Friday, March 26, 2010

Anticipation: How Do We Get Ready for Easter Triduum?

The week before Holy Week - time to take stock of how Lent has gone - and for musicians and liturgists to rehearse and finalize plans for Triduum. For RCIA teams, the final gatherings are filled with a sense of excitement. In short, everyone active in liturgy, music or catechumenal ministry in a parish is in some form of preparation mode. Last night in my parish, we rehearsed for 2 1/2 hours for Holy Thursday. Next Monday, we will practice for the Vigil.

Are the people in the pews, the ones who are not active in a particular ministry preparing for liturgy too? Ideally, yes. In reality, for most, probably not so much.

Families for whom Easter is a special day have probably planned the Easter wardrobe of new clothes for their family members - a time-honored tradition that most have forgotten the original meaning of (the wearing of new clothes echoes the new white garment of their baptism). They have also probably made arrangements for a family get-together and a special meal. The hams in the grocery stores are a testimony to the popularity of that particular Easter tradition. But are they readying for the powerful liturgical celebrations of the Triduum as well?

How many of the Assemby are excitedly anticipating the procession with the palms on Palm Sunday? Do you think they are looking forward to the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday? How many are in a state of breathless anticipation of the opening of the Easter Vigil, with the fire, in the dark and the  proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Exsultet?  Are people who do not have family members to be baptized at the Vigil even thinking about the moment when new Christians will be made among them? The question is how have we helped them?  

In our parish, we have been reflecting all through Lent on the meaning of our baptism, hoping that the renewal of baptismal vows will take on new meaning.  It is one small way to instill a sense of anticipation. Many parishes will insert some kind of invitation to the liturgies of the Triduum in their bulletins this weekend - yet we all know that attendance at Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Vigil normally only represent mostly those who are active in the parish.

If everyone who goes to weekend Mass were to decide to show up for any of these liturgies, we could not seat them! Yet, all are invited.  Is this a case of "many are called, few are chosen"?  Should we be content with this status quo? Or do we need to work harder to provide opportunities for the kind of conversion that would move people to be where the Lord is present in our great celebrations?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Third Scrutiny - what does Lazarus have to say to us?

This weekend, my parish used the readings for the Third Scrutiny, focusing the theological reflection of the entire faith community on the Gospel of John account of the raising of Lazarus, as the adults readying themselves for Baptism enter their final two weeks of preparation. Although the Third Scrutiny was actually celebrated at another Mass, I could still sense the power of the presence of our two catechumens in the community.

Since our focus this Lent was on recovering the power of our own baptism, as we walk with the catechumens, our reflection on the Rite of Baptism this week focused on the Ephphetha - the opening of the ears to hear the Word of God and the opening of the mouth to speak its witness. Our pastor, in his homily, chose the figure of Martha, whose profession of faith in Jesus is a model for our own:

“Your brother will rise.”  Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,  the one who is coming into the world.”  (John 11:23-27)

In this passage lies the power of witness and a clear model for how we are to speak up for Jesus and the Gospel.
Beyond this great connection made in the homily, however, I found myself once again processing the death of my beloved friend Jim, who, coincidentally was born on the Feast of St. Lazarus. Jim's final work of art was a powerful photographic series called "Lazarus" and in his artist statement, he wrote:  "Once I was told it might be possible to live twice..."  The photos showed a variety of symbols of life, time, death and resurrection, many of them coated in pristine white paint, which "preserved" them, as did the photographs. The first photo in the series (left) featured paint-coated Easter lilies over the text of the story of Lazarus in Latin from the Vulgate.  The final photo was of rotting, spoiled fruit... not coated in paint - what would have happened to many of the other objects had they not been preserved "eternally" in the photographs.

What does the raising of Lazarus say to those of us who grieve the death of a loved one?  Since his raising was a one-time miracle  "for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it" are we to hope for anything more for us and our loved ones than the resurrection on the Last Day?  As I heard this reading yesterday, I found myself saying with Martha both "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died" and "yes, Lord I have come to believe that you are the Christ..."  In the process of grieving, that is the conundrum - the struggle between feelings of betrayal and faith - saying "Lord, if only you had been there..." and "Lord, I know you are here..."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Unevangelized Children: Consequence of "Erasing" God's Story from the Public Arena

Just read an interesting post on the Team RCIA blog from Rita Burns Senseman about whether children need an inquiry period in the RCIA and found a statement that confirms my own experience - that in American society today, many children need primary evangelization...

