Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Liturgical Postures #8 of 8; Excerpts from Second Sunday of Advent

Did you know the Sign of Peace is actually optional? The missal says: “If appropriate, the Deacon or the Priest, adds: Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” So don’t be alarmed if you go to Mass somewhere else and the priest leaves it out. Mass is still valid and perfectly licit, or legal, without it. When I was in high school work, there were many times we had to invite the students to offer the sign of peace before Mass even started. In certain situations, the liturgy could easily get off the rails. It could lead to the tendency to completely forget about Jesus and the mysteries being celebrated. We are here to worship Him.

So what is the meaning of the Sign of Peace? The missal reminds us this gesture “expresses peace, communion, and charity.” We could spend years unpacking each of those. It is good for us Christians, to join ourselves to the Lord Jesus in this act of worship of the Father, who is the origin of peace, communion and charity. Jesus is our peace, we don’t manufacture it ourselves. Jesus is the source of our communion, we could not manufacture it ourselves no matter how much we tried. Since we are in communion with him, we are in communion with each other by association. He is the one that makes our communion real. Our communion with Him is the only reason we can signify it with the sign of peace in the first place.

The liturgical books further remind us that the sign of peace is not focused on the reconciliation of brothers and sisters. All of that was already signified earlier in Mass. In the Penitential Act, we said: “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned.”

The important thing is that we keep in mind the Sign of Peace is a symbolic action. By making the sign of peace with the people next to us, we are saying we are at peace with everyone, not only everyone present in the building, but also with everyone in the Universal Church, and hopefully everyone in the world. Because of this symbolism, it is not necessary or proper to try to offer the sign of peace to as many people as possible.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal reminds us: “It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner.” The people nearest us are the people on either side of us. If it’s not in a sober manner, we could be distracted from the sacred mysteries we are celebrating.

The appropriate form of the sign of peace in this country is a hand shake. Some people who are closer may embrace or even kiss each other if it is appropriate.

Looking at the big picture, we should keep in mind at that time of Mass that Jesus is exposed, and present, on the altar: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Some of the faithful in some parts of the Church would be scandalized that the faithful would turn their backs to the Lord who is present in the Blessed Sacrament. This Advent season is a special time to long to be in the Lord's presence.

Since our beginnings 2,000 years ago, Catholics have always been very good at fostering community. We have always had better community building than any other faith-based group in the world. The important thing is that we remember we are at Mass to worship God.

All this being said, it is never appropriate to walk around, away from one’s place in the pews. I especially ask parents to be vigilant in keeping your children of all ages in your care. Since reconciliation between brothers was already signified at the Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass, it would not make sense to go seek out our enemies at this time, let alone our friends or the people we like the best.

Another reason for a sober sign of peace, is because of what is going to happen next. We should long to witness the liturgical action of the priest breaking the sacred host. It reminds us that Jesus’ body was broken for us in His death on the Cross. The one who is fully God and fully human went to a horrible gruesome death so we could have eternal life. That is good news, and we should desire to witness it.

This also signifies that the many faithful are made one body by receiving communion from the one bread of life which is Christ. This leads us to our ultimate sign of unity: Holy Communion.

The faithful are invited to receive Holy Communion. The word “communion” means “one with.” We are made one with Jesus because He makes us one with him. When we receive the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus, we are one with Him if we receive in the state of grace. And if all of us are one with Him, we are one with each other. It is a unity that Jesus makes real, not one that we can fabricate, manufacture, or invent on our own.

In receiving Holy Communion, our body language is speaking volumes. We are saying our union with the Church is real. We are saying we believe everything the Church teaches. We are saying the pope is our spiritual father. We are saying we are in the state of grace and have prepared ourselves to receive. We are saying we are not conscious of any grave sin since our last confession. If these things are not true, we are telling a lie with our bodies and committing a sacrilege, treating something holy in an unholy way. If these things are not true, we should never receive communion just because everybody else does.

How do we receive? The universal, worldwide practice is to receive Holy Communion on the tongue while standing. The United States and some other countries have received special permission to receive Holy Communion in the hand, but this is not the universal practice. Other countries use the posture of kneeling for Holy Communion. So, we should be careful when traveling to other countries. We don’t want to scandalize or offend the faithful.

Holy Mother Church also asks us to make a gesture of adoration before receiving. In 2002, the bishops of this country asked us to make a bow of the head that symbolizes our adoration of the Lord who we are receiving. I think we do a really good job with that. Even though this is the preferred gesture in our country, some people genuflect or receive while kneeling. These are also acceptable.

