The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reflection for Liturgical Readers

Among my parish responsibilities -- all assigned to me by my pastor to make and keep me humble -- is the oversight of things liturgical. This has proven to be a challenge because I am not a liturgist and have had much to learn. Over the years much of the learning has come to me subtly through a kind of osmosis...and it continues. Thankfully I can always call on our parish's wonderful team of priests and deacons who keep me from making too many mistakes. I am blessed.

Occasionally I am called on to address or assist in the training of one or another of our liturgical ministries. This past Saturday, for example, I was asked to offer a spiritual reflection during a brief morning of reflection for our readers. (For those in my audience who are not Catholic, the readers are those who proclaim the Word of God, the Sacred Scripture, at Mass.) My reflection follows:

We could spend the next hour going over a whole litany of dos and don’ts for readers. But I thought that might put more than a few of you to sleep. I also don’t think you need that right now. Later on this morning, if we have a few minutes, I’ll open up the discussion for questions and comments, so you can air your concerns. I might actually have some answers.
Quite honestly, though, you are the best group of readers I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. And so I thank you for your ministry, for your proclamation of God’s Word. You are a blessing to our parish. Anyway, I thought it better for us to take a little break from the mechanics of our ministry and focus instead on the spirituality of being a reader…or at least one small piece of that spirituality.
We’ve all heard the mistakes, haven’t we? And perhaps made a few ourselves. Like the young high school student who announced “A reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippines.” Paul got around,but who knew? Or the reader who while describing the Lord’s covenant with Abraham Genesis 15, proclaimed the presence of a “smoking brassiere” instead of brazier. Fortunately, there’s been a change to the translation, and the lectionary no longer reads brazier, but “fire-pot” instead. One can only assume the bishops got tired of hearing it mispronounced. No longer, then, do you need to worry about proclaiming the first reading on the Second Sunday of Lent. We’ve all stumbled over a word or two, or an Old Testament name, but just be thankful you’re not a deacon called to proclaim the genealogies in Luke and Matthew.
These and other mistakes certainly generate a chuckle or two in the pews, and a few red faces at the ambo, but they also show us that God calls the fallible to serve Him. Yes, God calls us, despite our failings. And He calls us to be in His Presence.
That’s what I’d like to talk about today: the Presence of God in the liturgy, and what this means for us as ministers, especially as ministers of the Word.
I think that, too often, we get so wrapped up in the specifics, the details, the mechanics of our ministries that we sometimes lose sight of what it’s all about. And what it’s all about is pretty simple: as ministers we’re called to serve God and His people. That’s it!
This, then, is our first truth: we are servants.
Each one of us, called to ministry, is a servant – bishop, priest, deacon, altar server, reader, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, cantor and choir member, usher – we’re all servants
Jesus spent a lot of time trying to convince the Apostles of this same truth. He really wasn’t very successful, and it took the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to fully convince them.
You know, it’s interesting. In the Gospels we encounter two paths, two journeys that thread their way from beginning to end. The first is the obvious one: Our Lord’s journey from His Incarnation, through His public ministry, and ultimately to His passion, death and resurrection.  This is the journey of our Redemption, the journey that reveals God’s deep and enduring love for us.
But there’s another journey that makes its way through the Gospels: the journey taken by the disciples, especially the twelve. It’s a journey sparked by revelation and God’s overwhelming love: a journey of gradual understanding and acceptance; a journey that brought the Church into being; a journey that continues today for all of us. It’s the journey that leads the disciples and us to the recognition of that truth we’ve already encountered: we are servants.
But as baptized, confirmed Catholics, filled with the Spirit, I would hope that we are more accepting of this truth than were the first disciples. And so I’ll assume you all accept that we are servants, called to serve God and His people.
Obviously, it’s important that, despite our limitations and our failings, we accomplish this service, our ministry, as well as possible. For only then can we more fully realize that call to serve God and His people.
I’ve always believed that if our call to liturgical ministry is to bear fruit, we must maintain our focus on God’s Presence in the liturgy…and do so constantly.
Now the Church has always taught that, in the Mass, God is present in multiple ways:
  • First of all, He’s present in us, in His People who have come together in His Name. He’s present in us quite simply because He promised this, and God always fulfills His promises.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” [Mt 18:20].
  • God is also present in His Word, the Word proclaimed and preached at the ambo by reader, cantor, deacon and priest. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, is present in the Revealed Word of Sacred Scripture.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [Jn 1:1].
  • He is present in the person of the priest, the celebrant who acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, as he performs the sacred mysteries.
The priest doesn’t say: “…this is Jesus’ Body” or “…this is the chalice of Jesus’ Blood.” No, he says, “…this is my Body” and “…this is the chalice of my Blood.”
But it’s not the priest’s body and blood that we receive, is it? No, it’s that of Jesus.
“…do this on remembrance of me” [Lk 22:19].
  • …which leads us to Christ’s most special and important presence at Mass – His presence par excellence, as the Church calls it.
He is present in the Eucharist. In the consecrated host and the consecrated wine we have the real presence of the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes…For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” [1 Cor 11:26,29].
God’s Presence in the liturgy, then, is another truth, a Scripture-based truth, an awe-inspiring truth, one that I hope motivates us as we strive to carry out every element of our ministry. Did you notice the response to the Psalm at this morning’s Mass? 
“Come with joy into the presence of the Lord” [Ps 100:2]. 
This we are called to do: to enter God’s presence joyfully.

Right now I’d like to take a closer look at how God manifests Himself to us in the liturgy, and how this has special meaning for us as proclaimers of the Word.
Perhaps God’s less appreciated presence in the liturgy is how He comes to us in nature, in the things of this world, in the fruit of the earth and vine. He comes to us in bread and wine, in the simple works of human hands, as food for our bodies. And so with this presence He honors our bodies, our material existence, that which separates us from the angels.
It’s an existence in which God Himself was willing to share when He sent His Son to become one of us. How the Incarnation, that act of divine humility, must have awed the angels; for through that act we are truly formed in God’s image and likeness as no other creature is. In coming to us in nature, then, God reminds us that He is our Creator, the Creator of all that exists.
As Creator He reminds us of His holy name, the name He first shared with Moses – “I am Who am” – the name that describes His very being. “I am existence itself,” He tells us. “All of creation depends on me.” And from this He reminds us too that, like Moses, we are in His presence; we are on holy ground.
Remember this as you make your way from your place among the People of God to the ambo in God’s sanctuary; for in doing so you move from holy ground to holy ground.
Do you ever think of that as you rise from your seat?
God is present among His people when they come together in His name. He comes to each of us in each other. And so, as you walk to the ambo you are not moving to holy ground; you are moving within holy ground.
Where God’s people are present, so too is God. You’re called from the Christian community, from your place among God’s people, from saints and sinners, and yet you remain within that community.
You see, God manifests His holiness, His Otherness, in His people – and in particular, in the least of His people. That’s why in Matthew 25, in the only description of the last judgment in Scripture,we find Jesus telling us to serve His people: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to welcome the stranger. And why? Because what we do to the least of His brothers and sisters, we do to Him.
When you stand before God’s people, you're not standing before a crowd, or even a congregation; you’re standing before Jesus Christ. Again, you are a servant who ministers to God and His people, and God makes us and them one with Himself.
Do you think of that as you make your way to the ambo?
As readers, as ministers of the Word, you are called to feed those who hunger for God’s holy Word, who thirst for a taste of His love, of His mercy and forgiveness.
You are called to be a beacon of welcome to the stranger who may have come to Mass for the first time in years…or simply for the first time.
You are called to bring God’s healing Word to those who are spiritually ill, to those imprisoned by their own sinfulness.
Do you think of that as you make your way to the ambo?
And what about your own spiritual life, the state of your own soul? When we are right with God, when you and I have accepted God’s mercy, His forgiveness, we can better proclaim His Word.
As you all know, a poor reader can be a distraction, especially to other readers who are seated there in the pews. Instead of listening to God’s Word, they end up critiquing the proclamation. When someone else is proclaiming God’s Word at Mass, where is your attention? On the reader, or on the Word?
It’s really interesting, but I seem to fall victim to a wonderful paradox as I listen to you proclaim from the ambo. If you proclaim God’s Word well, I simply don’t notice it. That’s true. I don’t notice it because all my attention is drawn not to you but to the Word of God…and that's as  it should be.
But when a normally good reader falters, when he or she proclaims poorly, I get the sense that some internal conflict is the cause, that some relationship has gone wrong.
You and I exist in a web of relationships – links to nature, to people, to God. Do we trace out these links, examine the strong ones and the weak ones? Do we give thanks for the life and love that flow through them?
Some of these links are weak, aren’t they? Bent and twisted, while others are broken. And because of them we experience deep feelings of regret or disappointment, even anger. But do we, can we, accept our weakness and turn to God and allow Him to straighten and repair  these links? Do we pray for the gift of acceptance and forgiveness? Do we ask for forgiveness ourselves?
Perhaps St. James said it best: 
Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise.Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful. [Jas 5:13-16]
You see, everything we do is for the other, not for ourselves. God wants us to see our relationships with others as relationships with Him. How can we be effective ministers if we have allowed our relationships with God and each other to be broken? 

Do you consider that as you witness the Eucharistic miracle take place right in front of you? For it is here that God becomes present to us in a way like no other. It is here that we come together as one, as a community of faith, and go forward to receive Our Lord in a community of faith. And then we return to our place, our place in that community, overcome by the wonder of our God, our Creator, Who has become one with us.
God is with you; He is with me. But more than this, God is within us, truly present within us. Just dwell for a moment on God's life-giving presence…His presence in your body, in your mind, in your heart.
As you kneel before His altar, you are really kneeling to His presence within you. That’s right. You need look no further than your own flesh and blood joined to the Body and Blood of Him Who brought you into being. Look into yourself in wonder and thanksgiving.
We are all in need of God’s presence, of returning to the Lord, as the psalmist says, to “bow down before His holy mountain.” Only when we recognize God’s presence can we truly worship; only in God’s presence are we truly free: free to shed all that distracts us; free to accept our calling as servants of our God; free to join our own brokenness with the wounds of Jesus, the wounds He took on for our sake.
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council called the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life.” They did so because in the Eucharist we are made whole. In God’s Eucharistic presence sins are forgiven, wounds are healed, and lives are transformed.
Brothers and sisters, I’ve only scratched the surface of our spirituality as God’s ministers, but I hope you might find some little piece of it to be helpful as you respond to God’s call to ministry as proclaimers of the Word.
Jesus began His ministry with the words: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” [Mk1:14].
With that in mind, I'll finish with the words of one of my heroes, Blessed Charles de Foucauld: 
"Our entire existence, our whole being must shout the Gospel from the rooftops. Our entire person must breathe Jesus, all our actions. Our whole life must cry out that we belong to Jesus, must reflect a Gospel way of living. Our whole being must be a living proclamation, a reflection of Jesus Christ."

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