In my experience, some, if not many, of the children who come to us need evangelization. They have not yet heard the good news, they are unfamiliar with the Scriptures and unaware of God’s deep, unconditional love for them. It is not an uncommon that when I do the initial pastoral visit with a child, he or she is not able to speak about God. In other words, they “know” very little of God’s love for them. They have not yet been evangelized. Even though many people would say that North America is a Christian society, many children have not heard the good news of God’s saving love. Thus, many children need a precatechumenate before we begin the more formal catechesis of the period of the catechumenate.One example may illustrate this point. Recently, I interviewed an inquiring family during the Advent/Christmas season. The child was not able to tell me anything she knew about God and did not know any stories from the Bible. Trying to help her along and thinking that the story of “Baby Jesus and Three Kings” would sound familiar, I asked her if she had ever heard this story. She stared at me blankly.

I have had actually this experience the last couple of years with some Catholic children in religious education sesssions. Because we have been so politically correct that children no longer hear or see that Jesus was born in a manger and died on the cross, they may come to us, if their families have not been practicing their faith with absolutely no background. They simply have never heard the stories. Their only associations with Christmas and Easter may be from commercials on TV - Santa, the Easter bunny that clucks like a chicken, etc. - and from family celebrations of gift-giving on Christmas - and perhaps little or nothing (at most a big family dinner) at Easter - the most important celebration of the Christian year.

This is a call to evangelize our children - especially in a climate where parents tend only to insert them in religious formation to "get their sacraments". The sacraments of initiation have pretty much no meaning apart from the practice of our faith, including regular participation in the Mass and Eucharist. If not to be able to come to the Eucharistic table on a regular basis, what are kids being intitated for?

 We need to tell the stories - loudly and often - of our faith, and of our God, so that the children can hear that God is alive and active in the world... and in their lives.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Second Scrutiny - Looking Within to Find the Light of Christ

The two young women stood at the front of the church, motionless and transfixed, their sponsors' hands on their shoulders, as we celebrated the Second Scrutiny with those preparing for baptism this week during the choir Mass. It was a simple and powerful moment, as the commuity embraced them in prayer and invoked the power of Christ to defend them against evil during their final weeks of preparation for Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.

Our pastor outdid himself in bringing the theme of  the Light of Christ into the homily, connecting it with the words spoken when our godparent lights our baptismal candle: our baptismal symbol of the week, which, of course fit right in with the Gospel reading of the Man Born Blind. The hymn texts were all laced with references to light and darkness as well.  It is truly amazing to liturgy planners when all elements of the Mass fall into place as if naturally on a given theme - and this was one of the best moments I have experienced.

After inviting the two catechumens to the front, and saying a brief prayer, our pastor invited us to recite the Creed - and it instantly made tremendous sense as the community stepped up to the plate -reciting it with more gusto than usual, as if everyone in the room suddenly recognized the privilege of being Catholic and became proud to profess their belief (see my previous post on that topic). We then prayed the intercessions over them, Father prayed the Prayer of Exorcism and the choir and Assemby responded with a hearty rendition of  "Stand Firm."

When the Rites are well celebrated they teach. I hope that everyone there today learned as much as I did from this simple, dignified and heart-felt experience.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Scrutinies - Helping the Community of Faith to Put on the Armor of God

This weekend is the celebration around the world of the First Scrutiny - when those preparing for baptism are prayed over by their parish community, as they enter the last stages of preparation for the Easter sacraments. The catechumens kneel and receive the grace of the Assembly's prayer.

Here is what happens: after silent prayer, and the community's intercessions for the Elect, the celebrant prays a prayer of exorcism over them, asking for the removal of evil and obstacles to faith from their lives. I have heard it said that the closer one gets to the baptismal font, the harder Satan attempts to sidetrack the person, so the prayer of exorcism is especially needed at this time. But what of the community? What catechesis should take place immediately before the Rite?  In my parish, there is little explanation, and the rite is allowed to speak for itself, which it does, if people listen to the words spoken. But, should more explanation be provided?  Would this help the community take their proper role?

The Scrutinies are about the Elect, but in a way they are also about us, the already-initiated.  How many of the baptized feel the influence of evil in their lives? How many are presented daily with obstacles to faith? Do we realize that at baptism we received the ability to rely on the power of Christ to overcome these?  At infant baptism, we were anointed with the Oil of Catechumens, and a prayer of exorcism was said over us. Included in that prayer were the words: : "May you have strength in the power of Christ our Savior.."  Do we appreciate that? Do we rely upon it when faced with evil or temptation? The Good News for the baptized is that we don't have to face evil by ourselves. It has already been conquered in Christ. Because we are baptized, we have the ability to
Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. 
(Ephesians 6:11-12) 

St. Patrick expressed this beautifully in his "Breastplate" prayer.  In these days before his feast, it may also be good, as part of our preparation to renew our baptismal promises at Easter, to revisit that prayer, knowing that it is only through the power of our baptism that we are able to stand firm:

This weekend, and in the two that follow, may we, who have been freed from the power of the Devil add our prayer at the Scrutinies to those of the celebrant as he extends his hands over the Elect - and pray for the gift of the Armor of God for them.