Only Say the Word

One day my mind wandered a bit during Father’s homily (my apologies to Father), and those wanderings are now going down into this blog post.  I didn’t feel as guilty as I do when my mind wanders into the realm of what am I going to eat for lunch today… it’s Monday, so that means Harris Teeter’s sub of the day is turkey… because my mind was wandering into theological realm and began wandering based on something Father said.

The Gospel that day was the story of the centurion who asks Jesus to come cure his slave, but doesn’t let Jesus come to his house because of his unworthiness to receive Jesus under his roof.  He sends friends to tell Jesus that he knows Jesus doesn’t need to come to his house — He can cure the slave with His words.

The centurion says:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.
For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, Go, and he goes; and to another, Come here, and he comes; and to my slave, Do this, and he does it.”

Those first lines should be recognizable; we refer to them at every Mass.  With the revised translation, we now quote him even more directly.

My mind began wandering about the performative, efficacious nature of Christ’s words.  God’s words are efficacious: they actually do what they signify.  We see this back in Genesis when God said, “Let there be light.”  And there was light.

This is important when we’re discussing the liturgy, and it’s one of the main reasons this revision of the Roman Missal was so important.  We’re not speaking any old words at the liturgy, because the liturgy isn’t just about us gathering together around a common table and singing some nice songs every Sunday morning.  The words we are speaking are important — because ultimately… they’re not ours.

Bishop Conley, auxiliary bishop of Denver, said, “In the liturgy, we are praying to God in the very words of God. And God’s Word is power. God’s Word is living and active. That means that the words we pray in the liturgy are ‘performative.’ They are not words alone, but words that have the power to do great deeds. They are words that can accomplish what they speak of.” (Check out his whole address here. It’s beautiful.)

The centurion in the Gospel refers to his own ability to command with his words, but his words aren’t efficacious.  They may have their desired effect; he may command a soldier to come to him and the soldier may come.  But do his words make it happen?  No.  The soldier could refuse to come, despite the centurion’s words.

When I teach about the liturgy, I use the example of a stop sign.  We have lots of signs all around us — but are they efficacious?  Do they actually accomplish what they signify?  A stop sign signifies that we are supposed to stop.  Does it make us stop?  Of course not.  We can blow right through that stop sign, regardless of what it might signify.

God’s words, however, are efficacious.  When the priest speaks the words of Christ: “This is my body,” what once was a piece of bread is sacramentally, substantially Christ’s body.  When he pours water over a person’s head and says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” that person is baptized into the Trinity and his sins are washed away.  The water — an efficacious sign — doesn’t just signify the washing of sins.  His sins are actually gone. He is a child of God.

The liturgy brings us to the heavenly marriage supper of the Lamb, the eternal banquet where we enter into communion with the Holy Trinity.  Guess what?  It doesn’t just signify it on a superficial level.  It’s not that it reminds us of heaven (in many parishes, it probably doesn’t!), it’s not that it’s an expression of our community, it’s not that it’s symbol of the covenant Christ made with us at the Last Supper and on Calvary.

It’s actually accomplishing those things.  Our communion with the Holy Trinity, the marriage Supper of the Lamb, the Heavenly banquet, eternity — is present there at the Mass.  Because in the fullness of time, God spoke The Word.  Christ.  And that Word is performative.  Efficacious.  Life-changing.

At times our Sunday Mass may simply feel like an obligation.  One week we may be particularly touched by something, moved by the readings, uplifted by the music.  The next week it might all be gone.  It might be dry as a bone.   Thankfully, the liturgy is not dependent on us.  Ultimately, it is not our work.  We are participants in the work of God.  So when the feeling isn’t there, Christ still is.  When we feel broken and unworthy, He’s still working, His words ready to heal.

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