Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday: We Prepare...

Holy Saturday. The people will arrive tonight at sundown, experience the lighting of the new fire, the proclamation of the Exsultet, the Vigil readings in the dark, the lighting of the altar and revelation of the beauty of the flower-decked altar and sanctuary... and this morning, small, dedicated groups of art and environment ministers and volunteers will put all those pieces in place so that the great liturgy can happen.

26 years ago, I came into Full Communion with the Catholic Church - and for 25 years, have participated, and even sometimes directed, the preparing of the liturgical space for the Easter Vigil. The tasks are many - ironing and placing a new altar cloth, placing the flowers in the sanctuary, font and vestibule - preparing the congregational taper candles for distribution at the door,  preparing and decorating the candlestick for the Easter Candle - and for some, the preparation of the materials for the Easter fire.

This year we have no adult baptisms, for the first time in memory, but normally, preparation of the font, placement of towels and preparing the dressing rooms also is a part of the task list. We will miss having a baptism, but even that cannot dampen my spirits.

Always, on this particular morning, I find myself gripped by a sense of excited anticipation....In a short while I will leave for my parish church to be part of these important preparations. We prepare the space for the people - and for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who will reveal himself in the light of the new fire as the sun sets tonight.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pope Francis at Chrism Mass: Priesthood Not About Itself, but Action

Pope Francis, in his homily for the Chrism Mass, pretty much laid it on the line: he has little patience for empty trappings or for priests who do not preach - or live - in ways that matter and galvanize their people. He called for priests to go out, to act, and to spend themselves in order to find their own fulfillment and blamed a failure to do that as the reason some priests are unhappy and "lose heart."  To illustrate his message, he focused on two sacramental symbols of priesthood: oil and vestments, both of which are received at ordination.
Connecting his message to the  Chrism oil used in anointing at ordination, he named the role of the priest as one who shares his oil and "anoints his people."  Priestly vestments, too, are sacred symbols, he noted, but are not as important as the action and activity of the priest and the effect on his people. In fact, he noted, the people should "feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments." Speaking to vestments and holy oil:
From the beauty of all these liturgical things, which is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the glory of our God resplendent in his people, alive and strengthened, we turn to a consideration of activity, action. The precious oil which anoints the head of Aaron does more than simply lend fragrance to his person; it overflows down to “the edges”. The Lord will say this clearly: his anointing is meant for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone. The ointment is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid … and the heart bitter.
A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed. This is a clear test. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith.
He notes the importance of the priest "going out" - and of not staying in a "self-help" mode - instead, spending what little they have for others. In that, he said, a priest finds his true satisfaction.
A priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, our people take our oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward”, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties – instead of being shepherds living with “the smell of the sheep”, shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men...
Clearly, living among the "smell of the sheep: is how he himself has lived his priestly ministry - spending himself tirelessly for his people - and he will continue to do that as Pope.

Our role as the laity? " close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may always be shepherds according to God’s heart."
I will appoint for you shepherds after my own heart, who will shepherd you wisely and prudently. (Jeremiah 3:15)
All of what Pope Francis has named - proclaiming the Good News, going out to those who need to hear, spending one's self for the good of the people - these are all signs of that good shepherd. May our priests continue to be inspired by the Spirit, under the new leadership of our Pope, to become more like Christ, the ultimate Good Shepherd, who emptied and humbled himself even unto death on a cross to do the will of the Father.

Read the full text of his homily here.

Why Do the People Get A Candle at the Vigil? It's Not So They Can Read the Worship Aid!

At the beginning of the Easter Vigil, after the blessing and lighting of the new Easter Candle, the flame from the candle is used to light the tapers held by members of the assembly.  Typically, most people use these as a   reading light for the missalette or worship aid. Many people may not see much in the candle besides a useful light in the dark church.
However, there is a deeper symbolism - this is their share of the Light of Christ, shared from the Easter Candle, blessed in the name of Christ. With the spreading of the light to every corner of the room, we enact the very words of the chanted Exsultet hymn: "Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad,knowing an end to gloom and darkness."  We are literally "standing in the awesome glory of this holy light."  It is "a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light."

The sharing of the light with believers is symbolic of our unity as the Body of Christ. It is the light which we are each asked to carry  into the world to make it bright with the Light of Christ. Even though we extinguish these at the end of the Exsultet, we re-light them at the baptismal promises - a symbol that we are called by our baptism to bear that light.  

