The priest moved to the Gospel side of the altar. He began to chant the Gospel. My four-year-old daughter turned to look at me with big eyes.
“Daddy, who is that?”
“Who is who, baby?”
“Is that Jesus?”
“Is who Jesus?”
“The man who’s singing. Is that Jesus?”
I smiled at her. “Yes, it is.”
Yesterday my family and I attended the only Latin Mass offered in our diocese. I had been once before with my eldest daughter, but this was the first time my youngest and wife came also. It was a sweet moment. We’re tempted to say, “Oh how cute and innocent children are.” But before we too quickly dismiss this as kids being cute, I would like for us to consider something.
I want to consider the wonder of the worship of the Church.
When the Church gathers for worship on Sunday, we are participating in the worship of the Church as she has worshiped for ages past, as she is worshiping now around the throne of Heaven and receiving a small foretaste of how she will worship in eternity.
There is a great mystery here. We too quickly move on from it to our great detriment. I fear that, in the modern Catholic Church, we have lost sight of what is really happening when we come to Mass. Some of that truncated and selfish view of worship I blame on the liturgy and some I blame on a lack of proper teaching and catechesis.
We have failed miserably in teaching our faith to those who are currently in the Church. This has been an ongoing problem for some time. We have failed to catechize and the clergy, in many instances, have failed to preach and teach well. It is no wonder that, according to the Pew Research findings, only 31% of Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We haven’t taught our people what the Church actually believes. We’ve just told them to show up and do as they’re told and don’t ask questions.
It’s no wonder there’s no wonder. It’s no wonder Mass feels dry and dull. It’s the Church’s fault.
Which brings me back to my youngest this past Sunday.
She intuitively senses that something mysterious is happening when we come to Mass (the Latin Mass). She is more imaginative than me, less impeded by modernity and cynicism. She feels the symbolic, nay the realism, going on at the altar when the priest stands in persona Christi, praying and speaking on behalf of his people. We’ve lost that in our modern liturgy. We’ve lost something instinctive, something primal, something holy and transcendent in our worship.
My good friend, Ben Harris, writes it this way:
“For many years, we have been told about a "springtime of the Church", an age in which we were finally ready to take on the world with our "new evangelism" after the long winter of old Christendom. This springtime, the warming of the world, and shattering of barriers was heralded to be the end of militant, defensive Catholicism: a day when we could cease guarding ancient coals with tenacious diligence to sow gospel seeds into fertile ground. And, during the tenuous peace of a post-Second World War era, the temptation to see society as entering a new age must have been overwhelming. At the dawn of the Second Vatican Council, the West had moved from decades of industrial warfare, societal collapse, the death of old Christian monarchies, economic devastation, and genocide into an era of relative peace and prosperity. I am sure that, to the Council Fathers, everything must have been telling them that our "springtime" had finally come... but springtime is never as cut and dry as that.
We were promised an ecclesiastical springtime, and that's exactly what we got. In the temptation of sunny days, we let the warm fire of tradition grow cold, failed to gather more wood to keep the hearths burning, and hastily planted our gardens, only to be left wondering how our seedlings could be buried under snow as we shiver by dying coals. Our springtime optimism was dashed by the bitter north-winds of communism, secularism, the sexual revolution, corrupted clergy, and rising persecution of Christianity in the heart of old Christendom. Like the disciples, we went with Christ into a cheering Jerusalem, only to see him crucified as we ran from his presence.
Still, there is work to be done. We cannot cower in disappointment and let the coals of tradition burn out because our hasty planting has died in the ice of modernity. Through study and liturgical reverence, we gather fuel to rebuild the fire of tradition into a blazing inferno; through our prayers, we carefully cover the tender plants to keep them safe from frost; through our evangelism, we open the door of our warm home to those shivering in the unexpected snow. Now is not the time to experiment and rush to plant new fields, but to remain faithful, prudent, and dedicated to age-old ways. If, like the Blessed Mary and St. John, we remain close to Christ and return to the tradition he gave to us, we will behold the Church in her resurrection with her risen Lord.
In the various traditional rites of the Church, be they Latin, Byzantine, Maronite, Anglican, etc., there is an air of wintertime sobriety. The cold rains of post-modern chaos, political extremism, heresy, paganism, and moral degeneracy pour outside, but in these ancient liturgies the fires of tradition sustain the family of God in health and safety. There is no place for experimental optimism either in the ancient Mass, or in the present crisis of the Church. Our task of wintertime labor has not yet given way to the ease of warm days and late sunsets, so return to the warmth of tradition, brave the snowy wind of the world, and fulfill the duty you have been given.”
The wonder of the warmth of tradition is that it teaches us something on a primal, even soul level that we cannot possibly hope to fully explain. We are formed by the tactile reality of the movements of our bodies: kneeling, making the sign of the cross on our bodies, genuflecting, bowing, opening our mouth and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The wonder of the practice of our faith we see when the priest faces the altar, on our behalf, and offers up the present sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world, as it has been done in the liturgy of the Church for the last 2000 years.
Our children see that and feel that in an unadulterated and beautiful way that we would do well to learn from. In the traditional liturgies of the Church, we are (in the words of my friend Ben) “infantililzed”, not feeding ourselves with our own hands but being fed by the loving hands of a Saviour and brought into the warm embrace of a loving Father. We are not in control and that is a very good thing.
