A man ought to examine himself…

April 6, 2010

 

A few weeks ago I started a series on the Mass. If you want to catch up click here.

Just like families that get together to share a meal or celebrate a special event have traditions and rituals for the way they do things, our Catholic family has rituals and traditions we practice when we celebrate the Mass together. Ours start with the Introductory Rites. (Rites: Ceremonies surrounding the Sacred Liturgy and the sacraments)

The Mass begins with an entrance song or antiphon prayed by the entire congregation (an antiphon is a prayer, often taken from the Bible). If you drop by a daily Mass you’re more likely to hear the antiphon. Most Sunday Masses begin with a song and the processional which includes an altar server carrying a crucifix and other servers following behind, along with the celebrant (the priest celebrating the Mass).

After the procession, the priest goes to the altar and kisses it. Now don’t worry my Protestant friends, he’s not worshipping the altar and making it an idol. A kiss is a sign of devotion. Just like your favorite aunt who gives you a big kiss on the cheek when she comes to dinner, the priest kisses the altar as a sign of our love and devotion to Christ for His sacrifice.

The celebrant then leads us in making the sign of the cross. Like I mentioned before, this signifies our identity, who we are as the family of God.

Next, he welcomes the family of God gathered for this celebration with a greeting  taken from Scripture. For example: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:13). And because the Mass is a liturgy (a work of the people) we participate and respond by saying, and also with you.

What follows is known as the penitential rite.  This is where we humble ourselves before God, acknowledge we’ve sinned and fall short of ever measuring up and that is why we need Jesus. We know we can’t approach God on our own merit so before we enter into corporate worship we take time to confess our faults and ask for forgiveness. Ideally, we’ve spent time before Mass examining our hearts for this penitential rite and preparing ourselves to receive Holy Communion.   

This rite may include a couple of traditions. Sometimes at a special Sunday Mass the priest will sprinkle the congregation with holy water as a reminder of their baptismal promises (to reject sin and follow Jesus) and as a symbol of healing and cleansing. 

More often the celebrant asks us to call to mind our sin in silence and ask for God’s forgiveness. Then he leads and we all pray a prayer. My favorite penitential prayer is called the Confiteor. It goes like this:

I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault. In my thoughts and in my words, what I have done and in what I have failed to do.  And I ask Blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints and you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God.

I’ll say this about many parts of the Mass, but…

I love this tradition and rite. It makes so much sense doesn’t it? I mean here we are, gathered to worship and one of the first things we do is humble ourselves before God and one another and ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us to overcome our faults. This is the beauty of the Body of Christ isn’t it. And, it’s Scriptural. (If you’re not sure about asking Mary to pray for us, click here for a little perspective.)

If you read my letter to Claire about Confession and mortal sin vs. venial sin then you know that the Bible tells us there are some sins we are to pray about for one another (I John 5:16-17). These venial sins are the very ones we’re confessing in our hearts before we prepare to celebrate the Mass. This penitential rite is also part of what St. Paul reminds us to do before we receive Holy Communion: 

Therefore, whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself…But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgement.  (I Corinthians 11:27-29,31)

These verses explain the Biblical basis for the penitential rite:  Examining our hearts and confessing our sin before recognizing His body and blood and receiving Him in Communion.

These verses also say a lot about Communion and what the early church believed. I must admit that when I was a Protestant and I read those verses in light of what I’d been taught about Communion was faced with several questions, such as… 

If the bread and wine are symbolic and not truly the body and blood of Christ then why does Paul specifically say that taking the bread and wine in an unworthy manner is a sin against the body and blood of Christ? How can you eat bread and drink wine in an unworthy manner? How is it possible to sin against a symbol?

And, if the bread and wine are supposed to be symbolic and not changed into the body and blood of Christ then why would we be judged for not recognizing it as the body of the Lord?  If it’s just a symbol then why would St. Paul risk creating confusion by telling the people to recognize a symbol as the actual body of the Lord?

On the other hand, if it really is the body and blood of Jesus and I take it without confessing my sin, acknowledging His sacrifice and His real presence then St. Paul’s words make sense. I can see how I would be sinning against the actual body and blood of Christ.

Of course those questions and thoughts take me well beyond the scope of the Introductory Rites and this post. They’ll have to be addressed at a later date. But it does make you wonder, what exactly was St. Paul telling us about Holy Communion in these verses?

What is clear is that the Bible says we are to examine our hearts before coming to the Lord’s Table.  There’s no doubt that we Catholics take St. Paul’s words to heart, so much so that it’s a part of our worship at every Mass.

This is all I have time for today. I’ll finish the Introductions tomorrow.

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A change of seasons

April 1, 2010

 One thing I love about the Catholic faith is the seasons of the liturgical calendar. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating, especially today, the beginning of the Paschal Triduum.