In Matthew, Chapter 5 Jesus says:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.  Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
This was echoed for each of us at our baptism when we received (or our godparents received for us) the lighted candle:

Parents and godparents,
this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly.
This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ.
He (she) is to walk always as a child of the light.
May he (she) keep the flame of faith alive in his (her) heart.
When the Lord comes, may he (she) go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.
(Rite of Baptism)

Back to the Easter Vigil. Near the end of the Exsultet, we hear these words:
May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
The message of the lighted taper to each of us is that we are stewards of the Light, bearers of Christ into the world - and that when he returns, he will want to see that we are still treasuring and sharing that light.  When we renew our Baptismal Promises at the Vigil and are sprinkled with water throughout the Easter Season,  we are reminded that part of what we promise is to be light-bearers in Christ's name, carrying our baptismal candle flame into the world.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

An End to Gloom and Darkness: Recovering the true meaning of the Exsultet

Tonight, I get to rehearse the Exsultet. (Big smile.)

As a cantor for the past 25 years, I have been privileged to take part in the great opening chant of the Saturday night Easter Vigil, the  Exsultet, or Easter Proclamation, sometimes as a choir member, sometimes as one of those who chant the verses of whatever arrangement that parish used. In the semi-darkness of a church lit only by the new Easter Candle and the pinpoints of light from the small candles held by each member of the assembly, this has always been my favorite moment of the entire liturgical year.

My first exposure to the Exsultet was in the late 80's through the much-beloved Everett Frese arrangement from OCP, now out of print, which began with a pedal point on the organ's lowest pipe that rumbled and shook the dark room as the light of the Easter Candle was shared with the people's candles. It then moved, after the candle was set in its socket, into a glorious and dramatic chant for two cantors punctuated by choir and assembly. The mystery and majesty of the Exsultet in the years I spent in the parish where we used that setting is still something that lives on in my memory. In later years, I encountered the unembellished chant version sung by either cantor or deacon right out of the Sacramentary. Not as dramatic, to be sure, but still wonderful.

During the past few years my current parish has begun using a bilingual version by Pedro Rubalcava,  also from OCP, with our pastor chanting the Spanish verses and me taking the English ones. The challenge, of course, when we go back and forth, is that the people 'lose" half of the text on both sides of the language "divide." Ideally, I suppose, we should do the whole thing in both languages, as we do the Easter Gospel, but length pretty much prevents that. Still, this represents an attempt to honor both cultures, and the text can be read in the missalette . It is the proclamation itself that is the point - and the soaring refrain for the people emphasizes the importance of the moment: "This is the night, this is the night, this is the night! Esta es la noche, esta es la noche, esta es la noche!" 

As we begin to use the new Roman Missal translation, however, I am conscious that we in the English speaking world had been "robbed" for 40 years of part of the meaning and purpose of the Exsultet. It is not, as it formerly appeared, only a proclamation of the Resurrection, so much as it is a hymn of praise to the Light of Christ and the candle that bears it.

Contrast the old opening to the current section in the new Roman Missal and you see the difference.

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!  Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ, our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation! Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
(You can see a side-by-side comparison of the full texts, along with the Latin original here.)

Notice that the opening of the new version does not use the words "Jesus Christ... has risen" specifically, but merely references his "triumph." And throughout, the emphasis is now on the Easter Candle itself, the work of the bees (always present in the Spanish translation). This entire section was left out of the former translation, leaving us with an imperfect understanding of the true purpose of the chant:
Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.
Much has been made, among liturgical experts, of the "return of the bees." In this key passage, we see the definition of the Easter Candle (and our divided flames on the assembly's candles) as our earthly offering of praise to God the Father, joined to the glory of the light of Christ. This understanding makes even clearer the opening blessing of the candle, during which grains of incense are embedded along with the description of Christ as Alpha and Omega.
As we begin the procession into the church, the presider says: "May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds."  Now,  with the meaning of the Exsultet restored,  that makes more sense. It is the risen light which is emphasized here - and by implication, the person of Christ. The chant that follows is in praise of that light.

So yes, the Exsultet is a great paean to the Risen Christ, but in the form of the return of his light, out of the darkness of the grave - not so much directly to his person. It is our offering of the Easter Candle to the Father, returning the work of the bees to its author and Creator, symbolizing that the Resurrection takes place among us each year at the lighting of the new fire.

And now we know.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Pope Francis on Palm Sunday: "A Christian Can Never be Sad"

In his homily for Palm Sunday today, Pope Francis reminded us:

"Do not be men and women of sadness. A Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus."

This is a message much needed in a world where, for many people, happiness is measured by how many possessions they have - or do not have. That message, promoted constantly by the media, has become so much a part of the culture that some people who do not have much struggle to fill their lives with "stuff" instead of what they really need. It is a symptom of the pervasive consumerism that has taken over our culture, telling us that happiness is rooted in how much we have. Pope Francis, who has captured the world with his obvious joy and commitment to the way of the Gospel, while spurning the trappings and material perks of the papacy, is certainly a man who understands that true happiness comes from something deeper - walking with Jesus Christ and imitating his example by being counter-cultural.

