The Language of Sacrifice: a new kind of Mass?

Most people would agree that this is proving to be a very strange Eastertide, but I wonder how many have been thinking about the language of sacrifice. Some have, obviously. There have been some profound reflections on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and how that affects each one of us. Others have been discussing the Eucharist, more specifically the possibility of online Communion, though I think it would be fair to say that the language of sacrifice, if used at all, has tended to be more about the experience of deprivation for the would-be communicant than what I, as a Catholic, would instinctively link to the Mass. Then, of course, there has been the popular use of sacrifice in relation to the work being done by healthcare professionals, especially where loss of life has been involved during the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

I am not undervaluing any of this, but I confess to a growing unease which was crystallised a few days ago after learning that one of our oblates in the U.S.A. had been subjected to a reckless and unprovoked invasion of her business space by someone who regards COVID-19 as a hoax. No one is happy about the restrictions placed on everyday life in an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but most people are taking them seriously and co-operating generously. Those who don’t are placing others at risk, but I’d like to understand why they are they doing so. Why are a significant number of people choosing to flout regulations designed to protect them and the rest of society from the worst ravages of COVID-19?

I don’t think they can all be dismissed as stupid (some, after all, are highly intelligent and well-educated), unusually selfish (attributing moral failure to others is always tricky, and many would argue that they wish to protect their families by going to their second homes or whatever), or even blessed with overweening self-confidence in their own interpretation of everything from statistics to epidemiology, but perhaps a few have still to learn what sacrifice means and the value it has for us all. The Easter season ought to be a good time for reflecting again on that.

As soon as one says that, one runs into a problem. In the West we have become individualistic and consumerist in our approach to life in general and that affects how we think as well as how we behave. The smartphone and the internet have given us choice, but they have privatised that choice in a way unthinkable thirty years ago. We can watch what we want when and how we want rather than relying on a broadcast or cinema showing; we can buy a single music track rather than a whole recording; we can restrict our reading to those whose views correspond to our own more easily than ever; and we can voice our own opinions, no matter how crazy, for free, almost everywhere. That awareness of choice and our freedom to exercise it has carried over into other areas of life. Better transport means that we are no longer locked into the parish system the way we once were. We can travel to a church we find more congenial, and if one Sunday we don’t feel like getting the car out, there’s probably a livestream we can watch instead. It’s no accident that those who argue for the permissibility of abortion in any circumstances have campaigned under the slogan of ‘a woman’s right to choose’. 

Freedom and choice may have become absolute values for some but is their enjoyment and exercise dependent on the individual or on the group? We are back to elementary classes in political theory. Can we be free if we do not have a society around us that promotes and, if necessary, protects that freedom? Can we have choice unless there are alternatives, and what happens if some choose differently from us? How do we show care and compassion? What does the renunciation of some good or other actually mean?

Freely to give up something one prizes for the sake of a greater good is a very difficult thing to do. It means giving up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sureness about how things ought to be — and it is only in the West that we have that luxury. I read the other day that there are approximately five intensive care unit beds per million of population in the continent of Africa; in Europe the figure is nearer 4,000. It is easier to make a stand on a matter of principle when there is a safety net to catch one should one fall. Those claiming that their civil liberties are being infringed by the COVID-19 restrictions are right. They are being curtailed, but for a reason: the common good. And that is where it becomes necessary to understand why sacrifice is part of human life, not just religious life.

Without sacrifice, without the free, conscious renunciation of some private good, society as a whole suffers. If, for example, we do not agree to the payment of taxes, the sacrifice of some part of our income, we cannot expect publicly-funded education, healthcare or any of the services we identify as necessary to our well-being. If we do not sacrifice some personal good, such as our presumed right to say what we like when we like, we may seriously wound or even harm others (think slander and defamation). For the religiously inclined, this ought to be easier to grasp, but I don’t think it always is. For example, during Holy Week there was a lot of emoting in social media about being deprived of the Eucharist because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had given instructions about Mass which meant that its celebration had to take place behind closed doors, without a congregation present. It was, and is, hard for all of us; but if we concentrate on our own loss and our own sense of deprivation, I think we miss the point. The Mass is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, one with Christ’s self-giving on the cross. It is where our understanding of sacrifice begins, not ends. 

