Re-connecting to the Lord (re: incense, chant, & Latin)

In just a couple of days we will leave Ordinary Time, as briefly as we were in it!, and enter into the season of Lent in preparation for the season of Easter.

One of the things that marks the changing of the seasons are the changes of how we celebrate the Mass. While it is still the Mass in it’s substance, some of the elements are changed or omitted – the ‘alleluia’ just before the Gospel is replaced with a more subdued acclamation. Similarly, the Gloria is omitted throughout the season as we take on a more quiet and reflective tenor or tone to our prayer and worship.

There are three other elements that we are adding into the liturgies in our parishes, and I’d like to speak about them because they often bring with them frustration, consternation, or simply confusion. Why are we adding these in, what do they mean, what purpose do they serve?

These three things are: incense, chant, and Latin.

While I would discourage you from taking your understanding of the faith from Hollywood, I think you’ll find that if there is ever a scene involving the Catholic Church (funeral, wedding, whatnot), there will always be copious amounts of incense, someone will be chanting something at some point, and Latin will inevitably be included. The director may get everything wrong about what we believe, but these are clear signs to the viewer that this is a Catholic moment.

Now we’re more accustomed to these things, but even we might not know what they are all about, so I’d like to spend some time on them today.

To start, I’d like to start with the word ‘religion’, which can help us understand the purpose of these elements and all the elements of the Mass. I have to go back to Latin, so bear with me. The word ‘religion’ comes from two Latin words re and ligare. Ligare means ‘to connect’, which you might recognize as the foundation of the word ‘ligament’, which holds the members of our body together. So religion means to re-connect.

And what are we re-connecting? Well, we are re-connecting with ourselves and we are re-connecting with God. I don’t think it takes much for us to recognize the divisions that exist in our lives – within our communities, our families, and most especially with the world. There is brokenness all around us. Some of those divisions are ideological, some simple distance, some by choice, some by accident. We see this in Scriptures today in the division of those who are healthy (and presumed holy) and those who are ill (and presumed sinful).

We also need to re-connect, as one Body, with God. We need not go into much detail, but a faithful examination of conscience will quickly reveal how we are separated, divided, from God.

May I take this opportunity to also point out that one of the additions to our life of prayer are extra opportunities in Lent for confession. And if you haven’t been for a while, the invitation is open: come to confession.

So here we are, at Mass, as part of the Catholic religion, looking to re-connect with each other and God. What do incense, Latin, and chant have to do with that? They’re clearly not necessary for faithful prayer: I’m confident that very few, if any, use incense to pray in private, nor Latin, and probably not chant for the most part either.

But why does the Church put emphasize on these things?

Well, let’s start with incense – not the least because I am biased: I love incense! I think it’s the coolest thing in the world and in fact, I just purchased a sampler pack that we’ll be trying out at my parishes.

Incense comes from our practice in the Scriptures. If you read the book of Revelations, if you get past the trials & tribulations, you get to the vision of John the Evangelist’s vision of heaven. God the Father is sitting on his throne, surrounded by the multitude of saints dressed in white.

Saints are simply people like you and I who have been purified by the Blood of the Lamb and are at last in heaven. They’ve lived our life, suffered through sorrows like ours, and have died our death before receiving the eternal life they enjoy. St. John sees them before God, praising Him without end and interceding on our behalf. And he envisions those prayers being lifted up on incense before the glory of God.

If we look in the Old Testament, we see incense being used as well. And there especially we see an element of purification. As we smoke meat to cook it – or as in olden days smoke was thought to bring healing to sick persons – so we use incense to bless, to sanctify places, objects, and people. This is why incense is often perfumed, so that we both our sense of sight and smell are engaged.

So now to chant. What is that all about? Well, chant is just the spoken word put to music – but not just any words! We wouldn’t just enter into conversation and chant that at someone, possible though that may be. We would probably lose conversation partners at an amazing rate.

That said, we put to chant words, prayers, that we want to elevate, that we want to emphasize as having a holy character and purpose. We are essentially saying ‘this is an important thing’, as with the antiphons, the prayers of the Mass, the dialogue between the priest and the people. We’re not talking normally in these moments, we’re doing something extra-ordinary and so we elevate it by formalizing it in this special singing that is chant.

