Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come

One of the crazy things about biblical poetry is that it often looks like it's just saying the same thing over and over again in different words.

So, Psalm 5:
Hearken to my speech, O Lord,
attend to my utterance. [1]

You destroy the pronouncer of lies,
a man of blood and deceit the Lord loathes. [7]

Let all who shelter in You rejoice,
let them sing gladly forever -- protect them!
and those who love Your name exult in You. [12]
Usually, though, the repetition either intensifies the previous line, or offers the next little step. So in line 12 we rejoice, then we get more specific -- we sing. And then we get a more intensive version -- we exult!

Or in line 7, it looks a bit backwards -- God destroys, then he loathes? But what changes is the group; it's not just the liars, but the violent that are in trouble.

This all fits a little better when you've got the whole poem in front of you. But you have to go slow. As you can tell, it's really, really subtle at times.

That's how I'm taking the next couple lines of the Our Father. What has come before -- the calling of God Father and the desire that all would praise him -- implies that we're talking about the kingdom. But it's only in this line that that kingdom sensibility that lies behind everything Jesus hopes for and wants us to seek becomes clear and evident. If you had to summarize what the Our Father is about, this is it: thy kingdom come.

And beyond specifying the earlier lines, this line adds a new texture from the previous or the next -- that of an activity, an event. We are anticipating, asking for something to happen, something to finally and fully come into being, here, in our world. We're in the story of salvation, and we're praying for the happy ending that got promised back in chapter one. Or at least, a good ending for a chapter or volume. It's that Pauline notion of all creation groaning as something is being born. That's where this line puts us.

Hallowed Be Thy Name

How do you take this line? I'll tell you, I've always thought we're saying at this point, God, we worship you. God, you are the Lord. Etc.

But I did a little reading around and it turns out, no, this is actually a petition. We're saying "God, let your name be hallowed. Let everyone worship you."

And why do we ask for that? Well, because we believe that if they did, if the whole world worshipped God, then that would mean we were all trying to be like God, that is loving and generous and self-sacrificing. And what a wonderful world we could have if that were the case.

Statue of Reconciliation, Northern Ireland

The Twist: One could take what I just wrote and say this is a prayer for the conversion of the world to Christianity. But remember, this was Jesus' own prayer. This was what he said to God. So, it would be more precise to say that the Our Father is a prayer about the conversion of all people's hearts to the child-like openness, trust and generosity that Jesus had. A very different thing.

And frankly, much more challenging for Christians. Because hallowing God's name becomes not a matter simply of whether we go to Church or pray at night, but how we live our lives. It puts me in mind of a quote from G.K. Chesterton: "Christianity has not failed; it has never been tried."

(Can I Ask For Just a Little Bit More?)

A corollary to the Our Father cadences: I'm never quite sure what to make of singing the Our Father. In theory, I've got no problem with it. Song's a great way for a commmunity to pray together. But the versions of it that I generally hear at parishes are just dreadful. They sound like dirges. If you were outside the church at the moment they were being sung, you would think people were inside weeping.

That is not the right tenor (no pun intended) for the Our Father. It's a prayer of petition, yes, but it should express our desire to be open and our hopefulness for the kingdom. It needs a good amount of joy.

As I wander around I see a lot of parishes where they sing the Our Father. Cearly there's a desire to express that prayer in song. So, if you write liturgical music or you know someone that does, please, write us some good Our Fathers. It would be a great service to the Church. We really need them!

We Don't Need Personality

[I've posted two pieces today, both on the topic of the cadence of the Our Father. The first post is the one below this one.]

Have you ever had a presider lead the Our Father in a different rhythm than the group, or unwieldly slow? It's never a good idea, is it? It really throws the congregation. And then, they are paying attention to the priest, rather than the prayer. It becomes his prayer, that they're following. Not good, not right and not helpful.

Father Skeletor demands everyone FOLLOW! HIS! RHYTHM!

Still, I can appreciate why a presider would sometimes want to slow the group down. Some congregations whip through that thing like there's a storm 'acomin and they need to get to shelter. I always find those occasions terribly bittersweet. It's a lost opportunity -- there really is something uniquely special about the Our Father. It's a different kind of prayer than any of the others we say together, a prayer with real intimacy. When we rush through it, well, we might as well not even bother.

But presiders, the actual moment of saying the Our Father is not the time to "learn 'em". If you want us to go slower, say something about it at the beginning of Mass. Shoot, if theres' real trouble we could even practice! We don't have any trouble running through a song; why not run through the prayer? But a word (with perhaps a gentle reminder immediately before the prayer, i.e. "And now let us slowly/thoughtfully/prayerfully/did I already say slowly? pray the prayer Jesus taught us") will probably suffice.

One more note on this that I wish every presider would remember: During the big group prayer moments and songs, Turn. Off. Your. Mike. From the presider's chair, you might not be able to hear the difference, but in many churches when that mike is on, it's like the voice of God. It totally overwhelms the congregation. Even when you think you're being very clever and considerate and whispering, they still hear you -- and it sounds like for some strange reason you're whispering. Well-intentioned, but still not good or helpful.

Fr. Hardcharger is beginning mass. As he begins, "In the name of the father and the Son..." he notices, the mike isn't working. So he says, with volume, "There's something wrong with this mike."

And the congregation responds, "And also with you."