That, I think, is why for the Christian the language of sacrifice can never be limited to what we do in church but must have a larger context. Whatever any of us sacrifices is never a purely individual act, a matter of personal choice alone. I’d say that the people who are worrying about the survival of their jobs and the businesses they have built up are doing more sacrificing than those of us who are being shielded behind closed doors. Those working in hospitals or other front-line services, keeping the rest of us supplied with the necessities of life, are sacrificing hugely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. I’d add that those dying without the sacraments, those mourning the death of someone they love without a ‘proper’ funeral, are experiencing the closure of church buildings and the restrictions on clergy in a uniquely sacrificial way. So it goes on. We can name endless groups of people or individuals who are being required to sacrifice something precious to them.

Sometimes we talk about sacrifice in abstract terms, forgetting that it can hurt, that the pain is deeply felt. We have to trust, as Jesus did on the cross, that the results will be worthwhile; but it is trust that is involved, not a problematic certainty of the kind often alluded to in the mantra of our times, ‘let’s follow the science’. I hope it is not going too far to suggest that today, throughout the world, a different kind of Mass is being celebrated, a Mass in which human loss and pain are caught up into the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with an intensity most of us have not known before. Let us pray that we may be equal to what is asked of us and take our part, never forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice leads ultimately to victory and everlasting life.

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Mass in a Time of COVID-19

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of St John Paul II. He was a man of very definite opinions, as others often discovered to their cost. His role in the collapse of several dictatorships is widely recognized although not yet fully documented. Within the Church, too, he could be formidable. This morning I was thinking about one of his Apostolic Letters, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which came out in 1994 and stated that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.’ The problem for many was the way in which this teaching was subsequently expanded to prohibit any discussion of the matter. As far as I know, it is the only subject that may not be discussed by Catholics, which makes it quite difficult to address something the Church is going to have to deal with increasingly in the future, and which our current experience of COVID-19 has highlighted: access to the Mass and other sacraments.

Let me be quite clear. I am not disputing the teaching of the Catholic Church nor am I arguing for the ordination of women to the priesthood. What I am doing is asking whether the present situation is challenging our understanding of the Church and the sacraments. For example, if we forget for the moment those emoting about being unable to go to Mass as though they alone were affected, or those lamenting having to celebrate ‘their’ Mass behind closed doors, we face an uncomfortable truth. The only people to have physical access  to the Mass at present are men — male clergy. Of course, every Mass is offered for the whole Church, living and dead, and we can participate by spiritual communion; but the only people who can actually receive Holy Communion at present are the clergy.

I think that affects how we see the composition of the Church and the role of the sacraments within it. There is a kind of irony in the fact that under Pope Francis, who has frequently spoken against clericalism, the Church should have become extremely ‘clerical’ in her approach to the sacraments. Mass has become, in a certain sense, ‘privatised’. There is a movement, largely led by Protestant theologians, which is arguing for the validity of a digital Eucharist and online Communion. I myself do not see how such a thing could ever be countenanced according to Catholic sacramental theology, but the underlying questions are another matter. The Eucharist was given to the whole Church, not just part of it. How does the Church qua institution make that a reality?

Live-streaming Mass, making a spiritual communion, that is the experience of the greater part of the Church today. What was once confined to the invisible Church — the old, the sick, those in countries where priests are few and far between — has now become universal. Mass in a time of COVID-19 is very different from what most of us have known for most of our lives, and so with the other sacraments. I don’t, for one moment, deny the validity or even the necessity of the current arrangements, but I am glad that we are beginning to ask some very important questions about the Eucharist and other sacraments. The pro multis of the words of Eucharistic consecration are not to be lightly abandoned or understood in a restrictive sense, are they? Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us into a fuller understanding of this treasure entrusted to the Church.

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Sunday Worship: The Heart of the Matter

From time to time I find myself slipping into ex-M.C. mode when I attend Mass or some other liturgical celebration. Without meaning to, I register confusion or fussiness in the sanctuary or even plain disregard of the rubrics or canon law. I wince inwardly when the lessons are read poorly or the music badly performed; and I have been known to come close to nodding off/counting the heresies during one or two homilies. Quietnun similarly goes into ex-sacristan mode when confronted with ill-chosen vestments or altar linen that hasn’t been washed or pressed properly. If anyone knew, we’d be the bane of their lives; but fortunately, they don’t (you do, but that’s another matter. Please don’t reveal our shameful secret).

