Cardinal Sarah, Part Three: on Keeping the Liturgy Sacred

Today we read the third, penultimate section of Cardinal Sarah’s wonderful article on the liturgy. 

Again he calls us to hear the true teaching of Vatican II, according to which liturgy is “above all things the worship of the divine majesty.”  What does it mean to worship?  Cardinal Sarah gives a fine encapsulation of Ratzinger’s teaching on the golden calf: the problem was not just the idol, but the people’s insistence that liturgy revolve around their interests, rather than worship of God. 

The Cardinal adds some concrete ideas on preaching (let it talk about God, not just about us), the sanctuary (let it look holy in the first place, and let its holiness be preserved by the way we approach it), and readers (let them be dressed as if they were performing a sacred function).  But always, he keeps these practical issues subject to the bigger liturgical vision of true participation in the liturgy.

Here’s Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations, falling into the temptation of the Israelites in the desert. They sought to create a cult of worship limited to their own measure and reach, and let us not forget that they ended up prostrate before the idol of the golden calf.


The hour has come to listen to the Council. The liturgy is “above all things the worship of the divine majesty” (§33). It can form and teach us only insofar as it is completely ordered to divine worship and the glorification of God. The liturgy truly places us in the presence of divine transcendence. True participation means the renewal in us of that “amazement” that St. John Paul II held in such high regard (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §6). This sacred amazement, this joyous reverence, requires our silence before the divine majesty. We often forget that sacred silence is one of the means indicated by the Council to foster participation.


If the liturgy is the work of Christ, is it necessary for the celebrant to interject his own comments? We must remember that when the Missal authorizes commentary, this must not become a worldly, human discourse, a more or less subtle pronouncement on current events, or a banal greeting to those present, but rather a very brief exhortation to enter into the mystery (cf. General Introduction of the Roman Missal, §50).


As for the homily, it too is a liturgical act which has its own rules. The participatio actuosa in the work of Christ presupposes that one leaves behind the profane world in order to enter into “sacred action surpassing all others” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §7). In fact, “we claim somewhat arrogantly to remain in the human sphere so as to enter into the divine” (Robert Sarah, God or Nothing, Ignatius Press, Chapter IV).


In this sense it is deplorable that the sanctuary in our churches is not strictly reserved for divine worship, that people enter it in worldly garb, that the sacred space is not clearly delineated by the architecture. And since, as the Council teaches, Christ is present in his word when it is proclaimed, it is equally harmful when readers are not dressed in a way that shows they are pronouncing not human words, but the Word of God.


Cardinal Sarah, Part Two: on Facing the Lord

ad orientemToday we continue our reading of Cardinal Sarah’s explanation of the liturgy.  In this second part of his article, the Cardinal continues his discussion of true “participation” in the liturgy by discussing the direction we face.  This is the finest thing I’ve read on an important topic.

Liturgy fans like to talk about “ad orientem” liturgy: when the priest, perhaps with his “back toward the people,” faces the same direction as the people.  This is an important issues, but there are many confusions.  First is the question of building churches that face east, also an important issue, but a different one; the priest can face the same direction as the people, or face the people, whether or not the Church faces east.   Second is the distinction of different parts of the Mass.  Sometimes it is appropriate for the priest to face the people: Vatican II did not “turn the altars” around, but one of its most important insights is that the ambo, from which Scripture is read, did need to be turned toward the people. Ratzinger is strong on this point, but Cardinal Sarah’s brief statement here is even stronger.

Finally, there is the question of the goal.  Ultimately, liturgy is not primarily about externals; sometimes we get so caught up arguing which direction the priest faces that we forget to lift up our hearts to the Lord.  Again, Cardinal Sarah’s formulation is fabulous: face-to-face leads to tete-a-tete leads to heart-to-heart.  Externals matter – when they help us internally.  And so this section concludes with a fine quotation from Thomas Merton, not on liturgy wars, but on recollection.

Here’s Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003Liturgical participatio must therefore be understood as a grace from Christ who “always associates the Church with himself” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). It is he who takes the initiative, who has primacy. The Church “calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father” (§7).

The priest must thus become this instrument that allows Christ to shine through. As our Holy Father Pope Francis recently recalled, the celebrant is not the host of a show, he must not seek the affirmation of the assembly, standing before them as if they were called to enter into dialogue primarily with him. To enter into the spirit of the Council means—on the contrary—to efface oneself, to renounce the spotlight.

Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution—indeed, it is entirely fitting—for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the Eucharistic prayer, in order to express the desire to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This practice could well be established in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary (cf. §41).

