From the Pastor, October 26, 2008
When we left off in last week’s column, we had gotten the procession as far as the sanctuary. At this point, the ministers go to their places and the presider goes to his chair – the third most important piece of furniture, after the altar and the ambo – and he leads us in signing ourselves with the cross of Christ. We do this together (still gathering rites!) and we also recall our belief in the one triune God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Amen. So be it. How often do we say that simple Hebrew word together during mass? So be it! I agree! I believe!
And isn’t it interesting that the cross has become for us both a basic sign of identity and a victory symbol? Because for early Christians, it represented a painful memory; they knew the cross as an instrument of torture and execution, a sign of shame and failure. Even though Jesus had foretold his fate, and even though he had been raised from death, triumphant and transformed, it took a long time (until the 5th century!) for Christians to be able to display and to gaze upon the image of Christ crucified.
After the sign of the cross, the priest-presider greets us in funny biblical speech – gathering us together with Paul (whose words are used) and with all the Christians of ages past and yet to come. We answer with equally funny words which we speak only in church: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you! And also with you.” By using these ancient words, this curious “God-speak,” we become one with the people who populate the pages of the Old and New Testaments, with the saints who have gone before us.
The priest next reminds us that we are sinners who don’t really deserve to be at this God-given banquet of love. But here we are – amazing! So we both ask God for mercy and praise him for mercy already given – and we show that the mercy is most fully expressed in and through Jesus, by addressing these particular prayers to him. “Lord Jesus, you came to call sinners into the peace of God‘s kingdom. Lord, have mercy.”
Next, at least on Sundays and feast days, we sing the Gloria, the first Christmas carol composed by the angels at Bethlehem. Except during somber seasons like Lent, we sing this joyful hymn of praise, which originally came into the mass as a popular song. Even in our non-musical culture, people still sing Christmas carols; so it goes without saying that the Gloria really should be sung! More joy. More communion and fellowship. More gathering of our hearts, our minds, our wills. More gathering of us into the one Body, the Church.
And finally, after we’ve already shared seven or eight minutes of highly structured words and gestures, the priest says, “Let us pray.” Not “Shut up while I pray!” But let us pray. And, if he has a clue and follows the directions in the Sacramentary of the Roman Missal, that’s what the priest does. He lets us pray. He allows a significant moment of silence for us - all of us, together – to pray. Only then does he read the opening prayer, sometimes called the Collect because of what it does – namely, collect (or gather) up all the prayers uttered in the silence of our hearts and join them together so they can be lifted up to God. Not the priest’s prayers, but our prayers. These prayers are joined through the Church’s priest to the prayers of the bishops, the pope, and Christians everywhere, past and present, who have gathered and who do gather and who will gather to do this same ritual in memory of Jesus.
So, we do not come to the table of word and sacrament by accident. We are summoned, invited, gathered here by God. We can hardly claim that we deserve to be here; in truth, we’re way out of our league. We don’t know and follow Jesus nearly as well as we should, given that we are bold enough to call ourselves Christians. None of us, however long and hard we’ve worked, can claim by right to feed on God’s living Word, to taste and see God’s goodness, to be nourished by the living Body and Blood of the Risen Christ. So don’t refuse Christ’s peace to your neighbor, even if you don’t like him or her. You were both gathered here by the same foolishly lavish and generous God. And don’t bury your nose in your bulletin and pretend you’re alone on this train to glory. You – I – we are gathered here together by God at Christ’s command. Next week: liturgy of the Word.
c2008 Fr. Daniel Ruff, S.J.