The Real Meal Deal

During the years that I was in pastoral ministry it was not unusual to hear people express that they weren’t “being fed” at their local church. This realization often led the person to seek another congregation or denomination where it was hoped the spiritual nurture and nourishment that he or she sought would be found.

Since the focus of worship in most churches is the sermon—where the Word of God is expounded—the ability of the pastor or homilist to challenge and keep the hearer’s attention is of paramount importance. I remember all too well agonizing over sermon preparation knowing that my sermon had the potential to be totally forgettable, or to the other extreme, life changing.

With 33 years of ministry and many more total years in worship services I found it hard not to critique the sermons that I heard offered up. Even after coming into the Catholic Church I found myself using the same criteria. That is not to say that the sermon or homily is not important in the Catholic Church, but it is not the centerpiece of the Mass as the sermon is to the Protestant worship experience.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1324) states: The Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” This necessitated a shift in perspective for me, away from the centrality of the sermon or exposition of the God’s Word, as important as that is, to the holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the Eucharist, celebrating the Real Presence of Jesus Christ—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—under the appearance of bread and wine.

What I have discovered to my great joy is that I don’t leave church not feeling fed. The homily may be short, even lacking in presentation, but the privilege of receiving our Lord—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—is true food (John 6:55). It is the real meal deal!

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The Real Meal Deal

The Church Is Holy

Ever so often you come across a great book that speaks powerfully and succinctly and challenges you in your spiritual life. For me one such book is Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed. The book was selected for our monthly book club. We are actually reading it across two months.

This morning I was reading a chapter entitled “The Visible Church.” In this chapter Sheed takes the four marks of the Church that we find in the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday: “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Allow me to share with you what Sheed says about the fact that the Church is holy.

“Three characteristics of the mark of Holiness are, as has been said, the teaching, the means, the saints. It may have been noticed that, in treating the first two, the teaching and the means, we brought in the saints; it may be wondered what is left to say of them in the third. But in all three characteristics they are used differently. In the teaching we saw them as the unchanging standard the Church sets; in the means, we saw them as witness to the our weakness that holiness is possible even to us.

“Now, at last, we come to them as evidence to the whole world that the teaching is true teaching and the means are effective means. For the saints are the people who have accepted wholeheartedly all that Christ, through His Church, offers them.

“In other words, it is by the saints, and not by the mediocre, still less by the great sinners, that the Church is to be judged. It may seem a loading of the dice to demand that any institution be judged solely by its best members, but in this instance it is not. A medicine must be judged not by those who buy it but by those who actually take it. A Church must be judged by those who hear and obey, not by those who half-hear and disobey when obedience is difficult.

“No Catholic is compelled—not by the Church, not by Christ—to be holy. His will is solicited, aided, not forced.

“Every man must make his own response. The saints have responded totally, the rest of us respond partially, timorously (afraid to lose some sin in which we especially delight), or not at all. The saints in their thousands upon thousands stand as proof that, in the Church, holiness is to be had for the willing. Every saint is certain evidence that, if you and I are not saints, the choice is wholly our own.

The Church Is Holy

And Yes! It’s Still Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Yes! It’s still Christmas—the sixth day of Christmas! There has been Christmas chatter since before Halloween if you think commercially, or since the day after Thanksgiving if you think musically on secular and pop Christian radio stations. But for me and my house (Charlotte and I), Christmas began at midnight going from December 24 to 25 with the procession of the midnight Mass. And we continue to celebrate especially during the Christmas Octave that goes from December 25 through January 1.

What a liturgical lineup the Church has given us in this Christmas season!

December 25: The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
December 26: The Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr
December 27: The Feast of Saint John, apostle and evangelist
December 28: The Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs
December 29: The Feast of Saint Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr
December 30: The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
December 31: The Feast of Saint Sylvester I, pope (314–335)
January 1: The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

All of this came together for me as I was reading the final entries in A Year with the Church Fathers: Patristic Wisdom for Daily Living, compiled by Mike Aquilina. (If you were given any Amazon gift cards this would be a great addition to your library, especially if you’ve only dabbled in the Church Fathers.) The reading I refer to came from Day 359 and is entitled “Honoring the saints goes back to the Apostles.” It is written by Saint Basil and is taken from Letter 360.

According to the blameless Christian faith which comes to us from God, I confess and hold that I believe in one God, the Father almighty: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. I adore and worship one God, the Trinity.

I confess the incarnation of the Son in the flesh, and that St. Mary, who gave birth of him according to the flesh, was Mother of God.

I also acknowledge the holy Apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and I invoke them to pray to God, so that through them—that is, through their mediation—God who is merciful may show me favor, and a ransom may be made and given to me for my sins.

For that reason I also honor and kiss the faces of their images, since they have been handed down from the holy Apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.—St. Basil, Letter 360, (A.D. 329–379).