Paschal Triduum: A period of three days for the most exalted liturgical celebration of the year, beginning with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening and concluding with Vespers on Easter Sunday, recalling the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, along with His Institution of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders.

For the last 40 days, the Mass Scripture readings, the prayers and the music have pointed us toward the this triduum celebration. I love this about the Church. There’s no way that Good Friday and Easter can just creep up on you in the Catholic faith.  Instead we’ve been slowing creeping up on it, preparing our hearts and minds through prayer, fasting, going to confession and meditating on Christ’s humility and self-sacrificing love.

And here’s what is so beautiful: We won’t just celebrate Easter for a day and then move on or go back to studying a randomly  selected book of the Bible. We spent 40 days in Lent, a season of repentance and dying to self. For the 50 days following Easter we will celebrate, rejoice and focus on Christ’s resurrection and his time on earth after his resurrection. All the prayers, Scripture readings and music will emphasize this. All of this then leads us to the celebration of Pentecost when He sent His Holy Spirit to lead and guide His Church.

I treasure these seasons and the rhythm of living them with our parish community. I love the preparation and then the joyful celebration. I think we humans are hardwired this way. Just look at the secular world, even they enjoy a change of seasons, reasons to celebrate. It’s so fitting then that God would redeem this part of our human nature and give us a Church that leads us through seasons and celebrations that emphasize the true meaning of life — the grace, salvation and love of God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.

So tonight begins the Triduum. We call this Holy Thursday. It’s the night Christ  instituted the Eucharist. He celebrated the Last Supper, consecrated the bread and the wine, and called his 12 disciples to do the same. This is why we also celebrate the institution of Holy Orders today.  

With respect to Holy Orders and the priesthood here’s something to think about…

On the night before He died, Jesus even called Judas to this role of priest. He knew Judas was going to fail him as a priest and betray Him and His Church. The same goes for Peter whom He called to be the rock of the Church and the first pope (click here if you need more Scriptural support for this), except Peter repented. 

It’s interesting to note that the human failings of the disciples didn’t stop Jesus from building His Church and giving us priests to celebrate the Eucharist.  He knew all along there would be faithful priests who would still fall but repent and there would be some unfaithful, unrepentant priests. Maybe we need to have a little more faith and trust that God is in charge of the Church no matter how grieviously some our leaders might fail us.

Tonight my family and I plan to go to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This is a beautiful liturgy. After which the priest removes the Blessed Sacrament (the Body of Christ) from the Tabernacle.  The removal of his tangible, physcial presence from the church is symbolic of His death. 

At my parish, Jesus, who is present in the Blessed Sacrament is taken to an auxiliary chapel, reminiscent of the Garden of Gethsemane. Like the first disciples, we are invited to come and pray with Him “in the Garden” until midnight. After that the Blessed Sacrament is removed. Just as Jesus was taken from the Garden by the soldiers and His disciples were left without Him we too are left without the tangible presence of Christ until we celebrate His resurrection at Easter Vigil on Saturday night.

Last year was the first year Claire understood what was going on at this Mass. As the priest took the Body of Christ from the Tabernacle Claire started to cry. She leaned over and whispered, Mommy, I know Jesus lives in my heart but I don’t want Him to leave the Tabernacle tonight.  I imagine the disciples felt the same when the soldiers dragged their beloved Jesus away.

I don’t know if your church celebrates the Paschal Triduum but if you’re looking for a way to recognize these three solemn and holy days I encourage you to check out your local Catholic Church. You are always welcome and I guarantee that if you come with an open heart and mind you will be blessed by this liturgy.


Sit, Kneel, Stand…Repeat

March 16, 2010
[My last three posts have been about the Mass. This is post #4.]
 

So we’ve finally made it through the door. Now it’s time to have a seat, right?

Wait, not so fast. Not before we start you on the Catholic Calisthenics program.

You think I’m kidding, but if you’ve been to a Mass then you know we use just about every part of body to worship. Some Protestants don’t know what to with us. And most don’t know what to do when they’re with us. 

We Catholics can’t seem to sit still; we kneel, stand, sit, make the sign of the cross, genuflect, and bow several times in the span of one hour. And it begins before you even get in your pew.

Why you ask?

It’s a lot like the idea I mentioned before: We’re a sensing people and God reaches and teaches us through our senses and not just our spirit.

Not only does God reach us this way but we reach out to Him in this way too. We have bodies. Bodies that are temples of the Holy Spirit. Bodies created to worship and glorify God. As Catholics we do this during Mass by kneeling, standing, sitting, bowing, and genuflecting.

You see, the liturgy is literally “the work of the people.” The entire Mass is our worship. We differ from some “contemporary” churches in that we don’t sing a few songs and then sit down to listen to one person speak. We are called to worship throughout the Mass as we participate in the prayers, the music, the reading of the Word and Communion. We do this not just internally with our hearts and minds but with our bodies as well.    

