Total Pageviews

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Our cheatin' hearts...


The first reading for this past Thursday's Mass centers around the infamous account of the Golden Calf, the golden idol that Aaron had fashioned for the newly freed Hebrews while they were on the base of Mt. Sinai.  

 It is ironic that the first major infraction that Ancient Israel commits against the Lord has to do with worship.  I say that it is ironic because when God asks Moses and Aaron to go to Pharoah to gain the freedom of the Hebrews, He commands them to tell the Egyptian ruler to release the captives so that they can make a three-days journey to offer the Lord fitting worship.  Thus, freedom for Ancient Israel is tied to worshipping the Lord.

Worship gives the soul the opportunity for an intimate encounter with God.  It is interesting that in the various forms of cultic sacrificial worship practiced by the contemporaries of Ancient Israel (the Egyptians and later the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans), there was devotion from the faithful to their deities, but, there appeared to be no evidence of any love in return from the various gods.  If, in Greek mythology, Zeus showed any hint of "affection" towards a mortal woman, it was mostly carnal and self-serving on his part.  The fact that the Lord constantly displays deep and profound love for His people is something quite extraordinary.

Thus, God leads His people into the desert so that He may speak to their hearts.  The language He chooses is the language of worship.  But, the newly freed Hebrews would rather have something instantaneous.  While I was pondering this particular account from Exodus, I was reminded of the many bridegroom parables that Jesus told the people.  In the Jewish bridal ceremony, it was all about the bridegroom.  Everything centered around him.  The contract was made between the bridegroom and the bride's family.  The protagonist, the pursuer in the relationship was the bridegroom.  When the wedding feast finally came, it was the bridegroom whom everyone awaited.  But, because he had to traverse all through town, one never knew when his exact arrival at the bride's house would be. 

I believe that this example could be applied to Moses' lengthy meeting with the Lord, when the Lord was formulating the 10 commandments and the covenant with Ancient Israel.   Moses was the mediator, so to speak, between God and His people.  The 10 Commandments and the Covenant were, I suppose, the nuptial contract between God and Ancient Israel.  The Lord was preparing His bride for Himself. 

But, what did the bride wind up doing?  She grew impatient.  Ancient Israel, for lack of a better term, became the Bridezilla of the Old Testament.  She grew tired of waiting for her Lord, not realizing that, just as the earthly bridegroom had to be away to build a house for himself and his beloved bride, the Lord needed to prepare everything for His intended.  What should have been a time of awe and hope became a time of unfaithful debauchery and deprivation.  The Hebrews forsook the beloved embrace of the God who had just freed them in a marvelous way and, instead, retreated  head-long into worshipping the image of a "grass-eating bullock".  

It was indeed a perverse form of worship, for the Hebrews were not only unfaithful to the Lord with their hearts and souls, but, with their bodies as well.  Worship involves the whole person, body, mind, soul and  heart.  All of these need to be engaged.  In the case of Ancient Israel, they were certainly engaged, but, in the wrong activity. 

When we abuse the liturgy and ignore what the Church prescribes and teaches about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are not too terribly far away from what Ancient Israel did in the desert and what she continued to do in the days leading up to the Babylonian Exile, when she turned away from God and engaged in her own activities.  Becasue of this particular infraction, God not only drove them into exile, He also allowed His own house, the Temple, to be completely smashed and His own city, Jerusalem, to be utterly destroyed.   For Ancient Israel, the Temple was the end all and the be all of worship for it was only there that they could offer sacrifice to the Lord.  Without the Temple, they could not worship God.  Thus, they mourned the loss of the Temple, understanding that this was the result of their infidelity to God.

As the New Israel, the Church needs to guard against abusing the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Whenever abuses  have crept in, these  have not only affected the way relate to God, but, this laxity also seeps into our lives as individuals and our life as the Church.  A friend of mine told me that abuses in the liturgy seem to correlate with the abuse scandals that have plagued the Church.  When we fail to respect the sacred nature of the Mass, we, in turn, disregard both God and man.  Pope Benedict XVI seems to make this link in the Stations of the Cross that he composed back in 2005, while he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:

What can the third fall of Jesus under the Cross say to us? We have considered the fall of man in general, and the falling of many Christians away from Christ and into a godless secularism. Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! What little respect we pay to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where he waits for us, ready to raise us up whenever we fall! All this is present in his Passion. His betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison ­ Lord, save us (cf. Mt 8: 25).

