The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Washing of the Hands

I don’t know about you, but there are a few people that I’ve encountered in my life that are terrified of germs – you might call them “germaphobes”.  These people always have their little bottle of hand sanitizer in their pockets, cleaning their hands every half hour, on the dot.  They wash before anything important: a job interview, a date with a significant other, driving through the McDonald’s drive-through…  Sometimes their hands are already clean, but they want to use the sanitizer to make their hands smell clean too!

Today’s society has a big emphasis on cleanliness, which is a wonderful thing, but in the ancient world, during the time of Jesus and the early Church, washing wasn’t just to get rid of dust and dirt, but it was a symbol of purification.  Sure, when the priest was receiving the gifts of the community – bread, wine, goats, vegetables, breakfast cereals, etc. – his hands would probably get pretty nasty, and he’d have to wash them.  But when we read the prayer at the washing of the hands, it’s obvious that there’s a lot more going on.

Washing his hands over the lavabo bowl (a Latin word meaning, “I shall wash” just in case Father forgets what he’s supposed to do), the priest prays secretly, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquities and cleans me from my sins.

Clearly, the priest wants to be physically clean before offering the Mass, but there is a desire for interior cleanliness and purity as well, so that he can make himself a good instrument through which Christ can bestow his grace.  Think of a surgical tool – if it’s going to be used well as an instrument of healing, it’s going to need to be sanitized, or it will cause infection.

This prayer and the washing that goes with it are specifically geared toward the priest, but each of us can take away something from this silent prayer as well.  As with some earlier prayers, it reminds us that what God desires most in us is humility and purity.  This isn’t simply having purity and humility for the sake of having them, but so that we can open our hearts to receive fully the Lord’s grace that he desires to give us in the Eucharist.

So be sure to wash your hands (or use your hand sanitizer) before going to Communion, but more importantly, be sure to cleanse your heart, in order to open it to whatever God wishes to give you!

Homily From the Solemnity of the Ascension

Probably more than a few of you out in church today have worked retail at some point in your life.  For me, I used to work at HobbyTown USA, selling model trains, plastic models, rockets, and R/C cars.  It was a pretty fun job, but as with any retail job, it could get very long, so by the end of the day, my coworkers and I would be watching the clock, just waiting for that moment of joy, where we could flip the lock on the front door.  The attitude was, “Well, I’ve done what I had to do, and now I’m out of here.”  And by the time 10:00 hit, I was long gone.

I think it can be easy for us to see the Ascension in the same way.  We might think that it’s basically the end of the Jesus story, that he came what he had to do, and now that it’s done, he’s out of here.  But when we begin to think that way, if we believe Jesus is gone and leaves the rest to us, Christianity becomes a religion based on the past.  We remember the things that Jesus did, and we try to do the same thing.  There’s nothing wrong with following his example, obviously, and each of us should strive to do that.  But really, the Ascension doesn’t signify the end, but the beginning.

Jesus didn’t finish his work and leave, disconnecting from us and leaving us to dwell in the past, in the way things used to be.  He rose to heaven so that he could be infinitely present to us all.  He rose to heave so that he could lead us there and be with us forever.  He rose so he could give us the commission to go out and spread this good news.  If he were just leaving us, don’t you think the disciples, having just watched Jesus disappear into the clouds, would just say, “Oh.  Well, that was cool,” and just go back to being fishermen?  Instead, they were supercharged, and in a sense, went on the offensive, with such zeal as to transform the world.

Jesus tells us that his followers will pick up serpents in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it won’t harm them.  I guess I must have slept through that class in seminary or something.  Please don’t go out to the zoo and just start grabbing snakes, or consume rat poison when you get home.  What this passage is intending to show us is that with that continuing relationship with Christ, one that is not as much physical or corporeal, but spiritual, we have the power to overcome the evil that gets in our way.  The snake in a sense signifies the ancient serpent from Genesis that brought sin into the world.  And the poison represents the sin that corrupts and slowly kills its victims, without them even noticing.  But with Christ, we’re no longer afraid of those things.  When we stay connected with Christ, we conquer the anger, and the impatience, and the addictions, and the lusts, and the hatred that poisons our lives.  We have no need to fear them, just as the disciples had no need to fear serpents.

When Christ rose to heaven, he didn’t take his disciples with him.  They didn’t grab onto his feet and get dragged to heaven with him.  Instead, he entrusted his mission to their care, and the Church continues that mission even until today!  As the Church today reminds us of that mission and encourages us to take it up with renewed enthusiasm, let us make a commitment to stay close in relationship with Jesus.  Let’s renew our commitment today to daily, heartfelt prayer.  Let’s renew our commitment today to never stop studying the great treasure of our Catholic faith.  Let’s renew our commitment to be generous in supporting the poor and helpless.  Let’s renew our commitment today to make frequent and sincere use of the sacraments – those gifts that Christ died to give to us – especially the Eucharist and Confession.  And then, tied in a deep relationship with the glorified, risen, and ascended Jesus, let us join the apostles, and go on the offensive.

