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Sunday, April 13, 2014

And so it begins...

Today, with the celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, the Church enters into her most sacred time of the year, Holy Week.

The Palm Sunday liturgy begins with the joyful, triumphant praises of Hosanna to the Son of David, the opening antiphon and progresses to the epitome of entrance processionals, All Glory, Laud and Honor.  We recall Jesus' triumphal entry into His own city, Jerusalem, and how the crowds chanted praises while waving palm and olive branches.

But, as the liturgy continues, we experience a shift from the joyful to the sorrowful.  We listen to a section of Isaiah's prophecy of the Suffering Servant (which we will hear throughout the week).  Then, we chant Psalm 22, My God, My God, why have you abandoned me, the psalm that Jesus quotes as he is hanging on the cross.  The psalm predicts what Jesus will undergo, the piercing of his hands and his feet and the casting of lots for his vesture. Then, we listen to St. Paul's Canticle, taking from his epistle to the Philippians, exhorting us to bend the knee at the name of Jesus and reminding us of Christ's obedience even to the point of suffering through death on a cross.

In the Gospel account, we live through the sacred moments of Jesus' Passion and Death. Twice a year, the Gospel proclamation is shared between the priest, the deacon and the people (with the priest taking on the part of Christ).  In Rome, it is traditionally chanted by three deacons, with the choir taken on the part of the crowd.

A dear priest friend of mine told me that he prefers to divide the Passion into parts (as listed in the above paragraph), where he reads the part of Christ and the faithful take on the role of the crowd.  He explained that, ultimately, we are that crowd.  That crowd speaks for us.  We need to remind ourselves that it was, as Isaiah proclaims in the first reading used on Good Friday, "He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole."  It is important that this reality confront us, head-on and impact us.  A lot of the time, we tend to water down our faith and not really focus on our need for conversion.  Sin is a powerful reality.  It is also deadly, more deadly than AIDS or any form of cancer.  Cancer and AIDS destroy the body; sin destroys the soul.  Jesus said, "Beware of the one who can destroy the soul."

In his homily, my priest friend said that all of us have a role in the Passion.  In fact, nearly every serious sin is found there:  sloth, envy, hatred, violence and greed.  The most serious of these is despair, the despair that Judas languished in because he believed that he was beyond salvation.  This is the worst sin against God because despair means that we do not believe that He can save us.  That is the ultimate death of the soul.

Moments after the account of the Passion, we relive the sacred mysteries of our salvation when we enter into the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Jesus becomes just as present to us as He was to the Apostles who betrayed, denied and abandoned him, to the crowds who cheered for him in the beginning and then jeered at him towards the end and to Pilate, Caiaphas and the Romans who played a huge role in His Crucifixion.

Yet, as deeply profound as these mysteries are, many parishes sadly miss the boat in making the connection between the liturgy and the music for today's Mass.  They do not realize that with today's liturgy, we enter the high point, the summit of the Church's liturgical year.  So, what do these well-meaning parish music directors pick?  Very rarely will we pray the Introit and the Communion Antiphons (the Church's official music for the sacred liturgy).  Instead, choir directors select songs that really do not convey the sacred mysteries that unfold before us.  The King of Glory, One Bread-One Body, Our God Reigns, and other pieces lack the sober nature called for during this time of year.

I know I keep writing a lot about this issue, but there is cause for concern.  Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, in his excellent blog, WDTPRS, lamented about the emerging Magisterium of Sophomores, wherein students at a Catholic High School were protesting an address given by an orthodox priest which touched on some hard-truth issues.  I do not know if these students have been exposed to any liturgy (LifeTeen or otherwise); however, when the liturgy is watered down, that leads to a weakening in the Faith.  When the sacred mysteries no longer impact us and we replace the beauty and solemnity of the Mass with soft Christian pop music, we have contributed to the decline in our Faith.  Such a decline will eventually render us just as apathetic and slothful as the crowds on that first Good Friday.

As we go deeper into the mystery of Holy Week, let us pray that we will allow these sacred realities to permeate into our hearts and souls.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Imploring God's Mercy

If we read Monday's Gospel account of Jesus saving the life of the woman whom the Pharisees caught in adultery on the surface, focusing only on the Lord's rebuke of the men who wanted to stone the accused to death, we might miss out on the deeper message.

The elders had found the woman in the midst of the grievous sin of adultery, and, seized by bloodlust, they wanted her executed.  The scene is somewhat similar to the reading from the Book of Daniel, where the innocent Susanna was threatened with execution on a bogus charge of adultery, only, in Susanna's case, the two elders were guilty.

In the first reading, young Daniel condemns the lecherous judges to a violent death for falsely accusing Susanna.   On the other hand, in the Gospel reading, Jesus challenges the men wanting to kill the adulteress to look into their own lives and see the seriousness of the sins that they, themselves have committed.  One by one, beginning with the elders, the  lynch mob disperses.

After Jesus is left alone with the adulterous, he does something remarkable. He does not condemn her; however, he warns her about sin.  For Jesus, the life of her soul is just as important as the life of her body.  He had literally saved her from physical death; his main concern now is to save her from the eternal death that comes from sin.

Sin is a very painful reality.  Unfortunately, the modern age tends to sugar coat the real danger that sin poses to us.  Even the music that has crept into the Church over the course of 40 years downplays the need for repentance and ignores the fact that we stand in need of God's mercy.  Songs like "Beyond the Days" and "Ashes" tend to make the Lenten season somewhat syrupy, focusing on either social justice or some other sappy theme.