Of course it is understood that there are other parts of the Mass in which the priest, acting in persona Christi Capitis, enters into nuptial dialogue with the assembly. But this face-to-face has no other purpose than to lead to a tete-à-tete with God, which, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will become a heart-to-heart. The Council thus proposes additional means to favor participation: “acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as…actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes” (§30).

A hasty and all-too-human reading of the Constitution has led to the conclusion that the faithful must be kept constantly busy. The contemporary Western way of thinking, shaped by technology and dazzled by the media, has wished to turn the liturgy into a lucrative production. In this spirit, many have tried to make the celebrations festive. Prompted by pastoral motives, liturgical ministers sometimes stage celebrations into which elements of worldly entertainment are introduced. Have we not witnessed a proliferation of testimonials, acts, and applause? It is imagined that this will foster the participation of the faithful, when in fact it reduces the liturgy to a human plaything.

“Silence is not a virtue, noise is not a sin, it is true,” says Thomas Merton, “but the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society [or of some African Eucharistic liturgies] are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins—its godlessness, its despair. A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is a world without anything to live for…. Mass becomes racket and confusion; prayers—an exterior or interior noise” (Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas [San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1953, 1981], passim).


Introducing Cardinal Sarah

406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003A student recently brought to my attention a fabulous article published in June in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, by Cardinal Robert Sarah.

In the next few days I will repost it here in full.  I share this article first of all to share the best short piece I have ever read on the liturgy.  This is phenomenal, and key to the vision we are trying to cultivate on this web page.

I share it also to bring your attention to Robert Cardinal Sarah.  As Benedict’s point man for Catholic charities, he did important things to cultivate the union of faith and action that is so fundamental to true Catholicism – and in so much need of recovery.  At last year’s Synod he was one of the most powerful and thoughtful voices in witness of Christian marriage.  And now as Pope Francis’s appointee to oversee the liturgy, he gives us the very best on that topic.

Above all, we should try to live this vision of the liturgy.  But we might also pray that this great African pastor may be our next Holy Father – perhaps as Gregory XVII?


Part One: Vatican II on True Participation

The first thing I love about this article is Cardinal Sarah’s insistence that we actually read Vatican II’s fabulous Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which liberals and conservatives alike ignore based on wrong assumptions. 

In this first section, Cardinal Sarah explains that Vatican II, far from just naming a couple things we should do, above all gives an authoritative teaching on the nature of the liturgy.  At the heart of that teaching is actuosa participatio, “active participation.”  Vatican II says of its liturgical reforms, “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.”  But Vatican II’s vision of active participation is not about the secularized activity we so often experience.  True active participation, as Cardinal Sarah says, means “entering into the action of Christ.”



Cardinal Sarah on Vatican II on True Participation

FIFTY YEARS AFTER its promulgation by Pope Paul VI, will the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy finally be read? Sacrosanctum Concilium is not in fact a simple catalogue of “recipes” for reform, but a true and proper Magna Carta for all liturgical action. In that Constitution, the Ecumenical Council gives us a masterful lesson in methodology. Far from contenting itself with a disciplinary and external approach to the liturgy, the Council summons us to contemplate the liturgy in its essence. The Church’s practice always flows from what she receives and contemplates from Revelation. Pastoral practice cannot be divorced from doctrine.


ad orientemIn the Church, “action is directed to contemplation” (cf. §2). The conciliar Constitution invites us to rediscover the Trinitarian origin of the work of the liturgy. Indeed, the Council affirms continuity between the mission of Christ the Redeemer and the liturgical mission of the Church. “Just as Christ was sent by the Father, so also he sent the apostles,” so that “by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves” they might “accomplish the work of salvation” (§6).


The liturgy in action is thus none other than the work of Christ in action. The liturgy is in its essence actio Christi: “the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God” (§5). He is the high priest, the true subject, the true protagonist of the liturgy (cf. §7). If this vital principle is not embraced in faith, one risks reducing the liturgy to a human action, to the community’s celebration of itself.


On the contrary, the true work of the Church consists in entering into the action of Christ, participating intimately in the mission he has received from the Father. Thus “the fullness of divine worship was given to us,” because “his humanity, united with the person of the Word, was the instrument of our salvation” (§5). The Church, the Body of Christ, must in turn become an instrument in the hands of the Word.


