Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wait and See

For the weekend, just a little exercise you might try. Sit someplace where you will have a good vantage of people as they are processing for communion, or as they receive. And just watch the parade of faces.

I often one of the richest parts of the communion experience is just that. We are such a lovely and unexpected bunch.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Drink This Cup?

Do you ever wonder, reading this blog, whether I grew up in a liturgical/ecclesiological cave? The fact is, I sort of did. We went to church even Sunday (or Saturday night), very good public schools (and CCD) during the week, and I wouldn't say "the Church" was ever a topic of conversation at the dinner table.

I can remember entering the Society and listening to guys furiously debate this or that policy, a recent appointment, or just the state of "things" (which usually meant whether or not John Paul II and his bishops were wrecking or saving the Church, depending on who was talking) -- and I recognized nary a name or an issue. And about much of it, I could have cared less. I didn't enter the Jesuits to get all wrapped up in us vs. thems.

A lot has changed in me in the 18 years I've been a Jesuit, but if I pay attention I still walk around with a lot of the attitudes and questions I entered with. And in large part that's what been behind this whole project of walking through all the little steps in the liturgy.

I was thinking of that today, in relationship to the topic of receiving of the cup. Where I grew up, the cup was always offered. And as far as I knew (with due notice of my general cluelessness), everyone always received from it.

As I've grown up in the Church, I've been surprised to realize actually, a lot of people (most) don't receive the cup. And more shockingly, in some places -- I want to say in a lot of places -- it isn't even offered. What is up with that?

The best reason I've heard is germs. Everyone drinking out of the same cup -- it's just not a path to sanitary good news. As I understand it, the metal in metal chalices is a natural killer of microbes. And studies have also shown that wine -- particularly red wine -- has compounds within it that kill throat and mouth bacteria.

That's not to say we should not worry about H1N1, etc. But in the normal course of things, such as now when H1N1 is out of season, a good majority of germ concerns are maybe not such a big deal. Still, if health is a person's worry, at some level who can really argue with that? Not me.

My concern is that some people might think instead they are somehow not worthy of receiving the wine. That receiving the precious blood somehow requires some sort of higher standard, or is really reserved just for the priest. In an earlier era, the practice of distributing only bread to the congregation led to this informal interpretation. But the Church does not believe that there are two communions -- one for the ordinary folk and one for Father. In fact, Vatican II talks about receiving under both species as a "fuller sign" of the sacrament. All should feel welcome to receive under both species.

And in the parishes or dioceses where this is not occurring, if the rationale is not health, I would really like an explanation. Maybe there's a good one. Again, let's remember: I grew up an ecclesiological Mowgli.

Someone start singing "Bare Necessities."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pump Fakes and Finger Licking

When it comes to the distribution of communion, what I've learned to appreciate since becoming a priest is just how varied are the ways in which people receive.

Case in point: We never received on the tongue growing up. Never. Same in my training in the Society. While I was in the pipeline, we all pretty much received by hand. In fact, I can say with almost no doubt that the first time I had to give communion to someone on the tongue was after I became a priest (so, within the last 7 years). I know, I know, I'm incredibly sheltered.

And it was quite a shock to the system, too, let me tell you, that first year or so of giving communion to people on the tongue. I was licked, I was nipped at, and more than once I think I came pretty close to being bitten. You have the open up and say ahhh, tongue extended form, which is probably the most standard, and also the easiest for the e.m., as the tongue provides a pretty clear and obvious landing pad for the host.

As in many things, Mother Teresa provides a good example.

Then there's the open up and say ah without extending tongue, which can be, umm, dicey. Your fingers go much farther into the mouth than I would like, and it's pretty common (and pretty gross) to get licked.

St. Ignatius doesn't care if this joker is a saint or not. He needs to open his mouth and stick out his tongue, before everyone gets sick. (Although it looks like many already are, doesn't it?)

And then there's the bite downers, who sort of clamp down with their teeth on the host once it's near their mouth. I always wonder, how do those people end up getting the host fully into their mouth? Do they just open and let it fall in -- that's sort of what I expect, maybe with the tongue helping out. But for a novice like myself, it looks a little dicey. I wonder if it ever happens that someone doing this ends up dropping the host on the ground.

Sister, you're working with the Pope here. Please, DO NOT bite his thumb. Lift your head a little and we'll be good.