I know that I have quoted this particular station on numerous occasions, but, it bears repeating.  If we regard the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the source and summit of our life as the Church, then, we should do what we can to protect its integrity.  If we get the Mass wrong, then, everything else loses its meaning.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the Nuptial Feast of the Lamb.  Christ is the Bridegroom of our souls.  When we come forward to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, we engage in the most sacred act of intimacy we can have with Christ.  As we receive His body, we are joined to His in an intimate embrace.  Pope Benedict XVI shocked not a few people when he noted during the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, that Jesus "wants to kiss" us in Holy Communion.  Shocking?  Yes, quite so.  True?  Yes, and even moreso. 

We even got a glimpse of this in Tuesday's first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel.  The Temple that he saw in his vision was a reference to Christ.  The water flowing from the right side of the Temple foreshadows the water and blood that flow from the pierced side of the dead Christ as he hung upon the cross.  Just as that water brought life and transformed the salt waters to fresh ones by coming into contact with it, Christ, through His Blood and through the waters of Baptism, removes the bitterness from our souls.  But, in order for Him to do this, He must be able to touch us.  Unlike Zeus, who, at times, would force himself on mortal women, Jesus will not harm us, nor will he threaten us.  He loves us with the intensity of the Bridegroom who yearns for His bride.

But, what is our response?  Are we like the Hebrews who refused to wait on God and, instead, transferred their love to a golden calf?  Or, are we willing to allow God's love to envelope us and to transform us so that we can fully love Him with all of our hearts, minds, souls and bodies, and our neighbors as ourselves?  The choice is ours.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

In the presence of the angels

Early last month, a friend of mine sent me an invitation via Facebook to assist at Mass at one of our local parishes.  As a member of the Assumption Seminary Schola Cantorum, my friend and his companions would be chanting at all of the parish's weekend Masses and he wanted me to go.  I really wanted to go; however, it was also the same weekend as the Mass for the Erection of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in Houston.  As it turned out, the weather did not cooperate and so, I believe it was providential that I remain in town.

It certainly was a huge blessing for me to have gone to Mass.  The schola gave the liturgy a much-needed (and refreshing) air of sanctity.  These young seminarians are learning what it truly means to sing the Mass.  The beautifully sung chants helped to set the proper tone for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  The schola also used the ICEL chants, which were of great help.  The faithful of the parish, who, as I understand it, had not been exposed to the ICEL settings, were able to pick them up fairly easily.  I happily belted them out myself, although there were a couple of pew-mates who looked at me rather strangely.

The only caveat was that the schola had to contend with the parish's repertoire of OCP material.  Yet, despite the shortfall, they managed to cull some good pieces for the Communion and Recessional hymns.  People were singing and that was certainly wonderful.

After Mass, the feedback was quite positive.  Even my pew-mates were pleased.  One woman commented that she had never before heard anything like it and it was though angels were singing.  Somebody else wanted the schola back for the following weekend.  These folks seemed to look past the well-trained voices to catch a glimpse of something deeper.  These young seminarians gave all of us a chance to experience something of the divine, the transcendent.

I have always said that within the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the veil between heaven and earth is lifted.   It is the moment where God and man intersect.  That being the case, we need to realize that something completely out of the ordinary is happening here.  We are enveloped in the Glory Cloud, the same Cloud that overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies and the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

However, as we stand within the presence of God, we should bear in mind that this sacred act that we are called to engage in calls for something totally different.  Just as we do not address God the Father in every day speak in the texts of the prayers of the Mass, so too, should we use a more formal, sacred nature in what we sing.  That is why the Church has always held Chant as the music par excellence for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Just as Ancient Israel chanted the psalms in her worship, so, too, do we, the New Israel, chant the Mass.  The Chant is the music of the angels.  It is the music of the Church.  The Church gives us the texts and the music for the Mass in the Roman Graduale.  This same Roman Graduale was what the Schola used for the Masses.

Reading this, some might try to make the case that chanting the Mass could very well move us away from the "actuosa participatio" (active participation) called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy).  However, I submit to those who would make that contention that theirs is, with all due respect, a weak argument.  "Actuosa participatio" should not be reduced to merely the externals.  One does not just pray with the lips, but, with the heart as well.  In our case, we were praying through the chants, uniting our hearts to the musical prayers that we listened to during the Mass.  Does not the celebrant, in the Preface dialogue, invite us to "lift up your hearts" (sorsum corda)?  Hence, "actuosa participatio" means that every fiber of our being should be participating.  This includes the heart, the soul, the mind and the will, not just the lips.

