Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday: We Come to the Cross as We Are

Our Good Friday Passion Service ended about an hour ago. It was marked by solemn, beautiful silence and reverence. Not exactly a full house, but our English celebrations often aren't in my mostly Spanish-speaking parish. But the community gathered there to hear the Passion and venerate the Cross was just enough.  Everyone who was meant to be there was.

During the Veneration of the Cross, I watched as Father, one of our deacons-in-training and the two Eucharistic Ministers carefully raised the cross to a position where most of us could reach it, nearly upright. I came forward, gave the cross a bit of an embrace before I kissed it. Then I wound my way back to my seat.

As I looked up, I saw her. One of our parishioners has severe disabilities that keep her confined to a motorized wheelchair. She inched her way forward in the line, pulled her chair up next to the cross, but was still unable to reach it. As she started to struggle to her feet, our pastor and one of the ministers instantly, as if synchronized, reached out and supported her by the arms, pulling her up so she could kiss the wood of the cross. As she sat back down and shifted her chair to move away, I found myself in tears.

We each come as we are to the cross. When we do it as a community, when we help one another, it speaks of the wondrous love of God who came among us to suffer and die on that Cross. Tonight I have another Triduum snapshot to add to my memory scrapbook.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Paschal Mystery: How the Easter Triuduum Helps Us Walk With Grief

It's Holy Thursday morning, and once again, we stand at the brink of the celebration of the Easter mysteries. In fact, what we will experience from tonight through Easter day is the heart of what we pray at Mass every time: "The Mystery of Faith" - the very death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we call the Paschal Mystery.

Paschal Mystery symbol in Freising Cathedral, Bavaria
Meanwhile, real people are suffering their own versions of paschal mystery. In a conversation this morning on social media, a friend whose wife died of cancer a while back reminded me that he had learned his wife was losing her battle with the disease from a phone call while on his way to the celebration of Good Friday. I am conscious that another friend learned a few days ago that his wife's cancer has metastasized and is now inoperable. 

Almost eight years ago, I suffered a major loss when the man I had intended to marry died suddenly. Most of us, if we have lived long enough, are, like Jesus, men/women of sorrow, well-acquainted with grief. Grief and suffering are very real and inevitably a part of the human life in which Jesus came to earth to share with us.

This is where deeply surrendering to the experience of the Easter Triduum and walking through the Paschal Mystery can be restorative. If we are open and ready to accept the message that the love of God for us is so strong that Jesus, by his dying and rising changed human death forever, we can receive healing of those deep wounds that grief impresses on the heart.

As usual, what we pray in the liturgy throughout the church year, especially in the celebration of funerals, is what we believe.
In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned,
that those saddened by the certainty of dying,
might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come.
Indeed for your faithful, Lord,
life is changed not ended,
and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust,
an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.
(Preface for Christian Death I)
For as one alone he accepted death,
so that we might all escape from dying;
as one man he chose to die,
so that in your sight we all might live for ever.
(Preface for Christian Death II)
Even more impressively, in Preface V, we have this:
For even though by our own fault we perish,
yet by your compassion and your grace,
when seized by death according to our sins,
we are redeemed through Christ's great victory,
and with him called back into life.
We don't even have to go to a funeral or memorial Mass to hear this reassurance of eternal life. It is, of course, embedded in the prayers of every Mass. However, at the Masses of Easter we will hear it reemphasized:
For he is the true Lamb
who has taken away the sins of the world;
by dying he has destroyed our death,
and by rising, restored our life. (Preface I of Easter)
Through him the children of light rise to eternal life
and the halls of the heavenly Kingdom
are thrown open to the faithful;
for his Death is our ransom from death,
and in his rising the life of all has risen.  (Preface II of Easter)
What is the message? HOPE. In the midst of the suffering of this world, we have the promise that this earthly life is not all there is. Hearing this message over and over again, for all the years necessary until we each are ready to let go of tears for our beloved dead and can instead manage to see their faces as "the children of light" and feel their presence around the altar at every Mass - this is the power of the Eucharist to heal the effects of grief. 

