Fr Peter’s newsletter notes - November 2006
Posted on November 1st 2006 in Weekly messages
Sunday 12th November
A daily experience of God’s presence leads to a better appreciation of the sacraments of the Church
The exhibition of the works of the Spanish painter, Velázquez, at the National Gallery is not large. There are about fifty paintings in total, but within this number there are some exquisite pictures of daily life. There is one of an old woman cooking eggs, which must have been a common scene in Velázquez’ home town of Seville. This picture is not a photo record of folk history but a painting of incredible intensity, and the cooking of the eggs and the expression of concentration of the woman take on an eternal dimension, such that the action seems to take place both inside and outside of time. The picture possesses a sacramental sense, and points to the presence of God in the ordinary activities of life. This sacramental sense is again highlighted when, in another kitchen scene, Jesus is seen through a doorway in the background talking to Mary in Martha’s house, while Martha is in the foreground busy with a pile of plates.
These two pictures together depict both the positive and negative aspects of work. Human work does possess a certain dignity which it receives because the work is carried out by human beings. Work, however, is not the last word on human existence, and its justification and purpose are found beyond the experience of work itself and in the question about the whole of human existence. Mary has perceived this, while Martha has yet to make this leap. The picture shows that Martha’s work is not unnecessary as such, but it is not the most important thing at that moment. It is quite natural, especially in the City environment, to ask what someone does, or where they work. The catch here is that what is not considered ‘work’ as such devalues those engaged in these activities, while too much importance is given to defining the person through their work.
The genius of Velázquez’ paintings of domestic scenes is to show that the service undertaken to look after the household, which is often sadly devalued in today’s society, can in fact be the location of a daily holiness, a sort of day-long sacramental presence. This presence gives the meaning to the task at hand and so becomes the path of holiness for that particular cook, and a similar story could be said about so many other human activities within the home and extended family that make the living of life truly meaningful.
The rich sense of God’s presence in the everyday now becomes a good place to begin to understand the seven sacraments of the Church. These specific moments of grace are on a different plane to the everyday presence so far described. The sacraments were instituted by Christ during His public life and, over time, the Church has established seven of these. However, it takes away nothing of their force to say that they do not exist in a vacuum. They are built upon the sacramental quality of daily life which, unfortunately, too often lies hidden within the business of the everyday. This, I believe, helps understand why attendance at Sunday Mass can seem irrelevant to so many. It is obviously not the only reason; torpor and laziness certainly being among other reasons, but a life devoid of any sacramental presence is not fertile ground for the celebration of the greatest of all sacraments, the Eucharist. It takes the genius of a painter such as Velásquez to make this obvious point. Looking at these pictures suddenly makes clear that Jesus took what is human and everyday to use as the means to transmit His unique love, especially in the Eucharist. The elements for Mass already possess a sacramental sense that can be discovered in the everyday.
Sunday 19th November
The meaning of the end of the world for the Christian is found in the life of Christ
I am sure there are many priests, like myself, scratching their heads wondering what to say of relevance about this Sunday’s readings. The Gospel passage is taken from Jesus’ last public speech about the end of the world, and with all the phenomena that will characterise the final days. Most of us, I am sure, are rather more concerned about the immediate future; the next deadline at work or working out the logistics of ferrying children around at the weekend. The end of the world is hardly relevant in the maelstrom of daily events and crises. Instead it is grasped only in the personal experience of preparation for one’s own death, or the bereavement of a close relative.
As the conscious presence of the end shrinks from the minds of modern men and women,, a central tenet of Jesus’ teaching begins to loose its moorings. Concurrent with this comes the failure to understand and therefore counter religiously motivated violence. If the end of the world means so little to us, it is hardly surprising that the mindset of an Islamic jihadist remains a closed book defying analysis.
The entry point to discover the relevance of the end of the world for the Christian is a return to the beginning. The first words of St Mark’s Gospel are, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near at hand’. This oblique announcement as to Jesus’ identity shows the believer that God has entered history, and consequently eternity has entered time. The flow of history now contains within itself the fullness of time. This fullness was prepared throughout the Old Testament and, in Jesus, God has spoken His final word. His search for us has reached a conclusion. Now the incredible claim of Christianity is that every moment of time potentially contains this divine fullness, the active presence of God working through the Holy Spirit.
The Church, therefore, understands the end as already beginning in the birth of Jesus, and which will be firmly established through His death and resurrection. Jesus Christ is the definitive word as to the nature of God, and to the nature of our humanity. There can be no further revelations as to the nature of God or man without compromising the identity of Jesus Christ as true God and true man.
