I have not seen research regarding the impact of the Sunday Scripture proclamations on the ubiquitous “man in the pew.” There are numerous long term studies about the effectiveness of preaching, but I am in the dark as to what actually happens during the tripartite proclamations of the Scripture at Sunday Mass. No irreverence intended, but there are some pretty outlandish statements in many readings that, at the least, might raise an eyebrow. In yesterday’s (Sunday’s) reading, for example, the author of the Book of Jonah (Jonah 3: 1-5,10) observes that the sinful city of Nineveh was so big that three days were necessary to transverse it on foot. This would make Nineveh the size of Lima, Peru, or Mexico City, both of whose populations are in the ball park of 10,000,000 souls. Or in yesterday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 7:29-31) we are told to live as if we did not have spouses. The grand daddy of all “what was that again?” moments in the Lectionary is Year A, Palm Sunday, when Matthew observes that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross the graves opened and the dead awoke, and (three days later!?) they arose and appeared to many in Jerusalem. No one has ever stood up in church and asked, “Uh, can you read that line again?”
When Karl Marx described religion as “the opiate of the masses,” perhaps he would have been more precise to describe the Liturgy of the Word as “the opiate of the Masses.” For despite the nature of Scripture as the Word of God, and despite the powerful literary accounts contained therein, the congregational response is, with apologies to Mel Torme, “a velvet fog.” My sense is that there is generic respect for the Word but with an existential distance, like eating spinach “because it’s good for you” without understanding the life-giving properties of Vitamin K.
It would be an easy out to say that part of the problem is the style of proclamation, a responsibility of lectors and deacons, and, in times of necessity, a celebrating priest. (Liturgical law is clear that proclaiming the Gospel during the Eucharist is not a “presidential function” and is to be undertaken by a deacon or priestly concelebrant; the celebrant proclaims only in necessity.) Another consideration is the homily. Again, Church law defines the role of the homilist as developing “some point of the readings.” While I do regret that most homilists seem unskilled in unraveling the details of God’s Word—more often resorting to a general exhortation of “the good, the true, the beautiful”—I am not sure this is the heart of the problem, either.
The biggest problem on Sundays is that most participants are hearing the texts for the first time in three years, that moment. A onetime exposure to a text at Mass is an introductory handshake. There is no knowledge of the sacred author or his intent; no sense of what happened immediately before or immediately after the cited text (absence of context). There is no “book consciousness,” no sense that Jonah, for example, is a Biblical philosophy book, not a divinely inspired miracle of marine biology; or that Paul, in Corinthians, was preparing a congregation for an imminent end of the world/final judgment.
As catechists and religious educators we do well to remember that the Scripture proclamations in the Mass are there to be celebrated, not taught in a technical way. The teaching component of faith formation is an absolute necessity for the celebration of Word and Communion. A basic grounding in the Scripture books enables us to actively hear the Mass texts and frees us to reflect at higher levels: this is God’s eternal word given over thousands of years; there would be no saving life, no hope, without this Revelation. Because of God’s infinite wisdom, this holy Word is presented in many and varied ways. There is, or should be, an emotional component to the hearing no matter how familiar we may be with the Sunday texts.
A good motto here might be “Sunday Is Not the First Run Through.” (I worked at the phrasing, and this was the best I could do this morning.) But you get the idea, and over time so will your people.
The first time I heard the term “Ordinary Time” I was in major seminary and I have to admit that the term left me cold. I was about 22 then, had been raised in the era of Latin worship and feasts, and the new Roman Missal, introduced in 1970, seemed quite a step down from the color, variety, and inspiration of the older Tridentine Missal, which dated back to the late 1500s and was a byproduct of the reform Council of Trent.
Prior to 1970 there was no ordinary time in our calendar. From Epiphany Sunday till the Lenten Season the Sundays were numerically ordered as the “Xth Sunday after Epiphany.” The Mass of the Second Sunday after Epiphany always contained the Gospel reading of the miracle of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. Similarly the Sundays after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday were called the “Xth Sunday after Pentecost.” In both seasons the color of the vestments was green, as is true of Ordinary Time today.
When the new Missal (and liturgical calendar) was published in its original Latin, the new term for the old green Sundays was simply Tempus per annum or “time of the year.” The thinking behind adopting the term “Ordinary Time” is not known to me; most encyclopedias point out-correctly-that the word “ordinary” actually refers to “ordinal numbers” (1, 2, 3, etc,) so that we name Sundays by their numerical sequence rather than calendar placement.
I note with some humor that every source I checked today on the topic of Ordinary Time bent over backwards to assure the reader that “Ordinary Time” is not “ordinary.” Church publications of all sorts talk of Ordinary time as a season of growth in the Christian life, with the green vestments symbolic of verdant growth of God’s Kingdom. (Of course, the early Sundays of Ordinary Time sometimes include blizzards and “Polar Vortexes” so the symbol of green is not always as evident as it will be in the Sundays following Pentecost in the spring.)
With this brief summary in mind, let me add a few thoughts. First of all, consider our real life experiences of feasts amid routine. The human spirit thrives upon opportunities to celebrate. Sociologists have described “play” as “loss of consciousness of space and time.” (Any parent trying to corral playing children from outside for dinner will vouch for this truth.) This contrast between extraordinary feasting and daily routine has long been a staple of the Christian calendar and from a catechetical vantage point teaches the importance of the great feasts of our redemption, the Christmas and Lent/Easter liturgies alongside the daily commitment of living the fruits of these feasts.