We Got Rhythm

Someone posted a comment over the weekend asking me to talk about the cadence (or rhythm) in which we say the Our Father. If each of us were to stop for a second and just imagine that prayer being said in church, I bet a lot of us would "hear" it something like this --
Our Father (pause),
who art in Heaven (pause),
hallowed be thy name (longer pause).
Thy kingdom come (pause);
thy will be done (pause)
on earth as it is in heaven (longer pause).
Give us this day (slight pause)
our daily bread (pause);
and forgive us our trespasses (pause)
as we forgive those (slight pause)
who trespass against us (longer pause).
And lead us not into temptation (pause),
but deliver us from evil (longer pause).

Now, those pauses have a lot to do with punctuation. Commas and semicolons get a pause, periods get a longer pause.

But you'll also note, there are places without punctuation where we still pause. For instance, "Give us this day (slight pause) our daily bread" presents one petition, yet we split it into two parts. Why? On some level, it's like my 6-year-old nephew said to me the other day: "That's just the way I roll."

Its origins probably also have something to do with our intuitive sense of poetry and rhythm. "Give us this day" and "our daily bread" each has two beats, as do a number of the other lines, so saying them as though they're separate ideas "sounds" right. "Thy kingdom come" and "thy will be done " likewise have the same meter, and so we say them in rhythm, even though the latter line actually belongs with "on earth as it is in heaven."

The danger, of course, of saying these lines this way is that the rhythm could obscure the meaning of what we're trying to say. It becomes sing-song, baby talk.

(OK, so actually, that's not baby talk, it's a different language sung by a cute toddler. But you get the idea.)

But is that the way we experience it? Clearly, each of us has to answer that for ourselves. Personally, I look around the church at that moment and see most people with their hands out in supplication or holding those of their family members around them, their eyes closed or turned up. And as we say the prayer, even with their silly nursery rhyme rhythm, it sure seems like we're all really speaking together directly to God. It might be the only time like that in the whole Mass, in fact.

I know for me it's always sort of a moment of clarity -- like, Lord, if we could boil all my desires down to their essence everything I've been thinking or worrying about during this Mass, and leave out all the unnecessary stuff, these words would be it. And if I could be exactly the person I want to be, no more trappings or ego or fear, just me, well the me at that moment, arms out and praying for openness to the kingdom, that's him.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Snow Day!

Two on Monday, I promise!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Who Art in Heaven

This line seems a little unnecessary, doesn't it? I mean, where else would we expect God to be? It's like saying to your friend Mary Phelps, Hey, Mary Phelps, who is from Burbank, how are you? There's a Saturday Night Live sketch in there somewhere. Thanks very much, dear, but I know where I'm from.

I think maybe the point of the clause is to indicate God's authority. In ancient times one's status as a god was always connected to a seat of power. If you were god, generally you sat up on some mountaintop -- so Moses meets the Lord on Mt. Sinai, or Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, and is transfigured on one, too.

Saying that God is in Heaven is to say he is seated on the highest, the holiest and the best place of all. He ain't just another one of them posers chillin' on Pike's Peak and demanding obeisance. He's in heaven, yo. That is to say, he is THE God. And, given what we believe of Heaven, a good God, too.

Having him as a father -- well, it's pretty sweet.

Our Father

Gathered together after the eucharistic prayer, the congregation together prays the Our Father. And if you think about it, those first two words are themselves quite a statement. On the one hand, how bold it is for us to profess ourselves the kin of God.

And on the other, what responsibility lies in the fact that we say not "My Father" but "Our Father." Jesus' ministry and preaching were marked by his ability to see all those around him, even his persecutors, as human beings. He dined with tax collectors (who often ripped off the people), with prostitutes, with non-Jews, with his enemies, and with women. He allowed himself to be touched by those who were impure, like the lepers or the bleeding woman, and stopped for those who society refused to notice, like children, the blind or the poor. And he challenged the authorities and ordinary folks insofar as they allowed rules or old enmities to hide the humanity before them.

One of the best pictures of Jesus with children to be found online. (Click to make it bigger.)

When we say "Our Father", we are acknowledging that we are all one another's brothers and sisters, no matter whether we are friends already, strangers or enemies, and that the same One who loves us and forgives us all our sins does the same for them. And just like that, the justifications we sometimes seek for our grudges, prejudice or plain self-centeredness grow shaky. We might have been wronged, or be heavily burdened with other things; but it's not so easy to just turn the page.

And at the same time, we're not in it alone. That's the point of the prayer; we turn to God who is our parent to mentor us, to support us and to liberate us as we try to look past one another's failings and cruelties; as we try to overcome the limits of our own perspectives; and as we try to get beyond our own agendas and be friends to one another.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Stuck for time today. So, before the Our Father, one last thought. A couple years ago you might have noticed that we were told you have to kneel during the eucharistic prayer -- or at least during the institution narrative. This was part of the new General Instruction for the Roman Missal, decreed from Rome, which was then further defined by the American bishops.

And at the heart of the matter was a concern for reverence. The eucharistic prayer being this time of consecration, it was thought the appropriate posture on the part of the congregation was kneeling. This is the same rationale given for the request that everyone now bow slightly before receiving communion.