You'd think the gesture for receiving by hand would be more standard. What's there to do but put out your hands, right? But nope, here, too, there's great variety. Probably the standard is to step up with both hands out, cupped facing upwards. Some -- just men, as far as I've seen it -- will extend only one hand, with the other resting on its forearm. And others bring their hands down into position from their chest only after they've stepped up. That one's a little more dramatic, but still, it's pretty clear when and where to place the host.

Right in the pocket.

Unlike those who do not extend their hands at all. For me, no hands extended means that they're going to receive on the tongue. But I'd say about half the time, that's not the case. Instead, once they've said Amen, they reach out and grab the host with a thumb and index finger -- usually as I beginning to move it toward their mouth (which generally does not make them happy). To me, this approach always seems a little weird. My own prejudice is that the host is not something you're supposed to take. It's something that's given to you. You're supposed to receive it, not reach out for it.

But having said that, I'd love to hear their sense of what they're doing. In fact, with all these different methods, I'd love to know who taught them that and how they understand it. It's so interesting.

It's also true that my own gestures as a eucharistic minister can be puzzling to some people, too. Generally, here's what I do: I take a host, lift it up to somewhere between the recipient's hands and eye level, and say "The Body of Christ". My thought is, you raise it up because it's the body of Christ, but you keep it not too high because you want them to feel free to choose to receive on the tongue or by hand. But I suspect my "neutral" is sometimes too high, because, seeing me raise the host up, some people will then drop their hands and open their mouths. As though I was giving them a not too subtle hint, let's do this right, bub. No communion in the hand for you.

I don't care if your hands are out or not. Open up, 'cuz Jesus is coming in!

I will say this -- I definitely try not to speak too slow or to take the host and press it -- really press it -- into the recipient's hands. Have you ever had someone do that, with that sort of heightened, uber-meaningful intentionality, as if to say, I'm going to do this really really slow so that you realize just how important this moment is. I've certainly heard other people complain about it, and I guess I've had it happen, too -- only with priests. And it always sort of freaks me out. Instead of entering more deeply into the moment, I find myself wondering, how long is he going to keep his finger pushing into my palm? And God, please, when he is going to stop looking at me?

I get the sentiment, it's generally a good sentiment (although it does sort of assume I won't appreciate the moment without him slathering on the portentousness). But if you ask me, it can a bit too, I don't know, "Look into my eyes."

But undoubtedly there's someone out there (many someones) with a story about this priest who pretty much tried to force feed them the host, too. So, glass houses, stones....bygones!

If you're interested in reflecting a bit more deeply on all this, Creighton University has a nice little meditation on the gestures we use when receiving communion. Their piece is aimed at reception by the hand, but I think the process they use and the questions they ask could be modified to those receiving on the tongue, too. Check it out!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Abbott & Costello Go to Mass

For the next few days I'm going to talk about reception of communion, and things I've noticed or experiences that I've had. And I thought I would start today, a little irreverently, with the new practice of bowing before receiving communion.

In 2002, when the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal appeared, it included within its guidelines a new request that people bow before they receive communion. This was part of one of the document's overall thrusts, namely that we approach the liturgy -- and especially the eucharist -- with a more intentional reverence.

Now, I don't know about you, but I have to say, when these guidelines came out, I was more than a little bit put out. Obviously, I don't know what the guys in Rome are seeing as they gaze out upon the world Church. But in my limited wanderings hither and yon, rarely if ever have I been struck by a lack of reverence in people as they approach communion. Being a eucharistic minister can be an extremely humbling experience, in fact, because as people come to communion, sometimes they let their guard down, and you see in their eyes the hunger and the real need they bring. Don't tell me these people don't appreciate deeply what's going on here. Don't tell me they aren't being reverent.

On the other hand... I am reminded of a story told by one of my theology professors. He was distributing communion at a parish in Boston one Sunday, and when he said "The Body of Christ" to one guy, the man responded, "No problem!"

This is not exactly what one might hope for. To put it mildly.

Just needed to get that out of my system. Much better.

It is surprising to me how often in distributing communion I say "The body of Christ" and the person receiving communion just looks at me. No Amen, no alternate-post-Vatican-II-response that you sometimes get like "I believe" or "Let it be so" or "Thank you" or even just "Cool." Just that expectant look, as if to say, so are you going to give me that or what?

Do these puzzlings sorts of responses show a lack of reverence -- that is, a lack of appreciation for the sacredness of the moment? Maybe. In some cases, almost definitely.

