More of Celebration than Obligation
GUIDING LIGHT - Rev. Fr. Benjamin Sim, Sj (The Freeman) - November 4, 2017 - 4:00pm

Every so often we hear this objection from our Fundamentalist brethren: “Why do you call your priests ‘Father,’ when Jesus in the Bible clearly said, ‘Call no man Father?’” 

If we were to understand Jesus literally, not only can you not call priests “Father,” you cannot call the husband of your mother “Father.”

There are basically two approaches to understanding the Bible.  There is the literal interpretation, which claims that every word in the Bible means exactly as it is written.  The other interpretation, which we Catholics follow, is called the contextual interpretation, which tries to discover the essential message from the study of the context, the culture, the way of thinking, and the usage of language at the time and place the Bible was written.

For example, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Avoid the title Rabbi (Teacher).”  Then why did Jesus allow his disciples to call him “Rabbi” so often?

“Call no man Father.”  The fundamentalists say, “It is clearly written here.  It is forbidden.”  The best short answer is to say, “How do you dare call your old man father?  Same text applies, right?  Jesus doesn’t seem to make any exception.” 

But you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to figure out Jesus’ meaning.  All fatherhood and motherhood, all life, comes from God.  To call the priest “Father” is to remind us of that fact, or to acknowledge him as a spiritual father.

But let us take our lesson from the first reading today.  The passage comes from the prophet Malachi, who wrote about 460 B.C.  While the temple of Jerusalem was being reconstructed, the temple worship had fallen into a bad state, so these angry reproaches or dire warning from the prophet.

No bishop or liturgical commission today would use that severity of language in discussing the faults of our Sunday worship.  However, that doesn’t mean that what we do here on the Sundays is not in need of self-examination.

The whole face of Catholic worship has changed dramatically since Vatican II.  For example, by turning the altar around, you can now see my face, and I can see your lovely faces.  You are more involved, because you understand what I am saying.  I am no longer celebrating Mass like a magician, in unintelligible Latin.

How well are we doing?  We come to pray.  Fr. Tom Green, S.J. tells us that prayer is opening ourselves to God.  Simone Well says, “Prayer is attention.”  Others speak of “fully attending,” living in the words that we so easily, and sometimes carelessly speak.

Take some of the words we easily rattle off at Mass.  For example, at the beginning of the Mass most often we have a penitential rite.  Is it a time when we really do repent our sins – and are they really forgiven? 

We say together that rather beautiful prayer that begins, “I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters.”  For Catholics it is a new form of an old prayer, the Act of Contrition, and it adds something borrowed from the Anglican practice, asking pardon for “what I have done, and what I have failed to do.”  Yes, sins of omission – we didn’t seem to think about that before.

Once a man, who was a stranger to any church, who happened to drop in just as people were saying that part of the prayer at Mass.  He thought of all the things he hadn’t done and said to himself,  “This is my kind of church.”  He felt that he could find forgiveness here for what he considered a wasted life.

And another true story:  A young woman, hearing that prayer for the first time, when it was introduced to Catholic liturgy in English, rushed in after the Mass to check with the priest, “Did you really mean that about forgiving sins?” 

He said, partly teasing her, “Of course I did.  Do you think I was just fooling around out there?”  This is the real thing.  You are forgiven.”

But there is always a legal mind around to say that there is a difference here:  The priest is praying on our behalf for forgiveness.  He says, “May Almighty God forgive you.” 

In the sacrament of reconciliation, he does not pray, he declares: “I absolve you from your sins.” It’s a nice distinction.  But does anyone really think that the All-Merciful God does not answer that prayer or, the brief litany we sometimes substitute, “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy?”

How about the sacrament of reconciliation?  People can certainly prepare privately, before Mass, to make this public confession a personal one and certainly a meaningful one.

A young woman, who had decided to become a Catholic, on her own initiative, bought the St. Joseph’s Sunday Missal, which contains the entire lectionary.  She said that she wanted to think about the Mass in advance to be prepared for the homily or to make one of her own by meditating on it. 

She also wished to be sure of the structure of Mass and the prayers that she and all of us are invited to answer.  This is taking seriously the wonderful things we do each week, which is to offer together the great act that has characterized Christian worship from the beginning. 

The Eucharist is the Service of the Word and the Offering of Christ, and us with him, in him – we, who are members of his body.

Take another part of our worship that is often neglected or not fully understood: the ritual of bringing up the gifts of bread and wine.  This is a new rite and one that specifically involves the lay people.  It is their offering.  It is the fruit of their labor, the work of their hands.  That truth is echoed in the prayers which the priest says as the gifts are placed on the altar.

We also bring the money offering at this time.  It is offered, and in that simple gesture, we offer ourselves.  The tithe is our gift.  For most of us, it comes from our work.  From all of us, it is a way of giving thanks and sharing our blessings.  In fact, the whole act of worship is a giving of thanks, and that’s what Eucharist means.

That brings us to the heart of it.  We thank God most of all, for the gifts of His Son, who lived our life, showed us how to live.  He obeyed God’s will fearlessly, completely.  It is God’s will for all of us that we bring about the coming of His kingdom, his reign in the human heart. 

If we are really committed to doing this, it may well bring us into conflict with the world or the powers of darkness.  That happened to Jesus.  It didn’t stop him even though he ran the risk of being put to death.

God rewarded that self-sacrifice with the final great breakthrough of divine power: raising the one who was crucified, and endowing him with new life and power.  This victory is shared with us, beginning with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It means we can continue God’s work.  It means that we can live in hope.

We don’t need a Malachi to castigate us.  We can be thoughtful and responsive worshipers.  We are often told that this is the most important thing to do.  But do we act that way?  Do we show it by joining in the prayers, the singing, refusing to cut short the hour of worship – by coming in late, or rushing out before the end of the Mass?

When we experience something beautiful, we don’t want to leave.  We linger on the scene.  Do we feel that way about the Mass?  Do we become part of the worshiping community? 

There should be more a celebration than an obligation.  All this glorifies God, but it is certainly meant to lift up our hearts.

A Protestant minister visiting Luxemburg speaks of the young Catholic priest in one of the villages.  This summary of him by the Protestant visitor is striking: “He is a powerful preacher and is loved by his congregation.  I visit his church for his sermon and the great music from the organ.  I find God here in an overflowing way.”

Would a visitor to our churches write a similar report afterward to a friend?  Do our people hold this opinion?  Do our youth? 

It is a wished-for tribute, an assurance that one is doing some things well.  Not just great music, or organ recital, or a good sermon, but making it possible “to find God here in an overflowing way.”

You know there are three kinds of people in this world: those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those that wonder what happened.  To which group do you belong?

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