One might wonder, why did we ever stop kneeling? Why this tradition in some parishes to stand? Well, it came from a different sense of what's happening in the moment. Kneeling is the posture of reverence and witness; those who kneel are watching this important event unfold and asking to be worthy of it.

Standing, on the other hand, is the posture of participation. It indicates that we are all praying this prayer together. Which is entirely acceptable and appropriate. Again, as any theologian will agree, it's not the priest's prayer, it's the community's. But the current trend in Rome is to try more to distinguish the presider from the congregation. Hence, no standing. And also, eucharistic ministers are not allowed to receive communion with the priest, but only after; the presider is not supposed to leave the sanctuary during the Sign of Peace; and only he is allowed to purify the vessels after Mass.

All of which is to say, as much as we're saying it's all about reverence, and that's an important consideration, there are some other pretty significant eddies in that current.

If we want to talk about reverence -- and it's a great topic, so why not? -- I suggest we presiders should begin by considering ourselves. It's so easy to rush through the prayer, or even to check out as we say it. Are we giving the eucharistic prayer the moment it deserves? Are we taking our time? As we pray it, are we paying attention?

...And that's why we do confessions behind a screen...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hearing Voices

The last thing I wanted to share about the eucharistic prayer is what it's like to say it is as the presider. On the face of it, it looks pretty simple. The words are pretty much all right in front of you. You don't have to memorize them (although some do, and time helps). There aren't that many gestures. Plug and play, as they say.

I'll tell you, though, the first six months after my ordination, I was often a total wreck during the eucharistic prayer. Truly. As soon as I'd start, a little internal editor would say, quietly, "You're going a little fast." So I'd slow down, try to be more methodical in my pronunciation. Then the thought would come that everyone is looking at their watches and wondering why I'm speaking so incredibly slowly. Sometimes the editor "told" me no one could hear me; when I adjusted, it soon queried "WHY IN GOD'S NAME ARE YOU SHOUTING???" Seriously, I was like Sybil by way of Saturday Night Live, crazy and ridiculous.

As our anxieties often do, this struggle came from a good place, my desires to be true to the moment and not in any way a distraction. Today when I preside I have the same desires in mind. I try my best to speak the prayer as poetry. That is, I try to avoid rushing through the words unthinkingly or in some unconscious rhythm (all of which is really challenging after you've heard and then said the same things over and over again for so long).

And instead I try to let the words touch my heart, and say it accordingly. I probably read slower than other presiders do, and sometimes with more earnestness -- which can be good or bad. Sometimes I have to remind myself, this is not a revival you're doing here.

Chill, Father. Chill.

So you're always making adjustments. And I think as a presider you're always trying to let those words surprise you and let yourself discover new things -- words, ideas, feelings, questions -- buried in the text. These days I often wonder, when we say "Unite all your children wherever they may be," what do we mean by wherever? Are we talking spiritually -- i.e. whether they're doing well in their faith or not; physically; or something else? And the "vision of your glory" from the second to last line draws me, too. I wonder what that looks like. And those thoughts influence the way I say the prayer.

And sometimes in my imagination people I have known, living and dead, stand there just behind me, praying alongside. And I have this sense of us being in that prayer together.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's No Sacrifice

Alright, I have two more things to say about the Eucharistic prayer. Both are confessions; one today, one Monday.

You may have noticed at some point that man, it sort of took a long time to get to the eucharistic prayer. Like, how many entries did I have about the gifts, for God's sake? Let alone the petitions! It was almost like I was...stalling.

It turns out, yeah, I sort of was. And the reason is the content of today's post.

I've been a Jesuit almost 18 years. And I've been a priest almost 7. And I've been a Catholic all my life, in one way or another.

But I have never, ever, ever understood the notion that by dying Jesus somehow wiped the slate clean for the rest of us. How does the brutal betrayal and murder of anyone -- let alone the son of God -- result in anyone thinking that it's all good? To me, that has always been this bizarro sort of equation that just does not compute.

One response is, well, he went willingly. Which is amazing and a huge example for us of the trust we're invited to have. I want to be like that; I want to love people so much that I'd be willing to fight for them even if they hate me and want me dead. But how does being murdered willingly make it OK?

Another, more common answer is, well, he put himself in the place of the paschal lamb, who was traditionally sacrificed for sins. And there's a lot behind that we don't want to jump into now, about animal sacrifice and the achievement of communal purity. But just taking it at face value, the problem is, this isn't a lamb, it's a person. And so what we're talking about on some level is human sacrifice as a means of redemption. Which veers into territory where violence is an acceptable means of easing social unrest (and is justified because it eases that unrest). It's not us, it's him, and once we kill him, it'll all be good.

This is exactly what the Jewish leaders and the Romans did to Jesus, and how they thought about it. Kill him, stop the questions he raises, problem solved. But rather than reaffirming this practice Jesus' death put the lie to that system, because it revealed that at the heart of such practices lies an innocent victim. That at the end of the day we're talking about killing an innocent man. The crucifixes we wear and with which we decorate our faith communities are a constant reminder of that fact. Somebody, in fact not just anybody but the one guy who came to love us unconditionally, the Son of God, was murdered. And people just like us murdered him.

To me, saying that it's all good because he died to redeem us is a way of avoiding that hugely uncomfortable fact about ourselves -- that we are capable of truly black, evil deeds. And it can also be a way of avoiding the fullness of the sacrifice Jesus made, because on some level we can turn back to this mathematical mumbo jumbo and whisper to ourselves, well, it was all for the best. Or, as I sometimes hear, it had to happen.

