Monday, December 11, 2017

Comfort, Comfort

Isaiah Chapter 40 is the prophecy of "one announcing in the wilderness 'make ready the way of the Lord!'" It is also the beginning of the Book of Comfort, the second half of Isaiah's prophecies. 

So, after parishioners started downloading the new parish app but before I took them on a tour of it, I talked for about six minutes about this passage and about the song "Comfort, Comfort O My People" which is a beautiful hymnification of the text. As I have in the past, I gave a shout-out to Protestants for writing great hymns that we can borrow, since Catholics are still new to the church hymn biz. 

Editorial note: the audio has two lines missing that are in brackets [ ] in the text. No technical error here; I just missed the lines at the 9:00 Mass and it would've been messier trying to go back and restate them once I noticed.

Second Sunday of Advent - Comfort, Comfort

This is the Second Sunday of Advent.

The first week is kind of a fake out. 

We do the violet and the candles, but the readings are very much focused on Jesus’ second coming and our being ready for the Final Judgment. 

The second Sunday still has many of the Second Coming overtones, but the readings have shifted somewhat. 

They still definitely aren’t talking about a baby boy in swaddling clothes lying in a manger yet, but they are announcing the coming of the Messiah. 

In fact, the first reading—the beginning of Isaiah 40—is laying out the prophecy that John the Baptist will fulfill in the gospel, in Mark ch. 1, as he announces the coming of the messiah. 

So Isaiah is “announcing the announcing”. 

Isaiah is writing some 700 years before Jesus, and he’s writing to give the people hope. 

Notice what’s happening then. There are 3 time frames:

Isaiah’s 700 BC
John’s 30 AD
Ours 2017 AD

Isaiah is foretelling. 

John is telling that them the Messiah is coming now. 

And we are reading both accounts, which for us then is both retelling what happened in Judea and foretelling what will happen at the end. 

And that’s the thing about Advent. 

Fr. Rowan talked last weekend about anticipation. 

In Advent we are scooped up and dropped into the place of Israel and we take on their sense of anticipation and waiting. 

Each year we play a game of partial amnesia and we let ourselves forget that we the know the story and how the ending is going to go. 

It’s like when you settle down to watch a good movie you haven’t watched in awhile. 

You hit a mental reset button and let the story unfold for you again. 

But in this case, it’s not just letting Isaiah get us hopeful and the evangelists tell us about the coming at Bethlehem, 

It’s because we too, long for the coming of Christ—that “middle coming” that Fr. Rowan mentioned last Sunday, between Bethlehem and the end of all things. 

We long for him to set things right, and we long to able to receive him when at last he comes. 

So Christmas and Advent are never too far away for us. 

The hope, anticipation, longing, and joy are still there.  

And that’s why all the gospel writers looked back to Isaiah 40 to introduce the coming of Jesus.

It is the hinge, the pivot point, of the book of Isaiah. 

Scholars call the first 39 chapters of Isaiah “the Book of Judgment”. 

And then chapter 40 begins the second half, “the Book of Comfort”. 

It gets the name because, well, compared to Part 1, it’s comforting...

[God reigns, he vindicates, he punishes the wicked nations and protects the weak. 

He defends, he heals, he raises up.]

But its name also comes from the very first words of this half of the book: 

“Comfort! Give comfort to my people” 

“Comfort! Speak tenderly to Jerusalem”

One of my all-time favorite Advent hymns is called “Comfort, Comfort O My People”

It’s gorgeous. 

I know it’s not known well around here but I asked the choirs to add it this weekend so you can hear it. 

It’s a great tune. 

But most impressively it manages to give the whole of Isaiah 40:1-5, line-for-line in a beautiful 3 verse song. 

And whenever I hear it my thought is always “Thank God for Lutherans

Sorry, but it’s true. They’re just better at it than us. 

All the best church hymns are written by Protestants. 

Well, at least 97% of the best ones. 

They’ve had more time. 

They’ve been writing church hymns for 500 years. 

We have 2,000 years of antiphons and chant, but we only started liturgical hymns in the 60s and the we’ve been playing catch up. 

But I digress...

The point is, it’s rare to find something that is both perfectly true to the text and that fits its music so well. 

“Comfort, Comfort” does that. 

And what do those words say?

What should the prophet speak tenderly  to Jerusalem? 

Tell her her slavery is over.

Her sins taken away.

Peace and protection instead of war and bondage. 

Are those things only longed for in the 1st century? 

Or the 8th century BC?

Did only they long for the wrong to be set right, for sins to be removed, and wars ended?

Then the next verse of the song takes up Isaiah as Mark will quote him: 

A voice in the desert, crying repentance.

Change what you’re doing, make ready for the Lord.

Change the world itself for him.

You humble valleys lift up!

You proud mountains bow down!

