preparation of the faithful for Communion was not (the Ecce Agnus Dei and triple Domine non sum dignus).
It is perhaps neither remarkable nor surprising, but nonetheless it is true, that I was most profoundly affected by the silent celebration of the Canon. There was an intensity, a presence, an abundance of content in that silence unlike any I have experienced before. Perhaps it was due in part to the contrast of the nearly continuous and sublime music I had heard up to and including the Sanctus. All the same, when the final Hosanna in excelsis came to an end and all that could be heard was the silence of my prayer ... It is an experience quite difficult to put into words, and all the more so were I to try to evoke what it meant to say the words of consecration without trying to communicate them meaningfully and vocally to a disparate gathering of the faithful, but to say them under the veil of silence so that they might be what they are in plain and profound simplicity ... I can only note here that it was transformative, or better, I hope it will be.
As I said above, I was also struck by the relative increase of silence in the Mass of the Faithful, the several, indeed frequent "interruptions" when nothing is heard. Even so, these were not mere pauses, nor simply my "finishing up" prayers that were too long for the music to cover. They were filled, meaningful silences, and they directed me at least, and I hope the faithful, to Communion in a way the ordinary form does not. I hesitate at this point to make a judgment here, but the experience was certainly different and notable.
One confirmation I had was this: it is infinitely more practical and at the same time more fitting, that the faithful (as they were able) receive the Eucharist on their tongues while kneeling. Mind you, I am delighted that any of the faithful, properly disposed, should come forward to receive our Lord in the Sacrament, and were the other option that they did not come forward, I would rather see them come hopping on their head than draw back in fear. All the same, from the practical point of view, having everyone's head, except the smaller children or taller men, at more or less the same place, not having to guess where or how or even whether this communicant was going to receive (hand or tongue, standing far back or up close, etc), permitted me to be more at ease in communicating them. (I note this from several years of experience helping out at the Cathedral Basilica of St Louis, where, for all of its laudable celebration of the Mass, the people coming to receive Communion can and do present themselves in a curious variety of ways!)
I should also add that, despite the relatively longer ritual surrounding both my own Communion and the ablutions, I did not feel remotely rushed. Again, the strong sense of being in the holy of holies, and the prayers which assisted me in doing so, truly kept me focused on the affairs of the altar more than simply orientation has been able (although, I would not want the best to be the enemy of the good here, and wholly endorse the goods which I also know experientially come from the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass ad orientem). Likewise, the Placeat (which I pray at the end of Mass even in the ordinary form, but usually on my way back to the sacristy) and the Last Gospel did not feel appended, but wholesome ways to lead me away from the altar and back to the world beyond.
It should be fairly easy to see that this was a powerful and beautiful experience for me. Was every rubric observed perfectly? I doubt it. Did some of the beauty come from the music? Certainly. Was some of the power the result of the "novelty"? Perhaps. Time and experience alone will tell. What I can say for certain is that I now speak existentially what I would have before said rightly, but more notionally, namely, that there are real and great goods that come from the classic celebration of the Mass of the Roman rite, goods which priests and the faithful as a whole would do well to encounter.