Bowing, unfortunately, does not directly address this issue. What those people need is a little catechesis -- i.e. I say, "Body of Christ," you say "Amen". "Body of Christ":"Amen!" "Body of Christ": "AMEN!" (It really may need to be that simple.) Plus, an explanation of what it all means; how Amen is our way of saying "yes", an acclamation, a statement of faith.

Instead, we add choreography. Choreography! And choreography that actually requires a little timing. If you bow after the saying "Amen," you're likely to end up with the eucharist headed toward your face, because the e.m. is now moving to offer you communion. If you bow during the e.m's words, you've effectively missed the power of the moment. They just said "The Body of Christ," for God's sake. This is not the time on Sprockets when we dance; it's the time we stop and take it in.

If you bow when you first approach the e.m., this is effectively what's going to happen, because frankly, from parish to parish it's pretty hit and miss whether and how many people bow, which means the e.m. has no idea what to expect person to person, so once you step up, they're going to begin. (It is the great irony of many of the liturgical changes that they were meant to standardize behavior, and yet instead have simply created new varieties. Hello, Law of Unintended Consequences. Can I go home now?)

Bottom line, if someone is going to bow, the best moment is before they get to the front of the line. But again, if you want that to happen in a parish, you actually have to take the time to walk them through it. Which as far as I can tell pretty much no one has done since the practice was first instituted here some 5 or 6 years ago.

As to whether this should really be our practice -- well, I don't know. Now that we've had some time with the practice under our belt, it might be worth evaluating whether this means really accomplishes the stated end (let alone meets the real need).

It could also be worth asking ourselves, are we legislating for the whole on the basis of bad form in a largely non-catechized (and probably usually non-practicing) group? That's not usually a recipe for success...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I am the Bread of Life

I realized this morning that my post for yesterday ended up posting below the post for Wednesday. If you are looking for it, scroll down and you can find it. It's called "Boneless Chicken and Other Mysteries". It's all about communion wafers.


I have few more things to say about different elements of our communion rite, but I thought today I would try to share a story that I've been wanting to share for about 10 years now. I fear it's one of those "you had to be there"s, which is why I've never really been able to share it. But recently I jumped into presiding at a Mass at kind of the last minute and the Gospel was John 6 where Jesus says "I am the bread of life", and as I was praying this was the story that came to mind. And I thought, well maybe, finally, I can tell this.

When I was studying theology in Cambridge, Mass., for a ministry I used to visit with homeless kids who hung out around the T-Stop in Harvard Square. They called themselves "pit rats". In part they were playing on the fact that if you say still and paid attention around the subway stop, you'd see these tiny mice darting around from crevice to crevice.

And in part I think their name referenced their location and their sense of self. The area around the T stop where they hung out was recessed -- it was quite literally a little pit.

On weekend nights local acts will often perform at the Pit.

And these kids were a crazy melange of goth, punk, emo, wicca and everything else. Lots of eyeliner, pointy objects and tats. Many people believed most of them were not homeless, but suburban kids slumming it -- I think because the kids were white, quite frankly. But the kids I met were living on the street, many of them doing drugs of one kind or another and probably some petty crimes, too.

Some of the "Pit Rats" hanging out.

There was no established Catholic ministry with these kids that I knew of. And I didn't try to really build one either. I'd just go down and hang out with them on a Sunday night, see how things were going. No strings, no obligations. It always took a little extra effort to get myself there, because it was so unstructured and unpredictable, but I loved it. those sorts of on the margins places are where a lot of things about being Catholic make the most sense to me.

So, after I had been around a while, one of the kids mentioned that there was a homeless Mass every Sunday afternoon on Boston Commons, at the fountain just past the Park Street T-stop. Did many of the kids go, I asked. She rolled her eyes. What was I, kidding? But it sounded interesting, so at some point I went down to check it out.

The Mass, known as "Common Cathedral", was part of a broad outreach to homeless people run by the Episcopal Church known as Ecclesia Ministries. Its founder was Deb Little, an extremely and good-hearted priest of the Episcopal Church who had convinced her bishop to allow this to be her full time ministry. The homeless community she worked with was in fact her parish. They used space at a nearby church for lots of programs, like art classes and film nights and work training, and that area of the Common was their worshipping space. It was an extremely unorthodox idea, but it perfectly fit her community. They lived outdoors, and therefore so did they worship.

The Episcopal service is very similar in form to the Catholic. In fact there weren't many things structurally that seemed different at the homeless service other than that they put the announcements between the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. The community consisted of a wide variety of homeless people or people who had been on the street, who sort of and went and came and went as the service went on, and then a wide variety of church groups or individuals who came either to pray with this community, or came to help distribute food afterwards. Every service ended with a lunch in which all were welcome to come and get a meal. (On many occasions I did this and was mistaken for someone newly on the street.)