Each person heals from a great loss at his/her own rate. I cannot pretend that grief ever really goes away. Anyone who has walked its dark corridors will tell you it's a myth that time heals it all. Grief always lurks behind that closed door of the heart, waiting to ambush us when we are "triggered" into remembering, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote so perceptively:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
For me, preparing to enter the great mystery of the Three Days is a reflective time for emptying myself and reaffirming that the reason we can find joy in celebrating these intense days of walking with Jesus Christ through suffering and death is that he has indeed risen from the dead and offered our deceased loved ones - and us - the gateway to eternal life with God. 

When the words of the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) ring out in the darkness at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, I will be there trembling with barely suppressed joy because I truly believe that  "This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld."  Because of what Jesus did, death can no longer conquer us. It is not the end. Our loved ones are alive in him.

As Christians, we must each, whenever we are ready, climb out of our personal despair from grief at the death of those we love. We can, through faith, join them around God's altar when the earthly liturgy meets the heavenly liturgy at every celebration of the Mass, knowing that someday, we too will be rejoicing around God's throne, united with them in him, for all eternity. 

Today, I pray for all who grieve and for all those facing the certainty of the death of those they love, that they may receive the gift of faith that I have been granted, and through the power of the liturgies of the Three Days, come to know the truth that for their beloved ones, that "life is changed, not ended."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Easter Triduum: Opening the Mystery

The following is something I wrote that has just been published in our diocesan magazine, Christ is Our Hope.

In 1987, I experienced my first Easter Vigil when I came into Full Communion with the Catholic Church. My main memories are of my family being there, of the large brass image of a descending dove on the canopy above the altar, of receiving communion for the first time. Thirty Easter Vigils later, I must say, that “night of all nights” never gets old for me. Each year I experience anticipation, excitement, and joy in a different way. It’s been like Forrest Gump’s famous box of chocolates. You never know just what you’re going to get!

As I have experienced the Easter Triduum (the “Three Days”) in the years since, as a music minister, liturgist and catechist, I have come to love the Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the climax of those special days. I’d like to share some of my own spirituality, impressions and experiences, hoping to invite others to a deeper celebration of the Easter mysteries.

Each Holy Thursday I take the day off from work to prepare, sometimes helping at my parish to set up the Altar of Repose for the evening liturgy.  I run any personal errands that would have occupied my weekend and quiet myself in anticipation. If I am to serve as a cantor, I rehearse my music. As evening approaches, I begin to consciously observe the Triduum fast – turning off the TV to better focus myself. I arrive at church early, and as the Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins, I slip into a familiar groove – a mix of excitement and contentment. I feel “at home” in the celebration.

Over the years, I have had Holy Thursday “moments.” Watching the holy oils, blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass, be presented for use in the parish. The time I had my feet washed.  The beauty and joy of watching others wash and be washed, in the image of Jesus and his disciples. The singing of songs with texts that speak of the love of Christ and our love for one another. But always, the final, beautiful solemn procession honoring the Eucharist, accompanied by the ancient chant “Tantum ergo.”  The silent departure, without formal dismissal, always seems to say we are not yet finished – we must come back because there’s more. For those who choose to stay, the silence and candle-lit beauty of the Eucharistic vigil is a true invitation into Jesus’ Passion. 

Good Friday should be for all of us, a quiet day of fasting and penance. (I find it truly sad that some people must work these days.) The reading of the Passion is, for me, always an emotional experience – because it is hard not to visualize Jesus’ betrayal and suffering. The long, formal intercessions and the starkness of a simple Communion service instead of a Mass remind us that this day is different from all others. Christ has died. The rest is yet to come.

In the years when I had a garden, I used to spend the afternoon after the Good Friday liturgy hand-tilling the soil with a spade for new planting. The achingly hard work and silence were a way for me to be in solidarity with Christ’s suffering. These days, since I now live in an apartment, I simply go home and fast from the television and internet – which for me, is true sacrifice!

