Sorry to miss a few weeks in the bulletin, but thank you for your prayers for our group travelling to Washington DC for the Pro-Life Trip a few weeks ago. Now where were we…
The next part of Eucharistic Prayer I is the epiclesis, or as it’s called in EPI, the Quam Oblationem. The epiclesis, as has been mentioned before, is the point in our prayer where we pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the gifts presented at the altar, that they might be transformed into the Eucharist. At this point, the priest extends his hands over the offering, which is typically a symbol of transference, like the Holy Spirit descending on the gifts. Incidentally, it is thought to be a similar gesture to when ancient Jewish priests would pray over the scapegoat for the Day of Atonement, as described in Leviticus 16. See? You learn something new every day!
The prayer reads, “Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” But what does it mean for the gifts to be “spiritual and acceptable”?
Basically, we’re praying at this point in the Mass that the gifts become more than what they are as they are brought forward to the altar, more than just common foods. This makes sense from our end in that we want it to be a sincere spiritual offering of ourselves. Like birthday gifts to your Aunt Elvira, we strive to give the gifts at the altar not because we have to, but because we want to!
More importantly, however, we pray that it become spiritual and acceptable from God’s end. We all know that normal foods have effects on us. Good foods make that next trip to the gym energizing. Bad foods make it…less so. When we ask God to make our offerings spiritual, we ask him to transform it so as to have effects in us – not common effects like carbohydrates or dietary fiber, but spiritual effects like the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of our will to do God’s will, an increased love for God and our neighbor, and of course, eternal life.
We supply the offerings, but only God’s power given through the Holy Spirit can make these offerings have the effects we long for, and only God can make that offering something acceptable to himself!
Today’s second reading is one that probably most of us recognize. Probably many of you had it read at your wedding. It’s not just good for a wedding because there’s nothing better out there, or because it’s uncomfortable to hear about wailing and gnashing of teeth on your wedding day, but because it’s a reading that fits the day! Actually, a lot of couples in marriage preparation will come and say, “We know the phrase ‘Love is patient, love is kind’, but we don’t remember what reading it is!” It’s something that sticks with us, something that resonates with us. It’s part of our human nature to be attracted to love.
We were created to love, and to love – without that, we whither and die. Sometimes, you might look up here and see one of the candles bright and shining with a tall flame, and the other candle barely lit because the wick is buried in the wax – that’s what life without love is like! John Paul II repeated over and over again that love is at the heart of the meaning of our lives. He mentioned this in Redemptor Hominis, his first encyclical. Now for a pope, the first encyclical is important, because it’s sort of a teaser trailer for all the rest of their pontificate, and really, I’m sure we could say that about John Paul II as well. He said, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”
It’s difficult to live this. We don’t know or we don’t show that we know what it means, kind of like a teenage boy who’s mother forces him to say he loves her before leaving for school. We can say the words, but what’s the meaning behind them? What gives them substance? St. Paul in his famous first chapter of 1 Corinthians tries to show us today. Love is the meaning of life – it is the “highest gift”, and the “greatest” of all virtues. He gives us this long description with 14 characteristics for Christ-like love. Love is patient, love is kind, it’s not jealous or rude or self-seeking, or quick-tempered and on and on with all the things that those brides remember. These are the ways that Christ loves us, and how we are called to love others. What’s striking is how different they are from the values of our culture. Love for our culture is often times self-centered.
It reminds me of a story that I heard about a man who went to the doctor with his wife. The wife was waiting in the reception area while the husband was in getting his examination. And the doctor emerged from the office with a somewhat concerned look, making the wife very anxious. “Doctor, will my husband be okay?” she inquired. “I’m afraid your husband is very ill,” the doctor replied. “He has a rare form of anemia, and if it is left untreated, he will most certainly die from it. However, there is a cure.” “A cure?” “Yes. With rest and proper nutrition, the disease will go into remission and your husband should live for many more years. Here’s what I want you to do: Take your husband home and treat him like a king. Fix him three home-cooked meals a day, and wait on him hand and foot. Bring him breakfast in bed. Don’t let him do anything that you can do for him. If he needs something, you take care of it. Oh, and one more thing. Because his immune system is weak, you’ll need to keep your home spotless. Any questions?” The wife had none. “Do you want to break the news to your husband, or shall I?” asked the doctor. “Oh please, doctor, let me break it to him,” the wife replied. She walked into the examination room. The husband, sensing that something was wrong, said, “It’s bad, isn’t it? What have I got?” His wife answered with a tear in her eye, “The doctor said you’re going to die.” Now, I doubt the doctor could do that these days with the HIPAA laws, but still. It’s funny, but in a way, it’s what we’re like! We believe in Christ-like love, but we don’t like the sacrifice that goes along with it.