The daily struggles and activities of life for the Christian must therefore be marked by an ‘eschatological vigilance’, as one theologian describes the situation. The reality of the end of the world places at the forefront the question of meaning, as to the reason ‘why we do what we do’. The Church places the utmost importance on this life, which is no dress-rehearsal for something different or better. A consciousness of the end gives an edge to our decision-making and encourages one to make a more committed choice of doing good and avoiding evil. This heightened consciousness is an excellent antidote to the wasting of time, whether in its old fashioned means or in its high-tech form of google, youtube and round robin emails. The end raises a question about the present moment and gives it the due importance it deserves. So much of life can pass by without a care for its origin and end in God. The Christ-filled moment is the full moment, and consequently living according to His commands will permit a greater share in this fullness. This will ultimately lead to our greater happiness because, paraphrasing St Augustine, our hearts are lost till they find their home in Christ.
Sunday 26th November
The kingdom of Christ is not brute power but revealed in the search for truth.
The liturgical year ends with the Feast of Christ the King, a largely forgotten event that hardly registers in the run up to Christmas. This feast is of relatively recent origin as it was established by Pius XI to counter act the corrosive effects of fascism and secular thought in the 1930s. The lack of any obvious connection to an event in the life of Jesus, not celebrated in other liturgical seasons, means that for most Catholics the solemnity passes without much thought. The Feast of the Epiphany and the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday speak more clearly as Feasts of Christ’s kingship. The focus of this Sunday is strangely less on Christ, and more on His followers. Christ is the universal king, but we, as believers, are therefore His subjects. There is now little in the world to acquaint ourselves with the meaning of the divine right of kings. This is all a matter of history. The modern state might require our allegiance or least our tacit support, but any sense of absolute moral obligation to the ruling monarch has largely disappeared. The present Queen of Great Britain deserves our allegiance more because of her incredible sense of duty than any right she might possess of herself.
Yet this is exactly what Christ demands of us, an unswerving allegiance owing to His person, because through His person He has revealed the truth, about God, about our self and about the world. The kingship of Christ is based not on military power but on the truth, and therefore His kingdom is not of this world, because truth finds its ultimate source and conclusion in God the Creator. Jesus claims to bear ‘witness to the truth’, and his authority to do so is as Son of God. The difficulty of trying to make sense of his kingship is due to the lack of any common understanding of the meaning of truth. The Greek word for truth literally means ‘to uncover’, or ‘to reveal’ while the Hebrew word means ‘to be firm, to be loyal’. Therefore to speak the truth for the ancient Greeks is to conceal nothing. Greek thought and religion was concerned with the search for truth, of passing from the world of surface images to one of deeper reality, and ultimately to God. The influence of Greek thought is seen in the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament. Later St John will remember the words of Jesus, ‘the truth will set you free’. This is not very different from the Hebrew concept of God as stable and unchanging. The idea of truth as ‘remaining firm’ and trusting in, or leaning on, God requires discernment below the level of the everyday.
The access to the truth therefore demands a relationship between believer and God. This relationship remains largely unconscious day by day for most people. Neither the daily pace of modern life nor the agnostic viewpoint lend themselves to continuous reflection. However to step aside from the constant flow of activity will make anyone aware that speaking the truth implies relationship between speaker and listener. The old City adage, ‘my word is my bond’ is only made possible through a trusting relationship between two people, a state of affairs which unfortunately seems to becoming more of a rarity these days.
Jesus tells Pilate that He ‘bears witness to the truth’. This He does by revealing His divinity through what He said and did in his humanity. In this way a relationship is built up between Jesus and believer which is described as faith, because it penetrates beneath the surface of His humanity to grasp that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. The believer is confident in placing His trust, of literally leaning on Christ because He is the access to and source of all truth. Jesus becomes King in terms of truth to those who recognise Him as Son of God, and so long after earthly dynasties fall away the kingdom of God continues silently to grow un-noticed and un-observed.
‘The Paschal Mystery in the Church’s sacraments’ (CCC 1113-1134)
The Catechism began its section on the Liturgy by defining it, the celebration of the sacraments, as the work of God. This was explained in terms of the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Before the content of each sacrament is outlined in turn, the Catechism sets out to explain the doctrinal elements common to all.