Finally, there is the use of Latin, and I know that this one is at times controversial – not least because most peoples around the world don’t speak Latin in any kind of day-to-day conversation. And yet, the Church has chosen Latin as Her official language, as the language of Catholics. This doesn’t mean you have to learn Latin wholesale, but it is the language that is meant to unify us in prayer.

There’s a practical aspect too, right? In our communities here in Lewis county we have at least two language-speaking communities at any given time – Spanish and English – to say nothing of other languages that may be spoken by others present. The result is that while language can be a source of pride, but also a source of division – not because we are against each other, but because we don’t have one common, worldwide language.

So, the Church responded by settling on one common language so that at for our prayer we can speak with one voice, a language for our faith. We may not have an extensive of grammar or vocabulary, but we know what the prayers mean. Take the Sanctus, offered before the Preface and Eucharistic Prayer. We know that ‘Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus’ means ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’.

Neat fact: Jesus probably spoke at least a little Latin because that was one of the languages of the time. He was Jewish, so He certainly spoke Hebrew. The culture of the time most likely spoke Aramaic, and the civil government spoken Latin – which most citizens would have had some reasonable grasp of in order to interact in secular society. We don’t use Latin solely for that reason, but it is neat to think that we have that connection.

Latin has endured throughout the years specifically it is a dead language, which admittedly sounds awful. I’m reminded of a ditty that someone taught me in seminary: “Latin is a dead language, as dead as it can be; it killed off all the Latins, and now it’s killing me.”

But what that means is that it is stable – the meaning of words is no longer evolving. I suspect we’ve all had words that meant one thing in one decade and have since changed to mean another now, sometimes even an opposing meaning. But Latin doesn’t have that pitfall and so the Church uses it as our common language of faith.

So why are these three things worth bringing up? If nothing else, it’s worth acknowledging that these particular elements often bring consternation, misunderstanding, or are simply difficult to integrate into our regular practice of prayer. We might even think ‘I want to do what the Church tells me, but this is hard!’. And that alone is worthy of attention – no one should feel as if they must shoulder that difficulty alone, without support.

So, we delve into these elements to see how they all serve a purpose – they assist in the function of religion, of re-connecting our diverse membership to each other, and us to the Lord. And the hope of the Church is that these common elements will bring us together. This is why we do the same thing at every Mass, following the command of Christ: “Do this in memory of Me”.

What held the disciples together? At first, it was Christ Himself, present bodily to them. And now, after His death, resurrection, and ascension, He has left us this memorial of His sacrifice – which is also His very Self, His Body & Blood offered in the Eucharistic celebration.

We have this common practice, this common action, that re-connects individuals, and individuals with Christ.

In a couple of days we will enter into Lent, and the liturgy will look different – we know this, having gone through this each year. And I very much want to encourage you: even if you struggle with the various elements, these or others, look at what the Church intends in our worship.

And what is it that She wants for us? The same thing that Christ wants for the leper. And while the leper who is divided from the community due to his visible infirmity, our divisions are not always so obvious. While the leper calls out ‘unclean, unclean!’, we have no practice of calling out our infirmities or divisions – just imagine what that’d look like! ‘I’m struggling with anger!’ or ‘I’m battling with lust’ or ‘I’ve fallen into despair’. No, we don’t do that.

But that is what Mass is for, that is what Christ and His Church wants for us: the unity of the Body of Christ and the unification with the Body to Christ.

As we enter into this season, may we ask the Lord to heal us, to cure us, to unite us. That He may to use these elements, even ones that are alien, foreign or uncomfortable for our benefit. That they might serve us to achieve that re-connection, that we might one day be saints too, joining those gathered before the throne of God, to intercede for those yet separated from the Lord, that we may even now participate in that unending, eternal praise of Christ.

