Different from all other nights

There are several cues during the Evening Mass on Holy Thursday that tell you something is different tonight. Mass begins and ends with an empty tabernacle.  Flowers and the Gloria make appearances after absences during these days of Lent (with a few exceptions), but the joy doesn’t remain long. The organ is quiet. The bells are replaced with clackers. The Mass ends with the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose and ends silently, as we wait with Jesus in the Garden. The altars are stripped.  We wait.

Two thousand years ago, twelve men celebrating Passover with their leader would have noticed differences to a familiar liturgy as well.  Jesus spoke of the unleavened bread being His Body.  And he spoke to them of a new covenant.  Then, after singing the Hallel Psalms, instead of finishing the Passover meal, Jesus left and led them to the Garden to pray.  It was a memorial they celebrated for 30+ years of their lives, and suddenly Jesus was doing something different.

Understanding the Passover sacrifice and meal helps us to understand exactly what Jesus was doing that night.  (Which is why I recommend Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist to everyone I meet.)

Why is this night different from all other nights?  This is the famous question the son would ask his father during the Passover liturgy.  And the father would respond, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when he brought me out of the land of Egypt…”

Notice – it is what the Lord did for me.  Not for my fathers.  Not for our people a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago.  For ME.

For the Jewish people, this “memorial” (go back to Exodus 12 and see how often it is referred to as a memorial, remembrance) was not just a way to recall a past event.  The Hebrew understanding of remembering, memorial — zikaron — was not a passive remembering of a past event.  It was a participation in that event.  The past event was being made present for you, so that you too could share in the Passover, the redemption of the first born.

It was what the Lord did for you.

This was in the forefront of the minds of the Apostles that night.  This was on their minds as they heard Jesus’ words: Do this in memory of me.  Same word.  Zikaron.  Anamnesis.  Not “think back to this night years from now and think of me fondly.”

No.  Zikaron.  Make this present.  Participate in it.  So that it is not just the redemption of your fathers or your people two thousand years ago — but so that you can share in that redemption.

And then Jesus tells them something drastic — He is here to make a new covenant.

But hadn’t God told the Israelites that Passover was supposed to be a “perpetual institution?”

The call of the first born is not revoked.  It is fulfilled.

Do this in memory of me.


Photo copyright Steven Golder

Looking at Father’s Back

In honor of my beloved pastor, who has announced he is leaving in August to go to the Pontifical College Josephinum as a spiritual director, I thought I would rerun this post from a few years ago. Since writing this, I have officially registered and I have not “floated around” for three years – because he has made this parish a home. Thank you, Father Baker!


The parish I regularly attend (yes, I’m one of those annoying Millennials who don’t register at a parish and float around) is as traditional as I am; Mass is celebrated in the “ordinary form”, but Father is a firm “say the black, do the red,” priest who sticks to the rubrics, preaches great homilies, and does what he can to make the liturgy beautiful.  Mass is in the vernacular, with the exception of the parts of the Mass such as the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, etc.  Exactly what I like.

A few Sundays ago I realized that a striking feature of our Sunday worship no longer struck me.

Father celebrates Mass ad orientem, or, if you prefer, “with his back to the people.”  He began the practice last year, and recently something made me realize that I don’t even think about it anymore.  It’s as natural as singing the Alleluia before the Gospel, taking the collection up during the Offertory, or saying “Amen” before receiving Communion.  It’s just what happens every Sunday.

I suppose it is probably jarring to visitors (and as the downtown parish, the oldest church in the city, we have lots of them), but I found it pretty telling that it is something I don’t even notice it anymore.  I guess some would say that I’ve gotten used to looking at Father’s back … but I think it’s more accurate to say I’ve gotten used to praying with Father.

I never had trouble with Father “turning around,” because I never saw it that way.  I’ve heard objections to ad orientem worship, but I’ve never quite understood them.  (Maybe someone can enlighten me in the combox.) It’s not as if Father’s hiding anything from me — I can pretty much see everything he’s doing anyway.

Yes, I’m looking at his back… but I’m looking at the back of the person in front of me, too.  And we’re all facing the altar, the place of worship.  Father and I are together making the sacrifice, worshipping the Father through the Son. Pray brothers and sisters that your sacrifice and mine may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father

One complaint about Father facing the same direction as the congregation is that it separates him from us.  But in practice, I’ve actually found this to be the exact opposite.

Once Father goes around the altar and faces me, there’s a temptation to separate what he is doing from what I am doing.  If he’s going to be up there facing us, is this his Mass?  Is he celebrating Mass and I’m watching?  Is it his performance?  And why is it just him?  Who is he that he gets to be up there, facing the rest of the congregation?  So we start putting other people on the altar, or we start building churches in the round, so that we can all be equal again.  But wait… weren’t we equal when Father was up there facing the same direction as all of us?

I know some say that if the Mass is a meal, we should all be gathered around the table.  But haven’t you seen pictures of the Last Supper?  They were all on the same side!


Okay, kidding aside.

The error of liturgical theology these days is the opposite — to concentrate on the Mass as meal by excluding the Mass as sacrifice.   That’s not what we believe.  To stress one at the detriment of the other is to misunderstand the Mass.  It’s a both/and.  Likewise, if we celebrate the Mass as a sacrifice without understanding the Mass as a meal, we also misunderstand the Mass.  That is why we don’t just have the Canon of the Mass and offer, through the hands of the priest, the perfect sacrifice of Calvary.  There is also a partaking of that sacrifice — we receive Communion.  To pray the Canon (the Eucharistic Prayer) and then go home would be incomplete.  

