The Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10 ─ 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13 ─ Matthew 23:1-12
October 30, 2011
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” [Matthew 23:12]
Scanning the parish surveys that have been filled out this month, there are a lot of common threads among the comments that people have made. Many are about the celebration of Holy Mass, which is encouraging, because it reflects that the people of our parish know and believe that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the center of our lives as Catholics. Fortunately, most of these comments are positive. That reflects an engagement with what is best about the Mass, a “best” that at its heart is divine, and can never be diminished by the foibles or mistakes of priests or laypersons who participate in the Mass.
It’s common in sacristies, where priests prepare for Holy Mass, to see a sign directed to the priest, which challenges him with these words: “Say this Mass as if it were your First Mass, as if it were your last Mass, as if it were your only Mass.” That simple saying points to how precious the Mass is. Across the many decades that a priest lives as a priest, he’s likely to celebrate Mass in many different settings. Let me contrast two of the Masses that I’ve celebrated over the 16+ years that I’ve been a priest. One, I celebrated on January 14th in the year 2000. The other, I can’t tell you the date of; I can’t tell you even the year of it, but let’s say it was celebrated in the winter of 2005.
The first Mass was celebrated in the Vatican, early in the morning of that January of the Great Jubilee year 2000. Through an improbable set of circumstances, I was invited to concelebrate Mass with Pope John Paul II in the Pope’s private chapel, a space which holds only about thirty people. Although this Mass was celebrated in a small, simple chapel (in many ways just the opposite of St. Peter’s Basilica in all its grandeur), the Mass was more meaningful because of its simplicity. After all, if the same Mass had been celebrated in St. Peter’s, I probably would have been seated a hundred feet away from the Pope, who would likely have been seated up on the high altar above the rest of us. But in this tiny chapel, he was seated only about ten feet away during the Liturgy of the Word, and about fifteen feet away as he stood at the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The other Mass took place at St. Joseph’s Church in Conway Springs, where I served as pastor for six years. As I said, I don’t recall the date, or even the year. But I know it was winter, because the whole town was covered in a blanket of snow several feet deep. Because of the weather, the power had been out during the night, and still was out at the time of Mass. So as you can imagine, the church was dark, and very cold. Because the snow was still falling, the streets hadn’t been plowed yet, and not many people were stirring: even most companies and businesses in Wichita had cancelled work shifts. I could barely get the doors to the church open because of the snowfall, and when it was time for Mass to begin, no one else was in the dark church.
As Mass began, I could barely read by the light of the candles on the altar. However, I didn’t feel any pressure to speak as quickly as I normally would, since no one else was present… until, that is, the time of the Consecration. Since I was focused on the prayers of Consecration, and since it was dark, I couldn’t tell who had entered the church. After Mass, however, I spoke to the woman who had braved the weather to participate in that simple offering of Holy Mass. She said, “I was surprised that Mass was going on when I got here. I thought you would cancel the Mass.”
With this, we began an interesting conversation. I explained that a scheduled Mass is never cancelled unless a priest is physically unable to be there. She asked why a priest would celebrate Mass without anyone else present. In response, I used the analogy of a play by way of contrast. While a theatre manager might cancel the performance of a play if no one bought a ticket, the celebration of the Mass isn’t directed primarily towards the lay people present, either for their entertainment or even for their edification. It’s directed primarily to God, and the priest who has scheduled a Mass has agreed to offer the Mass to God for a specific intention, on a specific day and time.
In the decades since Vatican II, this teaching of the Church has often been lost in the shuffle: the celebration of Holy Mass is directed primarily towards the worship of God, not towards the people. Confusion about this point is the reason that so many say that “Mass is boring”: because they’re not “getting” what they’re wanting. Instead, the Church needs to do a better job instructing all the faithful, no matter their age, that for the laypeople who come to Holy Mass, the celebration of Mass is directed primarily towards giving, not getting. The celebration of Mass is directed primarily towards God, not towards us. The celebration of Mass is to begin with us, not end with us. The celebration of Mass begins with what we come to Mass to give to God.
One of the flash-points in the Church since the Second Vatican Council concerns the placement of the altar, and consequently the stance of the priest during the Consecration. You can immediately tell a person’s thinking about the nature of the Mass if they have an answer when you ask them to describe the stance of the priest during the Consecration before Vatican II. Of course, many Catholics today have never been to a Mass as it was celebrated before Vatican II. Even as old as I am, I wasn’t born until after the Second Vatican Council ended! But even younger Catholics may have heard or read about what the Mass—in its pre-Vatican II form—was like.
So if you ask someone to describe the stance of the priest during the Consecration as the Mass was celebrated before Vatican II, you’re likely to get one of two answers. The first is that some people will say that the priest stood… “with his back to the people”. This may be meant as an objective statement, and of course physically it’s a true statement. But the phrase inevitably carries a negative connotation, as if the priest doesn’t care about the lay persons who are behind him in the pews. Of course, according to this same line of thinking, the people who are sitting right now in the back pew of church really ought to be offended! Just think: all the rest of you in church have your backs to those poor people sitting in the back pew!
Beyond this facetiousness, we understand that the people in the first twenty pews are no more standing (or sitting) with their backs to the people in the last pew than the priest is at the altar. Rather, all the people in church—priest and laypeople—are facing in the same direction. They are united in directing their bodies to God, and this symbolizes that all are united in directing the same action to God: the action of giving. This is why the second response that you may receive, as some describe the priest at the Consecration in the older form of the Mass, is that the priest is standing “facing the same direction as the people”. His stance shows physically that he is leading the people in prayer, not speaking to them.
By contrast, in the modern celebration of Mass, when at the Consecration the priest is facing the lay people, it’s much easier for those in the pews (especially if they’re not well catechized) to get the impression that they’re passive spectators, instead of active participants. Likewise, it’s much easier for the priest (especially if he had poor formation at the seminary) to lapse into the role of “performer”, more concerned that the people hear him (by the quality of his voice) than he is concerned that God hear him (by the quality of his heart and soul).
When the priest encourages, and those in the pews believe, that the role of laypersons at Mass is to be passive spectators, they’re not only at risk of finding Mass “boring”. Something far worse is at risk. They’re at risk of not giving what they’re there to give. And no, I’m not talking about the collection plate. That’s secondary, although it flows from the primary gift we are called to give at Mass. The primary act of giving at Mass is the giving of one’s own self.
At this point, let me back up and explain something about the Sacrament of Baptism, in order to get a running start at reflecting on the giving of self. During November, we’ll be reflecting on the stewardship of our selves, and how this gift of stewardship is rooted in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But all this begins on the day of our baptism. When a person is baptized, he or she becomes a member of the Mystical Body of Christ (that is, the Church). When you were baptized, your entire life—past, present, and future—was transformed. Your entire life was changed into Christ’s life, and the three roles (or three “jobs”, if you prefer) that are His, became yours. Those three “jobs”—those three “roles”—are the roles of priest, prophet, and shepherd.
In every celebration of Holy Mass, no matter how simple or grand, no matter who may or may not be present with us, we are taking part in the greatest of the seven Sacraments. At Holy Mass we learn how, and are strengthened, to give our selves to those in our imperfect, daily lives. We gives our selves through these three roles of priest, prophet and shepherd, as Jesus lived and fulfilled all of them perfectly on the Cross.