The things I have shared with you over these past couple months are in no way exhaustive of the fullness of the mysteries being celebrated. The Lord invites all of us into the mysteries more fully in order to worship Him and encounter Him more fully. We can never finish learning this no matter how long we live.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Liturgical Postures #7: Excerpts from First Sunday of Advent

Happy New Year! Today we begin the new liturgical year on this First Sunday of Advent. If we are beginning a new year, and we are in Advent, why is our Gospel reading from the end of Matthew’s Gospel? The Lord reminds us the world is passing away. So He invites us to rethink being invested in the world. Advent reminds us: The King is coming. We don’t know the day or the hour. The Lord invites us to faithful service for the Kingdom. We have the opportunity to prepare to meet the Bridegroom, the Master, the King of all the nations.

The closest we can get to the King this side of Heaven is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. So let’s unpack the sacred mysteries. When I first thought about doing a series on liturgical postures, I was going to call it this: “Should we hold hands during the Our Father, and everything you ever wanted to know about liturgical postures, gestures, and non-verbals”. And I thought about holding the series once a week in the evening. As I continued to pray about it, I realized it is much too important for only a handful of people to hear. So I decided the Sunday homily would reach more people with this important topic. If we were in a classroom setting, I would ask the question: In what ways do we show our unity at Mass? I could write all the answers on the board.
People might answer with some of the things we have already covered: Common posture like sitting and standing; Some might say: responding together, singing together, maybe the sign of peace, which we haven’t covered yet. Some might even mention the most awesome and ultimate way we show our unity. And it’s not holding hands at the Our Father, it’s receiving Holy Communion.

We’ll finish with that next week. Today we pick up where we left off at the Our Father, or the Lord’s Prayer. The priest gives the introduction with his hands closed and then he opens his hands to the orans position as he says the words: “Our Father”. From what we already covered about the orans position, we know it is one the priest uses at Mass to collect the prayers of all the faithful into one as it is presented to the Father in Heaven. I already mentioned that the orans position is an ancient prayer posture and it is appropriate for people to use in their devotional lives of prayer. However, at Mass, it could confuse the meaning of our common posture especially if people are doing different things, since unity is one of our goals. 

So we might ask: What are the people to do? We already covered the priest: he has to hold his hand out in the orans position because he is collecting the prayers of all in his role of leadership. We can explore this question more deeply if there is a deacon present. Actually, in two weeks, we will have a deacon here to preach at Mass. You will notice that at the Lord’s Prayer, the deacon will have his hands closed in prayer the whole time. He is not permitted to open his hands in the orans position during the Lord’s Prayer. So we might ask: If a deacon, who is an ordained minister, serving at the altar during Mass, in an official capacity, prays the Lord’s Prayer with his hands closed, why would the lay faithful open their hands like the priest does? It would be more appropriate for the faithful to imitate the deacon, rather than the priest. 

What about the other question: Should the faithful be holding hands during the Our Father? I would answer with another question: Why just during the Our Father? Why did we not hold hands during the opening hymn, the Collect, during the readings, during the Gospel, during the Eucharistic Prayer? So my answer would be, it would only make sense liturgically if we were holding hands during the whole Mass. And I’m sure we would all agree that would be strange. Some people have wondered how holding hands crept its way into the liturgy over the past few decades. I heard one person guess that people were imitating the priest in the orans position and then they started to bump their hands into each other and then they just decided to grab each other’s hands. My theory is that some families hold hands during grace before meals and they have tried to introduce it into the sacred liturgy.
And then, after the Our Father, why do some people raise their hands really high when we say: For the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and for ever.”? I have no idea where that comes from. But we can learn something from concelebrating priests. That’s when there is more than one priest offering Mass at the same time. After we say: “Deliver us from evil,” the concelebrating priests have to close their hands. Only the one main celebrant can keep his hands open showing his role of leadership in prayer.

Several years ago, Bishop Foys across the river had all his parishes in the Diocese of Covington do catechesis on why is would not be proper to hold hands during the Our Father at Mass. He actually asked the faithful of his diocese not to do it. I’m not here making a rule today. But I am trying to unpack what is proper and improper at Holy Mass and why we are doing what we are doing.

I have always wondered: how prayerful can it be to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer? I am thinking more about the prayer or am I distracted by the other person’s hand? When I was teaching high school, I would see students use it as an opportunity to mess with each other. I remember two seniors rubbing each other’s fingers trying to get the other one to giggle. Even since I’ve been pastor here, I have seen children using it as an opportunity to misbehave.

So we have this opportunity to ask ourselves this question: In this liturgical new year, how can I, or how can our family, celebrate these mysteries with greater devotion? How can we understand more and more why we do what we do as a Church? How is the Lord drawing me into His presence?