The young seminarians gave me a lot of hope that night.  Even though the weather down here in the South Texas hinterland was cold, dark and damp, the immense joy that the Schola radiated and the deep sense of reverence that they brought to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass radiated throughout the parish that weekend. 

Please keep these seminarians and their director in your prayers.  These young men represent the future of the Church in South Texas.  God willing, I believe that our area will be receiving some holy and properly formed young priests who will be a blessing to their dioceses.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

God loves us...and....

Go to any sporting event or a concert and you may spot someone flashing a sign that simply reads:  John 3;16.  Perhaps the most quoted biblical passage, this section of St. John's Gospel account reads:  "for God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost."

These are certainly powerful and profound from Jesus.  However, if we simply stop at the fact that God loves us, we have missed the point of his messge entirely.  We hear this famous passage in this weekend's Gospel account for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.  But, the Church gives us the rest of the story, to borrow a line from the late Paul Harvey.  Here is the rest of the text:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up: [15] That whosoever believeth in him, may not perish; but may have life everlasting.

[16] For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. [17] For God sent not his Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him. [18] He that believeth in him is not judged. But he that doth not believe, is already judged: because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God. [19] And this is the judgment: because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. [20] For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved.

[21] But he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God.

If we casually read this text, we might detect a bit of a paradox.  God loves the world and that is why He sent His only begotten Son to save it; however, those who do not belive in Christ will be condemned.  While some might read Jesus' words as harsh, we should step back and examine these words in light of salvation history  From the onset, God gave us a free will.  What we do with it is our choice.  Scripture shows us what has happened down through the ages.  Beginning with Adam and Eve, all the way down to our age, we have not made the best of choices.  This weekend's first reading from the Second Book of Chronicles, reminds us what happened when Ancient Israel chose to disobey God rather than offer Him fitting worship and keep his commands.  Because of their disobedience, Ancient Israel subjected itself to the Bablyonian Exile.  It was only after 70 years that they were able to return to Jerusalem.

What was the big deal about Jerusalem, one might ask?  According to the cultic sacrificial worship of Ancient Israel, sacrifices could only be offered in the Temple and the Temple was in Jerusalem, the City of David.  King Solomon had built an incredible Temple for the Lord, but, Ancient Israel, despite the warnings from God (via the prophets), turned its back against Him.  He wanted to spare His people from the punishment, but, they freely chose to abandon Him.  Because of this, God allowed the Babylonians to lay waste to Jerusalem, including burning down the Temple.  A good many people were taking to Babylon as captives.  For seven decades, Ancient Israel mourned their sins and the loss of Jerusalem, especially the Temple.  That is the message behind this weekend's Responsorial Psalm.  The people longed to worship God once more in the Temple.  They lamented their sins and they grieved the separation from God and Jerusalem.

In this weekend's Gospel reading, Jesus gives us the same warning through Nicodemus.  Yes, God loves us.  However, while He can heap on all of the love that He wants on us, our free will gives us the right of refusal.  If we do not accept God's invitation to love and a deep relationship, then, we are condeming ourselves.  As a wise prelate once said, "God loves us all, even the devil.  However, he cannot make us love Him.  God cannot make Satan love Him.  Satan outright rejected God; hence, he has condemned himself."  

And what of us?  We are in the same position as our ancestors in the Faith, Ancient Israel, only, instead of sending us people like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Father has sent us His only begotten Son, Christ Jesus.  Christ communicates to us through the Church, through the pillars of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  He also gives us the means to learn how to make the right choice, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  The wise prelate I quoted earlier once said that every Mass affords us the opportunity to experience a foretaste of the final judgment.  Yes, God loves us, but, that is only half of the matter.  During the Mass, we experience the Holy Exchange.  God declares His love for us, through the Sacrifice of His Son.  We are not pew potatoes.  For our part, we (hopefully) declare our love for God in return.  Perhaps the most powerful way of declaring that love is when we approach to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion (if we are properly disposed to do so).  At that moment, we are saying Yes to God.  We are choosing to let Him into our hearts.  Even if one cannot receive Holy Communion, he can still make a committed yes to God by making a Spiritual Communion, asking Jesus to come into his heart. 

