Appearances can be deceiving: Active Participation

There has been a lot of ink spilled on the Latin phrase actuosa participatio, or as we translate it into English, “active participation.”  I think it’s a good thing that the ink has been spilled – it’s a phrase that we find in the writings of the Second Vatican Council and which have obviously impacted our worship for the last forty years.

I’ve been teaching about the liturgy for several years and led a five-week study on the Council, including a week concentrating on Sacrosanctam concilium, so it’s a topic that’s been on my mind and in my study for some time.  What does it mean to actively participate?  If it means that I’m exteriorly active during the Mass, reading and singing and responding and making the sign of the cross… well, what if I can’t sing?  What if I don’t know the language?  Can I actively participate if the people around me don’t know I’m participating?

Let me set the scene. Several months ago I went to a Saturday night vigil Mass after a long day working.  Our office had hosted my friend Matt Leonard from the St Paul Center for Biblical Theology to do a Bible study Presenter Training for their awesome parish-based Bible study program, Journey Through Scripture.  I had the honor of presenting with Matt, too, which was a great experience.  It was fun to be quasi-working for the St Paul Center again, while also working for Aquinas College at the same time.

It was a full day — I was expecting 60 people to register for the training, and we had an even 100.  A pretty fantastic problem to have.  Participant evaluations told us that had been a great day, but we all knew it had also been a full day.  It’s not easy to do an entire seven-week Bible study in a day!  By the end of it, Matt was wiped from teaching all day, and I was feeling the effects of essentially trying to be two people – a host for the event and a presenter for the event.  I could never have done it without the incredible help of my friends Laura, Alan, Rafael, Ana, and my boss, Sr Mary Rose.

Did I mention that I had also chosen that day to not drink coffee?  Partly because Matt is an expert at protecting vocal chords and had warned me to stay away from caffeine, and I know these days my vocal chords are my best asset. (Oh, and stay away from alcohol, too.  I told him he was basically telling me, “And no more happiness!”) It was also partly because I never had time to stop and drink a cup in the morning.  So at the end of the day, I had a pounding headache that was quickly moving into my eyes.  Lovely.

Due to a mixup about Matt’s plane being delayed, we bolted out of the training at the end of the day to make a vigil Mass at the Cathedral.  So we slid into one of the back pews as the opening song was being sung and watched our time the whole way through Mass.

It was then I realized I can never judge someone else’s participation at Mass. The “active participation” that the Council called for did include a more vocal participation in the liturgy, but at its root it was about understanding the rites and entering into them more deeply — not just by saying prayers out loud, but by entering into the mystery by prayer, offering sacrifice with the priest with a full and conscious mind and heart.   I knew this, I’ve taught this, but now I was experiencing it first hand.

There Matt and I were in the back of the church at a Saturday vigil Mass.  We slid in as the opening song was being sung and we slipped out as the closing song started.  Matt had no voice left, I had a raging headache, and so our singing and vocal participation was at a minimum.  We probably kept looking at our watches to make sure we weren’t going to miss his plane.  It probably seemed to everyone around us that we were punching our time cards and that our minds were a million miles away.

And yet we were actively participating.  We were both engaged in the rites.  I was offering my headache up, trying to imagine what Mary would have done if she had a raging headache when she was cooking Jesus’ dinner, or trying to meditate on the crowning of thorns.  While I can’t speak for Matt, I’d imagine he was participating in a similar way.  I specifically prayed that our time crunch and the long day didn’t impact the way I was entering into the liturgy.

So appearances can be deceiving.  Was it the most mystical liturgy I’ve ever entered into?  No.  I’m not going to say that Matt and I were about to levitate or anything, and you can hold our canonization processes for the time being.  But it was a good reminder to me that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Two schmucks in the back row, probably looking like they were run over by a bus. But we were trying.  And we were actively participating.

He makes Himself a Child

When searching for seeds for meditation, I generally turn towards the writings of Pope Benedict.  If I was stuck on a desert island, I would only need my Bible and a copy of Jesus of Nazareth and every day I’d have a new understanding.

So his writings were the first place I turned when I was asked to speak to a prolife group.  As I prepare my talk for January, I began praying over this portion of his homily from Midnight Mass in 2006.

God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby.
God’s sign is that He makes Himself small for us.
This is how He reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor.
He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help.
He asks for our love: so He makes Himself a child.
He wants nothing other from us than our love.
God made Himself small so that we could understand Him, welcome Him, and love Him.