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Offertory Part II (or III, I can’t remember)

Sometimes, shopping for other people can be impossible.  I’ve found so far that Valentine’s Day is one of those great affirmations of my choice of celibacy, partly because of the routine that I get to miss out on!  From what some of the husbands in our parish tell me, they have to find something for their wives that is beautiful, slimming, not too expensive, the right brand, and the right color to go with what she already has.  Impossible!  Teenage boys are much the same way: ask them what they want, and they just answer, “I dunno.”  How do you find something that will satisfy these different individuals?

Now shift your focus back to the Mass, and imagine, what kind of gift can we possibly give to God?  Here we’ve just been talking about the gifts brought forward at the offertory, and we realize all of a sudden that they’re just not good enough for God!  God has created everything, including bread and wine!  It’s kind of like giving your mother a gift of cookies…the ones that she just made a week ago!  So we acknowledge that whatever gift we give God is not going to be good enough, but we pray that he would accept them.  Why?  How is that possible?

Well, the prayer the priest prays is this: “With humble spirit and contrite heart, may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.”  Interestingly, the new translation of this prayer brings out the biblical passage that it comes from in Daniel 3:39-40.  If you recall, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to obey the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, and are cast into a fiery furnace, but miraculously, they are unharmed!  Abednego prays: “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.”  Abednego offers himself, literally, as a burnt sacrifice to God, completely surrendering himself to God’s will by trusting him.

Looking at both these prayers, we can see what the gift is that we are truly offering: the gift of the heart.  It is that gift which God finds acceptable, more than any bread, wine, rams, bullocks or anything else.  Just as with any gift, even if the gift itself isn’t good enough, the love and surrender with which it is given makes the gift acceptable (although this isn’t guaranteed with Valentine’s Day).

Whenever we come to Mass, it’s important to enter into it remembering that we are to offer ourselves as a sacrifice.  We should come to Mass in the same spirit of self-surrender that Abednego fostered in his heart, which is the same self-surrender that the priest speaks on behalf of us all at the offertory.  May we always offer of ourselves and our hearts to God, who lovces us so much!  See you next week!

Homily From the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

If you take a second to look through the bulletin today (not right now, though, I’m preaching…), or if you check out our brand-new All Saints Parish website, you’ll notice that there’s a lot involved in being a Christian.  We’ve got Mass to go to every week, confessions to do at least once a year, laws, hierarchy, High School Mission Trips, Shopping as Jesus Would, Picnics, fundraisers out the wazzoo, defending human rights, standing up for the teachings of our faith, and on and on and on.  Kind of makes you want to hide your checkbook, right?  But ultimately today, Jesus sums up how to do all of that, and how to be a good disciple in one short sentence – “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Everything else flows from that – the picnics, the fundraisers, the boring homilies, and even those crazy church teachings.  “Love one another as I have loved you.”

But what is that love that he’s talking about?  There are about a million different songs, books, and poems that give us definitions.  But I’m going to use an illustration.  Love is like a candle.  As we’ve been talking here, it’s been slowly burning away, melting and dripping and shrinking.  The candle is slowly consumed by the flame, until eventually, it will be nothing but a stubble to be thrown out into the trash.  The candle slowly gives of itself, slowly dies away, in order to provide light and warmth to those huddled around it.  Oddly, that’s a beautiful image of what love is.  We’re called to give of ourselves, we’re called to die to ourselves, in order to provide the warmth of love to others.

In other words, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Authentic love is a gift of self.  We find it when we put ourselves at the service of others, when we live to give and not to take, when we are willing to suffer, so that someone else can rejoice.  That’s what Jesus teaches us, not just as a suggestion, or a nice way of life, but as a commandment – in fact, it’s the greatest commandment.  And just to make sure we got this, just to make sure we understood, he didn’t just tell us, but he showed us.  He accepted mockery, and humiliation, and torture, and rejection, and agony, and betrayal.  He accepted them – not because he was weak, but because he was strong, because he wanted to show us what love really is – a commandment of complete and unreserved gift of self.

It’s sad to say that this idea of love is rather counter-cultural, even today.  It seems more and more that our culture, our society, and even those sitting in our pews, are losing touch with what love is really supposed to be.  Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a son of St. Louis and Cardinal Archbishop of New York, put it this way: “In a culture that prefers getting to giving, and entitlement to responsibility, in a society that considers every drive, desire, or urge as a right, and where convenience and privacy can trump even the right to life itself, and in a mindset where freedom is reduced to the liberty to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever, however, with whomever we want, rather than the duty to do as we ought…”  Well, in that culture, my brothers and sisters, this meaning as love might as well be a yellow light out there on Mid Rivers Mall Drive.