Ad orientem worship doesn’t ignore the Mass as meal because it doesn’t exclude the very action that makes that Mass a meal.

So even if we aren’t gathered around the table, that doesn’t mean we aren’t recognizing the Mass as a meal.  It is far too prevalent these days to err by emphasizing the other side of things.

This post isn’t meant to be an exhaustive argument for ad orientem worship, or even a deeply theological explanation for it.  I just thought I’d share:

I’ve found it easier to pray with ad orientem worship.

It is not about Father, it is about all of us, united in the same sacrifice.  We bring our gifts up to the altar, he takes them into his hands, turns and offers them (with us) and the Son to the Father.  It seems natural – perhaps because it is.  I pray that more priests have the courage to do it, and more laity have the courage to try it before freaking out.

This post was originally published on May 18, 2014.

Downplaying Emmanuel

I was lector at Mass today, and sometimes that means I notice things in the readings that I might otherwise miss.  The first reading was from the book of Joshua and picks up when the Israelites are finally getting ready to enter the Promised Land. Joshua, in place of Moses, is leading them.  Just as God parted the Red Sea for His chosen people to flee Egypt, now He parts the Jordan River for them to enter the Promised Land.  Just because Moses is no longer with them does not mean God is no longer leading them, and He performs this miracle through Joshua to remind them of that.  They had surely heard the stories of their fathers and the Red Sea, and now the Lord was showing the same favor to them.

When Joshua is speaking to the people before the crossing, he prepares them for the miracle, saying, “This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst, who at your approach will dispossess the Canaanites.” (Joshua 3:10)

A living God.

Not a God who is aloof and watches from afar.  Not a Deist conception of God, who made the world and now lets it run alone. Not a God who is detached from His People.  But a living God, One who is active and personal and ready to intervene even in the acts of nature.  One Who wants to show His People that they are His People to such an extent that He is willing to perform a crazy awesome miracle and stop water flowing downstream.

There is a growing trend in the Christian world today to believe that God is an “impersonal force.”  Studies have shown that only 60% of people who believe in God believe in a personal God with whom they can have a relationship.  Even more shocking, 29% of Catholics say the God they believe in is an “impersonal force.”

Is it no wonder, though, when you hear priests and “theologians” downplaying the crazy awesome miracles?  “Oh, the Red Sea was actually the Sea of Reeds and was really just a marshy lake and only a few inches deep.”  “Oh, when Jesus walked on water, they were actually really close to land and it was a sandbar.”  “Oh, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was actually about everyone sharing what they had with their neighbor.”**

I have heard each one of these from the pulpit or from a biblical historian.  So it’s no wonder that we’ve lost our belief in a personal God, in a God who can and will act in my life because He loves me.

We’ve made Him impotent.

If He didn’t do it then, why would He do it now?  And so we go to Mass on Sunday and miss it all.  Maybe we don’t know what is happening —  we don’t realize that God is coming down on the altar to commune with us.  Maybe we’re too focused on ourselves or on the people around us to realize that God is inviting us to a personal relationship.

Or maybe we’ve downplayed it too long. Maybe we’ve talked about the Mass simply as a communal banquet where we come together as a community to forgive and share and love, and made too light of the miracle that happens before our very eyes.

Catholics, of all people, should have an understanding that God is here, God is close, and God loves them.  Because He shows us at every Mass.

“This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst…”


**Of course, any attempt to explain away a miracle usually just results in another miracle that needs to be explained. “Wow, so it’s a miracle then that Pharaoh and all those chariots and charioteers drowned in a few inches of swamp water.”  “Wow, so it’s a miracle that St. Peter managed to sink into that sandbar.” “Wow, it’s a miracle that they wanted to carry him off to make him king when all he really did was get them to share…”

Photograph from Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Day of Waiting

Holy Saturday.

This is perhaps the strangest of days in the liturgical year.   The Catholic Churches are empty.  Jesus is absent from the tabernacles.  There’s no Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  The only liturgy that is celebrated – the liturgy of the hours – even speaks of this strangeness.

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. (From the Office of Readings; An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday)

As I prayed the rosary this morning, I hesitated to do the usual Saturday mysteries – the Joyful.  What was fitting for this strange day?

Then I realized that the Joyful Mysteries were the perfect mysteries for this day of waiting, this day of silence.  As the Blessed Mother sat in silence, her heart still bleeding from the events of yesterday, surely she meditated on those joyful mysteries as well.

Her heart had been pierced again and again. But now she waited in the silence for her Son to come back to her.  Surely she knew; surely they had spoken.  Her grief and anguish on Friday were like none other-

All you who pass by… Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…

-but there was also the knowledge of the Resurrection, the confidence that her Son would only be in the grave but a short while, and would cheat death before the end of the third day.

And so she sat and waited.  Surely her thoughts and prayers went back to the events that brought her to this moment… the Annunciation… the Visitation… the night she gave birth to this little boy…  that prophecy of Simeon, foretelling the anguish that she could not even imagine as she held that little boy in her arms… the grief in the Temple of those three days of loss, a mere taste of the sorrow felt today.  Surely those mysteries, those memories which she kept in her heart, were the fruit of her meditation today.

We join her in this day of waiting.  We know the end of the story, we know the glory of the Resurrection. But we enter into the silence, into this day in between the grief of Friday and the joy of Sunday.  We wait until night, when the darkness will be shattered by the glory of the Lord, when death will be trampled by Love.

This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.

This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.

This is the night
that even now throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.

This is the night
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.

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.

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.