You crooked ways straighten yourselves!

He’s telling the terrain to straighten itself out, but I think we know who really needs to change. 

I think we know which lofty things need to bow down humbly,

Which despairing things need to rise up,

Which odd things, twisted things, need to be set straight. 

Finally the last verse of the song, which is verse 5 of chapter 40, 

These lines by Isaiah are all but forgotten in modern readings, but they are the whole point of the chapter:

The glory of the Lord shall be revealed. 

He shall come on this new highway toward us. 

And all flesh, all peoples shall see: The promises of the lord are kept. 

That was the hope in 700 BC

And in the season before Jesus came

And in our day too. 

So like I said: we are put in the place of an expectant Israel. 

So there’s not 3 time periods 

There’s not 3 different groups of Advent people 

There’s not even just 2 peoples: 

all of Israel and all those since Jesus 

There’s one Lord, and whether we await his coming the first time, or await it now, we are all part of the same people, the same anticipation. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Follow Up Thoughts on Ad Orientem, Part 2

Here are the next four weekly bulletin blurbs, continuing to give reflections and explanations on why we are celebrating Mass facing together to the Heavenly Father. 

V. In the original ad orientem homily, I said that there were things that I would miss about Mass facing the people, and this last week pointedly reminded me of one. One of the things that I do miss is that there are times that the priest emphasizes a verbal point with a movement. In Eucharistic Prayer I, which was used on Sunday and All Saints, there are a couple of extra moves the priest makes. When the priest “raises his eyes to heaven” right before the consecration, the people don’t see his eyes going up (though he can tip his head up to make the point) and when he strikes his breast as he implores for mercy for “us, though sinners”, even if you are on the edges of the congregation, this can be hard to see clearly. There are also moments where the priest isn’t told to do something or look a certain way, but he could still convey certain emphases by looks or motions: “Listen graciously to the prayers of this family whom you have summoned before you,” “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” and of course “and gave it to his disciples saying.” All these moments are ones I loved, and I loved them especially because when I was a teenager coming back to the Church, they and the other “little extras” at Mass in my home parish helped me understand and enter in. So, I do miss them. But I also know that if I am sacrificing some pieces of unspoken communication, we as a parish are also gaining other subtle gifts in body language that speak to us subconsciously. It’s a hard trade, but ultimately worth it.

VI. Some years ago I did a funeral in a little country church. The man hadn’t been to Mass in years, and it became obvious in the first five minutes that none of his pallbearers were Catholic. The six stern men were all over 50, with long grey beards, and kind of a weathered look to them. I couldn’t tell if they were Mennonite farmers, or a motorcycle club, or members of ZZ Top. As I did the funerary rites I kept feeling like they were looking at me like: What kind of crazy Catholic stuff is this boy doing to our friend? I knew I couldn’t stop and explain it all, especially the Mass itself, which might have been their first. I had this huge urge after the sermon to flip the book and candles and say the Mass ad orientem. There was no time to defend our most Catholic of ritual Masses, so I just wanted to say: “This will still be weird, but at least you'll be able to tell by body language that I'm not talking to you, or anyone else here on earth, but I'm beseeching God to receive your friend's soul. We might disagree on prayers for the dead, but you'll have no doubt about what kind of ceremony this is." I didn't, but I still think anybody walking into a Mass ad orientem knows right off the bat what kind of prayer we're making and with whom we believe we're conversing. 

VII. An objection to Mass ad orientem, both now and in the 1960s, was that several important basilicas in Rome always had their chief altars facing the people, and that in the Eastern Christian liturgy the priest might face toward the people. St. Peter’s, for example, has its altar at the west end, so when the Pope said Mass ad orientem (toward the east) he was also versus populum (toward the people). The same sometimes happens for Eastern Christians. But the Eastern priest and the celebrant in a basilica actually have more in common with what we do now at St. Wenceslaus than what we did six months ago. Previous to 1965, nobody, not Catholic or Orthodox, was looking eye to eye with their priest at the Eucharistic Prayer, even if he was pointed east and they faced west. The Eastern priest is always behind the iconostasis, a wall of icons that makes “a chapel within the chapel”, and in basilicas, the altar is on a high platform, often with a baldacchino (canopy) over it. These structures give essentially the same mental effect as the priest facing the same direction as the people: he faces the people during the Word but then he takes our prayers and leads us “up on high somewhere” to come face to face with the Father—like Moses at Sinai, like the high priest going into the Holy of Holies, like Jesus in the Letter to the Hebrews. All three locales, using three different arrangements of architecture, all give the same impression—making it abundantly clear when we are talking to Our Father.