Our participation starts with genuflecting before we sit in our pew of choice. 

Why do we genuflect?

The simple but not so simple answer:

Catholics believe the consecrated bread is the Body of Christ (Read the Book of John Chapter 6). We call the consecrated bread the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist, Jesus. And in every Catholic Church Christ’s Body in this Blessed Sacrament is kept in the tabernacle of the Church.

That means we believe that Christ is present in a tangible and real way. His presence in the Eucharist is different than the presence of Christ we each carry in us because of the Holy Spirit.  Just like our experience of Christ’s presence in heaven is different than our experience of Him while we live on earth. Because we believe in Christ’s real presence in the Blessed Sacrament, when we enter and exit our pews or pass the tabernacle we genuflect out of respect and love for Him.

That’s the simple answer. What’s not so simple for some Protestants who might read this is our belief that the consecrated bread and wine actually are Christ’s body and blood. And, I certainly understand why. 

I’ll go into the Biblical and historical reasons for this belief when we talk about the Liturgy of the Eucharist. For now let me say this…

Some may think this believe is far-fetched and ridiculous and scoff at the idea that Jesus would make himself truly present to us, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the substance of bread and wine.

Others may think that God would have no reason to lower himself in such a way. We have no need for such a silly belief in the divine becoming tangible for us humans.

You might be one who looks at the bread and wine and thinks Catholics are crazy for believing this. Afterall, the bread looks like bread. And, the wine looks like wine. It doesn’t look like flesh and blood right?  

If you find yourself scoffing at this belief, consider this…

There were (and still are many)  who thought it was ridiculous to believe that Jesus was indeed God incarnate. They couldn’t conceive that God would lower himself and come to us in human flesh.

There were plenty of people who mocked the disciples for believing He was the Messiah, the Son of God. Afterall, he didn’t look like God, he looked like a man. How could he or anyone else claim that he was divine, holy, the God of the universe.  An impossible, ridiculous, crazy belief right?

Just something to think about.

Ok, back to the Mass.

Once we genuflect, out of love and respect for Jesus and His real presence, we sit down. But, not for long because then we kneel in prayer to prepare our hearts for the Mass. During this time it is common for Catholics to examine their hearts and confess to God any obstacles and sins that have kept them from walking in His love and grace. 

After we kneel and pray we stand for the processional and opening prayer, which starts of course with the sign of the cross. Once again we’re reminded we our children of God, His family, gathered to worship Him.

And now finally, the Mass has begun…

… in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.


“I just don’t get it”

March 10, 2010

 

When I was in the initial stages of studying the Catholic faith a close Protestant friend said to me, I just don’t get it. That dead old liturgy. It’s meaningless.

She’s not alone.

There are plenty of people (Catholics, ex-Catholics and Protestants alike) who don’t get it. They think the liturgy of the Mass is dead and out-dated. Many Catholics have left the Church in search of worship that feels good, is more simple and some claim more Biblical. 

The interesting thing is, few, if any, who leave the Church ever study the parts of the Mass in an effort to understand the significance of the traditions or the Biblical basis for the liturgy. Instead many (not all) have simply labeled what they don’t understand as meaningless. And that which doesn’t appeal to their feelings or personal preferences is deemed out-dated and irrelevant.

On some level I can’t blame them.

If you were brought up Catholic and no one (starting with your parents) ever taught you the meaning of the Mass then how could you engage and grow in your relationship with Jesus. Of course it’s more than just being taught. If the other six days of the week your parents didn’t live in the grace, love and the life of Jesus received in the Eucharist at Mass on Sunday then it’s likely it would have little to no meaning for you at all. It might just seem like an empty meaningless ritual.

But just because someone never learned or their parents never “lived the Mass” doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. It just means they probably never experienced the depth of the love, grace and purpose of the Mass. 

And just because a Protestant visits a Mass and doesn’t “get it,” it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to get. It just means they don’t know and understand the Mass. And how could they? They weren’t raised Catholic.

So, in an effort to shed light on what it is we Catholics do in Mass and why, I thought I’d write a little about it based on my own studies and my own personal experience.

The first thing you may be wondering…

Why does the Church place such an emphasis on the Mass?

Answer: The Mass is the highest form of prayer for Catholics.

Why? You ask. 

The simple answer…

The Holy Eucharist, which is central to the celebration of the Mass, is the source and summit of our Catholic faith. The Eucharist being of course, Jesus–His Body and Blood, which is given to us as a means of grace and spiritual life through Holy Communion. Consequently, there is no liturgy more powerful or meaningful for Catholics than the Mass.

I know the Eucharist will require much more attention and explanation than that. However, for now, I’ll have to let that simple answer stand.

If you’re one of those who “just doesn’t get it” come back and visit again. I’ll do my best to explain just why the Mass is not a meaningless, out-dated-ritual but instead the most Christ-centered form of worship I’ve ever known.

More to come in future posts…