The seven sacraments are all the work of the Church, which is itself the sacrament of Christ, making visible His presence through the action of the Holy Spirit. These seven sacraments are works of the Church, as every believer recognises each Sunday. The sacraments also constitute her nature, and the Church becomes the place to meet God. This ability to meet Christ is possible because every Christian shares in Christ’s priesthood. The ordained priesthood also continues the work of the apostles who were handed by Christ the mandate to preach and celebrate the sacraments to all the nations.
The celebration of the sacraments involves by necessity the duty to evangelise, because the sacraments need faith for their reception. The Word of God must be preached, especially that of the death and resurrection of Jesus to the believer, and accepted by him or her in faith. The new Christian is welcomed into an already believing Church, which possesses in itself perfect faith as it is the mystical body of Christ, and so of necessity must accept her liturgical practices. The Church has always maintained that the ‘law of prayer is the law of belief’. The concomitant responsibility also lies with the clergy not to change the way the sacraments are celebrated because this would be tantamount to tampering with the beliefs of the Church.
Each sacrament is ultimately the work of God acting through a minister, normally the priest. The validity of the sacrament is not dependent on the moral qualities of the priest but, just as the disposition of the recipient determines their receptivity of grace, so the minister has a duty to celebrate the sacraments with dignity and integrity.
‘The Paschal Mystery in the Church’s sacraments’ (CCC 1135-)
The Catechism now moves from general comments about the Liturgy to answer four specific questions about its celebration within the Church. The first of these questions is, ‘Who celebrates the Sacraments?’ The ultimate answer is found in the heavenly Liturgy which forms the foundation of every earthly celebration of the Sacraments. This might be the furthest from anyone’s mind when entering Church on Sunday, but it is the necessary ground for any true celebration. The Book of Revelation gives a vivid account of this heavenly liturgy. The throne of the Lamb (the image of Jesus Christ) stands at the centre of the heavenly Jerusalem and out from the base flows living water (the image of the Holy Spirit) which animates every earthly Liturgy. Around the throne stand in sequence the martyrs and all the faithful. The whole Christ, in other words the Church, is the chief celebrant at every Liturgy. Consequently there can be no really private liturgy. They are all public works of the Church, and so the fruits of each particular liturgy are applied to the whole Church. (Hence the current practice of saying Mass for the dead). The Second Vatican Council called for ‘a full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful’. This does not mean everyone has to have something ‘to do’ other than attend Mass, but rather it is a recognition that participation in Mass through the responses to the prayers is a participation in the one liturgy of heaven.
Every religion uses signs and symbols from the created and human world to communicate religious realities. These respond to the physical and social nature of humanity. They build on the implicit sacramentality of the created order which points towards its Creator. The Church takes this up, and uses signs and symbols for its own divine purposes. Jesus used them to communicate His message of salvation: the laying on of hands, the blessing of bread, the use of water and oil, etc. These actions were always accompanied by His Word in order to elicit a response in faith and a moral conversion. Hence every sacrament in the Church is accompanied by the Word of God for the very same reasons.
‘How to celebrate the Liturgy’ (CCC 1153-1162)
Every sacrament uses signs and symbols, some that are part of the common heritage of humanity, and others specific to the traditions of the Jews, as mentioned the previous week. However each liturgical celebration is accompanied by the Word of God, which should invoke the response of faith. The Word instructs the faithful on what is being celebrated, as well as being the vehicle by which the celebration of the sacrament is brought to fruition through the action of the Holy Spirit.
The essential quality of the Word for every sacrament therefore gives liturgical chant prime position amongst Christian forms of art. The use of chant has been an integral part of worship from at least the time of Moses, and the singing of the psalms has continues to this day in the daily prayer of the Church. St Augustine wept at the sound of Christian hymns, ‘those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart’. The catechism emphasises the spiritual importance of chant and hymns, but with the caveat that all such chants and hymns should confirm to catholic doctrine and be faithful to liturgical sources; a counsel unfortunately lost in the immediate years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)
The catechism concludes this section on ‘how to celebrate the Liturgy’ with some comments on religious art. The Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) finally settled the Iconoclast dispute. The invisible God had become visible in Jesus Christ, and therefore it was just to depict the mysteries of Christ and the events of His life in painted form. This applies equally well to icons as well as to our tradition of western narrative painting. The birth of Islam during the iconoclast controversy as well as their belief in the utter transcendence of God explains why no pictorial art is possible, and hence Islamic art is by and large restricted to very beautiful complex interlocking geometrical forms, whether in marble, mosaic or carpet.