VIII. One of the points made to me when we started having Mass all facing the same way was that at the Last Supper Jesus didn't face away from the apostles. This is a good point. But the Mass isn't merely Holy Thursday reenacted. It's the whole Paschal Mystery. It's the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and even the Ascension—which the Letter to the Hebrews at length describes as the entry of Jesus the High Priest into the heavenly sanctuary to offer the blood of his sacrifice. St. Paul, in Christianity's oldest Eucharist passage (1 Cor 10-11), intertwines worship and meal, sacrifice and community. Martin Luther famously wanted to to unhitch the Eucharist from these sacrificial, worshipful moorings and to emphasize the meal aspect more, so he "turned the minister around" and traded the altar for a table. Perhaps unwittingly Catholics absorbed some of that split too when we flipped things around in the late 60s.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Christ the King: the Glory and the Challenge

Christ the King is either an amazing feast day or a total dud depending on how the priest, the parish, and those involved in the liturgy decide to "sell it". But lest we fear that celebrating the day with song and story, ritual and romance will somehow make us starry-eyed dreamers, the Gospel and its challenge will always bring us back down to earth. 

Christ the King 2017

In August, I gave back-to-back homilies on how as modern people we tend to value things to the extent that they are practical and explainable. And we can even start to reduce the Christian faith to something that is merely practical and explainable. 

When given the choice between poetry and prose, modern people think they always have to choose the prose. 

Two things argue that—while modern man focuses on the practical and the explainable—it's not our natural setting as human beings. 

1) Our love of beauty: the world of symbols and extravagance 

2) Our love of story: the world of imagination and narrative 

I focused on the world of beauty in the homily on "If I could have explained it, I wouldn't have needed to dance it."

And I focused in the second homily on how we live in a world of story—stories of sports seasons and of celebrities, of politicians, and the Bachelorette, and Netflix series. 

These are what excite us, but we buy into our own self-created lie that we have to make everything rational and practical. 

And I asked: "Have we Christians limited ourselves to prose, and then been annoyed that there isn't enough poetry in the world?"

I bring this all up again because whether the Christian life is poetry and beauty and narrative vs. prose and work and explanation means everything to this feast day. 

If we allow ourselves the realms of song and story, of ritual and romance, then it's awesome how the Catholic Church closes out her liturgical year with a feast called Christ the King. 

The imagery of starting anew each December, telling the story of anticipation leading up to birth, 
of preaching leading to the cross, 
of rising, ascending, and sending the spirit,
and then months of us laboring to build up his kingdom on earth, culminating in a feast of Jesus as King—king of every person, nation, and thing...

It's perfect. It's beautiful. It's a moment glory and triumph. 

And if not...

If it's just into a world of prose and practicality that we speak this feast, then there's nowhere to go with it. 

It's the Sunday before or after Thanksgiving. 

It's the Mass we attend when the weather's cold but the wreaths and candles aren't up yet. 

Sometimes we've got a few extra kids home or we're at grandma's parish, but it's nothing on its own to make us think or wonder. 

And why should Christ the King matter? We're modern. We don't have kings anymore. We have departments, agencies, and boards 

We don't have parades and acclamations anymore. We have the internet. We don't have pageantry anymore. We have HGTV.

But like I said: really our hearts want more; we've just been convinced that wanting that is "not acting reasonable, or mature, or realistic."

And yet Pixar and Dreamworks make billions of dollars.

I bring them up, not because they tell stories (though they do)

Nor because their stories often have kings (though they do)

But because people—even, and maybe especially adults—watch them and love them for their depth and the lessons they teach. 

Cynical people will sneer that animated movies take what should be obvious lessons about life, about friendship, and virtue, and authenticity, and put the lessons in the mouths of singing animals and dancing elves and people act like it's something amazing. 

And it is! Because when for 50 or a 100 years other cynics have complained that our books and movies and heroes need to be more "realistic", more gritty, more morally gray, then showing loyalty and sacrifice and courage straight up, can leave parents blubbering at “Up” or “Wreck It Ralph” or “Toy Story 3”. 

We might be confined to live the work-a-day world in 2017, but our hearts and souls long for a better place, with deeper stories and more excellent virtues. 

That's why in a sense we have to decide what Christ the King is going to be. 

We have to decide if we can be moved by it. 

We have to decide if it a story we want to be apart of. 

Or just punch the timecard and be in and out in 50 or 60 minutes. 

Now, don't worry.

Celebrating Christ the King "like it means something" isn't just a practice in imagining gold crowns and white castles. 

I'm not suggesting we just move into an imaginary kingdom of symbol and story on Sundays. 

The gospel today robs is of that delusion. 

Jesus tells us he will come as king and judge. 

And he's telling us what the questions will be on the final exam. 

And they're simple questions, but the teacher is a stickler and "you've got to show your work". 

He is king, and we are his soldiers. He has a kingdom and we're invited to share in his glory. 

But it's going to mean doing hard things. 

