Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Tale Of Two Sundays

The Universal Church

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch
   The word “catholic”, meaning “universal” (from greek κατά, “according to” and ὅλος, “the whole”) has been associated with the Christian Church almost from the beginning.  It’s first surviving written appearance is in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in the year 107 A.D., less than eighty years after the death of Christ.  The matter-of-fact way in which he uses the term suggests that it was already familiar to his readers.  In chapter 8 of his letter to the Smyrnaeans, for instance, he says:

Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it. Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

The term initially was meant to identify the Church, along with all the doctrines and practices, that was authoritative for all Christians, as opposed to heresy, from the Greek αἵρεσις, “a choosing”.  A heretic was someone who chose only certain things from the Universal Church, while rejecting others, thus cutting himself off from the ecclesial body and the tradition established by Jesus Christ himself and handed on by his Apostles.
    We can also say that the Church is "catholic" in other senses as well.  It is “universal” in that it embraces the entire history of Christianity, for instance; and not only the experiences of previous generations of believers, but those believers themselves, who still participate in the life of the Church as members of the Church Suffering in Purgatory and the Church Triumphant in Heaven.
   The primary place in which those of us alive here on Earth (in the Church Militant) experience the catholicity of the Church is in the Holy Eucharist, where we are all joined to our One Lord by partaking in His Body and Blood (hence the term “Communion”).  I have suggested previously [here] that the use of Latin in the Western Church reinforced, in a very effective, concrete way, the reality of that communion, but it is the Mass itself (and really Christ through the Mass, particularly in the Eucharist) that unites us.  Whether we attend the Extraordinary form in Latin or the Ordinary form in any language you could name, we are participating in the One Sacrifice of Calvary, and also in the liturgy that unfolds eternally before the throne of God in Heaven.  I had a beautiful reminder of how the Mass can embody the catholicity of the Church over the past two Sundays, when I and my family celebrated the Eucharist away from our home parish.

At The VA Hospital

Togus VA Medical Center, Augusta, ME
    The first Mass was was at a Veterans Administration hospital, where every Sunday volunteers from the Knights of Columbus, along with their families, take turns bringing wheelchair-bound veterans to the Eucharistic celebration.  The veterans seemed to appreciate our company, and it was a very moving experience for us.  The Liturgy itself was inspirational as well, in spite of the unadorned, institutional blue cinderblock walls of the non-denominational chapel.  There was only one tangible detail, aside from the priest’s vestments, to remind us of the transcendent nature of what we were doing: father placed a crucifix in front of him on the altar, on which he fixed his gaze as he offered the Eucharistic Sacrifice.  Pope Benedict has recommended this practice in response to the criticism that the Mass
versus populum (facing the people) gives the impression that priest and congregation are addressing each other, rather than together directing our prayers to God [see here for a simple illustration of the problem].  This is the first time, at least that I can recall, that I’ve seen a priest adopting Papa Benedetto’s simple expedient for orienting ourselves toward our Our Lord with this arrangement. The Gospel reading on this particular Sunday was the Bread of Life Discourse from John Chapter 6, and Father spoke eloquently on the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  While he didn’t deal explicitly with our surroundings, our gratitude for God’s gift of his own body to us was all the more powerful for the testimony of the severely disabled men worshipping with us, who had also sacrificed their bodies for others.

At The College

The Chapel at Thomas More College
    This past weekend we attended a very different Mass at Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire.  It was a beautiful celebration of the Ordinary form, simple and understated but still incorporating many traditional details that brought to mind the timelessness of the Eucharistic Liturgy, and which helped to redirect our attention from ourselves to our Lord: celebration ad orientem, some of the prayers in Latin, an altar server holding a patten under the chin while we knelt for communion, etc. (for a fuller discussion, see my post here on last year’s Mass, which was the same in most particulars).  On this occasion, the second reading was from the letter of James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

And Father accordingly spoke in his homily of the need for us to live out our faith, and particularly our obligation to make the love of Christ a reality in our lives.

God Is Love

The Crucifixion by Marco Palmezzano
    There is an interesting symmetry here: in the first Mass, with few external signs of the transcendent, and which many of us were attending for the purpose of “caring for” (as the Apostle James says) the hospital patients, the Gospel and the homily invited us to look beyond the here and now to Jesus Christ. In the second mass, where much loving attention was devoted to the external details that emphasize the reverence due to the Real Presence of the Second Person of the Trinity, we were asked to direct ourselves to the material needs of the less fortunate among us.  
    The common thread is love: Christ’s love in offering himself for us, our love for him as expressed in the reverence of our worship, and our love for each other as manifested in our care for others.  The Beloved Disciple tells us that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8), and Jesus himself says:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Piety and Charity, then, aren’t opposites, or even separate: in fact, for followers of Jesus Christ they are inseparable, two sides of the same coin.  And we encounter them in every Mass, wherever it is offered, and whatever it looks like.  God’s Love is universal.