God lays out His proposal before us ever anew; however, it is up to us to accept it.  God so loved the world that He sent us His only begotten Son; however, it falls to us to be willing to accept God's  love ever anew.  Let us choose, then, to love God in return.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cleansing the Temple

Today's Gospel reading from St. John presents us with the account of Jesus cleansing the Temple.  To simply read this incident of one where Jesus is trying to protect the people from price gouging is to miss the Lord's actions completely.  Sadly, this "theme" seems to pop up when analyzing this particular Gospel account solely through the eyes of social justice. 

The Temple was divided into three sections.  The first section, the smallest, was called the "Holy of Holies."  This sacred space was reserved to the priest as he entered it to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of the people.  In Solomon's temple, this was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.  Even though, in the second Temple, the Ark was absent, it was still the place where God made his presence known among His people.  The second, larger space in the Temple was the place of prayer for the Jews.  The third space was reserved for those Gentiles who came to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  It was in this space where the money changers and animal vendors set up shop. 

Now, the money changers and the animal vendors were necessary.  One could not pay the Temple tax using Roman currency, as these coins depicted graven images (prohibited by the Commandments).  Thus, the currency needed to be exchanged for something kosher.  The animal vendors were necessary because it made no sense for pilgrims to bring along their animals during their trek to Jesusalem, as the birds, sheep and oxen may either be weakened by the long trip or not even survive the journey at all.  One needed to present a healthy, unblemished animal for sacrifice.  The problem was that both the vendors and the money changers set up their stalls in an area that was sacred, reserved for prayer. 

This was probably the first recorded instance of liturgical abuse in the New Testament, although, not in the Bible.  One can say that this distinction belongs to Aaron and the Golden Calf.  Aaron bowed under the pressure of the newly released Hebrews and fashioned a golden calf for them to worship.  God severely punished Ancient Israel for this serious infraction.  But, this would not be the last abuse.  Aaron's sons committed the next infraction, burning incense when they were not supposed to do so.  Again, the punishment was swift and fatal.  The Lord did not take such abuses lightly.

If the abuses against Ancient Israel's form of cultic worship greatly concerned God the Father, God the Son also shared His Father's reaction.  This is the only time in the Gospel where Jesus has such an intense and swift reaction.  For Jesus, how we pray matters.  How we use sacred space and sacred appointments matter.  The law of prayer is the law of belief.  We need to pray as we believe.  It was just as true in Jesus' time as it is in our time.

For me, what was rather ironic in today's reading was what happened at Mass this afternoon.  I must admit that I was undergoing an intensive migraine during most of the Mass.  However, what hurt me more than the migraine was not so much that folks were streaming in late (this always happens during a time change), but, the fact that we were using substandard music.  The worse part was that one of the pieces was not even suitable for the Lenten season, "Seek Ye First".  Those who know the song are well aware that the chorus features the word "Alleluia", not once, but many times.  Last week, the parochial vicar had to correct the choir because they had chosen another song, "Come, Let Us Worship", which had a smattering of "Alleluias", reminding them that we were already two Sundays into Lent.  I am trying to give OCP the benefit of the doubt that these were not something that the publishing house had suggested for use during the Lenten season.  Then, the keyboardist played an instrumental after Communion, even though, given the fact that we are in the Lenten season, the Church restricts the use of instruments to just sustaining the singing. 

I do not necessarily blame those who selected the music.  I blame the publishing house for suggesting that this piece, along with "Table of Plenty" be used.  It's as though OCP does not have any clue regarding what sacred music is.  In his homily, the celebrant stressed the need to respect the Church.  At another Mass I assisted, the celebrant talked about respecting the Mass.  Yet, there is a very strong disconnect between what was prayed, proclaimed and preached with what was sung in this afternoon's Mass.  Certainly, God deserves better than tawdry music that, in this case, wasn't even seasonally appropriate. 

In the excellent blog by the New Liturgical Movement, there was an article that raised the point about the need for a division within the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that would be devoted to sacred music.  While there are some who would argue that this chore would best be left to the national episcopal conferences, I do not necessarily think that such an approach would be a good thing.  We need to have clear-cut guidance from the Holy See and explicit definitions to determine just what sacred music means. As I have experienced it, we don't seem to be getting it from the USCCB.  Were this the case, a lot of what was sung today would not have been used.

Perhaps it is time for another cleansing of the Temple, only this time, it should begin with the choir loft.