This is the ultimate meaning of the key concept of the conciliar Constitution, participatio actuosa. For the Church, this participation consists in becoming an instrument of Christ the Priest, so as to participate in his Trinitarian mission. The Church participates actively in the liturgical work of Christ insofar as she is his instrument. In this sense, language about the “celebrating community” can carry a degree of ambiguity requiring true caution (cf. the Instruction Redemptoris sacramentum, §42). Participatio actuosa must not be understood, therefore, as the need to do something. On this point the teaching of the Council has often been distorted. It is a question, rather, of allowing Christ to take hold of us and to associate us with his sacrifice.


Twenty-Second Sunday: True and False Holiness

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DT 4:1-2, 6-8; PS 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; JAS 1:17-18; 21b-22, 27; MK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This week, after a tour through John 6, we return to our “Year B” reading of Mark’s Gospel.  It is as if, having discovered Jesus in the Eucharist, we now want to follow him more closely, and hear his words of eternal life.

Our Gospel reading this week revolves around the word “defile.”  The Pharisees “observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.”  The translation is a little unclear: we are talking about ritual uncleanness; the King James says “defiled.”

Jesus responds, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”  You are not what you eat; you are what you do: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”

But even “defile” is a bit of an unclear translation.  In fact, the Greek word is “make common.”  This takes some translation.  We might tend to hear the contrast “clean-unclean” as if all things are clean, and then some things get dirty.  To the contrary, the Old Testament distinction was between “common” and “sanctified.”  The “defiled” hands, or hearts, are not ones that have become dirty; they are ones that have not been made holy.  They are, in the ritual language of Scripture, “common.”

That isn’t to say, of course, that we can’t make the ordinary holy.  The point is that we need to make it holy.  Meals can be holy events – but only if we make them holy, by lifting up our hearts, at least, in prayer.


Our Gospel reading has two connected themes that subserve this main theme of what makes things holy.  The first is “human traditions” versus “divine commandments.”  Now, the problem here is not that they have human traditions.  The problem is that they do not have divine commandments.  Human traditions are fine – they can be ways of sanctifying our lives.  But not if we ignore God’s word.

The second subtheme is like the first: the distinction between the exterior and the interior.  “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  Now, again, honoring God with our lips – or our hands, and hand-washings – is not a bad thing.  But it needs to express what is within us.  That is what really matters.

The problem with human traditions is when we are more worried about pleasing men than with pleasing God.  God sees our hearts.  And he speaks his word to pierce us to the heart.


Thus the Lectionary pairs with this Gospel reading a passage from Deuteronomy about obeying God’s word.  “You shall not add to what I command you [‘the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin upon you’] nor subtract from it.  Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”

Obviously we can “add” in the sense that not every step of our life is directly explained in Deuteronomy – as Christians, we add many observances that remind us of Christ and our Christian dignity.  But we must not add in a way distracts us from the piercing word of God.  All our observances must drive us back to obedience to that word.

Why?  First, because it is wise.  He has the words of everlasting life.  He tells us the way, so that the nations will say, “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.”  His word is good.  It makes us distinctly wise because human wisdom cannot match the wisdom of God’s word.

Second, because it is part of God’s closeness to us: “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him.”  Listening to his word is a practice of God’s distinct presence to us as Christians.  That is what makes us holy, not common – not our brilliant new ideas.


Finally, we begin this week a five-week tour of the Letter of James, the great instruction on acting on our faith.

He begins with the well-known words, “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”  But then he specifies: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”  Hear his word.

And what does his word tell us?  “Religious that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.”  Action.

What opportunities are there in your day and week to let the word of God be planted in your heart?

A Couple Thoughts on Christian “Submission”

jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-marriage (1)Last week we had the marvelous reading on marriage from Ephesians 5, “Husbands, love your wife, as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it.”

Perhaps I don’t emphasize the obvious enough, but I presume everyone here knows that this reading is not about putting down women.  The verse before the controversial one, where it says, “wives, submit to your husbands,” it says, “submit to one another.”  There are three verses on the wife’s submission, nine on the husband loving his wife.  The husband is called to imitate Christ, laying down his life for his bride, nourishing and cherishing her, loving her as he loves himself.  All of this needs to be said.

But today I would like to go a step further, with a couple thoughts on what Paul says about women.  (My most serious scholarly work is on gender and marriage in the Greco-Roman and especially medieval worlds.)


First: it is widely said – by those who do not simply ignore these verses – that Paul is simply working with the cultural norm.  In his society, they say, women were second-class citizens; Paul does his best to fill that cultural norm with love.  Similarly, a few verses later he will talk about slaves; Paul is not – I definitely agree with this – supporting slavery (and definitely not the chattel race slavery of American history, a particularly odious variant).  He’s doing his best to bring love to an imperfect system, just as we should.