For our culture, love tends to be a passive thing – it sweeps you off your feet and takes control. But for St. Paul, love is not passive at all! It’s more than a feeling, it’s a self-giving which is shown through patience, kindess, forgiveness, and courage. Sometimes feelings go along with that, but they shouldn’t be the core of what love is for us. We know that because the pinnacle of love, Christ giving himself to us on the Cross, had nothing to do with nice feelings.
About a week ago, I had the opportunity to travel with a group of teens from our parish to Washington DC for the March for Life, and we as a parish should be very proud of them. Yes, we went to protest and exercise our freedom of speech, but the real reason we were there was to witness to the power of love: the love of parents for their children, the support of those who can’t support a child and feel pressured into abortion, the love even for those who commit these acts and continue to support them. It was about 25 degrees outside. Our feet were frozen and tired. There were protestors against the protestors calling us horrible offensive things. And despite this, despite the fact that it wasn’t popular or comfortable, the teens from All Saints witnessed out of love. That’s what love is: it endures and energizes even when (especially when) it isn’t comfortable. Blessed Mother Theresa said, “I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, but only more love.”
Love has to be the heart of all we do at our parish. We do so many good things: host fundraisers, open our doors to the homeless, educate the young, go to Belize to help those in poverty, sell t-shirts and salsa and Christmas wreaths. But without love, what’s the point? If we do these things without love, we’re really no different than the McDonalds down the street, exchanging goods or services. Love is embracing, and love is challenging. And it’s that love, the love of Christ, that should be at the heart of everything we do as a parish.
The love that Jesus shows us here isn’t some passing, self-indulging emotion, one that just wants to get what we can out of something or someone. It’s a courageous, sacrificial, and enduring lifestyle that we learn through the gift of ourselves to others. And this lifestyle is summed up in one symbol – the crucifix. So as we approach the Lord in the Eucharist today, that sincere gift of Himself out of love for us, let us strive to live that same lifestyle, and give that gift of ourselves to God and to others.
I don’t know if anyone else notices this, but the next part of Eucharistic Prayer I hits me like a bombshell. Here we’re just moseying along through Mass, singing somewhat happy and uplifting music and surrounded by pretty candles and vestments, praying, “Graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be deliveredFROM ETERNAL DAMNATION!!!” It’s somewhat unexpected, and pretty intense, isn’t it? I find myself sometimes trying to run this line together with the next to lighten the blow to you, my unsuspecting parishioners!
Sometimes, we like to avoid the topic of heaven and hell because we want to avoid the topic of judgment. The phrase that governs our whole approach to this reality is “Well, who am I to judge?” And this is true, we certainly are called to love others and leave judgment to God, but that’s the thing, we almost want to avoid judgment from God as well! We need to remember that as much as God is Love, God is our Judge as well – a just judge, and a loving and merciful judge, but a judge nonetheless.
How does God judge us? Actually Matthew 25:31-46 gives us the basics. Jesus speaks about sorting the sheep from the goats, thus our cries in the next line of EPI that we be “counted among the flock of those [He has] chosen.” Jesus will judge us according to how we treat him in our neighbors: he was hungry and we gave him food, thirsty and we gave him drink, and all the other charities that we’re so familiar with in this passage.
Most of us, if we’re honest, know that we’re not as good at doing these acts of love for our neighbors as we should be. And it’s in this realization that we find another realization: we are totally dependent on God’s mercy and love. That truth gives purpose to our celebration of Mass: just as the ancient Jews offered sacrifices and oblations in the Temple to atone for their weaknesses, we offer this one sacrifice of Jesus as the true and final sacrifice for all of ours. There is a prayer in the Divine Mercy Chaplet that I like to pray before Mass: “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world.”
It’s a fitting prayer before Mass and it pairs well with this section of the Eucharistic Prayer because we are reminded that Mass is about a sacrifice, an oblation offered for all of us. When we approach Mass, let’s call on that mercy that we all need for our failures, and ask for the grace we need to become better followers of Christ. Let’s pray that we can be the sheep, not the goats, and be called to the “flock of those He has chosen.”