As the lady says, Well, isn't that convennnieent?

So when I hear in Eucharistic Prayer III, "Look with favor on your Church's offering, and see the Victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself," I get a little queasy.

In school, I learned a way of resolving this, to some extent. Scripturally, the Passion draws on an image in the middle part of Isaiah (called Second Isaiah), which we hear during Lent, that imagines the savior of the community as bringing it out of exile and back into good relationship with God by being completely faithful to the way of the Lord. According to Second Isaiah, if just one person can take that hard path of love and self-sacrifice through the desert, God will not give up on us. And that's what Jesus did. He reconciled us by being faithful to the bitter end.

The word sacrifice comes from two Latin words which literally mean to "make holy". And holiness scripturally is not exactly about purity, but about God choosing a group and setting them aside for himself. It's about a special relationship. What we believe happens in the eucharist is the renewal of that relationship; but the sacrifice we're talking about is the whole path of his life and death that Jesus willingly trod. And when we say we're made holy, we don't mean sin is gone, or that we're pure or all better; we mean that our relationship with God is restored.

Say if you want, Jesus died as a result of our sins. But take the step of saying he died in order to redeem our sins, that the point was him being murdered rather than him staying faithful to the end, and we are reaffirming a screwed-up ancient equation that makes absolutely no sense.

There's plenty of room to debate my conclusions. Just sharing one of my struggles.

Monday, one last thing about the eucharistic prayer -- what it's like to pray it -- and then off we go to the ends of the Mass!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lying on Ash Wednesday

Yesterday I said today I'd be moving on and finishing the eucharistic prayer today. Turns out, I lied. I know, and it's Ash Wednesday. I'm in for rocky roads this season! But just had one other little start of the season reflection I want to share.

I have sort of a checkered history as a priest with Ash Wednesday. My first year as a priest, I think it would be safe to say that when it came to distribution I had no sense of proportion. People were walking away with huge crosses on their forehead, sometimes with so much ash in them that it also trickled down into their eyes and onto their cheeks. I wasn't doing it on purpose, mind you, I was just pressing my thumb into the little glass bowl of ashes like I thought I should. Turns out, I have a pretty big thumb.

The next year, at a parish in New York, when it came to the blessing of the ashes itself, instead of saying, "Lord, bless these ashes, by which we show that we are dust," I inadvertently said, "Lord, bless these asses." This made a significant dent in the penitential tone of the occasion. (I was told later, actually the problem was that you stopped, smiled and corrected yourself. Otherwise, people would have missed it entirely. Little did they know, I was this close to howling with laughter.)

I am also the priest who in his first year had a newly baptized baby urinate on him in front of a huge congregation on Easter Sunday.

Not cool, Child of God. Not cool.

Suffice it to say, this whole season, it's full of surprises for me.

And the biggest surprise of all, I find every year, is just to hear that phrase when you receive the Ashes: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I look forward to that moment every year. I relish it like that moment on a TV show or in a movie that the whole thing has been building towards, and now finally, FINALLY happens.

Because it's the truth. All my plans and desires and tasks and petty complaints or emnities can seem so substantial and central. But the fact of the matter is, I'm going to die, and all that stuff isn't going to mean anything.

I spend so much of my energy worrying about what amounts to how to keep my finger in the dam, and in this one little moment I'm told, don't bother. It's not going to hold. Might as well get on to some things that are more important. Like God and loving people and letting go. It's a huge liberation.

What's left of a dam after it bursts...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Peel It Away

As we enter into Lent, one fact, one piece o' trivia and one image.

Fact: From now until the Easter Vigil the Gloria and the Alleluia drop out of the liturgy. Of course, we always want to be giving God his props; but in Lent we try to do it a bit more soberly.

Piece o' Trivia: The term "Lent" has nothing to do with penance or even Christianity. It comes instead from the Old English word for "spring". (Other languages simiarly refer to it in terms of its length, as in the Italian "quaresima", "40 days".)

Image (which comes from a post I did a couple years ago): Australia has a large tree known as the gum tree, part of a family of trees, the eucalyptus, which are found literally all over its continent. (According to Wikipedia, no continent is as characterized by a single genus of tree as Australia is by the eucalyptus.)

What’s notable about the gum tree is that every summer it loses all of its bark. All of it. In fact, when I was over there in 2008, it seemed like the gum trees were always peeling. Most trees, of course, need the bark to protect the tree. Remove it and the tree might easily die. But not the gum.

Somewhere in there might be a cool image to go into Lent with. We develop these outer coats – but this Lent what do we need to strip away? Where do we need to be a little more exposed? What needs to be laid bare?

Tomorrow -- It's No Sacrifice...

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Philadelphia Experiment

I'm going to step away from the eucharistic prayer today to tell you about a neat liturgical experiment I saw over the weekend. I was doing a baptism at Old St. Joseph's Church in Philadelphia. Old St. Joe's is in the historic district, a stone's throw from the Liberty Bell. It's been a parish of the Jesuits since 1733 -- 277 years!

