Sunday, November 28, 2010

Diving into Advent - How Deep Can You Go?

I have known for a long time that Advent should not be something to dip one's toe into with the proverbial "cautious optimism." Instead, it invites us to take a leap of faith and dive in head-first. On the feast of Christ the King last weekend, we took a long look into the future, and today on the First Sunday of Advent, we simultaneously look back 2,000 years toward that first Christmas, and ahead to the End-Times -- while actually living in our own physical present.

The three comings of Christ in Advent (St. Bernard of Clairvaux) - in the manger as a baby, at the end of time as the King/Judge, and in our hearts here in our lifetime make it necessary for us to immerse ourselves in "God's time" - kairos - that three-fold reality that bends our human perception of time. It's fitting, really, because as we begin yet one more round of the Church Year, we need to be reminded that the Liturgical Year is the human equivalent of  "God's Time" - or as close as we can experience it in our human lifetime.

The celebrant at  Mass at my parish this weekend put it simply - Advent is an opportunity to "start again" - to try one more time to do everything in our life "better."  More than that, I see it as an opportunity to become "better" - to enter more deeply into conversion - to walk with Christ through His year... and become more like him - in HIS time, not ours.  It is an acknowledgment that our time is really His. As such, it represents an opportunity to reconnect with Jesus' teachings - what it means to be "of" the Reign of God ("Kingdom") and not of the world - what it means to treat others in such a way as to be counted among the sheep and not the goats at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25).  It is a time to prepare the way of the Lord by doing our level best to live worthily of what he asked.

The conventional method to is to live a moral life, to treat others well as we encounter them, and to live in piety and charity. The fully-immersed Christian who dives into Advent, head-first, heedless of self and caution, goes even deeper. When Jesus says "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" he does not merely imply these basics.  The "rich young man" of Luke 18 was told - yes - live the Commandments, by all means -- but then do more. Give up everything for the poor and follow Jesus. Over and over, Jesus invites us to put our hand to the plow and not look back (Luke 9:62)- to do the work of justice, to deny ourselves, and to serve without counting the cost. That is the Way of Jesus - risking everything for the Gospel message. It is the "hidden" coming of Christ that St. Bernard describes that comes from doing God's Word. It is only when we do that fully that we will receive consolation, he says.

So, bottom line - Advent and the new Liturgical Year represent another chance to enter fully the scary challenge to trust God enough to drop our needs for security, control and predictability in life in favor of challenge, uncertainty and the possibility of losing our lives in order to gain them.To be ready for the Lord's return is to choose to do all we can possibly do at any given moment, taking into consideration who we are, where we are on our spiritual journey, what our gifts and talents are, and what life-situation we find ourselves in.

How deep will YOU go this year? Toe-dip again? Will you, like many of us, start out with good intentions, but slow down and return to "normal" eventually?  Admittedly, this is not an easy challenge - but it is one we have to face every year at this time of new beginning.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Looking Behind, Within and Ahead With Joyful Hope

Busy time of year, as the Church Year winds down. Tonight, after serving as song-leader for one of our parish religious education Masses, I was part of our parish liturgy planning committee's final preparations for Advent and Christmas.  A discussion we had about our seasonal focus led me to some more profound thoughts about liturgical time.

The conundrum of Advent is that we wait, all the while knowing full well the promise has already been fulfilled -that we have already been set free from sin and death.  Our hope is celebrated in the memory of what was, but also in what is and will be (the three comings of Christ in Advent - in the manger, in our hearts, and at the end of time.)  Certainly this is complex. As Christians, we know "the rest of the story" and that should color Advent as a period of reflection on the meaning of "being ready" for Jesus then, now and in the future.

When we get to the Christmas season, the dynamic takes on a particular urgency: Incarnation means we, as the spiritual descendents of those who encountered the Living God in the flesh are called to be human according the example of Jesus. The celebration is not so much for the coming of the Baby Jesus, but for the descent of God, who has come to walk on earth with us, taking on flesh to experience human life, frailty and ultimately, Paschal Mystery. We celebrate, in Incarnation, the seeds of  Cross and Resurrection. In the already-not-yet of liturgical time, we encounter the Christ who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow - whom we cannot understand in human terms... and we are asked to emulate him - to be disciples willing to do what Jesus did - to die to self in order to conform to God's will - and to live the call to help build the Reign of God by compassionately caring for our less-fortunate brothers and sisters.