People worshipping at Common Cathedral.

What made it radically different from any other liturgy I had been at was that it was outside in the middle of this active urban area, as you can sort of tell from the photo above. Cars whizzed by, tourists and others passed through (wondering what was going on). And as I said, the homeless men and women often sort of wandered around. And also spoke up when they felt like it; at the time for the homily, Deb would usually have some very short and strong points to make. But she always invited anyone else to speak as well. So, you could suddenly find yourself listening to someone sort of rambling on and on, followed by a testimonial about getting sober, followed by someone asking Deb when the food was going to be served. It was all on tap. And the petitions went the same way -- Deb led, but everyone had an opportunity to share a prayer.

Rev. Deb Little.

It was all sort of chaotic, and yet there was an underlying sense of respect for the moment, and so it never got out of control. And oftentimes someone, even in the very midst of an incoherent ramble, would say the one thing that stayed with me for the week. I'm sure it's not for everyone, but in its own quirky way, it's probably the best worshipping community I've ever been a part of. It was a place where anyone could come and simply be who they are.

All of this is by way of preface. (And by the way, if you're interested in Ecclesia Ministries, they're still going strong every Sunday, in Boston and a lot of other places. Here's a link to their great work.)

The community had its own choir and musicians, consisting of homeless people, formerly homeless people and others. It was never a big group, just 5 or 6 people, but there was always this one guy playing guitar, another guy singing his heart out, and a couple others. And every Sunday during communion, they began with Suzanne Toolan's "I am the Bread of Life." Do you know this song? I can't say it had ever been my favorite. In fact, it generally fell in that vast bin of post-Vatican II music that I considered, well, dreadful. Kitschy, cloying, insubstantial. Save us, O Lord, save us.

But sometimes the difference between kitsch and truth is very small adjustments. Like tempo: most times I've heard Toolan's song, it's paced very slow. It's a lumpy, heavy mess. Musical oatmeal.

Good for cholesterol. Bad for prayer.

But at this Mass, they took it a lot more briskly. And it turns out at that pace it has a nice energy to it. It just sort of bounces right along and becomes one of those songs you just want to sing.

So we're singing the first verse of the song, and I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying it, when they get to the refrain. The lyrics are really really simple: And I will ra-ise you up, And I will ra-ise you up, And I will ra-ise you u-up, on the la-ast day. The key is the "raise" -- each time the word is broken up into two notes, with the second one fittingly going a little higher. And the last time, as you see from my annotations, it's not just "raise" that goes up but the "up" and the "last". It's a nice big finish.

All well and good. The thing is, when those guys sang that refrain, they weren't just singing the words. There was a way in which they meant them. Or no, not meant them -- they weren't evangelizing us, weren't pitching us that this is true. How else can I put it? (This is the you had to be there part.) Listening to them, it felt like they believed what they were saying in a personal way; like what they sang came out of some sort of lived experience that yeah, this is how it works. We live our lives, and he raises us up in the end. If I had questioned them on this, asked them, do you really believe he will raise us up, I have no doubt their answer would have amounted to, well...

There are few groups for whom such a ready acceptance of the resurrection would make less sense. These were people who had nothing -- not even their right minds, in some cases. People who were living on the street, who were using, who were off the street but still had a lot of wounds to show for it, as well as those who had moved on to something more resurrection-y. And here they were, all together, basically giving me a taste of that resurrection bread of life.

How did they come by that ready acceptance? How was it that on some deep, unconscious level, this whole bread of life thing made perfect sense? It certainly didn't to those around Jesus. The story in John 6 where he says this ends with a lot of his disciples leaving him.

When I look at my own life, I can't say I'm living most days out of that sort of trust. It might be that if I'd let him God would take care of everything for me. But most days I'm still trying to do it myself.

But after hearing that group sing that song, with so much easy joy and laughter in their voices, I certainly have a sense of what that feels like, and I know in a new way what I want.

A Common Cathedral cross.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Snap, Crackle, SHHHH!

When I was a kid we were always instructed, when you accept the host, you are to place it in your mouth and chew on it gently. Do not -- DO NOT -- let it crunch.

This rule was no fun. About 8 times out of 10 as a result it got stuck on the roof of your mouth, and man, once that happened, there was no easy way of getting it off. It was worse than peanut butter. It was like breaded glue.