At their 11:30 Mass, which is their high mass, they have the interesting tradition of having the presider proclaim the Gospel from in the midst of the congregation. At the time of the Alleluia, the presider gets the Book of the Gospels and processes along the main aisle to about a quarter of the way up. This isn't very far, it's not a very big church, but it's far enough that the presider is standing among the people, with some actually behind him. And he proclaims the Gospel from there.

This photo is not from Old St. Joe's, but St. Ignatius in New York. But it has a similar feel to it; imagine that the presider was facing the congregation rather than looking away, and you'd have it.

I found it a rather remarkable experience. Standing among the people eliminates the distance between the presider and the proclamation of the Word and the listening people. This heightens the connection made via eye contact, both between presider and parishioners and among the parishioners. It also creates this sense of a shared experience. Everyone is close to the action. And there's a feeling of something alive, of something all its own happening in our midst.

The style touches into the charge and immediacy of a theatrical production, without ever turning the proclamation into some kind of performance. I wonder a bit what it's like for those who are behind the presider; but otherwise, it's quite startling. If you're in Philadelphia, you should come check it out. And if you're not, and you have the opportunity to try different things at your worshipping community, you might try this. It has its risks -- it could easily devolve into the presider-doing-bad-Shakespeare -- but there's something there.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

5 Things I Sort of Kind of Don't Really Like About You Sometimes

I hate to get all grr and kvetchy when we're talking about the eucharistic prayer. Seems sort of counter to the whole praise and thanksgiving point, no?

Having said that -- there are a few little things that I see occur in the eucharistic prayer from time to time that sort of kind of well drive me batty. Come with me now, as I share them with you.

I am told in German culture the teddy bear is an authority figure that warns children of the dangers of constipation. Which is sort of not that far from what we're talking about today. Call it a spiritual constipation. Yeah, that's the ticket.

1) Jazzin' It Up -- The downside to having a set prayer for the eucharist is that, well, it's a set prayer. The words, they're all pretty much there. The presider's job is basically to read them.

But every once in a while, you get somebody who says, hey, I want this to be special and personal and intimate, because hey, this is a prayer. And if you push it, they're probably also saying, this is my prayer, hey. (They really like to say "hey.")
So rather than praying the prayer of the church, these guys end up adding sort of jazz riffs. They change the wordings of passages, they add original material; they turn simple transitions into little homilettes. You've seen it. It's all very well-intentioned, and totally and completely disastrous. Because it pulls focus. Instead of praying, we're suddenly paying attention to the presider, and wondering what the heck just happened, and what else might happen.

The eucharistic prayer is the community's prayer, not the presider's. And as such, the presider has a responsibility to be true to it. There are a few very small places where the community accepts some variation -- like at the very end, where we're praying for the Pope and the bishops and the clergy, to add something like "and all God's people" is not uncommon. But in general, it is not to be tampered with.

Father, you are very special, you really are. But leave my prayer alone.

2) I Vant to Suck Your Blood -- Guys do the institution narrative in different ways. Some look straight ahead the whole time. Others will slowly turn their gaze over the congregation as each element is offered up and the words of Jesus are said. "Take this, all of you, and eat it..."

Now, I've seen it work just fine either way. But I've also seen some presiders get a bit too into casting their gaze upon the congregation. You know the types, the ones who insist on making deep and personal eye contact with every single person. These are often the same ones who want to make changes to the prayer, surprise surprise.

Trying to recreate the sense of intimacy of the Last Supper -- a great idea. But go too far and suddenly it looks like you're trying to hypnotize people.

Father, I love that you want me to have that sense of Jesus being present as a friend, offering the bread and wine to me. But right now your eyes are so big I feel like you're about to put the host down and come embrace me. Please stop.

Seriously, Father, this is what you look like.

3) For Whom Does the Bell Toll? Please, God, Not For Me. -- Just to reiterate: not a fan of the bells rung during the institution narrative. Partially, that's because it makes it seem like the institution is the only or the most important part of the eucharistic prayer, the part where stuff "happens." And that's just not correct.

And partially, it's because usually they're wrung with no sense of the occasion. Seriously, there have been times the servers rang those bells so vigorously I thought there was an ambulance in the church. Seriously. Which is way cool for the servers -- really, what kid is going to pass up the opportunity to make noise and not get in trouble for it? Come on. But in the eucharistic prayer, umm, not really the effect we're going for.

The bells are a remnant of a time when the Mass is Latin and the congregation couldn't understand what was going on up there. Today, it's all in the vernacular, the priest faces us -- thanks much, we got it, save the bells for Christmas. Or if you absolutely have to have them, ring them during the great Amen at the end of the doxology. Make them part of that song. At least then it makes sense.

And I'm less likely to drop the elements as I leap out of my skin.

Kids -- step away from the bell. Step away from the bells.

You, too, child of God. Give the bell back. Go harass your mother.

4) The Balance Beam -- I have seen presiders take the cup during the institution narrative and the doxology and hold it up in the palm of one hand. Not hoisted around the stem like a pint of your finest ale, yo ho ho. No, balanced on the palm. I kid you not.

Who holds a glass like that? A magician, maybe, before they cover it with a hankerchief and turn it into a dove. But otherwise, uh, nobody. And there's a good reason - you're just asking for the cup to spill. Which is bad enough if you're sitting on mom's new white couch. But when you're dealing with the blood of Jesus: little bit worse. Seriously, I spend those Masses watching that hand and worrying.

