21 December 2010

An Advent Homily

Those who earnestly sought the salvation of God earnestly sought St John the Baptist. They came quite a distance into a desolate wilderness, seeking an eccentric who was not easy to find, whose words sounded brusque, and whose manner seemed as rough as his clothes. They came with heavy hearts, filled with trepidation, knowing the sins they had tried so hard to hide from others that they nearly succeeded at hiding them from themselves. Yet they came to confess. And in that way, they came to smooth their rough places, and to straighten their crooked ways. So greater than their trepidation was their faith; and greater than their dread at what they knew they must admit aloud was their hope of pardon from God's mercy.

What gave these people the hope, the faith, the energy to seek our St John? No doubt, it was the words of the holy prophet Isaiah; most especially these words:

The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice, and shall flourish like the lily. It shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise: ... [T]hey shall see the glory of the Lord, and the beauty of our God. Strengthen ye the feeble hands, and confirm the weak knees. Say to the fainthearted: Take courage, and fear not: behold your God will bring the revenge of recompense: God himself will come and will save you. (Is 35.1-4)

"God Himself will come and save you." Those are the words that drove these people into the wilderness seeking John. For those words promised what they yearned for -- salvation from God's own man. Not a salvation that would magically wipe away all suffering and make life easy; but the salvation that would help them to see beyond today's turmoils and heartaches; the salvation that would help them see and believe that there is more to life than the petty games and machinations, the fading experiences and unquenchable lusts, the flavorless events and the weary monotony of unending routine.

So these folks -- people like you and me, people seeking what you and I also seek, people longing for comfort and assuagement -- these folks clambered forward into the wilderness pursuing John, striving for the relief God's salvation brings. And when they arrived, they encountered not a reed shaken by the wind, nor a preacher dressed in fine apparel. They encountered a prophet--and more than a prophet. For they encountered a voice -- the voice of the One; the voice in the wilderness who spoke deeply into their being. He is the voice foreseen by Isaiah. And this voice said:

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled; and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight; and the rough ways plain; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Lk 3.4-6)

Yet what the voice declared was not merely more words. He declaimed and proclaimed the Word of God Himself. The same Word through whom all things were made. The same Word which had spoken through the mouth of the prophets. The same Word who took flesh from the womb of the pure, glorious, holy and blessed virgin Mary. This Word who is not about peace, but truly is the peace and mercy and consolation of God in His very being -- this is the Word that the voice voiced, and that the people strain to hear.

This Word is what John says He is. And so He is the lasting and unfading comfort these people -- all people, you people -- long to hear. The voice says, "Comfort, comfort ye My people; cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD's hand double [mercy] for all her sins." (Is 40.1-2)

This comfort that St John declares is the Word of life to be heard, seen, looked upon, handled and tasted. The dew of the Holy Spirit has dropped down this Word from the heavens so that, in our hearts, His undying succor may bud and flower and grow within us as He first did within the Blessed Virgin's womb. And then Emmanuel comes, and we shall rejoice. For He shall graciously and mercifully relieve all those sins and hardships, all those self-made stresses, all those unkept promises and feeble excuses that have haunted our souls and weighed down our bodies, and so hindered us from basking in the glow of His exhilarating warmth.

By the prayers of St John, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, may we, in heart and mind, join this timid yet hope-filled throng by spending these last few days straining with all we are to heed the voice of the One who announces the advent of this consoling Word, our Lord Jesus Christ; to whom with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and throughout all ages of ages.

Preached Advent IV 2010
Based on Luke 3.1-6 (the Gospel at the Rorate Mass)

20 December 2010

Vox Secreta - Revisiting the Silent Canon

The changes of Vatican II included replacing the centuries old practice of saying the Canon Missae or Prex Eucharistica silently or in a quiet whisper (vox secreta). The arguments favoring this change to an audible declaimed canon (i.e., not vox mediocris but vox clara) were several relying on historical data as well as pastoral, personal or (in some cases) protestant inclinations.

This debate, largely dismissively disregarded in protestant communions, has continued amongst Western Rite Orthodox priests due, no doubt, to their greater or lesser regard for later 20th century liturgical scholarship. (It would not surprise if this debate resumes in Roman Catholic circles, particularly between those who strongly prefer and those who vehemently oppose the anachronistically and ironically named "Extraordinary Form.")

In considering the various premises of this debate, both historically and pastorally, chiefly so I could continue to defend the traditional rubric, I recently came across the following from Louis Boyer's Eucharist (1968):

We must admit that this question [what Bouyer terms "the silence of the canon" or "the silence of the mysteries"] is the most obscure mystery of perhaps the whole of the history of the liturgy. Yet we hardly get this impression when we read most of the studies on the subject that have been piled up since the seventeenth century. Whatever position the authors take--whether they believe the practice to be original and essential, or condemn it as late and unfortunate--one would think, in reading them, that the matter is clear and can be plainly settled by a few irreproachable texts. But when we go to the sources without any preconceived ideas, it is hard to share this optimism. Yet we do not deny that we can reach certain firm conclusions from examining them. But...they are neither so easily accessible, nor of a nature as to dispel all the obscurities of one of the most complex problems of the history of the liturgy. (366f)

17 December 2010

Advantages of Celebrating Ad Orientem

Often I am asked about why I face the "wrong way" (ad orientem) when I celebrate Mass. These questions come mostly from visitors and the Catholic students I teach; however, sometimes parishioners also ask out of curiosity or because they have been asked by others. Since I've never (even as a Lutheran) celebrated Mass versus populum, I can't fathom celebrating Mass any other way.

When asked, I give a variety of answers--some better than others. Recently I came across an apologia for facing the Lord (tabernacle) when celebrating Mass written by Dom Mark Kirby, a monastic priest in the Catholic Church in Tulsa OK. Reading through them, I agree with all of the advantages that Fr Mark lists. Perhaps others can add to the list.

What are the advantages of standing at the altar ad orientem, as I have experienced them over the past two years? I can think of ten straight off:

1. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is experienced as having a theocentric direction and focus.

2. The faithful are spared the tiresome clerocentrism that has so overtaken the celebration of Holy Mass in the past forty years.

3. It has once again become evident that the Canon of the Mass (Prex Eucharistica) is addressed to the Father, by the priest, in the name of all.

4. The sacrificial character of the Mass is wonderfully expressed and affirmed.

5. Almost imperceptibly one discovers the rightness of praying silently at certain moments, of reciting certain parts of the Mass softly, and of cantillating others.

6. It affords the priest celebrant the boon of a holy modesty.

7. I find myself more and more identified with Christ, Eternal High Priest and Hostia perpetua, in the liturgy of the heavenly sanctuary, beyond the veil, before the Face of the Father.

8. During the Canon of the Mass I am graced with a profound recollection.

9. The people have become more reverent in their demeanour.

10. The entire celebration of Holy Mass has gained in reverence, attention, and devotion.