Why were we asked to behave in this way? Clearly in part it was some sort of combination of bad manners, akin to chewing with your mouth open (or noisily), and disrespect. You're at church, not the school cafeteria.

But on some level, the real issue here was our uncertainty about how to deal with the fact that the eucharist as eucharist remains also literally food.

And that issue remains. Transubstantiation... we've had occasion to talk about this already, but then again, I usually feel like I could hear a hundred lectures about it and still be unable to explain it to my nephews and nieces in a way that doesn't have them fleeing in 10 seconds or less.

One way of talking about it that I've been noodling over lately involves that word we bandy about for eucharist, "host". The bread and the wine are the vessels in which Jesus becomes present -- just like we think of ourselves as becoming, via our celebration and reception of the Eucharist, the body of Christ. We're still each ourselves, but we're also trying to allow ourselves to be host to the Spirit of our Lord. And so the bread and the wine are still bread and wine as well.

Some of the historical battles we find around the reception of communion really revolve around how we believe and accept this.

Like, the crumbs: Catholics get crazy about crumbs. Every crumb is Jesus, right? So if any should fall to the ground, it is as though we've committed the most heinous crime.

Now, don't get me wrong. This isn't like getting a sandwich and a soda at the deli. We're talking about the eucharist here. Reception requires an attitude of openness and reverence.

But sometimes I think Jesus chose bread and wine because he had a wicked sense of humor. He knew how crazy scrupulous we could be and wanted us to have to get free of all that. Bread is messy -- real bread, anyway. Wine spills. That's just part of how food works. It's why we use tablecloths and napkins and placemats. Lord, for all we know, as soon as Jesus finished his talk at the Last Supper sloppy Peter reached for the cup and doused the table. And that bunch -- don't tell me there weren't crumbs then, or anytime in the decades thereafter!

Was it the end of the world? No. You get a rag, you wipe it all up. You try to be careful.

But the grace abides.

More on this tomorrow...

Oy Vey, Peter, enough already. Trim the damn sleeves.

Boneless Chicken and other Mysteries

Some say we use the wafers we do for our bread to recall the manna God would send down each night like dew to the Israelites in the desert. It's a lovely way of thinking about things. As God fed them, so God in the same way feeds us.

But the Israelites lived on their manna. It was really bread! Could anyone really live on the wafers we use? Maybe it's possible, but I sure wouldn't want to try it. You ask me, If you ask me, you could pass those wafers out anywhere in the world, ain't no child gonna think that's bread, let alone that it could be a source of nourishment.

They're more what bread would be like if it were supposed to be food for Casper the Ghost -- pale, tasteless, insubstantial. Somehow to me it seems like our hosts have in effect de-breaded the bread. It's like boneless chicken -- how is that even possible?

Paul counsels in his letter to the Romans that a practice can be legitimate and yet should be suppressed if it causes too great a disturbance to other members of the community. Perhaps that's a good note for us; perhaps in some communities the concept of falling crumbs is just too troubling for members of our body, and so we're better off sticking in those places with the wafers.

I have certainly had the experience many, many times of receiving communion in the wafer form and been touched by the experience, even if only to have my own internal monologue interrupted me broken free to be in the moment.

But a little catechesis can do wonders over time, as well. And I wonder if a bread-y bread makes the meaning (and the taste) more than a little bit richer.

And then we don't have to worry about the crunching, either. (Who ever heard of bread that cracks and crunches?)

Don't you feel hungry just looking at this?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Take the Moment

How do you prepare yourself to receive communion? What do you do on the way down the aisle? When I was a kid, right before I was about to get up to the priest I'd stop singing and say a little prayer. I guess I still do that, though not so much with words as by taking a deep breath and sort of trying to let go and be open.

If it's a long church, sometimes when I'm walking down the aisle I'll see the crucifix or artwork hanging in the front, the vaults before me, and I'll get hit by the drama of the moment. I'm not just walking here -- I'm choosing to walking towards something, something important, and also unexpected, even a little ominous. It's a crucifix that's hanging there, after all.

And I share the desire, the hunger for this with a whole lot of others. This isn't a individual trip, it's a group migration. It may not be that far from my seat to the eucharistic minister, but what we're doing here is a pilgrimage.

Sometimes I imagine this is what it must be like after death. We're all cast together, strangers on the road to God. And we come in all shapes and sizes, but with that same yearning for Him.

