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!
I used to think that the whole point of Christianity was getting out of here. I really believed and was told that if I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and believed that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, then I could die and go to heaven.
Now, I wanna be clear here.
To be “saved” one must believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the only begotten Son of God, God from God, of one being with the Father who did indeed become incarnate and was made man. One must believe that He lived a sinless life, was crucified for the forgiveness of sin and rose from the dead. One must believe that He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and that His Kingdom will have no end.
But nowhere does the Bible say or our Creeds confess that the goal of belief in Christ is to “get outta here” and live forever in heaven. Actually, Jesus seems very concerned not only with what we believe but how we live. Jesus seems very concerned with us being saints.
A saint is defined as “a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness or likeness or closeness to God.”
I’d like to use this as our working definition of what it means to be a saint as we consider our texts today:
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
1 John 3:1-3
In His time here and even today, Jesus was a polarizing figure. He was a human being. Albeit born of a virgin and fully divine, but nevertheless fully human. One could argue that He is the most human person who has ever lived. Jesus is the essence of what it means to be truly human. This is our destiny if we are in Christ! But I digress…
Jesus’ teachings were controversial to the religious leaders of His day not because they were wrong but because they pushed, in many ways, the faithful to even greater heights and set an even higher bar than the religious leaders of the day. The leaders had an idea of holiness that was off. It wasn’t that God didn’t want them to follow the law. He made that pretty clear to them throughout the covenantal history of His people. No, God expected them to “follow the rules.” But following the rules alone wouldn’t get them to where God wanted them to go…holiness of heart. That’s why Jesus was radical to them. He challenged their thinking and, sometimes, like in our gospel text today, told them they weren’t going far enough!
Jesus sets a high bar for holiness, for sainthood.
In this famous passage of the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus, in effect, turns their religious world upside down. All these years, the people had been told by their leaders to follow a set of rules and they would be just fine. But following the rules wouldn’t get them to holiness. Jesus tells them that it’s not enough to follow the rules; their hearts needed to change. Jesus is calling to mind the promise of God through the prophet Ezekiel (Ez. 36:26).
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who recognize their need for a Savior.
Blessed are the meek, those who are humble.
Blessed are those who mourn, who weep for their sin.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who long to be like the God who is holy.
Blessed are the merciful, who recognize the mercy of God and return it to others.
Blessed are the pure of heart, who understand that God looks to the heart and not the appearance (1 Samuel 16:7).
Blessed are the peacemakers, who are themselves at peace with God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, who share in the suffering of our Savior.
Blessed are those who are reviled for the sake of Christ, who embrace with joy being “lumped in” with our Lord and, for many, die with His name on their lips.
This is a much higher and holier bar than don’t walk too far on the Sabbath. This kind of bar produces saints, not just people wanting to get outta here.
But how, we ask ourselves, can we live this way? Is this even possible?
The beloved Apostle tells us resoundingly in our Epistle reading today,
“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”
There is astounding power in this! Look at what manner of love God has given us! He has called us sons and daughters and promised us that we shall be like Him! Our hope in Christ purifies us, even as He Himself is pure! Oh, what a promise!
And if we live this way, if in the power of the Spirit we submit our lives in humble obedience to God our Father and His Christ, we shall be like those the Psalmist writes of in Psalm 24,
“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness form the God of his salvation.”
And not just “one day” in the future will this be true, but it is true now if we are in Christ! And now we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses and then we will be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who will forever praise Christ the King!
We have the privilege even now of joining with the saints who gather around the throne every Sunday when we celebrate the Mass as we see in the beloved Apostle’s Apocalypse, where we read and experience every Sunday,
“After this I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in the sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands: And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and the ancients, and the four living creatures; and they fell down before the throne upon their faces, and adored God, saying: Amen. Benediction, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, honour, and power, and strength to our God for ever and ever. Amen.”
Oh saints of God, fall down!
Fall down and worship our God, who has come in flesh to make us saints and children of God! Fall down and worship with our saintly brothers and sisters who have gone before us and will come after us! Fall down and worship our Lord Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come, for all eternity, King forever!
Thanks be to God!