Holy Saturday morning is a special time: Jesus is still in the tomb and all Creation holds its breath. If we are keeping the Triduum fast, focusing more on “being” in the Three Days, this is the time to begin preparation for Easter. At home, this might be cooking and cleaning, perhaps going to church for the blessing of the Easter foods.  In churches all over the world, this is when many helpers prepare the worship space and catechumens and candidates who will be initiated are in final retreat and rehearsal for the night’s liturgy. Flowers are arranged, altars are dressed, the people’s candles and the new paschal candle are prepared.  When all is ready, all go home to await the setting of the sun.

As darkness falls, it gets exciting. At St. John’s, we gather in a circle around a large outdoor bonfire in the middle of the courtyard, to bless the new paschal candle. One year, as our pastor recited the words “Christ, the Alpha and Omega…” as he pressed the incense nails into the candle, I saw something astonishing. Across the circle from me, her wrinkled face lit by firelight, was an elderly Hispanic woman, with tears streaming down her cheeks.  I found myself overwhelmed and grateful for her simple, open emotion.

The procession into the church with the candle, the lighting of the people’s candles from its flame, and the chanting of the Exsultet – the great song of praise to the candle, the light of the Risen Christ and the proclamation of the Resurrection, when we are invited to rejoice with all the powers of heaven – is the most beautiful moment of the year:
This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel's children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.
               (The Exsultet, from the Roman Missal)

As we sit down and extinguish our candles,  we listen to the readings of the Vigil, the story of our salvation, from Creation to the coming of Christ. We sing once again the “Glory to God,” silenced since the beginning of Lent, then, we hear from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans that the Resurrection of Christ makes all the difference. The triumphant return of the “Alleluia” and the Gospel proclamation of the Resurrection lift us into the presence of the living Christ.

How fitting it is, that after the homily, those coming into the Church through baptism and Confirmation are initiated, joining us for the first time at the table of the Lord. I have had the privilege of preparing some of these RCIA candidates over the years, and it is always an occasion for joy. 

One of my favorite memories is of Jose, who approached the font with the casual expression of a typical young man, but who emerged from the baptismal waters with a beautiful smile and an obvious quiet joy that made me want to shout: “IT’S IN THERE!” He had met Christ in the water of new life.

After the baptisms, the entire assembly renews its baptismal promises, ending with “This is our faith. We are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus.” Renewed as a people and ready to resume our places in the Body of Christ, refreshed in the light of his Resurrection, we prepare and partake of communion, as at any regular Sunday Mass. Everything is now familiar, but I am convinced we cannot be the same as we were before the Three Days. If we have fully surrendered to the experience, we have truly walked with Christ.  

Wednesday of Holy Week: Standing on Tiptoe

It's a sunny afternoon as I write this. By this time tomorrow, I will be in final preparation for the start of Easter Triduum. In the background, I'm listening to the CD of music for Triduum prepared by our parish music director. It's bilingual music, often rhythmic and heartfelt, other times lyrical and sometimes almost sensuous, like this version of Psalm 51

One gift of being in a parish where the majority of my fellow members are Hispanic is that the music and style of worship often really speaks more directly to that part of my heart where the joy lives, rather than first to the head. It's the gift of a simple, less complicated faith, which is what speaks to me most clearly right now. I need to shed the layers of formality and go directly to the joy.

So it is, that I stand on tiptoe this Wednesday afternoon, leaning forward in joyous anticipation of the mysteries of the Easter Triduum.

Macrina Wiederkehr captures my feelings this afternoon perfectly in this delightful poem:

"Standing on Tiptoe"
On tiptoe we stand, Lord Jesus
eagerly awaiting
your full revelation
always expecting you
to come some more.

Our hands and hearts
are open to your grace.
Our lives are still waiting for
the fullness of your presence.
We are those who have been promised
a Kingdom, and we can never forget
Yet we have a foot in both worlds
and we stumble.

But still we stand
on tiptoe
owning our kingdom-loving hearts
and our earth-eyes
We lean forward
and hope.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Advent Reflection: Finding A Light of Hope in a World of Darkness

And so it begins: our annual journey toward the Incarnation at Bethlehem, toward the Christ Child who is also the King of Glory. Each Advent is about new beginnings, yet this year, after a brutally antagonistic election and its aftermath, that seems just a little beyond reach.