And it's not just a matter of giving to the poor or donating money to the needy, though the parable certainly includes that. 

It's also about our attitude. 

Partly why we have 7 corporal works of mercy (shown in Gospel) and then also 7 spiritual works of mercy.

And other things like the Sermon on the Mount and the other parables...

Because, how we think and speak also matters. 

St. James in his letter warns us "despise not the poor"

Poor can be meant in many ways: wealth, talents, or intelligence, or beauty

Or we just don't think they are cool enough or fun enough to be around. 

I’m going to tell a story on myself to illustrate this:

Once I got a call from a neighbor church. It was a different denomination and they had a woman with them who was looking for a hotel to stay in for a a day or two and wondered if I could help her out.

I said yes and we agreed to set up at a local hotel and I would take care of the bill.

Then about a week later I got a call on my cell phone. It was the lady that we had put up. This was a little frustrating already because it meant the other church had given her my cell phone number. After the hotel she had been at a homeless shelter for that week but was wondering if she could return to the hotel for one night so she could get things worked out with her daughter who was driving in to pick her up and take her home with her. 

I agreed and called the hotel and said that the lady would be returning and that we would cover it, and to just put it on the the bill from the previous stay. So just bill us for the three days together then. 

Then, about three or four days later, I got a call again on my cell phone from the lady I had helped, and she was wondering if she could get another day's stay at the hotel. And I was like, "Uh. You're supposed to be in Montana. Where are you now?"

"At the hotel." 

"How? I signed up for one more day."

"Well, I've been here for the last 3 days. When I got here they told me to take this room."

"Well, who's been paying for this??"

"I was told you were."

I was so upset.

I was yelling. I was screaming in the phone, asking questions and accusing. I was so upset.

I felt taken advantage of. 

I felt I had been hoodwinked.

I felt that the woman was not honest—to me or to the hotel people. 

And I was just exploding in wrath at that moment. 

I was even yelling as I was getting into my car to drive to the hotel and work this out. The woman had said again and again that the hotel said I was covering three days. This of course was crazy. I had already covered two days earlier and agreed to do one day after.

So I went into the hotel, still very angry, but of course I wasn't going to be angry with the people there. I was very calm and professional. One, because I assumed the woman had been dishonest with us both, and two, because these are people in the community that I have a relationship with and need to stay on professional terms with.

But... it turns out that she was right. There had been a real miscommunication and the hotel had thought I was saying that she was good for three days starting then, and that I must've given the confused impression that that was what I wanted.

So, I admitted my mistake, swallowed my pride and anger, and agreed to take the whole bill. I had messed up. 

As I walked out of the hotel the thought that really ate at me wasn't the money or the miscommunication. 

Those things happen. That's a part of life. 

It wasn't even the yelling. 

Not the best, but if you'd really been swindled, that might be kinda reasonable

It was the difference between my yelling at the woman on the phone and my kindness to the people at the hotel. 

It wasn't remotely bad to be patient and professional with the hotel. To wait for explanations and sort things out. 

That was the right thing to do. 

What ate at me was that I didn't think to give that patience and kindness to the woman on the phone. 

My presumptions with her were immediate. 

I had, according to St. James, despised the poor. 

Maybe you've been there too. 

It'd be nice if we all could say, "Well, Father, we learn and we grow and hopefully you've gotten more patient with age..."

That would be nice. 

But that was 10 days ago. 

I thought immediately of today's Gospel coming up: "I did everything the Gospel tells me not to do."

I sought of Confession, because I had entered into so pretty grave sin. 

And for those wondering how things turned out: I did speak to the woman later and apologized to her. 

Why bring up?

One, because I'm guessing people can relate to it. 

Two, because it's so easy to speak about living the gospel, and so hard to actually do it. 

No fairytale castles here, folks. 

Yes, we have a king, but I don't think we need to worry that we are accidentally going to slip off into an imaginary land where we're all "Yay rah, King Jesus", and there's some perfect little kingdom, and that by making Christ the King a time of pageantry and song were going to somehow miss out on the real world. 


The Gospel forces us back. 

The Gospel will tell us: If you want to be soldiers in this army you're going to have to do hard things. If you really want to love the king, you're going to have to do with the King does. And when you go out to fight his battles and you realize you've failed, you have to drag your broken armor and your hobbled horse back and say "I need to start over again."

Don't worry, realists. There's never going to come a moment when we get too "heads in the clouds" about Christ the King.  

So let's do both.

Let's dive fully into this feast, and celebrate and love him, and embrace it. 

It is awesome that we wrap up the year with glory. 

But then realize that that glory comes with hard work. It comes with demands. 

There are things that we have to do to live up to that glory. 

And we may fail in it from time to time. 

But we will keep striving, because we want to be worthy soldiers of that king and his kingdom.