Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Words in the Liturgy

Like a thunder-clap in the sky right overhead, like a sonic boom – or, to stay with Biblical images, like a burst of angels in the Bethlehem sky : “Glory to God in the highest.”

Words can hit us like that. They have that power. They can be symbols in the fullest and most powerful sense of that term. They can snatch you off the streets of everyday life, fling you around the world, set you down in a place you've never been, in a century very far from your own.

It's seems a bit like magic. A strange, special-sounding phrase is launched into the air, and reality changes before our eyes.

Yes, it seems like magic because it happens so quickly and with what seems like very little effort. But with such symbols as the Bible and the liturgy use, it’s not magic. If the symbols don’t enter our mind, we can’t expect them to have much impact on us – on our reality, our world.

The human race doesn’t yet understand all the ways of communication, and certainly doesn’t have a handle on the million ways God can use to touch the human heart. That’s true.

But we do know what the ordinary channels are, and we do know something we can do to help communication, even our communication with God – maybe, especially our communication with God.

Words the liturgy uses are symbols like that. When we see how they are connected to all the events and thoughts of the Bible, they become rich, rich sources of prayer, meditation, and contemplation.

The Triduum of Easter overflows with such passages in Scripture and worship. That Paschal Triduum begins this Thursday evening with the Mass of the Lord's Supper. It will end after Evening Prayer (Vespers/Evensong) on Easter Sunday.

We read from so much of the Bible during the liturgy of these three days, and almost all of what we read will be the same year after year. It gives our ears – and our minds and hearts – the chance to get used to them, to come to know them as we know our friends, and to be glad to see and hear them again. And they become important points in our Ministry of the Word – and in our own personal prayer.

Don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure and the help you can get if you look up in the Bible or in the Missal the setting and context of any of these word-symbols.

Holy Thursday

Here are some of those words from the Holy Thursday Liturgy – from the Book of Exodus:

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt….” So begin the Scriptures of the Triduum, the Scriptures that mean to us the death and resurrection of Christ, and the Memorial of the Lord, the Eucharist he gave us.

“Tell the whole community of Israel…”

“You shall keep it [the Paschal lamb] until the fourteenth day of this month,

and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present,

it shall be slaughtered in the evening twilight.”

“It is the Passover of the Lord.”

From the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians:

“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,

that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread….”

From the Gospel according to John:

“… Jesus knew that his hour had come….”

“During supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power

and that he had come from God and was returning to God,

[Jesus] rose from supper….”

The following day we celebrate Good Friday, the Passion and Death of Christ. There will be more phrases that can snatch us up and bring us to a new place – if we let them lead us to new understanding, to prayerful contemplation.

Good Friday

Yesterday, after the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, we were like Jesus' disciples. We left our "Upper Room" singing hymns of praise, hymns very appropriate for the season of unleavened bread and Paschal lamb.

Like those disciples, also, we left in the company of Jesus. It's true, of course, that, as Jesus promised us, we never need be out of his company ― unless we force him out of our lives. But last night we did the opposite.
We... well, our pastor did it where I was, but as one of us, as one like us who wanted to keep close to Jesus' presence, especially "on the night he was betrayed": so "we" took the presence of Jesus from the altar ― the Presence that is the fruit of his suffering, death and resurrection, and of the Eucharist we had just celebrated ― and we gathered that Presence ― we gathered Jesus ― to our hearts.

Our pastor ― as yours, too, I suspect ― wrapped the ciborium (the gold or silver vessel) containing Jesus' Eucharistic presence in the folds of a long white veil as he lifted it up from the altar. This year, I don't know why, it made me think of the swaddling clothes of the beginning of Jesus' earthly life and the burial wraps of the final day.

The pastor clutched the wrapped Eucharist to his chest – to his heart – and began to walk down the church aisle toward the steps that lead downstairs to a chapel where the Eucharist would remain till our communion this Good Friday afternoon.

This next happening reminded me of the Hebrew children on the first Palm Sunday ― or maybe a sudden sale at K-Mart! The pastor had walked just two steps; suddenly everybody emptied out of the pews in front of him, eager to go with him ― with Jesus, really.

Later some stayed in prayer in the downstairs chapel. Some who'd gone home came back. But our gathering, our assembly dissolved in silence.

So this afternoon, in great silence, the priests and the altar servers made their way through the length of the church toward the altar. No hymn. Just silence. We were not really beginning another liturgy; we we’re continuing the one we’d left off the night before. Besides, it was Good Friday afternoon – not a time for much noise or much hilarity.

And the prophet Isaiah said:

“… many were amazed at him” – he’s speaking of God’s Servant in his suffering –

so marred was his look beyond human semblance

and his appearance beyond that of the sons of man….”