Personally, I am tired and rather discouraged that the battle for decency, justice, human solidarity and peace seems so much more difficult these days. For now, at least, it looks like many of humankind's baser instincts have been unleashed upon our nation - from all sides of the political divide.

That's why I read that marvelous Collect in the Roman Missal for the First Sunday in Advent differently this year:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Resolve. For me, that is a strong "ask" this year. Negativity cannot be allowed to triumph. Injustice, hatred, prejudice and anger cannot be allowed to triumph. Most of all, fear cannot be allowed to triumph.

I want to run forth to meet Jesus, but my heart is too heavy for that sort of eagerness right now. Lord, grant my heart wings and give the strength to stand upright in your light.

What are the righteous deeds God asks? The core message of the Gospel certainly calls us to love our neighbor. But today, who is our neighbor? For me, my literal neighbors are the Mexican-American family across the hall, the white-like-me single mom and her teenage son next door, the Muslim family down the hall, the East Indian and Eastern European families upstairs, the maintenance guys who only speak Spanish... Yes, these are all my neighbors. Broader than that, however, my neighbors are my "friends" online - people of all races and orientations - on all sides of that very contentious political spectrum.

What righteous deeds will make me worthy to possess the Kingdom? Jesus has defined them in Matthew 25 and the Tradition of the Church has interpreted these as the Works of Corporal Mercy:
To feed the hungry.
To give drink to the thirsty.
To clothe the naked.
To welcome the stranger.
To visit the sick.
To visit the imprisoned.
To bury the dead.
This year, this list seems to present an even bigger challenge. It seems to me that if we profess to follow Christ, we should not only perform these acts on a personal level, but also stand firmly against those who, out of self-interest, desire for financial gain, and prejudice wish to abandon the very people who most need our help.  Should we not speak up when the disabled are mocked, when the elderly are threatened with loss of the "entitlements" for which they have worked their entire lives, when refugees are refused asylum, when women are insulted and assaulted because of their gender, and when all immigrants come under suspicion? Should we not speak up when the rich are rewarded for being rich and the poor are penalized for being poor? And should we not speak up against these forms of injustice just as loudly as we have spoken the name of God for the rights of the unborn?  As the song says, if I don't do that, what good am I?

This is not mere politics. This is a fight for Christian principles against a climate of self-interest and self-righteousness. This is resistance against a culture in which many no longer see justice for all as necessary, because some are more valuable than others. It is a fight to preserve the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, not just for some.

I want to be able to present Christ with righteous deeds, but today, the responsibility seems particularly heavy. Lord, lift me up and strengthen me to serve and advocate for the "other" - those who are unfortunate, different and rejected.

As I light the first candle on my home Advent wreath tonight, I will most ask for hope. Hope that I might be a light in the darkness. Hope that I will not lose heart. Hope that other people of good will will likewise work while the night is upon us so that when the dawn of the Son of Justice arrives, we will be able to say we fought the good fight in his name.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Feast Day" - The Liturgical Year Board Game: Good, Low-Tech Fun & Learning

Feast Day!, the newly-released board game for ages 6-adult, is a personal project from Steve Botsford, a former youth minister, designed to help kids learn about the seasons and feasts of the Liturgical Year and the significance of parts of the Mass. Like a traditional board game, it comes with a colorful board, four markers - one for each person or team playing, a die and a set of cards corresponding to the seasons of the liturgical calendar. This visually attractive game is intended for families, schools, parish religious education, and home-schoolers and can be played either by individuals or teams. That makes it suitable for use in a classroom situation.

Game play is simple. Players place their markers on the Christ the King space, then roll the die and move through 52 spaces, one for each Sunday of the year, Whenever a player lands on a space, the player to the right draws a card from the pile that corresponds to that season and reads the question to him or her.  If the player answers correctly, he or she keeps the card.

