Monday, January 28, 2013

Ezra Reading the Law - a Foreshadow of the Mass

The First Reading for this past Sunday (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C) holds a very special place for me. It is a reading that I distinctly remember from my days as a Baptist, and it had a profound effect on shaping my love for the Scriptures. The reading was Neh 8:2-6, 8-10:

Ezra the priest brought the law before the  assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand. Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate, he read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law. Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the occasion. He opened the scroll so that all the people might see it— for he was standing higher up than any of the  people —; and, as he opened it, all the people rose. Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people, their hands raised high, answered, “Amen, amen!” Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD, their faces to the ground. Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God,interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep” — for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and alot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”

I remember when my Baptist pastor preached on this passage, he instilled within me a love for God’s Word and a love for hearing the preaching of God’s Word. I remember that the sermon was a powerful one which showed how important God’s Word was for God’s people – after all, it must have been important if the people were prepared to stand for six hours while they listened to the reading of the Torah. And then Ezra took up his place on a pulpit and explained the Scriptures to the people.

From that day I have been convinced that people should stand when they hear the Scriptures being read in a public assembling, and that the Scriptures should be powerfully expounded so as to open hearts and minds to pursue deeper holiness. In addition, as a Protestant, this passage was for me a strong proof of Sola Scriptura and the centrality of the pulpit in the church building, given that this was where the pastor would preach God’s Word. 

I look back now and see how some of my understanding was wrongly coloured by my pre-conceived Protestant assumptions (e.g. it is not the pulpit that should be central, but the altar; because it is not the preacher that is central, but Christ). But, there was also much good that I learned as a Protestant – which I am now able, as a Catholic, to more fully embrace. This is because Protestantism contains traces of truth (varying in greater and lesser degrees, depending which denomination and church you attend), whereas the Catholic faith is the fullness of Truth.  

Something that struck me very early on in my conversion to the Catholic Church is that the Mass is filled with far more Scripture than ANY Protestant service I ever attended. Apart from every action in the Liturgy being saturated with Sacred Scripture, the first half of the Mass is specifically titled “The Liturgy of the Word” – because during the first part of the Mass, we are fed with Christ from the Table of the Word. At every Mass on a Sunday or Solemnity, we hear three specific readings from Scripture – Old Testament (Prophets), New Testament (Apostles), and Gospel. And there is even a Responsorial Psalm thrown in as well. [This differs for weekday Masses, where the Old Testament Reading is omitted; and during the Easter Season, where the Old Testament Reading is replaced by a reading from the book of Acts]. These Scriptures are read from the Ambo, a wooden pulpit made specifically for that purpose.

What’s more, out of reverence for the Person and Work of Christ, the entire congregation stands for the reading of the Gospel.

After the readings, the priest (or deacon) will break open the Scriptures in the Homily, and seek to apply the Scriptures to the lives of those who have ears to hear.

Just considering these things, we can already see that the Holy Mass is faithful to the pattern followed by Ezra.  But if we dig deeper, we begin to see that what happens in the Holy Mass is actually closer to the pattern set by Ezra than a Protestant worship service.
Many Protestants cringe at the idea of “ritual” in worship, as they do the idea of following a liturgical calendar. But notice that Ezra’s reading and exposition of the was a ritual that occurred within the context of a liturgical calendar on the annual Feast of Booths (cp Neh 8:2 with Deut 31:10-13). Like Israel of old, the Church continues to adopt the practice of rituals within the context of a liturgical calendar.

Notice also that Ezra forbade the people from mourning on this specific occasion, given that it was not in accordance with the liturgical occasion being celebrated. That sounds remarkably similar to the Catholic practise of observing different liturgical seasons in different ways e.g. Lent and Advent are times focussed on fasting, preparation, and sombreness; whereas Easter and Christmas are filled with joy and celebration.

Something that is particularly interesting here is that Ezra exercised his authority as a priest to command the people not to mourn on this occasion – and he didn’t make any appeal to Scripture (contrary to the notion of Sola Scriptura). Rather, it was by virtue of his authority as a priest that the people were bound to obey.