“Daddy, is that Jesus?”
Yes, my daughter.
That is Jesus, dying on the cross for the sins of the world.
That is Jesus, standing even now at the throne of God pleading His own shed blood.
That is Jesus, calling His brothers and sisters to pray and kneel and bow and weep before Him.
That is Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, come in the flesh so that you and I may literally embrace the wonder of salvation right before our very eyes.
That is Jesus whom we receive at the altar when we kneel in humble submission, understanding that we cannot feed ourselves.
That is Jesus and He is the wonder of it all.
Thanks be to God!
Let me ask you something. Actually several somethings.
What do you think salvation means?
What is the point of salvation?
Are we “saved” simply to go to heaven when we die?
What does the “kingdom of heaven” refer to?
These are all questions that are brought to my mind when I look at this week’s readings. I must admit that I had not really thought a lot about all this until just a few years ago. I began to read Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers together and some things immediately became clear to me.
It became clear to me that I had no idea what Jesus meant by a lot of what He said. It also became clear than my hermeneutic (the way I interpret Holy Scripture) was very different than the way the Fathers did. I had been trained to use historical critical methodology whereas the Fathers seemed to be much more “spiritual” and typological in their interpretation of Holy Scripture.
So I began to look at Holy Scripture a little differently. Specifically, I began to read Holy Scripture in a Christological way. Right about now you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about so let me get into these texts a bit.
I was told as a boy growing up in the home of a pastor that the point of being “saved” was to go to heaven. While that sounds really good, I have to say that does not square at all with what Holy Scriptures seem to give us. Rather than messages of “we’re going to heaven when we die,” the Bible seems to indicate that something even more radical will happen.
God will come here.
Look at our OT text for today: Isaiah 25:6-10. I’m going to be working from the KJV and Douay-Rheims today. Read that text slowly and look for the images it conjures in your mind. First, there is an image of a great feast; “a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lee, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”
This is a great feast of great abundance. This is the good stuff, as the saying goes. We see this image somewhere else, don’t we? We see it in the Gospel reading today but we see it again in the Apostle John’s Apocalypse (Revelation) chapters 19-21. But we’ll come back to that.
Keep reading the Isaiah text. The prophet tells us that the Lord of hosts will destroy the “veil” that covers all people, indicating that there is something that is covering us, blinding us to reality. He will swallow up death, He will wipe away tears, He will take away the “rebuke” of the people. Verse 9 tells us that He will “save us” and that, on this “mountain” we will “be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” In verse 10 he tells us that “the hand of the Lord shall rest in this mountain (Douay-Rheims).”
Look at these images. These are images of wholeness, abundance and peace that are all linked with salvation.
Looks a little different than “we’re gonna get outta here and go to heaven.” Looks and sounds way better to me!
Now let’s consider our Gospel reading: Matthew 22:1-14. Here we have Jesus doing what He does and giving us a parable to explain things. Look at this text and the imagery we see. What jumps out? The word marriage or wedding is used eight times in both the KJV and Douay-Rheims. What imagery does this convey to us? It’s kind of echoing our Isaiah text in imagery. When we attend a wedding, the food is usually abundant and good, right? The wine (or other drinks) are typically flowing, people are dancing, laughing. It is a place and time of great joy! Jesus is telling us that this is what the Kingdom is like. This is what salvation is like!
The King Himself has set the banquet…and for what reason? The Son is getting married! Once again, this hearkens us to Revelation 19-21 and the marriage supper of the Lamb. And this wedding feast, these nuptials are open to all.
Look at the text. Some were invited but they chose not to go. Some who chose not to go also chose to murder the servants that invited them (the prophets). So what does the King say? “Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid them to the marriage.” (KJV) All are invited to the marriage feast of the Son!
But just because you are invited doesn’t mean you can just “come as you are.” We see the stern warning in verses 11-14. Dress appropriately. What does that mean?
St. Augustine, and other Fathers, took this wedding garment to be charity. What does that mean? It means that our wedding garment is how we have lived our lives according to the virtues given to us by grace as we have obeyed the commands of God. Yes, you are welcome to the feast out of a free gift of grace, but you must be clothed in the garments given to us by living a virtuous life. When the King comes, you better be dressed appropriately.
St. John Chrysostom puts it this way,
“To enter with unclean garments, is to depart out of this life in the guilt of sin. For those are no less guilty of manifesting a contempt for the Deity, who presume to sit down in the filth of an unclean conscience, than those who neglected to answer the invitations of the Almighty. He is said to be silent, because having nothing to advance in his own defence, he remains self-condemned, and is hurried away to torments; the horrors of which words can never express.”
Let’s go back to our questions we started with. What do we think salvation means? What is the point of salvation?
King David tells us what salvation means. He tells us what the point of salvation is in our Psalm reading/chant today. Psalm 23 tells us,
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Brothers and sisters, what a gift we’ve been given! Look at our readings today and see what God has given us.
He has given us all we need in the Son; we have no other wants.
He gives us the peace of green pastures and still waters in His love.
He restores our soul and leads us in the paths of righteousness.
He calms our fears by granting us the presence of His Spirit.
He prepares for us a feast of good things that we will partake of both now and finally at His great marriage supper when our cup will overflow and His love will dwell with us forever.
He will dwell with us, in His world, His house, forever and we shall have the goodness and mercy of God the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit forever and ever, world without end!
Thanks be to God!