[February 20, 2018 – additional references]

For anyone who is interested in learning about the liturgy, the documents below are invaluable resources. After all of the Masses I preached this homily, these were mentioned and included in the pastor’s notes – I’m sorry I didn’t initially include them in my post here online. They’re not especially long (20-30 pages) and do not require a theological background to read & understand. They’re both both for teaching and reflection and I highly recommend them:

Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) – the first document of Vatican II and a defining teaching on what the liturgy means for the Church

Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy) – the music document commission after Vatican II to follow up on Sacrosanctum Concilium, specifically addressing how to implement its directions in the area of liturgical music

General Instruction of the Roman Missal – this contains the directions of the ‘how’ to offer the Mass. It addresses almost every ordinary celebration of the Mass (pontifical Mass, for example, are not addressed here) and is a wonderful reference for the ‘how’ of the Mass.

I would highlight #24 of the General Instruction, which binds a priests – who have made a public promise of obedience to the Church and its laws – to follow the rubrics of the Mass: “The priest must remember that he is the servant of the sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery” (1066 and onwards) – The section covers all of the sacraments and then some, so it may be wise to pick where your focus will be, but the opening paragraphs are especially useful in laying out our understanding of what liturgical prayer is and means.

Dupes for brussels sprouts & Jesus (September 3, 2017)

Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh
Jesus Christ, incarnate by the Holy Spirit
Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary
Jesus Christ, baptized by John in the Jordan
Jesus Christ, beginning His ministry at Cana
Jesus Christ, healing the sick and rebuking demons
Jesus Christ, forgiving the sinner
Jesus Christ, persecuted
Jesus Christ, celebrating the Last Supper
Jesus Christ, arrested
Jesus Christ, suffering
Jesus Christ, crucified
Jesus Christ, suffering death
Jesus Christ, entombed for three days
Jesus Christ, risen from the dead
Jesus Christ, sending breathing on the Apostles
Jesus Christ, ascending into heaven
Jesus Christ, sending His Holy Spirit
Jesus Christ, returning in glory
Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father

Letting the name of Jesus Christ settle into our hearts this morning, I’d like to turn for a moment to a more mundane topic, though it’s near to my heart too: brussels sprouts.

The reason I bring them up is that I see a pretty clear connection with Jesus. See, I love brussels sprouts. It starts with my father and a dish that he has prepared at our family Thanksgiving celebration for as long as I can remember. It’s fairly simple: obviously you start with brussels sprouts, along with broccoli and cauliflower. You boil them for just under ten minutes and then toss them in a sauce made up of butter, honey-Dijon mustard, lemon juice, marjoram, garlic, capers, along with a touch of salt & pepper.

It’s my favorite vegetable dish. In fact, it’s so popular in our family that all of us regularly insist not only that it be made at Thanksgiving, but that it be made several times throughout the year. I’ve grown up with a special fondness of brussels sprouts as a result.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out that brussels sprouts aren’t actually a popular vegetable. Some folks outright refuse to touch them, with one of my friends referring to them as ‘stinky feet’. I guess that’s a reference to how they think they smell?1

It turns out that my father has gotten me – has gotten our whole family – into loving the most disliked vegetable out there. I’ve been tricked!

The prophet Jeremiah has a similar moment in today’s reading: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”

Jeremiah has reason to be frustrated. If we go back to his call to be a prophet, we are reminded of his original hesitant response: ‘I don’t know about this Lord – I don’t know how to speak. I’m too young!’ To which, the Lord replies simply: ‘Don’t tell me you’re too young. You’ll go where I send you and say what I command. And I will put my words in your mouth!’

So Jeremiah does what the Lord asks – and finds it to be both easy to do and hard to take. He does indeed preach the Truth, but time and time again, those to whom he is proclaiming God’s will reject Jeremiah, rebuke him, persecute him. And so Jeremiah questions, wonders what God is doing.

We don’t get off lightly ourselves. In fact, at baptism we are anointed not in one ministry but in three – as priest, prophet, and king – according to the threefold ministry of Christ Himself. In some ways, Jeremiah had it easy compared us!

“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” – darn straight! These could be the words of any Christian, wondering at what God is doing with us, to us.

Lord, I’m too young, too old, too sinful, too weak, too afraid. Lord, I just don’t know what to say.

And yet, the Lord reassures us as He reassured Jeremiah: “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” And Christ Himself reassures us: “….do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say.”