Moreover, we see that the celebration itself was liturgical in nature. The people all stood upon the opening of the book; then Ezra pronounced a blessing, to which all the people had a uniform response (“Amen, Amen”) whilst all raising their hands. Then they all prostrated themselves and worshipped the Lord. This uniformity of action and response points to a liturgical structure which was already in place – there is no way that this uniformity of action and response could ever be achieved in a setting where everyone was acting independently and spontaneously.
This highlights some very important points...
Catholics are often accused of hating Scripture, and rejecting it in favour of traditions and rituals. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Without the Catholic Church, there would be no Bible as we know it. Not only was the New Testament Canon (which is accepted by all Protestants) officially defined by the Catholic Church; but the Catholic Church has also been the defender of Sacred Scripture for 2,000 years and will continue to do so until the Lord returns. The Catholic Church loves and venerates Sacred Scripture, and everything that the Church does and teaches is grounded firmly in Scripture.

As we have seen from the example of Ezra’s reading of the Torah, this includes ritualistic worship. In other words, ritualistic liturgical worship is Scriptural worship. In fact, this passage in Nehemiah shows that Sacred Scripture is not only at home, but is also intended to be read and understood, within the liturgy of God’s people.
Despite their good intentions, those Protestants who claim to reject any form of liturgical ritual and accuse Catholics of false worship (simply because our worship incorporates ritual) do so wrongly. On the contrary, this passage from Nehemiah shows that ritual has its place in the worship of God’s people.
[I might add that Protestants who supposedly reject “rituals” have their own rituals. They claim that their worship and prayer is relatively spontaneous, and thus “led by the Spirit”; but one doesn’t have to attend their worship services or prayer meetings for very long to notice underlying structures and patterns in their worship (aka liturgical rituals), or particular phrases within their prayers that are not unlike “rote” prayers often used by Catholics].

But there is one more point in this passage which points to the Mass as being more faithful to Ezra’s pattern than a Protestant worship service.
The first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, is very clearly foreshadowed in this Old Testament ceremony. But what about the second part, the Liturgy of the Eucharist?
Ezra tells God’s people that they are not to mourn; instead they were instructed to go their way, and eat the fat and drink the wine; and send portions to those who were without.
This, I think, is an allusion to the Eucharist because when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are celebrating the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The Eucharist is a wedding feast in which we are fed and nourished with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then at the end of the Mass we are dismissed, not unlike Ezra’s dismissal of the people, to go on our way (“Go, the Mass is ended”) so that we can live lives filled with the joy and presence of Jesus Christ.
To eat the “rich foods” and “drink its sweet wine” meant to eat and drink the very best that the Promised Land had to offer. This was the shadow...and its fulfilment is eating and drinking of the very best of our Heavenly Homeland, that is, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

So, as Catholics, we shouldn’t be ashamed of embracing our liturgical rituals. Not only because they are deeply symbolic, but also because they are firmly established in Sacred Scripture. May we also continue to grow in our love for Sacred Scripture, especially when we hear it read in the Mass – because it is the Word of God given to His Holy Catholic Church. As we listen to the Scriptures read in the Liturgy, we receive Jesus in the Table of the Word – which in turn prepares us to receive Him in the Table of the Eucharist. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Relationship or Religion?

A little while back I was having an online conversation with a well-meaning non-Catholic Christian who was trying to “encourage” me to give up my Catholic faith for what he called was “the real Jesus”. He argued that I needed to give up the Rosaries, Crucifixes, Missals, etc. because they were distractions to truly knowing Jesus. Instead, he suggested that I take up the King James Version Bible, because it is only through the KJV that I will know Jesus. 

Sadly, many “fundamentalist” Christians (like this particular gentleman) believe that “religion” is a hindrance to knowing God. They are often heard to say that “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship” – a relationship with Jesus. The below video entitled “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus” provides a good example of what this kind of thinking entails.

My favourite response to the above video was this one by Fr. Claude Burns.


Unfortunately, what this kind of thinking (“Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship”) fails to grasp is that religion is not opposed to relationship. And neither are religious articles a hindrance to knowing God and growing in relationship with him. As an example, consider our everyday lives – we have families, and part of what it means to be a family is to have photo albums, heirlooms, and a plethora of other articles that give witness to the family bond. These articles don’t hinder our family relationship; rather, they exist as a testament that we are family; and they very often evoke fond memories reminding us of what it means to “be family”. In this way, these articles enhance our familial relationships. So for this man to suggest that I destroy all my “religious articles” would be like me asking him to destroy anything that reminds him of his family.  