That is certainly partly right.  We can learn a lot from that approach.  But it might be a little too simple.  Even its take on ancient slavery, and worker-employer relationships, is a bit too simple.

What if we turn this approach on its head?  Instead of saying that submissive wives were the norm in Paul’s culture – what if the opposite was the norm?  I don’t know many submissive wives; in my experience, it is more often husbands who submit to domineering women.  (Please – I’m not denying there are abusive relationships!  Just questioning whether that is the “norm” that Paul is assuming.)

Maybe – maybe, I don’t know – he tells husbands to love their wives because that is what husbands are most likely not to do.  Husbands’ hearts wander – even when they are letting the wife dominate the home and family.  And maybe Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands because that is their more common sin: not a wandering heart, but an uncooperative attitude.


I would really like to do a read through Ovid, the great myth writer of Paul’s time, to see how submissive, and how hen-pecking, Hera is.  (I know that Zeus’s heart is always wandering: “love your wives” is definitely not just accepting the cultural norm in those Greco-Roman myths.)

But today I did a Bible study on women in Proverbs, to find the Hebrew norm.  I found three models.

First, there are many warnings about adulterous women, defined by flattery and deception.  She lies and takes.  Notice that adultery can be a metaphor for other things, too, not just sex.  In this cultural norm – normal today, but apparently normal then, too – women use men to get what they want.  “Submission” might partly mean, don’t be like that.


The second model in Proverbs, also mentioned many times, is the “contentious” or “brawling” woman.  “It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.”  “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman and in a wide house” (that is, even if you have a big house).  “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.”

This sounds to me like hen pecking: drip, drip, drip, till she gets what she wants.  Submission might also partly mean, don’t be like that.


Finally, the third model in Proverbs is the virtuous wife: Proverbs ends with a long beautiful description of her.  (Kimberly Hahn has a fine book of meditations on this passage.)  This woman is smart and provident and very active.

She is always “doing good.”  She makes things with her hands.  She acquires good food for her family.  She does many business transactions: buying fields and vineyards, selling the things she has made, making sure she finds the best candles for her home.

She is strong – “she girds her loins with strength, and strengthens her arms.”  (“Girding your loins” meant putting on a belt: their flowing garments were fine for sitting around, but needed a belt if you were going to get anything done.)  “Strength and honor are her clothing.”  She cares for the poor.

She is wise – “she opens her mouth with wisdom” (not silent) “and in her tongue is the law of kindness.”  She helps her husband achieve success in the world.

Above all, “she looks carefully to the way of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.”  Really, all of this defines how Proverbs sees “idleness”: the good woman does not sit around, she is smart and provident and active and wise.  And so “the heart of her husband safely trusts in her.”


This is not a cultural norm of women who don’t know how to think.  It describes a kind of submission – her husband can trust her, unlike the manipulative or hen-pecking wife – but this “submissive” wife is anything but a push-over.  Rather, she works with her husband, and supports him, with her intelligence and activity.  Maybe that’s what Ephesians means by “submit.”

If I were to write another article about Ephesians 5, I would point out that the deeper teaching here is about the fruit of the Spirit, the work of grace in healing and elevating the lives of the faithful.  When Christ sanctifies Christian women, he doesn’t make them brainless bumps on a log.  He makes them women their husbands can rely on.

Where in your life could you practice an active, intelligent, counter-cultural submission?


Minor Orders: An Approach to Parish Ministries

10_06_18_orders_stairsThere is a lot of talk about making better parishes.  One popular idea is greeters, as at some Protestant churches.  I think of an Evangelical Free church I attended one Easter morning, where a very enthusiastic, very Protestant greeter welcomed us: “Alleluia!  Praise-alluia!  Praise-alluia-to-ya!”  Pleasant, and surely hospitality is an important part of our Catholic faith and of building good parishes, but this feels a little shallow.

Here is an approach that draws from our own tradition: the minor orders.


From very early on until Vatican II, along with the “major orders,” sacramental orders of apostolic origin, there were other “minor orders” in the Church, not sacramental, not apostolic, but serious ministries in the Church, treated as life-changing, an entry into the world of the clergy.  Bishops, priests, and deacons are the major orders.  The minor orders included lectors/readers, acolytes/altar boys, “exorcists,” and porters.