A few years ago, my parents gave me one of the best wall calendars in the world. Now, I really don’t use wall calendars much, especially since most of my calendar information is on my phone, but in this case, it was the best calendar that I have received, and really that anyone else has received, in modern history. It was called “Nuns Having Fun,” and was filled cover to cover with a variety of images of fully-habited nuns doing fun things. There were nuns in bumper cars, nuns on roller coasters, nuns having snowball fights, nuns playing basketball, and on and on. One of my favorites was a whole line of nuns hefting their shotguns, having just gone skeet shooting! It was a crazy calendar, but brought up a great point: the Christian life, a life of prayer, isn’t one to be suffered through – it’s a life of joy!
That’s a truth that we can see in our Gospel today. A lot of things can be pointed out about this Gospel. It is Jesus’ first public miracle and really kicks off his public ministry. It shows us the deep relationship between Jesus and his Mother. The transformation of water to wine calls to mind Eucharistic imagery that might be interpreted in a number of ways. But one detail that is overlooked is that Jesus was doing all this at a wedding feast! This is no small detail. He lived a life of joy. He went to parties, albeit with his mom, but still! It shows us that Jesus wasn’t a stranger to the good and fun things in life.
It’s important for us to remember that the good things of our lives here on earth are gifts from God. These are gifts like juicy steak or a finely cooked pasta or a delicious cup of chili on a cold day. These are things music and art like the Barocci exhibit at the Art Museum. These are things like good books or fun movies. And of course, these are things like Cardinal baseball! These are all blessings from God! In fact, did you know that there is actually a blessing for beer? Yep! It’s from the old Roman Ritual released prior to the Second Vatican Council, so it’s all in Latin, but I pulled it out to prove it to you:
Bless, + O Lord, this creature beer, which thou hast deigned to produce from the fat of grain: that it may be a salutary remedy to the human race, and grant through the invocation of thy holy name; that, whoever shall drink it, may gain health in body and peace in soul. Through Christ our Lord.
Oh yeah, and then you bless your beer with Holy Water. That’s funny stuff, right? But it calls us back to my original point, which is that the good things of life ultimately point us back to God. They give us little hints about what true and close communion with him will be like. Jesus didn’t just make wine from water to keep the party going, but to draw us into the mystery of the power of God and to draw out gratitude. If these little gifts like steak and baseball can bring us so much joy, imagine the delight that comes from actually possessing God totally! That’s what he desires of us here and now in a limited way, and what he calls us to in a perfect way forever in heaven. Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit and the so-called chaplain of Catholic comedian Steven Colbert, wrote a book called Between Heaven and Mirth about the relationship between fun, humor, joy, and the spiritual life, and in his book, Fr. Martin wrote, “In our deepest longings we hear echoes of God’s longing for us. And the more we can follow these deep-down desires, those that God places within us for our happiness, the more joyful we will find ourselves.” God gives us little joys and fun for a reason – to draw us back to him.
Too often we can think of God as aloof and separated from the healthy joys and fun of the human experience. We think, “Oh, it’s time for me to be a Christian again, so I guess fun has been cancelled.” But Jesus didn’t just come to teach us theology, but to bring us back to our fullness. It’s part of our human nature to want to celebrate, to enjoy the things of creation – like weddings and wine, as in the Gospel – but Christ is also teaching us to do so in a healthy, balanced way, that ultimately draws us to fulfillment.
So before people think that I’m just telling you all to go crazy as soon as you get out of Mass, remember what our faith teaches us about the virtue of temperance. The Catechism teaches us that temperance is the “moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable.” Essentially, we enjoy the gifts that God has given to us, but we remember that they’re there to draw us closer to him, and the joy that he gives, not to draw us in on ourselves in selfishness and self-indulgence. Sometimes that’s a difficult distinction to make, but there are three big ways that show us if our balance between joy and indulgence has been interrupted. One way we know is if our pleasures are interfering with our responsibilities – when watching the Sunday night football game is the source of strain between spouses. Another way to know is if our pleasures or responsibilities interfere with our prayer. Obviously, Mass is a big part of this, but this includes personal and private prayer as well. We’re so often willing to put long hours into work or home improvement, and we decide that we need that time for relaxation (both of which are very good things), but then we can find it easy to shelve our time with God. The last way we know if our balance is off is if we can’t laugh at our minor mistakes. When little accidents cause huge disastrous temper tantrums, we know we’ve lost the point and that we’re too concerned about ourselves.
God continues to give us so many good things in our lives, so many causes for joy. As we approach him in prayer before this altar today, let us pray that we would have the grace not only to thank God for these earthly joys, but to remember that they ultimately foreshadow the joy of life with him in the world to come.