My novice director always used to tell us, at the beginning of a retreat you should do everything really, really slow, even so slow that at first it seems artificial. Eat slow, breathe slow -- and above all walk slow. Not Matrix slow-mo slow, but slower than you normally do. More intentionally. And as wacky as it might sound, after a day or so doing that really does help you to settle down and become more present to what's going on within you and around you.

Coming so late in the liturgy, it's easy to be distracted as we're walking down the aisle to communion. What am I doing next? What time were my brunch reservations? What was that thing I was thinking about 10 minutes ago? It goes on and on. If you're not careful, suddenly you're halfway back to your seat and realizing you have absolutely no impression or memory of having just received communion, and wondering if you just walked by without receiving until now that you stop to think about it, you have a funny taste in your mouth. (Oh have I been there...)

We all prepare for -- or maybe a better term is open ourselves to -- the moment of reception in different ways. If you find yourself having that experience of missing it, maybe try to take some slow deep breaths, walk a little more methodically, or just try to carry yourself a little more gently, and see if that doesn't help.

"Best to take the moment present as a present for the moment," as they sing in Into the Woods. That's certainly how God intends it.

Setting the Mood

This entry has nothing to do with Barry White. It's just, when I think about setting the mood, I always think of Barry White. Can't help it.

About two years ago I discovered this little nugget about myself: Most days I have a line or two of a song running through my head, and, while I've come to whatever it is unconsciously, the specifics are not coincidental. Not one bit. The music of DJ Subconscious (a.k.a DJ Sub, a.k.a. Sub-Derm, a.k.a. something way cooler) is always giving me a glimpse of what I'm feeling and wanting.

Sometimes the connections are subtle. Usually not. The 3 months (and counting) that I had the breathlessly fantastic opening lines of Glee's version of "Don't Rain on My Parade" dancing in my cranium; the telling verse from the fairy tale musical Into the Woods, "How can you what you want/til you get what you want/and you see if you like it" -- once I notice what's playing, the point is kind of obvious.

Noticing my internal playlist can be hugely useful. Because on any given day, who knows if I know what's really going on with me. It's easy to lose touch with yourself when you're busy. Hearing the song, really hearing, helps me regain contact, if you will, and it can direct me, too.

The music in our liturgies is similar. It's there to focus and direct us, to help us to get in touch with the feelings or aspirations of different moments in the liturgy. The best gathering songs draw us all together and have a sense of energy, momentum, invitation. Psalms often speak about our needs, our longings - The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor. The Great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic prayer should soar high and loud, signifying that sense of acclamation and praise. God has become present!

The communion song works the same way. So we get lots of songs about being hungry or in need or lost and being fed or helped or found. And, much as in the opening and closing songs, a good communion song has a certain energy to it. It's poppy, not in the sense of being superficial or trendy -- today's communion song is most definitely not by the Foo Fighters -- but in the sense of being something attractive and easy to sing. The reception of communion is a unique moment of participation in the liturgy, and our musical choices at this moment are meant to exemplify that by getting us in touch with our need and making us want to participate. We want songs grounded in scripture that feel liberating, joyful, like a celebration.

Some parishes choose instead more sober songs, out of a sense that by its nature as a moment of communion with the Lord, this is a point of highest reverence. There are risks to this interpretation, of course; sobriety unwatched easily turns funereal or inert. (God, does it.) But bad examples should not kill a good idea. By definition, reverential is still participatory, and sober can work. (Although, honestly, if you have the chance to celebrate I'm not quite sure why you wouldn't. But that's me. And I certainly acknowledge, more joyful, upbeat communion hymns can also go terribly wrong. Yeah, Carey Landry, I'm talking to you.)

Whichever approach a parish takes, the communion hymn should engage us. It must be participatory. Some choirs like to use this moment to do a "number". Child of mine, that ain't right. Communion is by definition not a solo.

Whitney, put your hands down and step back into the choir.

It's also not a time for songs the congregation doesn't know, or that are difficult to sing, or that drown out the congregation. If a musical director is going to do something new, they'd best have practiced it with us already. And if it's a hard song for we ordinary folk to sing, or the director just overwhelm us with the orchestration of the choir and company, you have to ask yourself, why exactly are they singing this? Who are they singing it for?

In touch through a well-chosen melody with the moment, with our hunger and God's invitation, we're ready to stand and come to the table.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Easter and the Catholic Church

One of the great things I get to do as a Jesuit is serve as a monthly facilitator for a conversation among a group of retired men and women who do volunteer work as part of a program called the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. IVC is all over the country, and if you're retired or know someone who is, I highly recommend it. It gives retired people a chance to not only volunteer but consider the spiritual journeys and questions they have and are on. It's a marvelous program. Check out the link above.