And the Lord has put His word into our mouths – the Word made flesh, incarnate by the Holy Spirit, baptized by John in the Jordan, Who began His ministry at Cana, Who healed the sick and rebuking demons, Who forgave the sinner, Who was persecuted, Who celebrated the Last Supper, Who was arrested, Who suffered, died, and rose again, Who breathed on the Apostles, Who sent His Holy Spirit, Who will return in glory, Who is seated at the right hand of the Father.

That Word is Jesus, Who will be placed into our mouths right here at this Mass. Jesus is the first Word, the last Word, the only Word that we need.

It is so tempting to dwell in hesitancy, in worry, in fear of God’s call. Saint Peter himself, along with the Apostles, was overcome with the fearful lies that Satan whispers in each of our hearts.

And so we call on the name of Jesus – to rebuke Satan as He did in that moment on Peter’s behalf, now asking Him to rebuke Satan’s whispered discouragement to us. In Jesus name we renounce the lie that we are too young, that we are too old, that we are too sinful, that we are too weak, that we can be controlled by fear. Let us focus not on the lies of Satan, but on the name of Jesus.

And let us receive the Word made flesh, made present in this Mass at this altar. Let that Word be the only one we rely on, that we proclaim, in which we put our trust. Let us receive the Word that nourishes us and proclaim His goodness to a world that desperately thirsts without knowing why. Let us proclaim the one Word that has the power to fulfill every desire: Jesus Christ.

(For those who might be interested, I offer for your enjoyment Father Maurer’s father’s brussels sprouts dish!)

  1. My friend has since corrected me – she calls them ‘stinky toes’, alluding to her impression of both the sight & smell of brussels sprouts.

A meal beyond imagining (homily – Jan. 22, 2017)

Today is my mother’s birthday, and in honor of that, I’d like to share one of our favorite family stories about one of her many gifts – cooking.

It was one of the first meals between her and my dad, as husband and wife. Now you need to know that her family was just made up of the four of them, Italians all. Food was plentiful and varying.

In his family, there were eleven of them and though his father (my granddad) worked hard, money and food was tight. Meals were simple and when grandma made the occasional pie for dessert it was split into ten – and someone often went without.

So, Mom prepared a spaghetti and dessert. Thick pasta noodles, tomato sauce spiced with oregano, Italian seasoning, and other flavors, meatballs generously spread throughout and Parmesan cheese on the side to be sprinkled on top.

Putting the dish in front of my father, she had every reason to be proud of her efforts.

So, imagine her surprise when dad asked “what is that?” And when she explained that it was her family’s spaghetti dish he blurted out in reply “That’s not spaghetti”

See, he was used to simple noodles, with tomato paste on top – that was what he grew up with.

Dinner continued and mom brought out a pie, homemade. Setting it on the table, she cut in into four and gave him a piece. Again he asked “what’s this?”. And to his great surprise she replied “that’s your piece!”. Unlike him, she had grown up receiving a quarter of the pie every time dessert was served. Even more than the spaghetti, this was a surprise he could get behind!

I have an idea of what my mom experienced, if only for a moment, at that first meal together. For one of the most disappointing things in caring for those you love is to have labored to provide a rich meal, a generous helping, a gift that will meets the needs of the one you love…. and have it spurned, in favor of a lesser good. As a pastor, I feel this keenly, here in our communities.

I hear it often, and in varying ways “this isn’t faith…church…parish life”. The way we celebrate Mass, the implementation of faith formation, the model for our youth program, how we do music, and so on and so forth. We want our own things, our own space, our own time. We want our old practices, our previous groups, the things of yesteryear.

And if not receiving what we expect, we complain. Against the priests, against the archbishop, the Church, against each other – anonymously or openly, privately or publicly – “why don’t you give me faith? Why can’t I have what I am used to, what I like?”


“This isn’t spaghetti”

Not true – we simply don’t know what true food, true drink is anymore.

There was no menu at the Last Supper, only what Christ had prepared: “Take This, all of you and eat It. This is My Body, given up for You. Take This, all of you and drink of It. This is my Blood, poured out for you.”

