Sunday, January 24, 2016

What to do at Mass...

Every Sunday we gather here at Church to pray and to offer sacrifice to God at this event we call the liturgy, and if we don't understand exactly what we're up to here or why we do it, then this weekly gathering to hear God's word and respond to it can become dangerously monotonous. So much of what we do week to week is the same at Mass, and that can be a real blessing if we know how to respond to it, but it can be a real danger if we let the routine of liturgy just become rote or normal. Have you ever seen someone “meditating” at Mass, where they’re meditating so hard you’d almost think they fell asleep, but you don’t want to judge. Before I was a priest, I have no idea how many of the readings at Mass I didn’t hear because I was “meditating,” or how many times I knelt down for the Eucharistic Prayer, all of a sudden I’m “meditating,” and the next thing I knew it was time to stand up again. I’ve been there, I get it. I struggled because I didn’t know what my role in liturgy was supposed to be. I show up, I sit, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand, kneel, sit, stand, and go home. I didn’t know what my role was supposed to be when I went to Church every Sunday.

I bring all this up because our first reading and our gospel today provide two glimpses into Jewish liturgy. So this word liturgy is a Greek word that we’ve adopted that basically means “public work.” Liturgy in a religious context usually refers to ritualized public worship, where the words and actions are predictable so that everybody knows what to expect. So the Jews in these readings today were taking part in a sort of liturgy, a ritualized public worship of God. And as the inheritors of God's promise to the Jews, it's important to understand what they were doing in order to understand what we do each week.

In the first reading, Ezra is reintroducing the people to the law of God. This is after the return from exile, where the Jewish people were taken prisoner by the Persians because they were unfaithful to the law. So now they've been allowed to return and they've been working hard to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. Now, Ezra the priest decides it's time to reintroduce the people to the law of God that they may have forgotten or may never have known. So he stands on a platform at one end, and reads from God's Word, and then explains it. The people weep because they realize they haven't been following God's law like they need to, but Ezra and Nehemiah instruct the people not to weep because today is a feast day. Today is for rejoicing, "eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks," and for loving others, "allot portions to those who had nothing prepared." So here we already see the liturgy as a place of instruction for the people, where we learn God’s law and learn how to respond to it.

And then when we turn to the gospel, we see scripture being proclaimed again. In the synagogues of Jesus's day, any man might be invited to read from the scriptures and speak on it for a bit, so today Jesus was invited to do just that, or perhaps he volunteered. So Jesus proclaims this scripture from Isaiah where Isaiah is actually prophesying about the coming Messiah, and Jesus gives a very short sermon: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” So now we see that liturgy, public worship, is not just a place of instruction, but actually a place of fulfillment. And indeed at our liturgy here, we don’t just learn about God’s promise of redemption, we experience its fulfillment through the Eucharist. The Eucharist makes present for us again the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so this public worship is actually the sacrifice of Jesus being offered continuously to the Father.

At the liturgy, the priest stands in the person of Christ, the head, and you are the body. This is no small role. In our second reading, Paul is teaching us about what it means to be the body of Christ. And the way Paul is teaching, he wants this analogy to be taken very seriously. When he says that you are Christ’s body, he doesn’t just mean that you are the group of people who are his followers, in some way he really means you are Christ’s body. Remember what Jesus said to Paul when he was still Saul, when he revealed himself on the road to Damascus and converted Saul to himself. He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He didn’t say, “Why are you persecuting my people?” Jesus identifies with us to such a degree that he refers to we his people as simply himself, so Paul does the same thing. To say that you are Christ’s body and individually parts of it means that in some way Christ has made you a part of himself, and that you are actually his presence in the world today.

From Catholic Memes
So Christ has given to each of us a role, Paul lists apostles, prophets, teachers, administration, assistance, and others. Whatever this role is, God has made you for it and prepared you for it, and this is how you be the Body of Christ in the world today. Similarly, we each have a role to play in the liturgy, in this public worship of God. The two primary roles in the liturgy are the priest as the head and the people as the body. The priest’s job is to offer the sacrifice, and the people’s job is to unite all the joys, sorrows, triumphs, sufferings, all the good and bad of the world, to this sacrifice by your prayers. So when we come to Mass, you can be an altar server, a reader, an usher, or whatever, but that’s not your primary job here, and fulfilling these roles doesn’t increase your participation in the Mass one bit. You participate most perfectly by bringing the cares of the world, uniting them with Jesus, and offering them to the Father.

What I didn’t know all those years ago, when I was falling asleep in the pews, was that my role was to sanctify my friends, my family, even my struggles, by offering them all to the Father at Mass, united with Jesus. This requires a real belief in the power of prayer, and a real belief that my prayers make a difference. But when we unite our prayers for the world to the prayer of Jesus, Jesus truly can transform the world.

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