Monday, June 3, 2013

This is Where We Come to Meet God

Homily for Corpus Christi Sunday, 2013

I remember my first Mass at the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul church in Lewiston almost like it was yesterday. I had been practicing offering Mass for almost a year.  In the seminary they had these practice chapels – and groups of us would meet up in them for “smass,” as we called it, so as not to be confused with the real thing.  We had to video ourselves offering Mass – other seminarians would serve – and then we would watch the video and critique it with the other seminarians and our liturgy instructor.

So when I offered my first Mass in the Basilica chapel on the morning after my ordination, it was not the first time that I had put on an alb or stole or chasuble – it was not the first time that I had held a chalice or even a host, because we used to practice with un-consecrated hosts.

What does a new priest experience, then, at his first Mass?  I’m not sure what other priests have experienced, but I will tell you what I did.  I remember kind of watching myself do what I was supposed to do – the prayers and gestures, all as I had practiced – and I remember thinking “I can’t believe I have been entrusted with this.”

The other thing I remember is that it was not, as you might expect, a moment of warm tingly awe and overwhelming emotion.  Now maybe it is for some men – but what I noticed was just how, well, kind of ordinary it felt.  Fireworks didn’t go off.  I didn’t get zapped with a lightning bolt up my spine during the consecration.  I was saying and doing the same things that I had practiced a dozen times or more in those "smasses" over the last year.

There is a saying that is often on cards or notes that are given to newly ordained priests, and it goes something like this: “Holy priest of God, say every Mass as if it were your first and last Mass.”

Now I appreciate the intention of the sentiment, but I’m not sure that’s what I would want.  My first Mass – well, I was nervous and not familiar with the prayers – even with all the practice, it wasn’t natural yet.  And my last Mass – well who knows when that will be, but I’m praying that it will be a long time from now when I am so old and tired that I can barely lift the chalice or get through the words…   So to offer every Mass like my first and last?  No – I don’t think I would want to offer every Mass like that.

But the sentiment - what I think the sentiment is trying to express or encourage - is that the priest always remember that what he is doing when he offers Mass is incredibly sacred and profound.  That the priest never allow himself to celebrate Mass in a routine or rote manner, to lose sight of the transcendent reality, the profound encounter with God that happens each time we are gathered around the altar to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

Because that is a danger, isn’t it?  As I said, even during my first Mass, I realized that the reality of God’s presence at Mass is not something that will force itself upon us, force us to be attentive to the gravity of the moment.  In fact, I would have to say that many times in this fallen world of ours there are circumstances that make it difficult to enter into the full mystery of Mass.

Now, we try to mitigate the distractions.  We build churches to try to at least keep out the elements, so that’s good.  But sometimes the church is hot or stuffy or cold.  We try to make our churches beautiful so that we remember that we are not just going to a conference or to an assembly, but that this is a place where we encounter God.  But sometimes the architecture of a particular church may not resonate with us or the church may not be well maintained.

And then you fill that church full of people.  And we fill it full of our children so that they can experience God’s presence in the Church from a very young age, even if they are only partially able to engage the mystery of his life.  Which many times also entails crying and fussing and all the other things that good children do.  And maybe the person next to us keeps talking during the liturgy, or the person in front of us is fidgeting the whole time.  Or we are distracted by what someone is wearing or not wearing or maybe we can’t find the music for a song, or someone gives us a nasty look or says something mean, or the priest’s homily is pretty miserable or we can’t hear what anyone is saying because the sound system is not great...  Distractions sometimes abound within these sacred walls, and many times they seem to be conspiring against us.

And the reality is no different for the priest.  In some ways it is harder for priests to be really attentive to the encounter with God that happens at Mass.  We notice all kinds of things that many people wouldn’t pick up on – oversights, errors, problems – there isn’t a liturgy that goes by without them.  And the priest is looking out at all of you.  Thankfully, most of you are smiling or looking interested, but it is quite common for some of you to look like you are in pain, or bored, or distracted.  Maybe the microphone starts to freak out, or a server goes down…. all kinds of things.