So we met today and a lot of our conversation was about the things that are going on in the Church right now, particularly the new revelations of abuse and cover up in the Church. It's clearly been a dispiriting and frustrating time, and we had a nice opportunity to reflect on how it's been for each of us.

And our conversation reminded me of a recent article I read in Eureka Street, which is the Australian Jesuits' (free!) online magazine about faith and culture. (They put out a couple articles every week day, and it's really good stuff.) One of their editors, a Jesuit named Andrew Hamilton, had written a piece just prior to Easter that put the Church's situation into the context of our liturgical season. We all think of Easter as this marvelous happy ending, but it's easy to forget in the process just how much first had to be lost. And I don't mean for Jesus; that we know all too well. I mean for the people around him. If you think about it, they had to go through their own descent into hell, by facing the depths of their own sinfulness -- their willingness to abandon Jesus, to betray him, their society's willingness to execute him.

Today the conventional wisdom is, if you're going to go to the prom, you have to get out some skin cream and cover up the blemishes. Cinderella can't dance at the ball in a dirty dress.

But for us things operate exactly the opposite. There is no redemption without first contrition, that is, awareness of our blemishes and the harm they've done.

And in that sense, Hamilton says, all these revelations are hugely important to the Church. Not an obstacle to our life and mission, but the means.

Next week, Communion!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jesuits Say the Darnedest Things

After the presider offers "This is the Lamb of God...", we as a community say one final line together: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

You could take this prayer as yet another acknowledgement of one's sinfulness. But it's not a moment for navel gazing, much as all that lint might be fun. It's rather a letting go of all that. It's like any time you get an unexpected gift, or someone cooks you dinner -- we don't earn it. We don't "deserve" it. It's a gift!

That's what we're saying here -- I didn't make this happen. I am (gratefully) in your loving hands.

A very embarrassing story on this little prayer: about ten years ago I was at daily Mass, 5:15 after a long day of teaching on the prairie of South Dakota, my mind drifting off no doubt to classroom stuff, Tae-Bo or Ally McBeal. (It was the late 90s, what can I say.) And when we got to this point in the liturgy, instead of the normal response, without thinking this is what I said: "Lord, I am not willing to receive you. But only say the word and I shall be healed."

Yeah. Not worthy; willing. I didn't even know I had put on my Freudian slip!

Now, in my defense, although my response sure does reinforce certain stereotypes about Jesuits, this is not the craziest thing I've ever heard of a Jesuit saying during Mass. In fact at almost the same precise point in the liturgy, when the presider says "This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world...", there was a Jesuit in Milwaukee who said instead -- "This is the leg of lamb."

True story.

Of course, he also was suffering from dementia.


I did not plan to say what came out. And rest assured, I was duly horrified having said it. And all the more when it kept popping up in my head over the next few months -- and sometimes, when I wasn't paying attention, out of my lips. Heck, maybe I'd been saying it for a while when I first noticed. And the more it happened, the more it just sounded right.

Now, this did lead to no little self-scrutiny. I was happy as a Jesuit, loved the work I was doing -- what was wrong with me?

But oddly, I just couldn't muster too much drama about it, even though I was embarrassed. Because, even though I didn't understand it, it seemed to fit. (One of those great life lessons: Just because you can't explain something doesn't mean you're not right.)

Maybe the best answer I came up with was this quote from the author Graham Greene about the love of God: "It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.”

A God who knows you inside you out, warts and all -- forgiveness is all well and good, but love? That's freaking scary! Back off, buddy!

And so at some point, I sort of embraced my version as just another way of saying the same thing. I am timid like a bunny; move too fast and I'll bolt. But if you want, God, you can still make it happen. I can't save myself. But you can save me.

Put another way -- not willing? Yeah, that's me.

And that's why I'm here.


My very useful guidebook on all things liturgical, Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation, by John Baldovin, S.J., which I highly recommend, has very little say about the actual Lamb of God prayer. He makes just one comment about it, but it's a good one: "This chant," he says, "with its 'you take away the sins of the world,' is another reminder that in our participation in the Mass Christ is uniting us to the work of salvation." That is to say, the prayer reminds us of what Jesus does -- he takes away the sins of the world -- and asks him to include us in that ongoing work.