Ultimately, religion and relationship go hand in hand. Religion is ultimately about relationship, and because of this, the two cannot be separated. As Fulton J. Sheen so wisely put it: 

“Religion is not what you do with your solitariness, but what you do with your relationships.” – Fulton J. Sheen; Seven Words of Jesus and Mary

When we consider religion in this context, the words of St. James and St. John in Sacred Scripture where they talk about religion comes to life in an amazing way:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” – James 1:27

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” – James 2:16

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” – 1 Jn 3:17-18

In a nutshell, religion IS about relationship; and a relationship with Christ cannot exist without religion. But I think it goes even deeper than this. As I was mulling over this, I came to realise that talking about having a “relationship with Christ”, even within the context of religion, is still grossly understated. I mean, when you really get down to it, what does it mean to have a “relationship with Christ”?

A “relationship” could mean anything – I have a relationship with my work colleagues; with my neighbours; with my friends; and also with my family. These are all relationships, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all the same. What makes my relationship with my friends deeper than that with my work colleagues? And what makes my relationship with my family surpass all of these? And when you come down to it – how do I know that to have a “relationship with Jesus” isn’t like the relationship with my work colleagues?

You see, the depth of relationship is about depth of communion. The relationship that I have with my wife surpasses all other relationships because of the depth of communion that I have with her – a communion so grounded in love that in it two become one flesh. And our children form part of this intimate communion because they are the fruit of the love that my wife and I have for each other.

And that is where religion really comes into focus because religion is about communion – the creature seeking communion with the Creator; mortality seeking communion with immortality; man seeking communion with the Divine. 

But this aspect of communion is taken to a whole different level when we speak of it in the context of the true religion and the fullness of faith found in the Catholic Church. This is because the Catholic faith is not so much about man seeking communion with God; but rather God seeking communion with man. 

That is the whole reason for the Incarnation. God became man and dwelt among us so that He could restore us to communion with Him, and this is the reason that Our Lord cried out on the Cross “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). God-become-man thirsts for communion with His creatures; and God becomes man so that He can redeem us and restore us to communion with Him.

I have blogged before on the “transaction” that takes place in the Holy Mass (for example,  see here, here, here, and here ). Like the intimacy of a marriage, the Holy Mass is about a mutual exchange of persons in love. The Eucharist involves us lovingly offering ourselves up on the altar in the bread and the wine; and Christ in turn lovingly giving Himself to us by changing the bread and wine into His Body and Blood. But when He does so, He is also changing us by feeding us with Himself.

So really, there are two Transubstantiations that take place in the Mass. The first, and most obvious, is when the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The second is when we, represented by the bread and the wine, are changed into the image of Christ.

To make the point in a better way than I ever could, I would like to quote the Blessed Fulton Sheen again:
“We are on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine, for both are the substance of life; therefore in giving that which gives us life we are symbolically giving ourselves. Furthermore, wheat must suffer to become bread; grapes must pass through the wine-press to become wine. Hence both are representative of Christians who are called to suffer with Christ, that they may also reign with Him....

“[In the Mass] I give myself to God. Here is my body. Take it. Here is my blood. Take it. Here is my soul, my will, my energy, my strength, my property, my wealth – all that I have. It is yours. Take it! Consecrate it! Offer it!...Transubstantiate me so that like bread which is now Thy Body, and wine which is now Thy Blood, I too may be wholly Thine. I care not if the species remain, or that like the bread and the wine I seem to all earthly eyes the same as before. My station in life, my routine duties, my work, my family – all these are but the species of my life which may remain unchanged. But the substance of my life – my soul, my mind, my will, my heart – transubstantiate them, transform them whole into Thy service, so that through me all may know how sweet is the love of Christ.” – Calvary and the Mass, A Missal Companion

As Catholics, may we never be ashamed to say that we love our religion; because it is through the Catholic Church that God has given man the best opportunity of being reunited in communion with Him.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Nativity and the Baptism of the Lord

Following my most recent blog, I had another awe-inspiring thought...this time about the wisdom of Holy Mother Church and the way she has ordered the celebration of the Church’s Feasts...
Christmas Season officially begins with the Solemnity of the Nativity (that’s right folks, Christmas doesn’t begin until the celebration of Vigil of Christmas on 24 December). And it continues up until the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord (which we have just celebrated this past Sunday). I didn’t realise it before, but these two “bookends” of the Christmas Season are actually deeply connected and ultimately speak to the same Mystery.

Allow me to elaborate...
The Solemnity of Christmas is ultimately about the celebration of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ through the Blessed Virgin. That much is obvious.