This morning’s Sunday Mass was much like any other. There was nothing very much for the critic in us to praise or condemn, but imagine how humbling it was to come home and read this prayer request (I’ve changed one or two details but the gist remains the same):

Dear God,
Please look after my brother, Tom. I’m worried about him as nothing ever seems to go right for him. I know you can take care of him like you’ve taken care of me all my life. Thank you, God. I love you, Chris

There you have it: love of God, trust and concern for others. What could be more perfect? Isn’t that what our Sunday worship should express? It is surely the most perfect praise any of us can give. Next time you are tempted, like me, to groan about the way the liturgy is conducted, or the shortcomings, as you see them, of those presiding or fulfilling various functions, why not remember Chris and simply tell God you love Him? That, after all, is the heart of the matter, but how often we forget!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Intimate and the Epic

That is not a bad strapline for Advent. We are preparing for the birth of a baby which, when it took place in history, was an obscure occurrence in a troublesome part of the Roman Empire — nothing to get excited about. But it was also the most amazing event ever to occur in any place or time: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Word made Flesh.

God seems to enjoy linking the intimate and the epic, often in ways we fail to register properly. The sacrament many of us receive most often comes to us in the humdrum form of a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, but we surround it with our own ideas of beauty and majesty.* Like Naaman, we prefer to have things complicated. We want grandeur rather than simplicity; we want to do great things for God rather than the little ones he actually asks. Today’s gospel (Matt 7.21, 24–27) is a case in point. We want to address God with all the grandiloquence and ceremony of which we are capable, to give free expression to all the words in our hearts, but he just wants us to be attentive to his word, to do his will.

Now that we are a few days into Advent, it would be useful to pause and ask ourselves whether the programme we have drawn up for ‘our Advent’ is really about drawing closer to God or puffing ourselves up with a sense of our own goodness. John the Baptist was great precisely because he was small in his own eyes. He had no other desire than to point towards Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all in that.

*Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for making our liturgy, and the places where we celebrate it, as beautiful as we possibly can. The casual and the sloppy are anathema to me. But without love and reverence even the grandest liturgy, the most beautiful music, are wanting.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Blessings Awareness Day

I have ‘Awareness Day’ fatigue. Too many good causes ask me to be ‘aware’ of this or that, to give my time, energy, money or what you will; to tweet or wear a ribbon; it is all too much. Apparently, today is, among other things, Bread Awareness Day. That set me thinking. Bread  is so important, a blessing in itself. Blessed and broken, it is a feature of most meals; consecrated and shared out in the Mass as the Body of Christ, it sustains both body and soul. So I hereby declare today Blessings Awareness Day, a day to acknowledge our blessings and give thanks for them. Nothing more is required, but it should put a smile on your face and laughter in your heart.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Mass: ever ancient, ever new

I rarely comment on liturgy, not because I am uninterested or lack any opinions (far from it!), but because I am sometimes uneasy about the way in which the subject is discussed. The introduction yesterday of a new translation of the Mass has prompted a few thoughts, however.

The language of prayer used in church has always an objective character. It is not a question of ‘what works for me’ but of what expresses the Church’s faith. It is, if you like, theology turned into poetry and drama. The words matter; the actions matter; the setting matters. It is a holy sacrifice in which we are called to share; so what we are matters, too. Every form of Mass sanctioned by the Church is, in the most literal sense, traditional: something precious handed on through the generations — one with every other Mass that ever has been or ever could be celebrated, one with the sacrifice of Calvary itself. Sometimes I think we forget that. Because we are interested in liturgy, because we enjoy the ‘doing’ of it, we treat liturgy like anything else, allowing ourselves a freedom I’m not sure we actually have. Liturgy in the Catholic Church is a ‘given’: one that requires whole-hearted collaboration and provides endless scope for true creativity (note the emphasis) of course, but a ‘given’ nonetheless.

We have decided in community that we shall say nothing, good or bad, about the new translation until six months have elapsed. If anyone is familiar with the Latin texts and has some years’ experience of liturgical translation, it is important to lay aside any prejudices or preconceived notions. We need to see the Mass with fresh eyes; listen to it with fresh ears. Discussion can get in the way of that, and with the approval of the new translation, the time for discussion is in any case effectively over.