Father, I'm sure you're very dextrous. But do me a favor and hold the chalice, for God's sake. It's not a show, it's the blood of Christ.

Even the evil German guy in the Indiana Jones movie knows how to hold the chalice. Come on!

5) The Bread Whisperer -- Lastly, there are those who spend the institution narrative with their head down mumbling the words directly to the bread and the wine. Have you seen this? I notice it mostly among younger priests, and my suspicion is, it's their interpretation of what the prayer calls for.

Normally, they're absolutely right and I'm wrong. But you know, I've read through the prayers many times, and nowhere do I see a place where it says, "Now the presider ignores the congregation and whispers directly to the bread." Or any less snarky version of the same.

And the reason it doesn't ask for that is because again, to do so doesn't fit the occasion. We're remembering the Last Supper; doesn't seem likely Jesus spent that meal whispering to the bread and the wine, now does it? The guys who do it would seem to have a thinly veiled magic spell theology of the eucharist, or, if they don't, their acts nonetheless make such a view seem valid. Look, Joan, Father's casting the spell. Poof! Eucharist.

Father: What are you doing? Seriously. Right now. What. Are. You. Doing?

The common denominator to a lot of these points is this: your choices and actions must suit the occasion.

And also, Father, I hate to be the one to tell you, but this Mass, it's not revolving around you. Your needs, your desire for self-expression, your theology -- all good, but not here. (Sorry.)

Probably better leave the scary crucifix tattoos at home, too. But the blood smears are always festive.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When Does "It" Happen?

So -- let me ask you a question. Based on all the things we've talked about, when would you say that the bread and the wine actually become consecrated -- that is, become Jesus' body and blood?

Take a moment, think about it. I'm not going anywhere.

Now, I'm going to bet that you said, it's during the institution narrative we've been talking about the last couple days. And there's some really good reasons why someone would say that. First of all, the institution stands out, plain and simple. It's the only dramatic moment in the eucharistic prayer. Plus, not to be too obvious, but hello, it's the part of the eucharistic prayer where the consecration gets talked about. And, if all of that weren't enough, we might also note that at the end of each beat of the institution there's a moment where the element gets raised up, as though to say, poof! It's happened. And oh yeah, in case you didn't get it -- they ring those cotton-picking bells. (And the priest(s) bow or kneel.)

When you ring those bells, this is how I feel.

So, lots of signals that this is a key moment.

But then again -- let's not forget that the institution narrative is preceded by the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon these gifts. "We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose command we celebrate this eucharist" (Euch III). What's that, if not a clear moment of consecration? There's even choreography! The priest brings his hands down together over the gifts, then makes the sign of the cross over them as he speaks.

And here's another twist -- the eucharistic prayer does require an institution narrative to be valid. It's true. In fact, one rite approved by Rome has no institution narrative, nor parallel sort of moment.

What allows them to get away with that is the understanding that the eucharistic prayer as a whole is the act of consecration. Not any one moment, even if it is eye-catching and even has a soundtrack, but the whole darn thing. Which is why -- well, did you ever wonder what the deal is with that little prayer at the end? "Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever." Most of the time, I barely noticed it was there until I had to say it. Unless the priest was forced to sing it, and did that whole Gregorian chant thing off-key (which happens, let's admit, WAY TOO OFTEN).

That prayer is called the doxology. And if you read it -- go back, read it again right now -- you'll see it's a hymn of praise and offering. In fact, it's the high point of the eucharistic prayer, the moment we stop and say, Wow. Thank you. It's all yours. For those who know Ignatian spirituality, it's like the Suscipe -- "Take, Lord and receive, all my liberty...everything is yours, do with it what you will. You have given it all to us...." It's like when the jock wins the big game or makes the astonishing catch and then points up to the sky -- an acknowledgement of who is good and gracious, and an offering of self.

Associating the elevation of the eucharist with making a basket. Hmm... Ok, It's a loose analogy, but you understand what I mean.

And that's why, if you ever noticed, this final moment is when the priest holds the gifts the highest. Little inside presiding for you: there are three distinct levels at which the presider holds the gifts. The first is just above the altar; that's the level you use at the beginning, right before the eucharistic prayer: "Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation..." It's a moment of acknowledging what we're working with. Then, there's the level you use when you're doing the institution. Some guys get all carried away and raise the bread and the wine way, way up, at this point -- why does it make me think of a kid saying "SOOO BIGG?" But if you're keeping to the moment, the reenactment of the Last Supper, the level should be more at eye level. You're not offering right now, you're presenting the gifts to the congregation.

At the end, you're offering and praising God for what He has done, and so then you raise those gifts high. Ideally, a person should be able to not hear any of the eucharistic prayer and still understand what is going on, just from the gestures. Each one identifies a different moment.

So, "When does it happen?", is actually a trick question. It's the prayer as a whole that is consecratory, not any one moment. Again, we are not in the business of magic spells -- much as we sometimes act this way. Transsubstantiation is not an "Alakazam!" kind of thing.

Wizzo, you're cute, but unacceptable.

And that's why after the institution the eucharistic prayer talks about us "offering in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice" and asks that God "look with favor" on it. The "moment" isn't over. In fact, it's not a moment at all! The action is ongoing.

Tomorrow: Things that We Do During the Eucharistic Prayer that Drive Me Batty.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Back Tomorrow with, When Exactly Does "IT" Happen?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Do It Again!