Personally, I think I'd push it even further and say that this little prayer is the moment in which we acknowledge that the merciful presence of Jesus which we've been praying for is in fact present in the eucharist which we will receive, and we ask for that mercy to be effective -- that is, to forgive and reconcile us. So afterwards the presider's words make sense: This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are we who are called to this supper. We are happy because Christ is present among us. (That one little word, "is" -- it packs quite a punch.)

Not too long ago in the Church people were taught to be fearful of going to communion if they hadn't first confessed all of their sins. But as we've continued to study the sacrament, we've also come to rediscover that communion is itself the ongoing sacrament of reconciliation. That is, it, too, is a means by which Jesus reconciles us to one another and to himself.

And so at this moment, before we receive communion, we ask that it might work, that we might be drawn up into Christ's mercy, forgiven and healed.

Guercino's Return of the Prodigal Son

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Fraction Rite

Theologians talk about the four-fold activity of Jesus in the eucharist: he takes, he blesses, he breaks, he shares.

Our eucharistic celebration follows that activity: the gifts are taken (at the presentation of the gifts), blessed (in the eucharistic prayer) -- and now, directly before communion, broken, so as to be shared.

The fraction rite, as this moment is called, is an often overlooked little moment in the liturgy. Coming as it does on Sundays at the same time as the congregation is singing the Lamb of God, it's easily missed. It's not the most dramatic action, either -- the presider breaks a host that is raised (kind of dramatic), then breaks off a little piece off and places in the cup (not terribly dramatic); and he then breaks up the communion hosts -- be they wafers or little chunks of unleavened bread -- so that they can be distributed. With the exception of that first gesture, it really is the kitchen table moment of the liturgy. Grandma on Thanksgiving, getting things all ready.

And that is a lot of the fraction rite's value -- it grounds our sense of the eucharist in the concrete. This is a feast; we have come to a table; it's all about food being shared and us being fed.

The dropping of the very small bit of the body into the blood to my mind again makes the eucharist look like a very precise science experiment. I almost expect to see a little puff of smoke when the body hits the blood, as if to indicate, ah yes, the transformation is complete.

A really, really complicated (and utterly endearing) attempt by a kid to "make a puff of smoke."

Over the centuries, we've come to interpret this gesture as the uniting of Christ's body and blood -- although why exactly these two need to be united before communion remains unclear. The eucharistic rite being over, it has no sacramental effect. It's not as though we also trickle a bit of the blood onto the rest of the consecrated hosts.

But the origins of this gesture are very interesting. In the early centuries of the church, it became the practice of the bishop of Rome to add a small bit of the consecrated host from the prior day's eucharist to the blood before communion. And this was done to represent the belief that what was being celebrated today was not something new but continuous. There was but one ongoing eucharistic celebration, and each day we participate in it.

After that liturgy, hosts consecrated at that Mass would be brought to each of the parishes of Rome, and they would drop a small portion into the cup during their fraction rites, as a way of symbolizing that their celebration was a part of the bishop's celebration, as well.

The point of the action, then, was to make very tangible the unity of all who do or have ever celebrated the eucharist. We are all a part of one massive, Jesus-led feast.

There's probably no way of bringing that practice back. But keeping its origins in mind can certainly give the gesture a greater depth of meaning.

I'm the one in the black suit on the left.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter! The Lord is Risen! Alleluia! Sorry I've been away the last couple weeks; I hope the Triduum and the beginning of the Easter season have been a blessing for you all.

I remember one of my teachers telling us that the biggest trouble with the season of Easter is that it follows Lent. You know, Lent finds all us really focused and committed, furrowed brow and paying attention in a different way. And then when we get to Easter, and we're spiritually sort of spent. Like we just did a marathon.

But Easter isn't the finish line; it's not just a weekend, it's a 7 week season of its own. And it's a really important season, the season in which the people of God sent forth to be like Jesus for the world. Normally the second reading at Mass is from the Old Testament; but in the Easter season, we hear instead from Acts. It's filled with stories of the disciples going out there and healing people and evangelizing. Think of Jesus as a seed; Acts is the first fruit that is born.

For parishes, this is a great season for beginning new ministries, or for inviting people to join ministries in the Church. For each of us, it's a time to jump in and give in new ways in your community. Perhaps you've heard the phrase "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty." Or the idea of consciously doing one good thing for someone every day. Well, this is the time in the Church where we try to return to that.

If you're tired after Easter, take yourself a little rest. And let God show you where you might be of use in the weeks and months to come.

Back to the fraction rite tomorrow. (We're almost done!)