Look, we’re not in heaven…  The reality of going to Mass, the weekly experience of Mass in this earth presents some challenges to us.  And it would be easy to settle for a distracted engagement of what is going on.  To let ourselves fall into distractions, for our minds to wander or to be focused on all the earthly realities around us.  I think this is easier for you to do that than it is for me, because at least I have everyone’s eyes on me, so I had better at least look like I’m paying attention and being pious.

But even for the priest, it’s easy to check out and forget that when we come to Mass, we come to meet Christ.  That this is not just an earthly church, this is not just a gathering of people who are going to be inspired or taught or do something good and holy together.  That fundamentally this is an encounter with the Most High God, who in a veiled sacramental presence, comes to convert us and change us, to encourage us and strengthen us, to challenge us and console us, to nurture us and to sanctify us.

All the other stuff, we do the best we can, but we fail half the time.  And you know what?  That is not the end of the world because this is not a show, this is not a spectacle, we are not paying for a product.  This is Mass.  This is where we come to meet God and to be fed by him.

When I hold up the consecrated host and show Christ to you during the consecration, often, how often, I am aware of a tension – a tension between what I know is going on, the God who I know we are encountering so profoundly and mysteriously in the Eucharist and who is at work to make us holy, and yet at the same time the blindness that afflicts us, how ordinary things can seem, how hard it is to really receive Christ in the Eucharist with an open mind and heart.  To hold the living God in our hands?!  Most weeks we are just able to scratch the surface of the profound mystery of Christ’s presence among us.

But we want to enter more deeply into the Eucharist, right?  We want to love God at Mass, even in the midst of a fallen world.  Let us make this our prayer today: that we be given the strength to cling to Christ, present among us, with our whole heart, mind, and strength.  To treat one another not merely as fellow spectators, but as fellow members of the Body of Christ, a holy Church, a people of God, a spiritual family that at Mass each week is bound together by our immersion into the divine life of the Triune God and shares in his love.

You Become What You Worship

Homily for Trinity Sunday, 2013

Last weekend on the Solemnity of Pentecost we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out into the world, upon the Church.

And this weekend we celebrate what the Holy Spirit does: the Holy Spirit reveals God to us, drawing us into the innermost depths of his love, allowing us to experience an intimacy with God that is really almost disconcerting.

In fact, as I was thinking about it and reflecting on these readings, it occurred to me that Trinity Sunday should almost make us blush.  The innermost depth of God’s divine life - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - is given to us.  God stands before us fully revealed.  The curtain is parted, the veil removed.  We are led into the holy of holies, into the bridal chamber.  In our first reading, we listen as the Wisdom of God, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit explain the inner depths of God’s life, telling us how he made the world, how he formed us with his hands, drawing us into the intimate depths and secrets of God’s life.

As we celebrate the Mystery of the Trinity, we celebrate God’s most intense desire, manifest in the Holy Spirit, that we know him, really and truly, as he is.   That we not just believe in a vague notion of the divine, in shadows and figures.  God does not wear makeup.  He does not wear a mask.  He is not God for us in one way and God in himself another way.  No, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, reveals to us the true God.

And this is important to state today.  That the Trinity is not just one nice way to think about God among many.  “We speak of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – that’s our metaphor.   You call him the great spirit, or Allah, or whatever, and that’s your metaphor.”  No – the revelation of the Trinity is not the revelation of a metaphor, but of the reality of God’s inner nature, of who he really and truly is.  It is as if God had taken an MRI or a CAT scan of himself and given it to us – the nature of the Godhead is revealed.

Why does God do this?  Why does he reveal himself so completely to us?

Because of his love for us -  that is the ultimate reason.  God shows his love for us when he manifests himself as a Holy Trinity of persons.  Today I would like to focus on two ways that the revelation of the Trinity is an act of love for us.