Now, the largest conundrum of them all: how to help people understand this in a culture drenched in secularism and consumerism, where the primary narrative of Advent/Christmas has been effectively erased from the public forum. Nativity scenes and Christmas carols have been replaced with Santa, elves, reindeer and shopping. Our traditional sacred celebration of these seasons can seem arcane to children and youth attending public schools where holiday songs have replaced sacred carols and whose wish lists consist of gifts costing hundreds of dollars. In my experience, many young people actually have not heard the full story of the birth of Jesus - or at least they have not put the pieces they have heard together.

Many adults, in their insatiable search for "the perfect" Christmas and just the right gifts, meals and other Christmas trappings, may be so focused on those details there is little room to consider any higher spiritual meaning to the season. If their family has a tradition of going to church, they do so, but often as a habit. That's why we have the "Chr-Easters"- those who only attend on Christmas and Easter - as part of their family ritual for celebrating the "holidays."

Our challenge as catechists is to keep the story of Incarnation and its meaning alive in a culture trying its level best to deny it. Certainly when those pews are more full at Christmas-time, parish leaders and clergy have an opportunity to extend hospitality and evangelize. However, I believe the greatest way we evangelize is through our own personal witness.  We need to embody the Christ we celebrate at Christmas - to become living disciples actively engaged in fulfilling the promise of the Incarnation to change the world for the better by infusing it with what God desires for us - a world of peace, justice and plenty for all people.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New Roman Missal - Idealism vs Realism

As I mentioned in my last post, I just spent two days in Decatur, Illinois,at the Diocese of Springfield Adult Enrichment Conference, where the theme, "Entering the Mystery, Renewing the People" was designed in part as a launch for the preparation for implementation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. The two main speakers, Fr. Richard Fragomeni, and Fr. Paul Turner put a good public face, for the most part, on what has become a mystery in itself: the current status of the texts, which have still not been fully returned to the U.S. Bishops, and around which controversy continues to swirl.

Both men were largely positive, but Fr. Fragomeni was markedly so, in large session at least. He continued to use the word "opportunity" when referring to the coming of the new translation of the Mass texts. It will be, he indicated, repeatedly, an opportunity to renew people's understanding of the Mass.  He admitted that some of the English translation, as we know of it, will be clumsy, contain bad English grammar, and may pose comprehension problems for both priests and people, but said that we will get through the implementation period and people will be using the new words in a fairly short time.  He also indicated he thinks that we will no doubt do this again in 40 years, so really there is nothing to stress about. He said he has reached an attitude of willingness to let the process happen, whatever it might be.

Fr. Fragomeni stressed repeatedly, however, that if the period of implementation is merely seen as being about changing words, we will lose a tremendous opportunity to renew people's understanding of the mystery of the Mass.  He urged us to use the texts to engage people in mystagogical reflection, breaking open symbols to reveal their rich potential to engage the imagination. 

In the Monday breakout session, he urged us to read poetry to cultivate our imaginations. This, he said, would help us develop the skills to look at the new texts. Now, being a scholar of Renaissance poetry myself, I have to admit that this makes sense. Many people in our culture have lost the ability to connect symbolically with language in a way that opens up the imagination. Priests who have a poetic sensibility will be better able to proclaim the new texts - and members of the Assembly who have allowed their experience of language to open up reality will be better able to receive this proclamation.

In contrast to the expansive vision of Fr. Fragomeni, Fr. Paul Turner, an acknowledged expert on the new texts, brought the practical piece.  I attended his session on using the new Missal and learned about structural elements retained and rejected... and that we are going to have to have to recruit stronger altar servers, or as Fr. Turner suggested, put our existing ones on weight training. The new Missal is reportedly 1200 pages... and Rome is requiring that it be published as a single book, despite the size. (!!)

It was mildly distressing to hear confirmed what I had read in the blogosphere that if something (helpful) does not appear in the Latin Missal, it will not be in the English one. This includes indicators for "pointing" the chants of the priest's prayers (letting them know on which words the notes change) and other rubrical helps that we have become accustomed to in our current Sacramentary.  There will be some improvements, to be sure (parish liturgists will no longer have to labor to put the Easter Vigil texts together by hand to work around the outdated order that predates the current Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, for instance.)

Fr. Turner, in his calmer, more sanguine manner, occasionally engaged in a bit of dry humor about the reported difficulties with the text, but it was in his closing talk that he indicated the full level of his frustration. He listed 12 objections to the current text, and pretty much debunked most of them, or at least softened them, but at the end he did indicate that the level of hysteria in the blogosphere and the reports of "10,000 changes" to the received text sent to Rome is daunting.  He cited a poor process, during which ICEL members never met or communicated with Vox Clara members, and more. In the end, however, he seemed to indicate that this, too, shall pass.  This was what both speakers brought, and I guess that is the best attitude to take toward the whole thing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Mystery" - a Two-Day Immersion

Just back from the Diocese of Springfield (Illinois) Adult Enrichment Conference, where the theme was "Entering the Mystery, Renewing the People" - primarily a liturgical catechesis experience designed as anticipation for the upcoming Third Edition of the Roman Missal. The conference featured a variety of speakers, but I went mostly to hear Fr. Richard Fragomeni and Fr. Paul Turner (more on his sessions on the new Roman Missal in a later post).  What I experienced was an immersion into the concept of "mystery."

Fr.  Fragomeni, well known for his extraordinary skill in liturgical catechesis, explored the concepts of mystery and imagination from a Catholic point of view - in his two-part keynote and breakout sessions. In his typically expansive and enthusiastic style, he  defined "mystery" as "a beauty of infinite comprehensibility" - and something that we do not have to enter... because we are totally immersed in it from the moment we are conceived. He said we can never be outside of mystery, unless we consciously reject it - and that is the definition of Hell (according to St. Therese of Liseux) . Therefore, he suggested, we "celebrate" rather than enter mystery.

He explained  the proof that we and mystery are inseparable consists of our ability to express 4 elements - our humility (we realize that everything, including ourselves, is passing)  generosity (giving without counting the cost) hospitality (when host is so generous you don't feel like a guest) and bedazzlement (a perpetual state of wonder).   This, he contends, is what it is to be the Church, which in effect becomes an 8th sacrament - a celebration of God's presence in us.

Two other speakers I heard took up the challenge to explore "mystery."  Susan Grenough related it to an exploration of symbol, silence and science (fractals, partical physics...) and modeled how to use these to involve learners.  Jo Ann Paradise talked about the ultimate mystery, the Trinity, as a relational dynamic, giving examples of theological analogies and models throughout the ages. (Augustine, for example, saw fire as a model of the Trinity: the Father is the flame, the Son is the light, and the Spirit is the warmth - three attributes of one unity.)

All of this meant that the conference experience on that level, at least, was uplifting and renewing. The sessions on the underlying reason for the subject, the new Roman Missal, both participated in that hope-filled and positive sense of mystery and an equal measure of frustration (mostly unspoken, but occasionally admitted..more later on that score.)  It's good to be back to reality after two days of metaphysical exploration - and somewhat frustrating... but that's life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Liturgical Catechesis: Saints and Sacraments

For Confirmation class tonight, I had them summarize the Sacrament of Penance from last week , and we briefly discussed Anointing of the Sick.  Since it is November and proper to discuss the Saints, I opened, with this group of Hispanic kids, by asking who had done something special over the last few days (the Days of the Dead in Mexico are Oct. 31, Nov. 1 and 2) Sure enough, two students had gone with their families to visit the graves of relatives in cemetaries. 

We talked about remembering the dead, and about the special role of Saints, how people become Saints and all the basics... with stories, questions, etc... and then I told them the story of a modern person on his way to sainthood - a young priest from Mexico, who thought the sacraments were so  important that he defied the government ban by the corrupt president on Catholic celebrations of the Mass and sacraments, and the prohibition against priests, to bring the sacraments to the people.

Blessed Miguel Pro, who was martyred for the faith in 1927, was a brave young man - and certainly a role model. We then watched this powerful short Spanish-language clip which summarizes his entire story, taken from the feature movie Padre Pro:

We then talked about what could make a person give their life for the faith - and I told several short stories of martyrs. I told them of other saints... and of St. Augustine, whose mother, St. Monica, had prayed for his conversion until he finally turned his dissipated life around. I mentioned the classic Butler's Lives of the Saints book... and on that note, I promised more next week...  One young lady was obviously intrigued. She came up after class and asked for the full reference for the book.  Hooked!