Another thing you might have noticed about the institution narrative is that it's actually a sort of re-enactment of the end part of the Last Supper. (As my niece would say, D'uh, Uncle Jim. D'uh.) In fact, this sequence is referred to in one way or another both in Mark, Matthew and Luke and also in the letters of Paul.

Now, we've already talked a bit about this whole idea of ritual re-enactment. Maybe too much. (I actually wrote a thesis on the topic, so, be warned...)

Danger, Will Robinson!

But just to encapsulate: a reenactment of an important religious moment is a way of trying to bring that moment into life again in the present. The Last Supper was itself, according to some accounts, a Passover meal, that is, a ritual re-presentation and celebration of God's protection and liberation of the people of Israel from the Egyptians. Each year the Jewish community offers that meal again, and that re-enactment is both an invitation to God to enter in again, in the here and now, and be their liberator, their protector, and it's a statement of faith that indeed in the Passover meal God does enter in again.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? In a sense what Jesus did at the Last Supper was take that ritual re-enactment and add a new layer, by identifying himself -- and particularly the death he perceives soon to come -- with God's saving activity. This is my body, this is my blood... to most Jews such an identification would have been not only preposterous, but rend-your-garment and gnash-your-teeth scandal. It's probably more surprising that others at the meal did not immediately seek to betray Jesus than that Judas did.

And in re-presenting this event at every Mass, we're doing much the same as Judaism does at Passover -- we're asking God to be present in that intimate, saving way now, in our lives and in our world. We're asking for an opportunity to experience that saving, loving presence of Jesus in our own lives. We talk about transubstantiation -- but it's not just the bread and the wine we're asking to be changed in the moment. It's us!

And, because we're greedy and what the heck, if you've got God's attention might as well ask for everything, we're also inviting God to finish what Jesus started. Let that kingdom come in full. Make this world right, and us right in it.

If you want another analogy to this whole thing -- when I was home at Christmas I presided at my cousin Mike's wedding. And at the reception my niece Erin came up to me on the dance floor and asked me to hold her hands and spin her around as fast as I could. She giggled uncontrollably as I did it.

And then, when Uncle Jim thought his back would go out and so the fun was over -- she immediately asked me to do it again. Why? Because she wanted to have that experience again. And her siblings and cousins asked, too, for the same reason. They wanted to participate in that experience for themselves.

That's sort of what we're talking about with the whole re-enactment thing.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Let's Get Physical

So, what, I wonder, did you notice about the institution narrative at Mass this weekend??

Here's one thing I noticed -- it has a certain physicality. Most of the time during the eucharistic prayer, the priest has his arms extended wide in a pose of invitation to God the Father. But during the institution, suddenly he's got a whole bunch of different physical things to do. He extends his hands over the gifts, he lifts each of them up -- sometimes as he speaks he turns with them. Sometimes he looks directly out into the eyes of the congregation. In its own simple way, it's dramatic -- that is, it's not a speech of some kind or your normal talking-to-God kind of prayer. It's a sort of performance.

And that's very important to be aware of, because performances have a unique sort of power. They tap into things that are primal and subconscious in us. They don't call forth intellectual assent or conversation, primarily; they rather are meant to be witnessed, savored, taken in. They evoke. They move.

(A painting by artist Mark Rothko. Very abstract, I know. But try just sitting with it a little while. You might find you actually enjoy it. You can click on it to make it bigger, too.)

Not too long ago a friend was asking me why someone would stay in the Church. I don't agree with the Church's treatment of women or homosexuals, she said. I don't think the people at the top are very in touch with the rank and file. There seems to be a lot of double talk and callousness. Why not find a Church that's better?

And it struck me sort of suddenly, if your only touchstones for Church are these negative sorts of experiences, then yeah, I can't imagine why someone would stay. Or should, for that matter. I don't think God means for any of us to be miserable or repressed.

What allows others with similar frustrations both to stay and to continue to push for change, I think, is the fact that they have a variety of different touchstones for what Church is, and where some may seriously disappoint, others provide the nourishment and challenge they hunger for.

The eucharistic prayer is one such alternate touchstone. It's not debate or policy -- at least, it shouldn't be. As performance, it's rather in the realm of art. It sinks in and affects us (perhaps, like a good movie or play, without us even consciously knowing it). Its words can move us, and so equally can the raise of the glass, the play of the candle light, the arc of the presider's hand.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

That Part in the Middle

So, between thanksgiving and petition, there's that part in the middle where the celebrant physically and verbally reenacts the last supper, as it's portrayed in Mark, Matthew and Luke. (The Gospel of John has a lonnnnnggggg, lonnnnggg last supper, but it doesn't have this scene.) It's often given the most attention (which is probably part of the reason I've not talked about it yet). And because it's so familiar to us, we can easily overlook its details. We've watched it a million times before.

Which is why I want us to do a fun exercise. Go to Mass this Sunday and when the celebrant gets to the institution, imagine you are that space alien we talked about before. This is the first time you're ever seeing this ritual. What do you notice? What sticks out? Stick to the concrete senses -- what are you seeing, what are you hearing, maybe what are you smelling. Take note of any impressions that come to mind. I'm going to do the same thing. And we'll regroup and start to talk about the institution narrative on Monday.