The first way that God loves us by revealing himself to us is that in doing so he helps us to become who we are and so find true happiness and peace in this world and in the next.  And this is because in knowing God as he truly is, we also know who we are and the purpose for which we have been created.  We are made in his image and likeness, and so we most truly understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives when we understand God.  His MRI helps us to understand our own MRIs.  His revelation of himself reveals us to ourselves.  When we experience God truly and really, as a Trinity of Love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we know why we exist.  We are led into the very mind of the God who made us, who sustains us, who knows the absolute truth about who we are and the purpose of our lives.  In revealing himself as a Trinity of love, God gives us the gift of knowing ourselves.

Think of how much time people spend trying to figure out who they are!  All of the personality quizzes and various other ways that people try to understand themselves.  And they are all so limited – most of the time they just end up showing us who we wish we were or who we think we are, or who others wished we were or think we are.  But all of these wishes and opinions of others, they are all so limited, based on limited understanding and knowledge.  If you want to know yourself, know the God who made you.  Know him as he truly is, and you will know yourself as you truly are.

That is why it is so entirely problematic that in our time there almost seems to be the cultural expectation that in our teens and twenties we will become distant from God.  Of all the times when we need to know the Triune God, it is when we are young.

And this leads us to the second way that God shows his love for us by revealing himself to us.  And that is that in knowing the true God, we are able to avoid being enslaved by the false gods of this world.

False gods are constantly promoting themselves in this world.  They are the false suitors of our hearts – material wealth, comfort, reputation, acceptance, power – these false gods constantly tug at our hearts, try to draw us in with their charm.  They promise us happiness, promise us satisfaction, promise to alleviate every fear.  And initially it can seem like they have power, like they are running this world of ours.  They deliver instant gratification, they quickly reward our worship with earthly success and pleasure.  And their temples are always full – full of people who seem to be making it, who seem happy, who seem to have the world by the tail.

But it is all a horrid deception.  And when these idols are revealed to us as they truly are: when they are cracked open, how clearly earthly power and riches, comfort and power are revealed to be nothing.  They are mirages, emptiness and misery.  One of the Psalms says “They have eyes but they cannot see, they have ears but they cannot hear, they have mouths, but they cannot speak – and their makers will come to be like them.”

And so most idols, most false gods keep us at a distance, don’t they?  Power and money and comfort and reputation – they always stay just outside of our reach, never quite within our grasp.  Never really wanting to be known, because then the game would be up.

How different these false idols are from the true and living God, the Triune God who is revealed to us in the Spirit.  When the Holy Spirit reveals God to us there is nothing superficial about the encounter.  We are brought face to face with the living God.

The true God, the Triune God, does not woo us like the rest of these false suitors.  He does not promise us earthly success: money, power, comfort, reputation – these the true God disdains.  They are for him like chintzy wrapping paper, twinkies, teeny-bop elevator music – vapid, false, and trivial.  Christ voiced his frustration on numerous times at how prone we are to being won over by such lame excuses for the divine.  How easy it is to set up for ourselves gods that do not challenge us, that do not ask anything from us, that promise to keep us comfortable.

I think that if we were honest, most of us would have to admit that being face to face with God is not always something that we are comfortable with.   That many times we would rather stick with the idols that don’t challenge us, with a superficial kind of spiritual life.  Keep the TV blaring, keep working, keep busy, just keep on keeping on.  Keep the head down and go.

But because of his great love for us, the Triune God does not leave us to this slavery.  He reveals the truth of himself to us: so that we can live in the freedom that comes from worshiping the true God and knowing the truth about ourselves.

They say that you are what you eat.  I’m not sure about that, but I do know one thing: you become what you worship.

When we worship the truth, when we worship the Triune God, life is not comfortable and easy – we may blush and shudder a bit – that is the normal response to an encounter with the true God.

But listen to what St. Paul says about those who worship the true God in our second reading today:
"We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

When we know the true God, we know ourselves and are free to be ourselves.  And slowly, in becoming more ourselves, we come to resemble the God who we worship, in whose image we are made: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a communion of perfect love.