There is a joke in Catholic circles, perhaps you’ve heard it. It starts “You know who left Mass early the first time, right? …Judas.”

That stings, right? Who wants to be compared to the betrayer of the Messiah?

But why did he leave? What disheartened Judas to the point that he gave up the one food that would bring him salvation? It was that he could not have the meal he wanted. He wanted a conqueror, a warrior-priest. Judas wanted that dish best served cold: vengeance on the enemies of God’s chosen people Israel. He couldn’t accept the meal Christ had prepared for him, and for us.

What we have in our archdiocese, in our parishes is not simply a priest crisis but a crisis of all the faithful. The Lord is offering us richer fare than we’re accustomed to. It is spiced with sacrifice of old customs, it is a mix of communities to which we are not yet accustomed, it is flavored with surrender to a Will not our own.

But it is filling, and we are offered such generous portions as to have all our needs met.

Not content with the generosity of “Take and eat”, Christ has gone even further: “Do this in memory of Me”, He said. Prepare this meal for all who hunger, for all those who have been fed with lesser far. But how can we carry this invitation to others if we refuse to sit at the table, to receive the gift?

In coming days, weeks, and years, it’s reasonable to assume that our archdiocese and its parishes will continue to change, to adapt. But the meal, the meal stays the same. If we are to do more than survive, of we are to thrive as the chosen people of God, we must first open ourselves to what has been set before us.

If Judas is our cautionary example, the remaining Apostles – especially Peter & Thomas, are witnesses to hope. Though they first ran away, renounced and doubted the Lord, His patient care and invitation eventually brought them to celebrate His feast with fervor even to the point of death.

Perhaps we have also renounced, rejected or run away from what God is presenting us. But it is not yet too late! The Lord is still patiently inviting you and I, offering us more than just a quarter of a pie – but an extraordinary meal, a banquet. While we are still with the Lord, even with our doubts and anxieties, there is the opportunity to yet receive the great feast He offers us. Having tasted, seen how good it is, we might still with Thomas proclaim “My Lord and My God”.

Una comida sin medida (22 de Enero, 2017)

Hoy es el cumpleaños de mi madre, y en honor a eso, me gustaría compartir una de nuestras historias favoritas de familia sobre uno de sus talentos: su capacidad a cocinar.

Fue una de las primeras comidas entre ella y mi papá, como marido y mujer. Ahora usted necesita saber que la familia de mi madre estaba compuesta por los cuatro, todos italianos. La comida era abundante y variada.

En la familia de mi padre, había once de ellos y aunque su padre (mi abuelo) trabajaba duro, no era mucho dinero y la comida era sencilla. Las comidas eran simples y cuando mi abuela hizo el pastel para el postre se dividió en diez – y uno de ellos no recibieron una pieza.

Mamá preparó un espagueti y un postre. Tallarines gruesos de pasta, salsa de tomate condimentada con orégano, condimentos italianos, y otros sabores, albóndigas generosamente repartidas y queso parmesano en el lado para ser rociado en la parte superior.

Poniendo el plato delante de mi padre, ella tenía todas las razones para estar orgullosa de sus esfuerzos.

Así que imagine su sorpresa cuando papá preguntó “¿qué es eso?” Y cuando ella explicó que era el plato de espagueti de su familia él dijo en respuesta “Eso no es spaghetti”

Recuerda que él estaba acostumbrado a fideos simples, con pasta de tomate en la parte superior.

La cena continuó y mamá sacó un pastel, hecho en casa. Colocándola sobre la mesa, ella cortó en cuatro y le dio un pedazo. Una vez más preguntó “¿qué es esto?”. Y para su gran sorpresa, ella respondió “¡esa es tu pieza!”. A diferencia de él, había crecido recibiendo un cuarto de la tarta cada vez que se servía el postre. ¡Incluso más que los espaguetis, esto fue una sorpresa que él podía aceptar!

Tengo una idea de lo que mi madre experimentó, aunque sólo sea por un momento, en esa primera comida juntos. Para una de las cosas más decepcionantes en el cuidado de los que amas es haber trabajado para proporcionar una comida rica, una porción generosa, un regalo que satisfaga las necesidades de la persona que amas … y que lo desprecien, a favor de un bien menor. Como pastor, lo siento profundamente, aun aquí en nuestras comunidades.

