17 March 2013

+JMJ+

"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 43


The election of Pope Francis has been to this readalong what the institution of the Eucharist was to the Jewish Passover. And if you've been reading Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week with us, then you know what I'm getting at! =P

So I'm going to apologise in advance for any drop in quality which you may notice from this point on.


Chapter V

When you hear/read the word "Eucharist," what is the first thing that comes to mind for you? Think about it. I'll wait . . .

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Done thinking? =) Okay, let's continue . . .

Unless you're a Theology major, I'm willing to bet that you immediately pictured . . . a consecrated Host! You were right, of course; but if you were also anything like me, then you were not right all the way.

We are told that Jesus took the bread, saying over it the prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, and then he broke and distributed the bread. For the first action we find the word eucharistia (Paul/Luke) or eulogia (Mark/Matthew): each of thse words indicates the berakah, the Jewish tradition's great prayer of thanksgiving and blessing, which belongs both to the Passover ritual and to other meals. No one ever eats without first thanking God for his gifts: for the bread that he brings forth from the earth and for the fruits of the vine.

If you zeroed in on the liturgically correct yet laughably anachronistic Host in the above painting, then you were just doing what the painter intended. Any depiction of the Hoc Est Enim Corpus Meum moment in the Last Supper will have the Host as its focus. And indeed, a Host, whether in a monstrance, tabernacle or a celebrant's hands, is what most Catholics think of at the word "Eucharist" . . . which is why it's not always so easy to remember that the Greek word "eucharistia" actually means thanksgiving and refers as much to the celebration as to the sacrament.

In Chapter V of Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, Pope Benedict explains several connections between this new form of worship and the traditional Jewish prayers. Then he reminds us that these links, so "obvious" to us today, occurred to the first Christians only by degrees. The form of the Mass itself took centuries to develop. Pope Benedict does not go into a lot of historical detail, but these brief passages are my favourite part of the whole chapter (and the lone mustard seed of today's readalong post) inasmuch as they illuminate the idea of the liturgy as a work of the whole Church, Head and Mystical Body.

Now if you will indulge me, I have an analogy that is entirely my own to share . . .

The Eucharist, as instituted by Jesus, is like a precious jewel--a silmaril--that He left as a gift to the whole Church. And the entire prayer life of the Church has been the crafting of a worthy casket for appreciating, honouring, handing on, and teaching the truth about this jewel. This has involved not just the building of breathtaking basilicas and cathedrals fit for a King, but also the building of humble, more accessible churches in far-flung reaches for the poorest of the poor who are His favoured subjects. It has meant the composing and arranging of prayers--and of music--as worthy settings, not just for the hour or so that you need for the Eucharistic prayer, but also for the entire day that is honoured by it . . . not to mention the entire year made up of such days. I could go on and on . . .

Like St. Paul when he wrote specific instructions for Christian worship in 1 Corinthians, we can form liturgy as much as we are formed by it. But with this great power comes . . . (You know what? I'm not going to finish that sentence. But the Spider-man nerd I've been crushing on may message me to finish it if he can't bear to leave it swinging--LOL!--like that.) And now that I've totally killed the mood, let me get to my point, which is that just because we can mess with the liturgy, it doesn't follow that we should. We have to be very careful about the way we celebrate the Eucharist, not just because we owe reverence to a gift received directly from Jesus, and not just because an ancient tradition that one generation fumbles may not be passed to the next, but also because liturgy is a way we form our souls for eternity.

A good physical trainer will correct poor form as many times as necessary because bad form will be both ineffective and dangerous. You can bet that the stakes are immeasurably higher in the spiritual realm. Which is why I personally get really crazy when Catholics I know think it's okay to skip Sunday Mass when they don't feel like it.

In the evolution of Christian worship . . . there is a further decisive moment . . . Because Jesus' gift is essentially rooted in the Resurrection, the celebration of the sacrament had necessarily to be connected with the memorial of the Resurrection. The first encounter with the risen Lord took place on the first day of the week--the third day after Jesus' death--that is to say, Sunday morning. The morning of the first day thus naturally became the time for Christian worship--Sunday became the "Lord's day."

It feels a bit weird to be using photos of Pope Francis rather than Pope Benedict, but since we're reading this book in "real time," it also feels right. The above image is from Pope Francis's first Sunday Mass, the latest way he has been just as ever ancient as he is being ever new.

The choice of Sunday as the day for Christian worship is one of our oldest, wisest, and best liturgical developments, and our struggling souls depend on "good form" such as this. 

Question of the Day: What personal habits do you have that grew out of the prayer life of the Church?

 Image Sources: a) Pope Francis, b) The Last Supper by Joan de Joanes, c) Pope Francis celebrating the Mass for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

8 comments:

r said...

Can I torture your analogy to make the Crucifixion equivalent to using the Silmarils to restore the light of the Trees? :)

It's not really direct, but the only habit that comes to mind is that of always praying before I take a shower.

Sheila said...

Right now, going to Mass is it. I feel so lost about how to pray. But when I walk into church for Mass ... it's all laid out for me. Prayers, ready-made and guaranteed not to be heretical. That's all I'm really looking for.

It really does seem that every Sunday I walk out of Mass with a new tidbit I hadn't thought about before.

When people ask "Why do you still attend Mass?" I answer, "Because I want to put myself where God is, so he can speak to me in his good time." And I do feel this is working.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

R -- Torture away, Tolkien geek! ;-)

Praying before taking a shower is new to me! How did you learn about it? (I say a Hail Mary when washing my hands, after an American acquaintance mentioned that he did it, but I never asked about the tradition behind it.)

Sheila -- I think it's a wonderful grace that you get something out of every Sunday Mass. I go because I want to be faithful, and I trust that the habit has been working on my soul; but I don't really see similar fruits in my own spiritual life.

Currently, my work schedule makes it hard for me to hear daily Mass, which used to be a cherished habit of mine. It wouldn't be impossible to start doing it again, though! The only thing that's stopping me is that I'd have to hear Mass at a chapel I'm not particularly crazy about, and I'd have to walk there at around high noon. Those are awful reasons, of course, but after years of saying that my flesh is usually willing while my spirit is weak, apparently I'm now in the Christian mainstream! =P

Just wondering: who are the people who ask you why you still hear Mass? Are they more likely to be scandalised Catholics or non-Catholics?

Belfry Bat said...

Oh! I can't remember when this happened, or what the instigating factors were, but between a time of having friends in one of the "Jerusalem" monsasteries and the awesome film Die Gro├če Stille, I have picked up a habit of bowing, at least mentally and usually more, at every Gl. P.i et. F.o. et S.S.o (which, it being Passion Sunday, I don't feel I should write out just now).

r said...

I came up with it myself, which is why it's not direct. It originated pretty weirdly, in a phase when I was trying to invoke the pagan god Apollo, of all things, and since I came up with the idea in the shower, taking a shower reminded me about it. When I returned to the Church I was raised in, it morphed into prayers. A tradition of one, at least for now!

mrsdarwin said...

"Thanksgiving" was the eucharistic connection that occurred to me immediately, so do I win anything? :)

I love your thoughts about the "form" of the liturgy. Last night I had to go with my 5th grade religion class to the "youth" mass, which features an older couple playing amplified guitars and rock-y songs, against the backdrop of our African priest saying a very reverent Mass. The contrast is striking -- the timeless words and ritual, and the garish music. But the words and ritual are still there, and are so easy to cling to. May God forgive those who mar His liturgy, but may He forgive us of little faith who can't move past the silly human elements to cling to the divine.

I pray, not before a shower, but in the shower. It's a private, quiet space (until someone bangs on the door shouting, "Mommy!"). Also, though I don't say Compline most nights, our family says bedtime prayers, and I pray a decade of the rosary in bed fairly often.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Bat -- And here I've been merely crossing myself at every invocation of the Holy Trinity and still thinking I was being conspicuously pious. ;-)

R -- Someone else mentioned to me privately that he also prays in the shower. And now that Mrs. Darwin has said something similar, I would like to take a poll to see just how many Catholics have quirky "bathroom devotions"! =P

Mrs. Darwin -- Good things come to those who ask, so . . . Right now, the only thing in my power to give is a double vote for the next "Two or Three" Book Club contenders. Which will make the next poll the third one in a row in which you have twice the clout of anyone else! (How do you get so lucky, Mrs. Darwin?)

Garish liturgy freaks me out in so many ways. I try to hold on by my fingernails . . . but if possible, I also try another Mass schedule.

One idea that has had a hold on me lately is the need for the strong in faith to hold up the weak in faith, but in a way that doesn't feel like an inordinate burden for the strong or a shameful condemnation of the weak. Hitherto, I've thought of this as the basis of social reform. It would be nice to have "Holy Day of Obligation half-day leaves" at work, for example. =P But liturgy is a more obvious field for the same.

Aside from those who are simply turned off by bad liturgy and could probably muster the discipline to suck it up, we have many who might lack spiritual tenacity because the liturgy did not form them properly to begin with. What if being able to deal with the human lapses is a more Herculean task than we strong ones have ever realised? I'm not thinking of those who stay away because they can't stand the music, but those who think the music is pretty cool but that it's okay to be "spiritual, but not religious." Bad liturgy does not fail them any less because they can't see the injury.

(After that long, pompous speech, you may be pleased to know that the next "Two or Three" Book Club pick will definitely not be a religious book! =P)

r said...

I suspect it's secretly pretty common, and also pretty commonly secret.