A little fact-finding mission. Sit back and enjoy it. See you Monday.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Petititon 2 -- Go Out To All The World

One addition on the petition aspect of the eucharistic prayers. In some cases, especially prayer II, you can see a sort of progression in the prayers. II starts with the very specific -- the gifts we offer right now, the community right here sharing in the body and blood -- and broadens outward, to include the whole Church, then all of our brethren who have died, then all who have died, and finally all people -- "have mercy on us all." Children's prayer I has a somewhat similar progression, put quite lovely:
because you love us,
you invite us to come to your table.
Fill us with the joy of the Holy Spirit
as we receive the body and blood of your Son.

Lord, you never forget any of your children.
We ask you to take care of those we love,
and we pray for those who have died.

Remember everyone who is suffering from pain or sorrow.
Remember Christians everywhere
and all other people in the world.
As I said, this step by step progression is not the general pattern of the eucharistic prayers. But it highlights an important quality of the eucharistic prayers -- their range of attention always goes out beyond the confines of the Catholic or Christian community. We come to Mass as members of a certain worshipping community and a certain denomination of faith, and with a clear desire to be fed, more generally to be saved. But the activity of the liturgy is meant to affect the whole world. Through it, we are meant to affect the whole world.

I was at dinner tonight with a Jesuit who put it well. Normally, he said, we Catholics think that we're supposed to go to Mass on Sunday and then live our lives the other 6 days of the week. That is the traditional way. Our faith is what we do on Sunday.

And that's just plain wrong. In point of fact, six days of the week we're supposed to live our lives in the light of the Gospel, to let our choices and actions be guided by the invitations and challenges of our faith -- and then on the 7th day, we come together to celebrate that life, those choices, our world, and renew ourselves for the week and choices and challenges to come.

Sometimes when I preside I ask myself, what is this parish, this Mass for? If we're coming just to check a box -- I fulfilled my Sunday obligation -- I think we might as well stay home. No worries, God will find us there.

Is a parish, a Mass there so I can feel better or get closer to God? Yes, absolutely. Is it there to sustain itself, to provide a way of maintaining a community or diocese? Sure, in part. But if all we're open to is being helped and making sure our parish or the Church continues to exist, we're like baby birds that won't leave the nest. God didn't call Jesus, didn't call us to be fed, but to go out, go wander this amazing and broken world and be his emissaries, be signs of hope and freedom, God's love and mercy. That's where the real joy is to be found.

Even as we ask for what we need, our petitions remind us of this broader horizon. They're there to expand our imaginations beyond the four walls of this building or the boundaries of this diocese to the whole world.

Let's fly, my friends, fly!

Eucharistic Prayer as Petition

So, two-to-three parts/elements to the Eucharistic prayer: Thanksgiving, Petition, and the Institution Narrative as Bridge/Big Number. Monday, we talked about thanksgiving, and what exactly that means in the eucharistic prayer, how parts of the prayer will remember specific moments in salvation history or graces that we are thankful for.

That remembering leads very naturally into petition. In fact, liturgical remembering is always also a request. The act of remembering in the eucharistic prayer is a little like Chubby Checker singing "Let's Twist Again, Like we Did Last Summer." Why does Chubby talk about all the great times they had last summer? Because he wants to do them all again. In the eucharistic prayer, we're the same way -- we talk about all the great things God has done, because we want him to keep being that way, and to give us those graces right here, right now, and even, if we can think really boldly, to bring what he started to completion.

And that's why, generally after the institution narrative, we enumerate exactly those things we as a church want.

And what sorts of things do we ask for?

Mercy: "Have mercy on us, make us worthy to receive you." (II)

Welcome: "Welcome into your kingdom our departed brothers and sisters..." (III)

Acceptance: "Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchisedech." (I) (I love this one. So many cool connections to the Old Testament!)

The greater union of our hearts...: "Make us grow in love, together with our Pope, our bishop, our clergy, all your people" (II) ...and the transformation of our community more and more into Christ: "Gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise." (IV) [So, too, in most prayers you'll hear some sort of request that we be filled with the Holy Spirit, which is another way of talking us being made better through our presence here.]

The betterment of our world: "May this sacrifice advance the peace and salvation of all the world." (III)

If you want to put it more simply, what we request is transformation, to be transsubstantiated in the same way the bread and wine are. Here we are God, mixed up, ordinary, imperfect, a little dicey; please, accept us and make us better, all of us, more like you, for the benefit of ourselves and for our world.

In a sense that sense of transformation is what differentiates this set of petitions from the ones we did before the eucharistic prayer. There's lot of overlap, too, but our context here is a little different.

Again, my own little practice, which may or may not suit you -- when I get distracted during the eucharistic prayer, it's usually in this part, because this tends to be the longer piece. And when it happens I'll try to repeat to myself the petition that I brought to this Mass. I'll just say it to myself again, with the hope it will snap me out of my distraction and draw me back into the action of the liturgy.

A variation might be to bring back to mind an area of my life where I think I'm being invited to be transformed, to be more Christ-like.

We give thanks and ask to be transformed.

Tomorrow, I'll post one further detail about the progression of the petitions. And Friday, we'll jump into the institution. Whee!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Break Day

I think there was some heavy lifting in my post yesterday, so I'm giving you the day off! See you tomorrow!