The early modern period – let’s say roughly 1650-1900 – tended to let opposition to Protestantism define Catholicism.  But like every error, Protestantism has plenty of elements of truth, like its devotion to Scripture, active participation in worship, and the equal holiness of lay vocations.  Much of the work of reform today is in rediscovering these traditional Catholic truths.

The original insight of the minor orders – and the diaconate – was that these too, alongside the priesthood, were important public services to the Church.  They were not priests, but they were, in this sense, “clergy,” public servants of the Church.  The early modern period, with its doubling down on the priesthood, turned this inside out, so that instead of being separate public ministries alongside and subservient to the priesthood, these ministries were swallowed up by the priesthood.

In practice, then, the minor orders and the diaconate became ritualized steps on the way to priestly ordination, never seriously practiced.  Rather than drawing priests from people who had seriously served as deacons, even deacon became an almost meaningless ritual during seminary.

It makes sense, then, that in 1972, Paul VI (in Ministeria Quaedam) called for a rethinking of the minor orders.  Unfortunately, like much else during that troubled time, the rethinking became an extinction.


So what are the minor orders?  “Porter” is from the Latin porta, door: the doorkeeper – or greeter.  In a monastery, a porter really is the minister of hospitality.  The praise-alluia-to-ya Protestants have maintained a sliver of tradition here.

We can get another angle on this if we look at another Latin word for door, and another term used for this ministry.  From janua we get “janitor.”

Everything we need to know about the minor orders is in the distance in value we hear between “porter” and “janitor.”  Janitor now seems like an entirely unspiritual, unimportant, basically unecclesial ministry.  But once upon a time it was viewed in analogy to the priesthood, as a kind of public service to the church, a vocation.

Imagine a parish in which the janitor had spiritual qualifications.  He is responsible for making the church beautiful for worship.  He is responsible for welcoming visitors.  He is responsible for the most important ministry, often called on by Pope Francis, of keeping the doors open so people can come to pray.  Janitor is no small ecclesial ministry.

To treat the janitor as a minor order would mean seeking someone with a real vocation to the task.  We might also require a liturgical spirituality.  Imagine if the janitor were required to attend daily Mass and to pray, at a minimum, the reduced liturgy of the hours in Magnificat – or perhaps more.  Imagine if an annual retreat was a requirement of the job.


Imagine if lectors, too, were required to pray the Psalms, to discover a Biblical, liturgical, ecclesial spirituality.  (And imagine if church musicians were also considered “lectors,” ministers of the Word.)  Yes, they should also work on things like clear diction.  But that secular aspect of their vocation is part of a deeper liturgical ministry.

So too the porter-janitor of course does many humble, practical things, including the ministry of basic hospitality, even greeting people.  Praise-alluia-to-ya is part of it.  But that ministry would be greatly deepened if he was not just a greeter, he was the minister of the doors, and of the building.  If he had a ministry, a minor order, as porter.


“Exorcists” were really catechesists.  But note two things.

First, catechist is a vocation.  Not a celibate vocation, and consistent with holding another job, but something you really give your life to.  How would things change if we simply required all CCD teachers to pray the Psalms: to have a prayer life, and to discover Biblical, liturgical, ecclesial prayer.  To be incorporated into the life of the Church.

Second, they were called “exorcists” because their work was considered above all a ministry of prayer and spiritual warfare.  These were not the ones who took on the demon-possessed – that kind of “exorcist” has always been the province of priests.  But they were to see their task as fundamentally about the spiritual struggles of those committed to them, a task fought through words, but above all through prayer and fasting.


How would it change your parish if these “minor orders” were treated as vocations to public service in the Church?  What could we do to help people in these roles to discover that vocation?

Twenty-first Sunday: A Spiritual Communion

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JOS 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; PS 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21; EPH 5:21-32; JN 6:60-69

This Sunday is our last week reading through John 6 and Ephesians.

In John 6 we come to the conflict: Jesus said to his disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  When many of his disciples heard this, they said: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  But Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Catholics we know we stand with St. Peter, who accepts Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist, against those who reject it.  But as we did last week, let’s try to go deeper, and see what it means to accept this teaching.


Jesus’s response to those who are scandalized points us to the heart.  “It is the spirit that gives life,” he says; “the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

This is a curious response, when he has just been insisting on eating his flesh: “the flesh is useless.”  On one level, obviously he means that in order to believe the Eucharist is his flesh, we need to rely on more than our fleshly eyes.

But he says more than that.  What makes the Eucharist powerful?  How does it give us “life”?  As we saw two weeks ago, the Holy Spirit is the leaven of the Eucharist; by eating the Body of Christ, we receive the Spirit of Christ.

The tradition of the Church – St. Thomas, for example, and the Council of Trent – talks about a “spiritual communion” in a way different from how we talk about it today.  Today, by spiritual communion we often mean, not physically receiving – as if the spiritual was deficient.  But traditionally, the Church talks about spiritual communion primarily as a good communion: the sinner might receive Christ physically, but not spiritually; we want to receive him physically and spiritually; we want our every communion to be spiritual.


Our reading from Joshua gives a metaphor for this spiritual receiving.  Joshua tells the people, “choose this day whom you will serve.”  The people “forget not all his benefits”: they say, “it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . .  He protected us.”

As our Psalm says, they have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.

The Exodus is a metaphor of the Christian life.  God has saved us, taken us out of slavery, brought us to the promised land – so that we may live in relationship to him, so that we may serve him.

One way to think of a truly spiritual communion is that we give thanks to the Lord for all his goodness to us, and so we pledge our lives to him.

More deeply, before we give our lives to him, we receive our lives from him.  At the communion rail, he gives us life – and we go out with that life within us.  To receive him spiritually is to let his life penetrate into us, to be transformed by the gift we receive.


Again, the greatest image of this is in our reading from Ephesians.  This week it is the famous second half of Ephesians 5, on husbands and wives.  But note, before we start: Paul doesn’t just talk about husbands and wives.  Rather, he uses husbands and wives as a model of all kinds of relationships.  This is a teaching on marriage – but it is also a paradigm of the Christian life.

The Lectionary, then, rightly introduces the teaching on marriage with a few lines from the beginning of the chapter, where Paul is speaking more generally: “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”  This is true spiritual communion: to receive the love that Christ gives us, and to be transformed by it.  This is the whole of the Christian life.

As I am sure you know, he begins with the infamous words about wives – “be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” – but spends much more of his energy on what the husband should be like.

In fact, he concludes his words on wives by saying Christ is the head because “he is the Savior.”

The first model of the husband’s love he gives is as Savior: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy.”  This love is self-sacrificial, yes – but with a purpose.  The husband is to have received Christ’s saving love, and so to live only to bring holiness to those around him.  Because true love focuses on the only real happiness of the other: holiness.

So the second model he gives is of the body: “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it.”  True love sees the other’s good as my own.

To both spouses – and to all of us – he says, seek not your own advantage; seek not worldly pleasures; but be transformed by the love of Christ, the Spirit you receive in Eucharistic communion.

What is one way you could be more Eucharistic to someone close to you today?

Twentieth Sunday: Bread of Life

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

PRV 9:1-6; PS 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; EPH 5:15-20; JN 6:51-58

This past Sunday was the culmination of our reading from John 6, the Bread of Life discourse.  There will be one more concluding week of our tour through this discourse, but this is the height.

Now, there’s a small danger for Catholics when we read John 6.  We can get stuck in apologetics.  Yes, apologetically, John 6 is a nice place to go if we want to prove to non-Catholics that Jesus really does want us to eat his real flesh and drink his real blood.  And there are times for that conversation, for proving that our faith is indeed the Biblical faith.

The danger is that we reduce our faith to winning arguments, reduce our faith in the Eucharist to another way to say other people are wrong.  The danger is that we can fail to draw life from the Eucharist, and from Scripture, because we’re so busy trying to win arguments.

Pope Benedict said, “the only true apologetic is the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.”  Thomas Aquinas actually says something similar.  A key argument of this web page is that the intellect is part of our faith – because the intellect is part of contemplation, not because it is an instrument of winning arguments.  Let us focus on being made holy.


Jesus says in this Sunday’s reading, “the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”  To really understand the Eucharist, we have to understand not just that it is Jesus’s body, but what it means to draw life from it.  If it does not make us part of his body, we do not really know what it means to say it is his body.

Jesus uses one of John’s favorite words, “remain” (also translated “dwell”).  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”  We dwell within him, and he within us, when we receive communion.  We practice this at adoration – but we dwell with him by eating him.

And finally, “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”  When we go forth after Mass, it is like the Son going forth from the Father, full of the life he received, and bringing that life to the world.


Our short reading from Proverbs again emphasizes the contemplative element, the enlightenment we receive from communion.  “Wisdom has built her house . . . she has spread her table. . . . To the one who lacks understanding, she says, Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!”

Just as John calls Jesus the Logos, the Word of the Father, God’s intelligence and wisdom, so here the one who feeds us is Divine Wisdom, and what she feeds us is understanding.

We enrich the images we just saw in John 6.  We dwell in the house of the Father and the Son, and from dwelling there, we receive their wisdom.  We are sent out full of that wisdom – the Eucharist penetrates to the way that we see the world.

And so our reading concludes, “Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.”  We live differently – we have new life within us – because our perspective is changed from this deepest form of contemplation, Eucharistic communion.


But again, the deepest wisdom of the week is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

First, “Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise.”  Ah: live by that wisdom we receive in the Eucharist, from dwelling in the house of the Father and the Son.

“Making the most of the opportunity,” he adds, “because the days are evil.”  If it were up to me, we’d maybe read the King James Bible, a Protestant translation with imperfections, but very literal and such rich language.  Not “making the most of the opportunity” but “redeeming the time.”  What rich language!

We are called to be redeemers.  Literally, it means “buying back” each day, purchasing it for God, by bringing his divine wisdom into it.  Transforming the evil days into the time of Christ.  That’s what we are sent forth from communion to do.

And, as we saw last week, we are to “be filled with the Spirit,” but he adds, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  As God’s Wisdom, God’s Love, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us through communion, we should become living hymns of praise, “giving thanks [in Greek, eucharist-ing] always and for everything.”

How could you draw deeper life from the Eucharist as you go forth into the world?



The Assumption: Our Feast

dormitio2Today’s feast, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is in a sense the biggest feast of the year.

Of course, Easter is the biggest feast of the year, and Christmas is close behind.  But whereas Easter and Christmas celebrate the actions of Christ, the feasts of the saints, and above all today’s feast, celebrate the consequences of Christ’s actions, the victory he has won.

It is like celebrating the painter and his paintings.  Of course there are no paintings without the painter; everything great about the paintings merely reflects the genius and technique – the wisdom and power – of the painter.  On the other hand, we know precious little about the painter without studying his paintings.  The paintings express his greatness, and they are the reason for his work.

Protestantism rightly underlines the centrality of Christ.  But all the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is on display in our celebration of the saints, and their failure to celebrate them.  The Protestant Jesus doesn’t accomplish much; he gets sinners to heaven, but he doesn’t make them holy.  The Catholic Jesus creates masterpieces.

Mary is nothing, nothing at all, without Jesus.  She receives everything from him – as a blank canvas does not paint itself.  But Mary is Jesus’s greatest masterpiece, the clearest splendor of his wisdom and power, and the promise of what Jesus offers to us.  In this sense, Mary, and especially her Assumption, is the Gospel.


We celebrate the saints on their death days – the day of their birth into heaven.  This is that day for Mary.  (We don’t know if Mary died before her Assumption; the Tradition tends to say she did, though modern devotion tends to assume she did not.)

Mary has many feasts, but this is the feast of her victory, her ultimate feast: the ultimate feast of the saints, the ultimate feast of Jesus’s work.  The other Marian feasts celebrate particular aspects of Mary – even January 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a celebration of her maternity, her role in Christmas.  Today we celebrate her sanctity, her victory, Jesus’s ultimate gift to her.

It is a feast, first of all, of sanctity.  We can say she “earned” the Assumption through her sanctity – as long as we hear those words the way Catholic theoloy calls us to hear them.  First, sanctity itself cannot be earned, it is a gift.  It is Jesus’s work in her soul.  That’s the most important reason we celebrate the Immaculate Conception: to remember that Jesus worked in her before she even existed, intervened in her very coming to be.

Second, the Catholic theology of “merit” is about congruence, not earning.  It isn’t that Jesus “owed” her heaven.  It’s that he made her worthy of heaven.  Heaven means standing in the presence of God, worshipping him forever.  The Protestant theology of heaven without merit – if we understand merit appropriately – is a contradiction, as if we could enjoy God’s presence without loving him.  Mary “merited” heaven in the sense that her heart was truly converted to love of God; it made sense for her to be in heaven, whereas we, with our sin, wouldn’t fit: sin means that we don’t really want to be in God’s presence.

Today we celebrate that Jesus has made Mary fit for heaven.  We celebrate the joy of heaven, and we celebrate the Gospel promise that Jesus can do that “great thing” for us, as well.


Today we celebrate, alongside Mary’s soul ascending to heaven, Jesus bringing her body to heaven, too.

In this, we celebrate above all the humanity of heaven.  We celebrate, in fact, the image of God.  It’s tempting to think we would have to be something different to fit into heaven.  That’s Satan’s greatest lie, one he tells us over and over again: holiness is no fun, holiness means denying your nature, not really being you.

Jesus did not have to take Mary’s body into heaven.  But in doing so, he proclaims that our whole selves fit into heaven.  Our body is not the obstacle.  Sin is not about our bodies; holiness is not about being less bodily, or less human.  Jesus (the Word through whom all things were made) created us in the beginning in his image and likeness; he created us so that we, in the fullness of our humanity, can ascend to the presence of God.  We haven’t done that yet – but in the Assumption of Mary, Jesus shows us that our bodies are no obstacle to heaven.


Finally, like everything else about Mary, the Assumption proclaims Christocentrism.  It is only our proximity to Christ that can save us.  Again, Jesus didn’t have to do anything.  But he chose to make her “full of grace,” and to give her the unique privilege of the Assumption, as a way of proclaiming the Gospel.  By giving this special privilege to Mary, to rise before the General Resurrection, he reminds us that everything flows from our closeness to him.

How does devotion to the Assumption of Mary help you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Eph. 4:1)?

The Our Father and the Seven Sacraments

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

“Give us this day our daily bread” is a classic form of the spiritual communion.  It expresses the heart of receiving communion: Jesus become our bread, our only longing, our daily sustenance.  We enter more deeply into sacramental communion, or enter into it when we cannot sacramentally receive, by entering into this line of the Our Father.

On the other hand, the Eucharist gives us a deeper entrance into that line, helps us understand what those words really mean.  The sacrament gives substance to the prayer.


“Give us this day” is the heart of the Our Father, right in the middle.  The whole prayer, in a sense, revolves around this pivot, gives content to it.  One way to appreciate the Our Father as a whole is to think about how the seven petitions match with the seven sacraments.  As with “Give us this day,” the words of the Our Father help us enter into the sacraments, while at the same time the sacraments help us enter more deeply into the words of the Our Father.

There are other ways, of course, to approach these this.  People have found other ways to line up the sacraments with the Our Father.  I myself have written on this web page a commentary on the Our Father without the sacraments, dividing it into twelve rather than seven.  But this is the richness of revelation: a great writer like Shakespeare frequently says two things at once, and the Divine Author fills his words with a many complementary meanings.


Our Father, who art in heaven.  Baptism is the beginning of our life of faith, and the first line of the Our Father goes with it.  By Baptism we are reborn, not from earth, but from heaven.  By Baptism we can call God our Father; without Baptism, we cannot properly speak of him as our Father.

Hallowed be thy name.  We immediately raise our hands in worship.  And this is the heart of Holy Orders – we the laity look to the priests to lead us in hallowing the name of God.

Thy kingdom come.  The family is the first cell of society, the beginning of our building of the Kingdom.  Holy Matrimony is not the only way we build up his kingdom here on earth, but it is the first seed of that Kingdom.

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Whereas the “kingdom” speaks of order and community, “thy will” speaks of pure grit.  “On earth as in heaven” underlines the challenge: in heaven it will be easy, on earth it is hard, but we want to do his will here, as well.  The sacrament of that grit is Confirmation, the strengthening, the anointing for battle.  When we feel overcome, we call on our Confirmation: “thy will be done!”

These first four are the sacraments of mission.


Give us this day our daily bread is the arrival point, the heart of the matter.  It is the strength to live everything else, and the sweetness that the rest is for.

The last three petitions are not mission, but life, living it out.  Each of them has two parts, a complexity like life in the world.  “And” marks each new petition/sacrament.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  “Forgive us” is clearly the sacrament of Confession.  The second part, “as we forgive,” takes us to the depths of that sacrament, which bears fruit in our own transformation.  Nowhere is that transformation clearer than when we who have been forgiven begin to extend that mercy to others.


And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  The culmination is the richest, perhaps the most difficult part to understand, and it goes with a sacrament to match, the Anointing of the Sick.  Why does it say “but”?  Because temptation and deliverance go together, two sides of the same coin.  It is sickness, and sickness unto death, that shows us the connection.

The Lord leads us to death – death of various kinds, until the full death of our earthly body.  And death (even the little deaths) is the ultimate temptation, the temptation to despair.  But we pray that God will lead us not into temptation – let that not be the destination.  Rather, lead us through temptation, through the tempting, the test, the purification, to the liberation.  The temptations are the place of liberation.  If we can walk not into temptation, but past it, through it, temptation itself can be our liberation from evil.

This is the sacrament of the sick: God gives us death as the punishment of sin, but then he who walked to the Cross walks with us through death, so that the punishment itself becomes our liberation – because Christ is with us.


What riches can you find in the Our Father?