“He grew up like a sapling before him…”
– a line of beautifully poetic imagery that always leaves me with many questions, more questions than answers – questions I should maybe try not to answer.

“… there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him,

Good Friday, Washington, DC, Ford’s Theater –

Could Abraham Lincoln ever be elected President today – with our fixations on good looks – and our televisions and news photos that delight in pointing out visible flaws? Could someone else, more handsome, have accomplished for our nation what he did? … What would we have lost?!

And for the people who are in our own day – can those growing up today think well of themselves if they are not good-looking? And worse than it is, I think, for a boy or a man – can a young girl, a young woman survive the advertising and the expectations that push them relentlessly toward “beauty treatments” – many, expensive, and mostly unnecessary? – And, of course, it is the media that bring those questions to my attention, even in the Passion of Jesus. And what should we say?

nor appearance that would attract us to him.

He was spurned and avoided by people…

spurned, and we held him in no esteem. (Are there people like that in our lives – in my life: spurned, held in no esteem? I think I’m afraid to look.)

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, (My infirmities, my weakness? No wonder the cross was so heavy!)

our sufferings that he endured…;

he was pierced for our offenses,

crushed for our sins; (And I want to ask, What sins? But I don’t want to hear the answer.)

upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,

by his stripes we were healed.”

“… a grave was assigned him among the wicked and a burial place with evildoers,

though he had done no wrong….”
– and we convict the innocent and try to bar them from scientific tests that might, after their many years in prison, prove them innocent. How can we??

“Just lock ‘em up and throw away the key” – can we do that, and still sit quietly through this reading? Guilty most may be, but prison does not take them out of crime and violence; it enmeshes them into more crime and violence that they experienced outside.

Don’t say that’s punishment they deserve; we, you and I, our states and our nation, are the ones who (most often rightfully) say they deserve punishment. But what happens too many times in prison are things about which we would get fightin’ mad if anybody accused – heck, even hinted that we might be involved in. The convicted are in our prisons, sent there “in the name of the People.” And, besides, the US is a republic! – the country belongs to us. So do its prisons.

So why are we not ashamed at the violence inflicted on the weak in places we bear responsibility for? The least of the evildoers suffer more because we allow the more wicked to continue their wickedness even in prison.

“Assigned… among the wicked…, place with evildoers, though he had done no wrong….” Is it Christian on Good Friday to restrict our sorrow only to the suffering and wounds and death of Jesus Christ? No one else?

But Isaiah continues:

“… he surrendered himself to death and was counted among the wicked;

and he shall take away the sins of many,

and win pardon for their offenses.”
(How different is the Lord from our sometimes so insensitive hearts!)

Then came the story we knew we were working up to, this time from John’s Gospel as every year on Good Friday; it doesn’t change with the year as the Passion story does for Palm Sunday:

A chilling prophecy by a man not sympathetic to Jesus – and not very sympathetic to many of the other Jews he had responsibility for, either. He said – and with truth beyond his intention, but not beyond the sacred office he held – “that it was better that one man should die rather than the people.”
Yes, indeed it was. He spoke the truth there.

The story will continue in that vein, but first there is a smaller event, a littler story unfolding. There is a set-up line for the events of that little story, and it gets repeated a couple times. Like many more solemn and ringing set-up lines in the Bible (“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt….” “The earth was a formless void…. And God said, ‘Let there be….’”) this little one brings the whole event back to our mind:

“Peter was also standing there keeping warm. … And later:

Now Simon Peter was standing there keeping warm.”
– It’s easy to see that homey little picture in our minds, isn’t it? It’s a tiny clearing in a forest of catastrophe. It invites Peter to imagine he is on the shore of Lake Genneseret, after a night of fishing, warming himself with Andrew and maybe James and John in the brisk chill just before sunrise.

It is really a mind-boggling contrast to the other events of this night… until The Question comes: Oh, didn’t I see you with…. And then Peter, too, is caught up in the horror.

Then we hear of another scenario – a not so tame one. This scenario might convict us, too, if we act too much like the chief priests, if we are too uncaring, too cavalier – even too un-Constitutional, I believe we could say in the United States. That attitude –

Of course he’s guilty. We arrested him, didn’t we?

In the original, it reads: "If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you." Forget the trial; of course he’s guilty.

Well, that’s a lot.

But even after all that, and all it might convict us of – me of – I’m afraid to type the next one of these extraordinary and iconic lines.

You know how in the Book of Job, when his wife tells him just to curse God and be done with it, the original text and older translations can’t bear to say “curse God” and they say instead “bless God and die”? That confused the daylights out of me when I was a kid. “Curse” is what makes sense – and “curse” is what was meant.

Well, I’m in a position like that now. It’s easier for me to shout with the crowd, “Crucify him!” than to mumble this next terrifying statement. Of all the lines in the Passion, this one I cannot handle. It’s like cursing God… – actually, it is very much like it.