Liturgical discussions often turn nasty because they are not really about liturgy at all. They are an excuse to vent negative feelings, using an irreproachable subject as pretext. The Mass is too important for that, too holy for that. Maybe over the next six months we shall have an opportunity not only to rediscover the Mass but also to discover something new about ourselves, too. The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the more we seek to know God, the more we get to know ourselves.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Women at the Altar

Like many Cantabs, I have been following at one remove the goings-on at Fisher House, Cambridge, and the row that has erupted over female servers at Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Rome has now clarified that women are not to serve at such Masses. Anyone with a smattering of liturgical understanding and knowledge of how Rome operates will understand how and why such a decision has been made. Note that understanding (and obedience) does not necessarily imply unequivocal endorsement. There are situations where a server is required if a priest is to be able to say Mass (ask any nun who has watched an elderly and confused priest struggling through Mass and failing to consecrate the elements). In my view, it is more reverent to have a server (of whatever sex) quietly waiting at the side than an incomplete Mass or much to-ing and fro-ing on the altar steps. That, however, is not the situation at Cambridge or in most parish churches, nor the one for which Rome is legislating.

That said, what do I find upsetting about the reports coming in from Cambridge? Two things. First, the language being used strikes me as profoundly irreverent. We are talking about the Mass, for heaven’s sake, and the accusations and counter-accusations, the talk of boycott and delation, the concentration on what I would regard as secondary matters at the expense of what is primary are, to me, disturbing. St Benedict distinguishes between good zeal and bad, seeing one as building up and the other as destructive. The point is, both are zeal, i.e. energy and enthusiasm at the service of an ideal. I personally do not doubt the good faith of any of those involved in the dispute, but I cannot help wondering whether the nature and intensity of the row is going to prove damaging.

The second thing that troubles me is more difficult to articulate. Catholicism is not a pick-and-mix religion and the liturgical norms determined by the Holy See will always be scrupulously observed here. But, not for the first time, I have the uneasy sense that there is another agenda at work among some of those who argue most vociferously. The dismissive, one might say belittling, language used of women and the presentation of liturgy as something chaps do and chapesses don’t is becoming unpleasantly commonplace. I don’t believe that everyone has to do everything (St Benedict has something to say on that subject, too) but I do think we should ask ourselves whether we are becoming exclusive in a way that is fundamentally at odds with our Tradition. Paradoxical though it may seem, as we assert some things as a strengthening of our Catholicism are we in danger of becoming less catholic?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Calm of Mind

The parish Mass this morning began with “Shine, Jesus, shine” which, as some of you know, is the community’s least favorite hymn. Yesterday’s bookcase-building plans had to be laid aside, and there followed a sleepless night for Digitalnun, so possibly not all was interior sweetness and light. In such situations there’s nothing for it but to let one’s distractions roam over what one has to be grateful for.

So, in no particular order, this is what I gave thanks for earlier today: the grey light over the church; the faith of those who gathered there; the jackdaw strutting over the lawn; the bulbs piercing their way through the dark earth; the smell of coffee; Duncan’s comical nose; the beauty of a new book; someone near me absolutely pitch-perfect (even in “Shine”!); the quietness of the monastery; the fact that I can see, hear and walk; the gift of community.

Isn’t it absurd to waste time and energy disliking a hymn when the beauty and holiness of God is everywhere? Praise him.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Advent Message

Romanesque Angle in Priestly Vestments
Romanesque Angel in Priestly Vestments

We are very close to mid-Advent. Tomorrow, Gaudete Sunday, the church will be a riot of rose vestments, music and incense. For some, it will be an anticipation of Christmas, for others, a mildly bewildering interruption of the “normal” sequence of events.

Advent is a mystery, rightly so since it is a preparation for the most wonderful event in human history, the birth of Christ. Mystery can only ever be hinted at, never fully explained or articulated because human language cannot express all the levels of meaning inherent in it. This beautiful romanesque sculpture from Hungary, however, seems to me to convey much of what Advent is about.

The Christmas story begins with an angel and a young Jewish girl’s acceptance of her vocation to be the Mother of God. It ends, if it can be said to end at all, with Christ the Eternal High Priest interceding for us before the Throne of Grace. In between these two we have, here and now, the sacrifice of the Mass which we pray “your angel  (i.e. Christ) may take to your altar in heaven.”

An angel wearing priestly garments and holding in his hand the sign of Christ’s triumphant death: here, surely, is the message of Advent. We are preparing for something, or rather someone, that goes far beyond our human imagining, that unites heaven and earth and gives us, even now, an eternal hope.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail