RECENTLY A PRIEST—not a fellow monk—lamented how hard he was finding it to “get anything” for a homily from this Sunday’s readings. The first reading covers an attempt to kill the prophet Jeremiah, the epistle is from Hebrews reminding us of the cloud of witnesses who urge us on in the race of Christian living, and the gospel shows Jesus revealing he has come to bring fire to the earth and division to society, an awkward gospel for purveyors of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
The priestly lament is a reminder of how much a burden the homily has become to many a hearer, and perhaps even more to many a preacher, in the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass. This is almost invariably the fruit of a misunderstanding of the homily that has taken on almost dogmatic status: the homily must always and only be about the readings of the day. Continue reading “The Burden of the Homily”→
This is being written on an iPad Mini screen, which makes writing anything beyond small gobbets a penitential work. But perhaps life could do with some more penance. Anyway, prepare for typos while I prepare for slings and arrows.
At present I am staying at the small but fervent Monastère St Benoît, in the steamy hills beyond St Tropez, and over the past week uncomfortably hot for one now acclimatised to the gentle summers of England. Of the many virtues of this house, apart from its excellent liturgical life, can be numbered its excellent liturgical library and the encyclopaedic liturgical knowledge of the prior, Dom Alcuin Reid. Both have enabled me to make some progress in preparing for a research proposal.
When we read poetry, we turn down argument and crank up perception. That’s why theology in poetry—such as hymnody—can be so captivating, and articulate things in a way that is à point. This little nugget from Les Murray (†) strikes me in such a way:
THE KNOCKDOWN QUESTION
Why does God not spare the innocent?
The answer to that is not in the same world as the question so you would shrink from me in terror if I could answer it.
Les Murray, from “Poems the Size of Photographs” (2002)
On 29 April this year Les Murray (b. 1938) died. He was the nearest Australia had to a poet Laureate. He was not from a privileged background, though neither was he raised amidst abject poverty. He was born and grew up on the rural north coast of New South Wales, not too far from Taree, in a district with the delightful Australian name of Bunyah. He was a countryman and never an urban sophisticate. His characteristic physical bulk emerged while he was at school, making this time not wholly happy for him. The death of his mother after a miscarriage when he was 12 was no doubt a trauma that marked him. He was a republican, but no one is perfect; he was not obnoxious about it, and apparently delighted the Queen when he received from her hand the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1999. He was an idealist not an ideologue. He promoted the rights of the indigenous population in Australia before it was chic, or “woke,” to do so. Having been prone to depression, the black dog left him after he endured a coma of three weeks resulting from a tumour on his liver.
One of the leitmotifs of the post-conciliar liturgical reform, present in the conciliar decree to be sure, is active participation. Unheard of before, it is a peculiarly twentieth century obsession. Claiming inspiration from St Pius X (though not as convincingly as claimed if one looks carefully at what he wrote in its context in Tra le sollicitudini), within the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century there developed an ever more elaborated and extended advocacy for the congregation’s “active participation” in the liturgy. The congregation must be forced—not be allowed—to be mere bystanders or spectators of the liturgy, nor should more solemn liturgies become like concerts and the congregation reduced to an audience.
But why not a concert? Why the opprobrium for a concert, and the congregation an audience?
…the Triduum liturgies…together form one complete story of the Paschal Mystery—the mystery of the Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. These several events of the one mystery constitute our redemption, God’s claiming us back for himself.
Claiming back from what? Eternal death as the inevitable result of our sins. Claiming back from whom? There is a strong element of the tradition that would say the Devil, by whose influence and temptation we first sinned. But more deeply we are being redeemed from our own hopeless self-government, our inability to live the good life as we want to do, as we should do, as God has made us to do. We are being redeemed from ourselves. Redemption offers us the only sure hope of salvation, eternal life with God, which is what we were made for, and makes sense of the mystery of our existence…
The name of this Mass reminds us of a truth too often forgotten today. The Mass is more than a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Only tonight is that aspect really emphasized. The Mass is first and foremost, above all and essentially, a sacrifice. It is the memorial of Christ’s self-sacrifice, of his body and life, for us and our salvation, on the Cross. Tonight Christ bequeaths us his sacrificial body sacramentally, veiled in bread and wine. The ancient principle was that those who offered a sacrifice then received the fruits and benefit of the sacrifice by consuming some of what had been sacrificed, as a way of being united with the sacrifice. It is the same principle in the Mass: Christ calls us to offer with him his self-sacrifice, to be united with and in it by consuming what was sacrificed, his body and blood. By using bread and wine as the outer veil for the inner reality we are able to partake of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross time after time, and again and again. The Mass, therefore, is a memorial of the Cross, not of itself.
But why did our Lord choose bread and wine as the veil for his body and blood? Both bread and wine are able to symbolize a multitude of people being unified, through suffering, to form a new creation. Bread is the new creation of many grains of wheat being ground and crushed in a mill and baked in a furnace. Wine is the new creation of many grapes being crushed underfoot and laid for some time in the coffin of the case in the dark tomb of the cellar. By Christ’s death and resurrection he makes a multitude of people, through his sacrificial body and blood veiled by what appears as bread and wine, into a new creation, into his body the Church, the community of salvation, made fit for heaven.
To enable all this, Christ did two other things in the upper room on that first Maundy Thursday. He ordained the first priests—the apostles—to be the ministers of this new but eternal sacrifice. He sets them apart to offer the new Passover sacrifice for the benefit of all disciples, whenever and wherever they may be. Secondly, he showed that the essence of this new sacrifice is that it is a self-sacrifice. We are not offering lambs anymore; we are co-offering Christ’s self-sacrifice. We do it in two vital and necessary ways: we offer the bread and wine to become Christ’s body and blood offered on the Cross—that is the sacramental way. But there is also what we might call an existential way, a daily-life way: by giving ourselves, sacrificing ourselves, in service of our neighbour, obeying the new commandment to love our neighbour as Christ loves us.
That is what Christ’s washing of the apostles’ feet is all about. Christians share in Christ’s redemptive self-sacrifice both by the sacrament and by our way of life. Life and sacrament cannot be isolated and compartmentalized; they form a unity. That is why the Church warns those who are in unreconciled serious sin not to receive the Lord’s Body; they need to restore the communion between their living and their faith before they can ever contribute to or benefit from communion with the Lord in his Body.
So this Mass of the Lord’s Supper tonight is indeed a thanksgiving: giving thanks for the self-sacrifice of Christ for us on the Cross; giving thanks for allowing us to share in his saving sacrifice through the gift of the Eucharist; giving thanks for endowing the Church with priestly ministers to enable this sharing in the Eucharist till the end of time; and giving thanks that Christ has left us a simple, if rarely easy, way of living in unity with his sacrifice, by our acts of love.
[For various reasons] it was agreed in planning not to include the option of the washing of the feet this year. In its place, let us take a moment to identify those whose feet we need metaphorically to wash, those before whom we need to humble ourselves, those whose forgiveness we need to receive, those who need to receive our forgiveness, those for whom we need to do more by acts of love, self-sacrificial, painful but healing love. Let us in silence call them to mind, pray for them and resolve to find some way soon to “wash their feet.”
There was too little time today, and now I have too little energy, to write a reflection for today’s high feast. So, for your penance and to assist your increase in merit, I inflict upon you the bulk of the homily pretty much as I inflicted upon the parishioners of Scarisbrick tonight. If something in it helps you, Deo gratias.