St. Basil is honored as a saint by all expressions of Christianity and he is considered a doctor of the Church. He was writing his letters at the same time that the New Testament canon was being determined by the Catholic Church.

In this Christmastide, give thanks for the Incarnation, give thanks for the Apostles, prophets and martyrs and join with the historic Church and St. Basil in invoking them to pray to God for us.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

And Yes! It’s Still Christmas!

A Stumbling Block for Many

marystain

I just returned from Mass celebrating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It was wonderful to see the church completely full on this holy day of obligation. It was my privilege to be one of the lectors, reading from Genesis 3.

Coming from an evangelical heritage I understand the issues someone from that tradition may have with a day like today. Many point to the fact that it wasn’t until 1854 that Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be dogma in his encyclical Ineffabilis Deus, “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

This dogma did not come out of thin air. The Church through the centuries held this to be true, and then in defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ in the 19th century, the dogma was declared, not as something novel, but in accord with the time-honored beliefs of the Church, not to elevate Mary, but to glorify Jesus and his salvific work in and through his mother. Here is a sampling of what previous churchmen have said:

“Let us not imagine that we obscure the glory of the Son by the great praise we lavish on the Mother; for the more she is honored, the greater is the glory of her Son. There can be no doubt that whatever we say in praise of the Mother gives equal praise to the Son.”—St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090–1153.

From a sermon by Saint Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109)—

Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night—everything that is subject to the power or use of man—rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace. All creatures were dead, as it were, useless for men or for the praise of God, who made them. The world, contrary to its true destiny, was corrupted and tainted by the acts of men who served idols. Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God.

The universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly, working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.

Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain.

Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance. Virgin, blessed above all creatures, through your blessing all creation is blessed, not only creation from its Creator, but the Creator himself has been blessed by creation.

To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary.

God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Truly the Lord is with you, to whom the Lord granted that all nature should owe as much to you as to himself. (Oratio 52: PL 158, 955-956, from The Liturgy of the Hours, December 8)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

A Stumbling Block for Many

Overheard in the Office

Two coworkers were talking a few cubicles away from me and one said “If you believed in asking the saints to pray for you, which I don’t, maybe you should ask John Knox to pray, because he’s probably not too busy.” The insinuation is that Catholics are keeping their saints busy. If only it were so!

The conversation continued with chuckles and with an assurance that there is a hole in the Catholic theology of the “Communion of the Saints.” I listened and immediately wondered what I would do the next time one of my coworkers asked me to pray for them. Am I any more qualified to lift their concern in intercession to God? Just because I am on earth, how is my prayer more effective than the prayer of one who is in the very presence of God?

I know that the idea of asking the saints to pray with us and for us is foreign, even abominable to many who identify as Protestants or Evangelicals. The ironic thing is that the joke was being made by someone who should know better, but that is not the point of this article.

The point is that the Church is one, whether in heaven or on earth. The writer of Hebrews tells us in chapter 12, after giving us a run down of the faith of many Old Testament saints, that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Mary Healy in her commentary on the book of Hebrews writes: “As we run this race, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, as if filling the stands of a huge sports arena. They are the saints of the old covenant (now joined by those of the new covenant), who are rooting for us and passionately interested in the outcome of our lives.”

These are more than pictures or statues or memories in a dusty history book; they are real, living (more living than ever) saints who have won the victory and are in the very presence of God and of the Lamb in heaven. We are united not only in prayer, but also every time we celebrate the Mass which draws heaven and earth together through the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world for their sin and ours.

The book of Revelation gives us another clue to this amazing ministry the saints have in heaven. In chapter 5, verse 8, John writes: “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

Now of course the unfounded argument or accusation is that Catholics pray to the saints, somehow elevating them to a divine status reserved only to Jesus. This, of course, is not true. What is true is seeing the saints as any other member of the Body of Christ whose main role is to continue to be part of that Body and care for one another. So when you ask me to pray for you, you are not divinizing me, but asking me to fulfill my God-given role of ministering to you as part of the Body of Christ. When I ask St. Francis de Sales to pray for me, I am not divinizing him, but asking him to intercede on my behalf.

One of the great gifts that my Catholic faith has given me is recognizing that death does not separate us. We are in the Church Militant; the saints are in the Church Triumphant; but it is one Church and Jesus Christ is our Head. Another benefit of the gift is knowing I have earthly and heavenly intercessors pulling for me rooting for me and passionately interested in the outcome of my life.

 

Overheard in the Office

Progressive: Today’s Buzz Word

I find that a lot of life and deep thoughts come to me before 7:00 a.m., especially when I am the lector at the 6:45 Mass. This morning the first reading was from 2 John, not a book or letter that I have spent a lot of time with. The readings in the Mass (in English) are taken from the New American Bible Revised Edition. The passage that I read is as follows:

“I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth just as we were commanded by the Father. But now, Lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing a new commandment but the one we have had from the beginning: let us love one another. For this is love, that we walk according to his commandment; this is the commandment, as you heard from the beginning, in which you should walk.

“Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming into the flesh; such is the deceitful one and the antichrist. Look to yourselves that you do not lose what we worked for but may receive a full recompense. Any one who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.”

2 John 4–9, NABRE

The word that jumped out at me is “progressive.” I have never seen it in the Bible. And as I confessed earlier, I haven’t spent a lot of time on John’s last two letters. I also realize that “progressive” is not the word you will find in other translations, but the choice of it by those who worked on the NABRE is not misplaced. In other translations “progressive” is rendered as “goes beyond” (NRSV), “goes ahead” (RSV), “runs ahead” (NIV), “revolteth and continueth not” (Douay-Rheims).

The reason “progressive” jumped out at me is because it is such a buzz word in our culture, both secular (political, social, economic) and religious. The dictionary defines “progressive” as “a person advocating or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.” Progressive politicians are people like Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the field of religion you might consider people like Episcopalian bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Jesuit priest James Martin as progressives. I hesitate to assign this nomenclature to anyone, but some seem to wear it better than others. Some might even consider our Holy Father progressive, especially as compared to his immediate predecessors Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.

Let’s return to St. John’s warning: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming into the flesh; such is the deceitful one and the antichrist. Look to yourselves that you do not lose what we worked for but may receive a full recompense. Any one who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.”

The danger of being “progressive” when it comes to the Church and God’s timeless Word is that we can run right past God’s intention and salvation plan to the point that we no longer “remain in the teaching of the Christ” and to do so is to find ourselves in that lamentable, but often unrealized place of not having God! That is another way to describe heresy or the reality of being a heretic.

Again I hate to call out people or groups of people, but something is taking place in the Christian world that deeply grieves me. A Christian denomination that I have historical ties to is taking a major “progressive” step. A very good friend of mine who pastors in that denomination is taking early retirement because he cannot conscientiously continue to support the “progressive” move. Read about the “One Church Plan” here. Another historic Christian denomination is setting in place a denomination-wide ruling on same-sex “marriage” that will take effect December 2. One bishop in Albany, New York, is standing up to the “progressive” move.

Anytime we “run ahead,” “go beyond,” or “revolt and continue not” the expressed will of God in His Holy Word and the Sacred Tradition of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we do not remain in the teachings of Christ and we do not have God. Call me “traditional,” but “here I stand!”

Progressive: Today’s Buzz Word

Out of the Depths

Out of the depths I cry to You, O LoChrist in Majestyrd; Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication: If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand? But with You is forgiveness, that You may be revered. I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in His word. My soul waits for the Lord, more than sentinels wait for the dawn. More than sentinels wait for the dawn, let Israel wait for the Lord; For with the Lord is kindness and with Him is plenteous redemption; And He will redeem Israel from all their iniquities. (De Profundis Prayer)

We come to the third day of the Triduum that began October 31, the day that marks our obligation to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, that as Catholics we practice the whole month of November.

Every morning of November I began my prayers with a prayer for the Faithful Departed.

Christ Jesus, Lord of life and Redeemer of the world, grant eternal rest to all the faithful departed. Let my relatives and friends whom you have called from this life attain their eternal home. Reward our departed benefactors with eternal blessedness. Grant your departed priests and religious the recompense for their work in your vineyard.

O Lord, receive into your peace the souls of our brothers and sisters who labored for peace and justice on earth. Accept the sacrifices of those who gave their lives out of love for you and their fellow human beings. Look with mercy on all who showed goodwill to others and grant them the peace they deserve.

O Lord, through the bloody Sweat that you suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane; through the pains that you suffered while carrying your Cross to Calvary; through the pains that you suffered in your most painful Crowning with Thorns; through the pains that you suffered during your most cruel Crucifixion; through the pains that you suffered in your most bitter agony on the Cross; through the immense pain that you suffered in breathing forth your blessed soul; grant eternal rest to all the faithful departed.

Praying for the faithfully departed was not my practice as an evangelical. Yet as a Catholic I have grown to love and appreciate the devotion and recognize the important ministry I have to pray for my brothers and sisters in Christ who are still very present to me spiritually, although absent from the body. I have made a practice to pray for them weekly during the first year after their death, and thereafter, I pray for them every Sunday. The list of people I lift in prayer in this way continues to grow and they will receive prayer until I myself become dependent on the prayers of others.

Merciful Father,
hear our prayer
and console us.
As we renew
our faith in Your Son,
whom You raised from the dead,
strengthen our hope
that all our departed brothers and sisters
will share in His resurrection,
who lives and reigns
with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Out of the Depths