The chant par excellence for the Lenten season, the "Attende Domine", brings home the point that we are sinners.  We stand in stark need of God's mercy.  Like the woman caught in adultery, we stand bare before God in sorrow.  Although the above video, taken from the 2010 Papal Ash Wednesday Mass, features the chant in its original Latin, below, is a translation of the 10th century prayer.

Hear us, O Lord, and have mercy,
Because we have sinned against Thee.

Hear us, O Lord, and have mercy,
Because we have sinned against Thee.

1. To Thee, highest King,
Redeemer of all,
We lift up our eyes
In weeping:
Hear, O Christ, the prayers
of your servants.

2. Right hand of the Father,
Way of salvation,
Gate of heaven,
Wash away our
Stains of sin.

3. We beseech Thee, God,
In Thy great majesty:
Hear our groans
With Thy holy ears:
Calmly forgive
Our crimes.

4. To Thee we confess
Our sins admitted
With a contrite heart
We reveal the things hidden:
By Thy kindness, O Redeemer,
Overlook them.

5. The Innocent, seized,
Not refusing to be led;
Condemned by false witnesses
On account of impious men
Those whom Thou hast redeemed,
Keep safe, O Christ.

The last verse contrasts sharply with the episode of the woman caught in adultery.  The angry mob seized the woman and condemned her to a shameful death.  While they quoted the Law of Moses against the impious woman, there was no mercy in their hearts, only a sick thirst for blood.  Just as the woman was thrust before Jesus, the Lord, Himself, would soon be bound and accused by false witnessed, condemned to a painful death.  He, himself, would take the place of the adulterous woman, offering Himself as a Victim for her sins, for the sins of the lynch mob and for the sins of everyone who has cried throughout the ages, "Crucify Him."  

Yes, there is a wideness in God's mercy; however, if we do not realize that we stand in stark need of it, then we become like that lynch mob and like the two elders who falsely accused Susanna. The Attende Domine helps us to remember that we are sinners who must humbly implore the mercy of so loving a God.    Only when we begin to realize this, and engage in a Lenten regimen that takes the focus off of ourselves and re-orients us to God and our neighbor, can we begin our conversion.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

God is in His Holy Dwelling Place

On Monday, March 24, 2014, the parishioners of Laredo's Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church gathered for the celebration of the first Mass in the parish's new chapel.  Dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, the Patroness of both the United States and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (the Order who staffs the parish), the small chapel was filled to capacity.

For the pastor, Rev. Juan Ayala, OMI, the evening served as the culmination of his parish's 15-year journey.  As with any project, there were triumphs and hardships, but, the parish persevered.

To mark the occasion, Fr. Ayala accepted the offer to chant the Propers for the Dedication of a New Church.  These were taken from the Propers for the Solemnity of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (the Introit is the same as that used for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, as seen in the video above).

"God is in His holy dwelling place, the God who causes us to dwell together; one in heart in His house,  He, Himself, will give power and strength to His people."  The corresponding Psalm verses, taken from  Psalm 68, read, "The just shall rejoice in the presence of God."

Certainly, there was certainly cause for rejoicing.  As the incense wafted through the small chapel accompanied by a chant taken from the offertory for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (the chapel's patron), one could see how the music fit.  Mary was the first sanctuary for her Son.  In her pure womb, she carried the Lord, just as the Tabernacle holds the Real Presence of Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

In his homily, Fr. Ayala reminded us that God, indeed, is in his holy dwelling place.  Despite the difficulties of the journey in making the chapel a reality, the parish, like Namaan's servants (the first reading was about Naaman the Syrian who was healed of his leprosy), trusted.  In fact, I would dare to say, that even Namaan understood the meaning of providing a dwelling place for God.  Recall that, after he is cured, he asks Elisha for 10 mule loads of earth so that he can have a place to worship the true God when Namaan returns home.

After the homily, Fr. Ayala blessed the new sacred vessels and then, the Stations of the Cross.  As he sprinkled each station, the Attende Domine was chanted, reminded all of us that even though this was certainly a joyous occasion, the Stations remind us of the penitential nature of the holy season of Lent.  After the Offertory, as Fr. Ayala was incensing the altar, the offertory chant for the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica was used, "O Lord, God, in the simplicity of my heart, I have joyfully offered all things and I have beheld with immense joy your people gathered here.  God of Israel, preserve the good intentions, O Lord God."  This chant, taken from the First Book of Chronicles, is the prayer that Solomon uttered when he presided over the dedication of the Temple that he built for the Lord.  The verses, taken from the same biblical passage, echo the joy of the celebration.  As the chant was being sung, I was reminded of what Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote regarding Solomon and the dedication of the Temple.  Benedict recounted how Solomon knelt down as he dedicated the Temple.

As Fr. Ayala prayed the Eucharistic Prayer, I could sense the deep joy he had.  I knew that this final stretch had been difficult for him; however, as he elevated the Holy Eucharistic species during the Doxology, there was peace, the kind of peace that only the Lord can bring.

For Communion, the chant, taken from the Communion Antiphon for the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, was used. "Jerusalem, built as a city whose parts are bound firmly together!  It is there that the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, to give thanks unto your name, O Lord."  The verses, taking from Psalm 122, remind us of the joy of entering into the heavenly Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the temple was.

After Communion, Fr. Ayala formally blessed the new Tabernacle.  A traditional Spanish hymn was sung, one that is normally used for Benediction.  Fr. Ayala then invited us to spend some moments in silent prayer before the Lord.  He then formally reposed our Lord in the Tabernacle.

After the final blessing, we sang a traditional Spanish hymn of praise, thanking God for the dedication of the new chapel.  It was wonderful to hear everyone singing with joy.

God, indeed, is in his holy dwelling place.