And notice: John does not say the people said this, and he does not say the chief priests stirred up the crowd to make them say this. This time it’s only:

“The chief priests answered, (no one else!)

‘We have no king but Caesar.’”

It scares me to think it, but in that moment what they said became true. For the chief priests, the Temple “establishment,” that statement might not even have been a big jump from their usual dealings: they were more interested, often, in allying themselves with Caesar, with Rome, and with its local procurator Pilate, than with the One they were to serve and the people he had made his own. They were, moreover, in Jesus’ day, actually appointed by the secular, pagan authorities.

In this statement they did not speak for the people, and the people – as John himself lets us know – did not join them in this sentiment. But, oh my! It frightens me that they would take this step. How could a Christian or a Jew ever say this? It shows, though, the gulf that separated that era’s Jerusalem authorities from the rest of their people.

This following line we see all the time:

"’Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews…’

written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.”
– probably, scholars tell us, really Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, the language of the people, the language of the occupying government, and the most wide-spread language of the time. Pilate was covering all bases, making sure that this little bit of nastiness would be accessible to the largest number of people.

What he wrote we would say is true – much too restricted, but true. We’ve kept an abbreviated version on all our crucifixes: “INRI” – “Iesus Nararenus Rex Iudaeorum,” the Latin that Pilate wrote on his little sign. We consider it a badge of honor for Jesus, but that wasn’t Pilate’s thinking. His little sign was aimed at insulting Jesus and – I think especially – all the other Jews.

Amazing! Pilate, whose ironic or even sarcastic “What is truth?” has resounded down the centuries, here actually has found something true! More amazing still, he sticks by it – "What I have written, I have written" – not because it’s true, but because it makes a better insult than the suggested alternative: “He said, I am king of the Jews.” Here’s God again, writing straight with (very) crooked lines, just as with Caiaphas’ statement. It lets us know who it is that’s going to win this battle.

All the centuries since Jesus’ crucifixion have found joy and inspiration in the special tenderness and love that shines through this next iconic statement of Jesus – iconic in its 21st-century sense.
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved

he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’

Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’”

This little exchange has been much commented upon. Very recently I saw another commentary I want to share with you:
What was hardest for him to take? The Judas kiss, Peter’s denials, the glib skepticism of
Pilate…? None of that, I think…. It must have been the worst agony for Jesus to witness
his abjection worm its way into the hearts of those he loved the most.
“’Woman,’ he says to Mary, ‘here is your son….’” *

We could think – I did when I was a kid – that Jesus was referring to himself. He wasn’t. The same commentary continues: “Where we might have expected self-pity or a desire for revenge, Jesus acts to reconstitute his family.” *

When Jesus raised the dead son of the widow of Naim (Luke 7:11 ff), Scripture says, “He gave him back to his mother.” Otherwise, the son would, of course, still be dead, but also this: his mother would be living a kind of dead life without the male relative to stand up for her and keep her inserted in the social structure. (In those days in Israel, women had many of the disadvantages they have now in Muslim countries.) Jesus, in his final thoughts, does that for his own mother – and through her, for all of us.
Augustine, of course, can’t overlook the similarities between himself and that young son in Naim. But we may reflect on that some other time.

For the following line, too, I recently came across another very significant way of looking at it. The priest who preached on Good Friday at our parish pointed it out.

When the end finally came, Jesus uttered his last word; that word has come down to us in Greek, because that is the language the Gospels were written in. It is tetélestai – quite literally: it has been brought to its end, to its farthest point. It’s perfect tense and passive voice – a pretty unusual grammatical form in the New Testament: an oddity there.

"It is finished."

But there’s more, as our Good Friday preacher pointed out: tetélestai is the Ancient Greek equivalent to our stamp “Paid” on a bill where nothing more is due – maybe better, “Pail in Full.”

And so it was.

“And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”

“Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden,

and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried.”

A garden. A new garden. There’s a nice summary of the Scriptures, right there in that word “garden.”

The Lord planted a garden in Eden when earth was first formed. At a tree in that garden, humanity took a wrong turn.
Our imaginations, less sober than Genesis, place the serpent, the Tempter, up in the tree in that garden. On this day, Good Friday, it was Jesus Christ up on a tree. And humankind was brought back to the right way, to life.

The garden-problem is solved: tetélestai again.

In a garden, on a tree.

* These comments are taken from a commentary on Good Friday by Professor Jim Wetzel of Villanova University’s Philosophy Department in Lent 2009: Daily Reflections by the Villanova Community. The booklet is paginated only by the dates –in this case, April 10. Villanova’s Campus Ministry and Mission Effectiveness Offices distributed the booklet.