His message certainly hits home for many of us - and today, as we accompany Jesus to the Cross, we might do well to reflect on the connection between submitting to God's will and our own priorities, especially if those priorities include the accumulation of  inanimate objects. 

A dear friend of mine used to remind me when I said that I loved something that you should "like" things, not "love" them. Love, he insisted, should be a feeling reserved for other people - and God - but never things. Pope Francis would say that in that lies happiness - in understanding that when we encounter Christ, we are in relationship with the one who suffered and laid down his life at the will of the Father to show us that evil can be overcome. The great evil of the Cross was transformed, at the Resurrection, into the joy of everlasting life.

That is what Pope Francis means when he says "A Christian can never be sad." Today, as you reflect on what Jesus did for us on the Cross, consider trading your sorrows - for the joy of the Lord.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Living the Gospel: Pope Francis Blesses a Disabled Man in the Crowd

I cried when I saw this today:
On his way to the Inaugural Mass, Pope Francis was directed by his entourage to the edge of the crowd, where a disabled man was being held up by his friends in hopes of receiving a papal blessing.

Just like the friends in Mark 2:1-12, who lowered the disabled man through the roof of the house in which Jesus was speaking, these people carried their friend through the crowd of thousands,  in hopes of this very encounter.  In the midst of the papal pomp, a beautiful encounter of faith and love.

May Pope Francis continue to find opportunities for the love, responsibility and service he preached today in his homily: "We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!"  This encounter, above all, was one of great tenderness.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pope Francis: What's in a Name? 3 Priorities for the Church

In this touching video, Pope Francis explains to journalists the reasons he chose the name "Francis" for his papacy.  It is clear to me this was a Spirit-led moment in which he responded to what he felt were several of the most-pressing needs in our modern world.  Expressing his longing that the Church become poor and for the poor, he described the charism of Francis:  "the man of peace, the man of the poor, the man who loves and guards creation."

What happened in those few minutes he describes as the final conclave votes were counted was that the Pope's heart was moved by the suggestion of a friend to choose a name that represents exactly what the world needs most right now: peace, solidarity with the poor, and care for the environment.

This is not some retro-hippie flower-child leftist vision, but, in the end, is the agenda of Catholic social teaching. It represents not only the spirituality of Saint Francis, but the very teachings of God himself.

The vision of the reign of God from Old Testament times forward has included peace. Isaiah prophesies: "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4)  Jesus reinforced this when he came not as a mighty warrior to defeat the Romans, but instead called for peace, not a sword - and reminded us in the Beatitudes that "the peacemakers" are blessed. Pope Francis mentions that his thought-process included thinking about war (as something very present in the world, no doubt.)  For more on Catholic social teaching about peace and non-violence, see this excellent summary from the Archdiocese of Chicago or the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2302-2317 on "Safeguarding Peace"

 From the Old Testament on, Scripture calls for attention to the poor, with numerous references in the Law as to how they are to be treated (Exodus 22-23, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and Jesus preferred to associate himself with them rather than with men of wealth. Catholic social teaching has always emphasized standing with the poor. (See the USCCB document on solidarity with the poor  and the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2443-2449 on "Love for the Poor" for more background.) This becomes even more important in a consumer society where some are left out, as our new Pope has already demonstrated by his own actions and frequent mention of the poor.

And, of course, in the beginning, God created the earth and said it was "good", then gave humankind the earth as a gift - with responsibilities attached. The "land" is frequently referred to in scripture as our "inheritance" - a gift we hold in stewardship for future generations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church connects this imperative to the very theology of creation:
Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. For each one of the works of the "six days" it is said: "And God saw that it was good." By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws. Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment. (339)
and even more pointedly, this:
The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. (2415)
Pope Francis will not be the first to preach the message of peace and respect for creation.  Pope John Paul II's 1990 World Day of Peace statement, "Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation" noted that the ecological crisis is a moral crisis.

These then, are the apparent priorities of the man who has just stepped into the papal office at the call of the Holy Spirit to serve the Church in this time.  He has discerned the world and heard its pain. He dedicates himself with a father's love to help people of faith work together to do what they can to transform that pain into promise. Long may he serve!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Holy Week and Triduum on The Liturgical Catechist

I have been working hard, and voila! You may now find resources and videos for catechesis on Holy Week and the Easter Triduum on this blog's companion site, The Liturgical Catechist.  Check it out for resources about Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. There is a wealth of great stuff, including videos from noted liturgical experts and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Please use these to help catechists, students and adults understand the significance and "flow" of these liturgies, which are the pinnacle of the Church Year. I hope you find the site is becoming increasingly useful. Feedback is good, too. Let me know how you use what you find there.