Pope Benedict XVI

I could sit and think about that quote for hours, and my thoughts jumped all over at first.  First to the sign – God’s sign – promised to us by the prophet Isaiah- “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)  Then to the idea of simplicity, then to vulnerability. He makes Himself small for us; He gives Himself into our hands.  God makes Himself so vulnerable — first, as a human that we could kill, then coming to us under the appearance of bread that we could ignore, or, at worst, desecrate.

But as comfortable as these thoughts made me feel at first — how warm and fuzzy to think of Jesus coming to us as a baby so that we would welcome Him, love Him… I began to feel uncomfortable.  But we don’t welcome Him.  After all, everyone knows there was no room for Him in the inn…

In the third part of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict points out that the verse refers more to the world than to any particular innkeeper.  Rather than focus on the innkeepers, perhaps we need to look within.  “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”  (Jn 1:11)

But what really struck me is that if He came as a baby so we could welcome Him… what about when our world doesn’t welcome babies?  Our government persecutes them and our society seems threatened by them.  This is nothing new — read Matthew 2:16.  Being threatened by a baby?  There’s no wonder this child was not only a sign for Ahaz in Isaiah but was also a sign of contradiction (Luke 2:34).

Threatened by a baby?  Our world is threatened too … Not by the baby, but by what the baby brings… suffering… the Cross…

The Christ Child brought the Cross — that is why He was born.

And that’s why we rejected Him.  Because He came and brought suffering.  The Prince of Peace brings suffering, the Lord of Light comes in the darkness.

And really, when we really stop to think about it … every baby brings the Cross.  Every baby brings suffering — not just the physical suffering of pregnancy and childbirth, but the suffering of being stretched as you lose your selfishness in fatherhood and motherhood.  The suffering that comes when you begin to live not for yourself, but for another.  And that’s why our society fears them.  Babies mean selflessness.  Babies mean being stretched beyond your imagination.  Babies mean sacrifice.

But where there is the greatest Cross, there is the greatest Love.

The Christ Child came to bring the Cross… but He also came to bring us Love.

The Art of Waiting

Tonight is our monthly Theology on Tap gathering.  I’m in charge of getting the speakers, so I suppose it looks like a cop-out tonight when the speaker is me.

To my defense, people have asked me in the past if I would speak sometime, but it always seemed a little strange for me to speak when I’m supposed to be hosting it.  What am I going do tonight — introduce myself?  I guess so.

But the reason I’m speaking is not because I was too lazy to get a speaker – it’s because the topic I wanted addressed is something that’s been on my heart a lot lately, and when I thought about who I might ask to speak about it, I decided I should just do it.  It would give me a chance to think about it more, and it would ensure what I wanted said would be said!

The topic is the Art of Waiting, a phrase stolen from this book of talks by Mother Mary Francis.

When I told people the name of the talk, people would often ask me, “Waiting?  For what?”  That itself was fruit for meditation.  Aren’t we all waiting for something?  Most of my audience tonight is in the in between stage of their life — many of them have graduated from college or are in graduate school and are discerning their next step.  They may have jobs but are not in serious relationships, or they may be in serious relationships but unsure of marriage.  So we can find ourselves in this period of waiting … waiting for the next step, for the next thing, for what comes next.

But even those not in this in between stage are still waiting for something.  We spend our whole lives waiting.  We wait to get married and then we wait for children and then we wait for those children to leave us alone and give us some peace and quiet.  We say we’ll be happy when we’re married, then we say we’ll be happy when we have kids.  We say we’ll be happy when we discern our vocation, and then we say we’ll be happy when we make final vows.

If we aren’t happy waiting… we ain’t going to be happy.  Because ultimately, the only time in our life we won’t be waiting for something is after we die and go to Heaven.  Then we’ll be perfectly happy.

So really, we’re all waiting to die.  But no one really thinks about that.

Tonight’s talk is gong to tackle a few things:

-The two extremes of waiting: 1) those who never wait [Christmas without Advent, instant gratification] and 2) those who always wait [people who are afraid to take the next step, who’d rather perpetually discern rather than take a leap of faith]

-What we do while we wait

-The remedy Jesus Christ gives us while we wait – also known as the “pledge of future glory” …

So if you’re in the area, come by Corner Pub tonight, buy me a beer, and hear it for yourself.  If you’re not in the area, well, invite me to speak to your Theology on Tap group sometime … because I know there are lots of Catholic young adults out there in the same predicament.

In the meantime, I have Mumford and Sons on repeat.  Which song?  Oh, you know.