The questions on the cards are mostly pretty basic - asking the color or meaning of the season, the significance of a symbol used during the season or the ways we celebrate the Liturgical Year. The Ordinary Time deck includes questions about the Mass and the Bible. Occasionally, some questions even invite brief reflection, such as this one: "During Advent we watch for signs of God's love in the world. Name one place you can see signs of God's love."

If a player lands on a space with the Feast Day! logo, everyone shouts "Feast Day!" and the player draws a card from the Feast Day stack. These cards contain interesting facts about the liturgical year, but no question. In effect, it's a free card - with bonus learning about how special days are celebrated during the Liturgical Year.

The first player to travel all the way around the board and land on the Christ the King space chooses a season and attempts to answer a question from that card pile.  If the question is answered correctly, the game is over and players count their cards. The player or team with the most cards wins the game.

My take:
This would be a great addition to any home or classroom to test knowledge of Catholic liturgical basics and encourage learning about the liturgical year by children, parents and even teachers and catechists. The graphics on the board are colorful and engaging, the game play simple enough for younger children. There is a nice variety of questions that can appeal to all ages.  I like that it gives a team-play option. When playing this in teams in a classroom, the teacher or catechist could, if time runs out, count cards as the end of class approaches, if the game is not completed.

While Feast Day! may not be as glitzy or "modern" as app-based learning games like Catholic Words and Games, it is attractive, simple and easily used in classrooms where a projector and screen are not available or the catechist reluctant to use technology. Board games may be low-tech, but they are versatile, easy to use and here to stay. At a reasonable price-point of $34.95, with potential appeal to all ages and a durable, heavy-duty box and board, this is a game worth getting and enjoying for years.

Feast Day! is a great learning tool and can be fun, too. Go here to order it now, while there is a free shipping offer. (Grab the free quick review guide for the liturgical seasons while you're on the site, too.)

NOTE: I was provided with a free review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, August 29, 2016

In Which I Discover Why Biblical Literacy Is Important to Understanding the Mass

Last Monday night, I spent two hours with the catechists in my parish, teaching Part 2 of From Mass to Mission in a bilingual format. (See my post about the experience of Part 1 here.) The room was nearly twice as full as it was for the previous session. More catechists came, and some even brought their teenage children. I sort of expected that. since typically Hispanic folks invite their friends and family to things they get enthusiastic about. Have to admit, it made me smile to see so many there. I was determined to make the night worth their while.

The subject for the evening was Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Concluding Rites of the Mass. I went through the Offertory and taught them about how to offer themselves with the bread and wine - how to offer their hearts and lives to the Father to be changed with the Gifts at the Epiclesis. We worked our way through the Eucharistic Prayer and they learned about joining in the Liturgy of Heaven,  remembering the Last Supper, transubstantiation, Real Presence and such.

Then, we got to the Lamb of God. I asked if anyone knew why Jesus was Cordero de Dios, the Lamb of God.  Not really. So, I mentioned the Passover, the blood of the lamb on the doors of the Israelites and the concept of being saved by the Blood of the Lamb. About that time, a few looked confused, and one woman asked for clarification. It seems they didn't know the story of Moses, the Pharaoh, the plagues, the Angel of Death and the death of the Egyptian firstborn children that ultimately resulted in the freedom of the the Israelite people.  Luckily, my DRE, who speaks Spanish fluently, got up and in 5 minutes, told the entire story.  Then, they understood. The lights went on.

The rest of the evening went pretty much as expected as we learned about receiving and being changed by the Eucharist and being sent forth on the mission to evangelize. Those present expressed gratitude at the end for what they had learned.

In reflecting later on what had happened that night, I realized that when teaching about the Mass, one cannot assume people have the Biblical literacy to understand the connection between the Last Supper, the Passover and the Lamb. It also occurs to me that the image of the angels and saints worshiping in heaven along with us might be less-rich for those who don't know the images from Revelation, although they do hear about that at Sunday Mass upon occasion. There are probably more issues about understanding the Mass that lack of familiarity with basic Bible stories would affect.

In short, I learned something else I cannot assume when teaching about the Mass.