But what of the Solemnity of Our Lord’s Baptism? Well, to understand, we first need to ask why it was necessary that Our Lord be baptised. As I noted in another recent post, Baptism is our new birth into the family of God – our regeneration, or being born from above (see Jn 3:5). Furthermore, through Baptism, our sins are washed away (Acts 2:38; Tit 3:5). As noted previously, the Church Fathers taught that the baptismal waters were able to accomplish this awesome spiritual reality purely because the waters of Baptism were consecrated at the Baptism of Our Lord e.g.:
“From the moment that Christ is immersed in water, from that moment water washes away all sins." - St. Augustine

“The Lord is baptised, not having occasion to be cleansed, but that, purifying the waters by the contact of His pure flesh, they may have the power of cleansing.” – St. Augustine

“The water of baptism, had it not been sanctified by contact with the body of our Lord, could not purge the sins of believers.” – St. John Chrysostom

So, the Solemnity of the Nativity celebrates the birth of Our Lord into this world; and the Solemnity of the Lord’s Baptism celebrates the consecration of the water by which we are born into the Kingdom of God.

But wait...there’s fact there’s a lot more. But, I want to share just a couple more brief points with the hope that they will inspire within us a desire to meditate more deeply, so that we can offer even more praise to God for His Infinite Goodness!!!
Why was Jesus born? The answer is to die...As the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen often said “Most men are born to live; but the Lord Jesus was born to die”. So the Solemnity of the Nativity also speaks to us of Calvary. And the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord does the same thing. St. Paul reminds us that it is through baptism that we are crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ and raised again to new life in Him (Rom 6:3-4).

And finally...

At His birth, the Mother of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, would no doubt have exclaimed “This is my beloved Son!” What did the Father of Our Lord proclaim at His Baptism? “This is my beloved Son”!
Oh the depths of the riches of wisdom with which the Lord has blessed His Holy and Glorious Bride!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Whilst Christmas Day has come and feels like almost an eternity ago...we are still in the Christmas Season, which traditionally finishes with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (13 January this year). Since we are still in the Christmas Season, I thought I still have some time to post a blog about Christmas...

Together with Protestant Christians, we often decry the fact that Christmas has become nothing less the unashamed promotion of materialism and consumerism. While the world thinks that Christmas is about the accumulation of gifts, Christians try to remind the world that their need for Christ far outweighs their need for material goods. And so, every Christmas, Christians the world over seek to remind people that “Jesus is the reason for the Season”, and that we ought to “Keep Christ in Christmas”.

I recently posted a picture on Facebook (see above) which contained the phrase:

“The best way to keep Christ in Christmas is to keep Mass in Christmas”

I posted the picture because I initially thought the slogan was quite clever, and also thought-provoking. It challenges us to see that there are two sides to Christmas – yes, there is Christ. But there is also Mass (after all, the word “Christmas” is derived from the reference to “Christ’s Mass”). 

So for us Catholics, Christmas is not just about remembering that “Jesus is the reason for the Season”; it is also about fulfilling our Holy Obligation to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass – which in itself reminds us that Calvary was the ultimate reason for Christmas. 

Then in Mass earlier this week, I had another thought which I think is substantially more profound. Mass cannot be separated from Christmas because Mass and the Nativity are intricately connected. 

Just as Mary received Our Lord with faith, humility, reverence, and obedience so too do we receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. Just as Mary became a living Tabernacle at the Annunciation, so too do we become living Tabernacles in Holy Communion because we carry the Lord Jesus within us. 

But Holy Communion is not the ultimate point of going to Mass. The very word “Mass” comes from the Latin “Ita Missa Est” – “Go, you are sent”. It is true that the summit of the Mass is receiving Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, but we do so not solely for ourselves. We receive Our Lord so that we can be sent. To do what? To share Christ with others, even as He shares Himself with us in Holy Communion. 

And that is where the Nativity comes into it. Mary received our Lord at the Annunciation; but she gave Christ to the world in the Nativity. In this way, the Mass really is the mystery of the Incarnation because we receive the Lord in the Eucharist, and then we go out into the world so that we can bring Him to others. In this way, Christ is born afresh in us every time that we are sent forth from Mass.

So the best way to keep Christ in Christmas really is to keep Mass in Christmas. Because God’s grace and Christ’s Presence given to us in the Blessed Sacrament is the surest way to share Christ with a world that so desperately needs Him.