This commandment of love that Christ gives us, that he shows us, is something supernatural.  The natural way that we engage in a relationship is to evaluate what we can get out of someone: “This person is fun to be around.”  “This person annoys the heck out of me.”  “This person can get me tickets to the ballgame.”  “This person always seems to need something.”  But when we begin to embrace the commandment of love that Jesus gives us, those selfish desires or considerations take a back seat, and we begin to see others as God sees them.  Maybe this week, try to make a list of the acts of love you want to do for people.  What is one small thing you can do to lighten the load of your spouse?  What is one thing you can do to make your boss’s day just a bit easier?  What is one small thing you can say or do to make your parents smile?  And the tough one: what is one thing you can do to help a stranger see the love of Christ?

This week and beyond, I challenge you to be that candle in the darkness.  May all of us burn brightly, slowly dying to ourselves, slowly sacrificing of what we have and are, even to the point of laying down our lives, to provide the light and warmth of the love of God to those around us.

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Commingling of Water and Wine

Probably one of the first science experiments that we all did when we were little was pouring oil into a glass of water.  And what do we learn?  The two substances have different densities, and so it’s very difficult to completely mix them.  Well, during Mass, we do a little “science experiment” as well, by mixing water and wine.  Why, you say?  Well, I’m glad you asked!

As the priest pours a little drop of water in the wine during the preparation of the gifts, he says in a low voice (a secret one!), “By the mystery of this water in wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

This co-mingling of water and wine is a very ancient practice.  It was part of the culture at the time of Jesus, and so it has always been assumed that he did the same at the last supper, tempering or diluting his wine slightly with water.  So we see it referenced in Proverbs 9:5, and St. Justin Martyr (150 AD) and St. Cyprian (250 AD) both make reference to this in the liturgy very early on!

So what does it mean?  Well, consider for a second that water is a pretty common thing.  It’s used to water plants, it is very cheap at the store, and you even see athletes drink some, only to spit it right out on the field!  Wine on the other hand is expensive, takes a long time to make, and you never want to waste it, because it is valuable.

So when we mix the two, it’s a symbol of what’s happening with the Eucharist.  Human beings are amazing creations, but we’re nothing on our own – we need God.  Unlike water and oil, water and wine mix completely, so if we are the water, Jesus is the wine, and we see the point of his becoming a man.  St. Athanasius (296-373 AD) said, “God became man, so that man might become like God.”  Jesus, the Son of God, (symbolized in this case by wine) completely humbled himself, so that we (symbolized by the water) could be built up and share completely and inseparably in his divine life.

In fact, that’s what happens at the Eucharist.  When we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, and we are joined in such a close union with God, a communion (see what I did there?) that our common human nature is mixed with the divine!  Awesome, am I right?

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: At the Preparation of the Gifts

You might have noticed that on weekday mornings, I am blessed to be able to greet the children coming into our school.  But my morning routine dictates that I must have a cup of coffee at the same time, so naturally, I have acquired a wide variety of coffee mugs.  One of my favorites is the two-handled coffee mug from Mystic Monks Coffee, an order of contemplative Carmelite monks in Cody, Wyoming (Support them by buying some coffee from mysticmonkcoffee.com).  The mug is distinctive, though, because it has a handle on either side, inviting the coffee drinker to use both hands.  The monks, who use these in their monastery, say it is a powerful symbol of embracing all the many gifts that God has given us.  At 6:00 in the morning, coffee is definitely one gift I want to embrace!

The reason I bring this up is because it connects to the prayer that we pray at the offertory, when the gifts are brought forward, and then offered at the altar:

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you; fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.”

“Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you; fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.”

These might be familiar to you, but at times, the priest prays these prayers quietly to allow musical reflection, or to encourage silent prayer.  But, as with the Mystic Monks coffee mug (mysticmonkcoffee.com, in case you forgot), we embrace all the gifts that God has given us, recognizing that we deserve none of it by our own right, and then offer it back to God to be transformed into the Bread of Life and our Spiritual Drink.  Ultimately, we’re offering back to God in gratitude what is already his.

It is very important for us to take an inventory of the gifts that God gives us, and then to discern what it is that God is asking us to offer back to him freely, whether it is our time, our abilities or gifts, or our financial treasure that we have been given.  When we freely offer back to God a portion of that in good stewardship, he receives it, and transforms it into something far greater, just as he does with the gifts brought forward at the offertory!

That’s it for this week, and actually, sorry about running a bit late with this one, but thank you for your prayers for me as I was on retreat this past week.  It was a very reflective and fruitful experience out there at Conception Abbey, and I’m happy to be back!  Tune in next week for more on the Missal!