Lo escucho a menudo, y de diversas maneras “esto no es fe … iglesia … vida parroquial”. La manera en que celebramos la Misa, la implementación de la formación de la fe, el modelo para nuestro programa de la juventud, cómo hacemos la música, y así sucesivamente. Queremos nuestras propias cosas, nuestro propio espacio, nuestro propio tiempo. Queremos que nuestras viejas prácticas, nuestros grupos anteriores, las cosas de antaño.

Y si no recibimos lo que esperamos, nos quejamos. Contra los sacerdotes, contra el arzobispo, contra la Iglesia, unos contra otros – anónima o abiertamente, privada o públicamente, ¿por qué no me dan fe ?, ¿por qué no puedo tener lo que estoy acostumbrado, lo que me gusta?

Como mi padre dijo: “Esto no es spaghetti”

Pero no es cierto – simplemente no sabemos lo qué es verdadera comida, verdadera bebida.

No había menú en la Última Cena, sino lo que Cristo había preparado: “Tomad y comed todos de él, porque esto es mi cuerpo, que será entregado por vosotros. Tomad y bebed todos de él, porque este es el cáliz de mi sangre, sangre de la alianza nueva y eterna…”

Hay una broma entre católicos, tal vez lo has oído. Comienza “¿Sabes quién salió temprano de la misa la primera vez?   … Judas.”

Eso pica, ¿verdad? ¿Quién quiere ser comparado con el traidor del Mesías?

Pero, ¿por qué se fue? ¿Qué desalentó a Judas hasta el punto de que renunció al único alimento que le traería salvación? Era que no podía comer lo que quería. Quería un conquistador, un sacerdote guerrero. Judas quería ese plato mejor servido frío: la venganza sobre los enemigos del pueblo elegido de Dios Israel. No podía aceptar la comida que Cristo había preparado para él, y para nosotros.

Lo que tenemos en nuestra Arquidiócesis, en nuestras parroquias no es simplemente una crisis sacerdotal sino una crisis de todos los fieles. El Señor nos está ofreciendo una comida más rica de la que estamos acostumbrados. Es condimentado con el sacrificio de viejas costumbres, es una mezcla de comunidades a las que todavía no estamos acostumbrados, tiene la especia del sacrificio a una voluntad no nuestra.

Pero es abundante, y se nos ofrecen porciones tan generosas que tienen todas nuestras necesidades satisfechas.

No contento con la generosidad de “Tomad y comed”, Cristo ha ido aún más lejos: “Hagan esto en memoria de Mi”, Él dijo. Prepara esta comida para todos los que tienen hambre, para todos aquellos que se han alimentado con comida inferior. Pero ¿cómo podemos llevar esta invitación a otros si nos negamos a sentarnos a la mesa, a recibir el regalo?

En los próximos días, semanas y años, es razonable suponer que nuestra arquidiócesis y sus parroquias seguirán cambiando para adaptarse. Pero la comida, la comida sigue igual. Si hemos de hacer más que sobrevivir, de que debemos prosperar como el pueblo elegido de Dios, primero debemos abrirnos a lo que se ha puesto delante de nosotros.

Si Judas es nuestro ejemplo cautelar, los otros Apóstoles – especialmente Pedro y Tomás, son testigos de la esperanza. Aunque primero huyeron, renunciaron y dudaron del Señor, Su cuidado paciente e invitación finalmente los llevó a celebrar su fiesta con fervor hasta el punto de la muerte.

Quizás también hemos renunciado, rechazado o huido de lo que Dios nos está presentando. ¡Pero aún no es demasiado tarde! El Señor todavía te invita pacientemente a ti ya mí, ofreciéndonos más que un cuarto de pastel, pero una comida extraordinaria, un banquete. Mientras aún estamos con el Señor, aun con nuestras dudas y ansiedades, tenemos la oportunidad de recibir la gran fiesta que Él nos ofrece. Habiendo probado, visto lo bueno que es, todavía podríamos con Tomás proclamar “Mi Señor y Mi Dios”.