Second, I again hearken to a point I made last week that the Church’s liturgical year is centered in some respect upon a unique vision of Christ’s life and meaning by an inspired Evangelist. To be honest, I have rarely if ever seen a parish pastor or liturgical committee bring much thought to this aspect of the Sunday Eucharist. Identifying the Ordinary Sundays as chronological and theological journeys through the life of Christ through the Gospel of Matthew, Mark/John, or Luke leading to climactic reflections upon the “last days” and judgment in November carries a lot of heft. The element of a unified Gospel dynamic through Ordinary Time makes the passage of the numbered Sundays much more captivating.
And finally, I recall years ago reading a medieval historian who raised the question of whether the people of the Middle Ages know they were living in the Middle Ages. The historian answered in the affirmative: the people had a strong sense of living in the middle time between the saving revelation and victory of Christ, on the one hand, and the approaching day of wrath and judgment climaxed by the Second Coming of Christ. This strikes me as an excellent metaphor for Ordinary Time, in which we keep before us what we have received and remain mindful of the reckoning ahead.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a major feast in the Church's liturgical year, and it marks the conclusion of the Christmas Season. All the same, the exact nature of what we celebrate on this day is not always clear. Over the years I have seen a tendency to preach and catechize about this feast in light of the Sacrament of Baptism as the Church celebrates such water washing today.
To clarify the matter, the best method is to go to the source of the feast, which is the historical baptism of Jesus marking the onset of his ministry. Scripture scholars are in general agreement that the baptism of Jesus is one of the events about which we have the most historical certainty. Using what is called the "law of embarrassment," scholars generally place a high premium on those events in Jesus’ life that might be misconstrued as embarrassing; on the ground that no Christian writer, particularly the evangelists, would have invented something that casts the Savior in a diminutive light. The idea of Jesus submitting himself to the baptism of John was at the very least a great puzzlement to the early Church. (St. Matthew, in his gospel, goes so far as to smooth things over by inventing a private conversation between Jesus and John; however St. Matthew's account is written considerably later than the original, that of St. Mark.)
To establish the meaning of the Baptism of Jesus more distinctly, I referr to one of the United States' greatest Catholic scholars in our generation, Father John Meier. Father Meier devotes considerable scholarship to the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist. He concludes that there are three things we can safely assume about this complicated relationship. The first is that Jesus did spend some time as a disciple of John, and that the Baptist's teaching had a significant effect upon Jesus. The second is that Jesus did in fact undergo a baptism at the feet of John, for the same purpose that all of John's other disciples and followers did: a washing away of a past life and a change in direction in anticipation of a final day of judgment. And finally, at least at this stage of his life, Jesus did believe in a dramatic intervention by God in the future in which the world would be reordered and the glory of God established in a glorious but unspecified way.
It is also important to note the time of Jesus’ baptism: the beginning of his public ministry where he would go forth working signs and wonders as indications that the Kingdom of God was approaching. This is the reason that the Church closes the Christmas Season with the observance of Jesus’ baptism. The feast marks the end of the formative years of Jesus and the beginning of his active ministry.
Clearly this is a very rich feast. It may be disconcerting to some who maintain that Jesus had instant full cognizance of his human and divine natures from the first moment of awareness. The idea that his full self understanding of his mission developed over time, in the same fashion as all other human beings may come as a surprise, although in his gospel St. Luke's does tell us early that the young Jesus grew in age, wisdom, and grace.
In my own life as a catechist I have teased a number of classes by asking if Jesus in fact needed to be baptized. The hesitation and struggle of students to raise their hands to an either yes or no commitment is a bit amusing to watch. The correct answer is complex. In the world of 27 A.D. with the religious formation and the spiritual identity taking shape within the heart of Jesus, the answer would be yes. His baptism represented a change in his life, an embrace of a unique call by his heavenly Father, and acceptance of the struggle that would come with that, and resignation that such might cost him his life. One can, I believe, safely assume that Jesus is committing himself to what he learned from John that final destiny and judgment were soon at hand.
In our times, though, the Holy Spirit has guided the Church through the teachings of the later evangelists, St. Paul, Church Councils, and the doctors of the Church toward a somewhat different understanding of Baptism in the light of hindsight, looking back upon the entire life, death, and resurrection of the Savior. St. Paul in particular points us to an understanding of the Sacrament as a dying and rising with Christ, and St. Luke among others has developed what we might call a "baptismal lifestyle" of how a family of believers would look and act. The Church has never lost sight of the fact that Baptism is indeed a washing of sin with an eye toward future judgment and consequences; at the same time, it has come to understand the act in a much more developed fashion that would've been available to John the Baptist.
Thus, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is primarily a feast about the Savior and his identity. By setting this baptism in its proper historical context, we understand the nature and mission of Jesus with more clarity. The Baptism of Jesus is not pastorally nor doctrinally identical to the Baptism in the Catholic sacramental system, and it may be pedagogically confusing to speak of the two as if they were the same thing.
It would be interesting to learn how you have addressed this in your ministry this week and how the feast was celebrated in your parish and how the event of Jesus' baptism was preached and/or explained to your community.
For an interesting interview with Father Meier from St. Anthony Messenger, see here.
Last weekend, at the Vigil Mass of the feast of the Epiphany, our pastor baptized three infants. We have had baptisms celebrated in the context of Sunday worship on many occasions before, but this was the first time on a major feast. It occurred to me that it has been sometime since I looked up the guidelines and regulations regarding the baptism of infants at the Sunday Eucharist. I did a Google search of several dioceses and Vatican regulations, and I had a refreshing experience of updating myself on the practice.
In the first instance, both Vatican and many American dioceses reiterate the principle that the most appropriate time for infant baptism is the Easter Vigil, and secondarily most Sundays of the year, including the Christmas season. The only reservation appears to be the Lenten season, where several dioceses discourage the practice in favor of waiting until the Easter season. (As one might expect, in cases of grave illness or danger to the infant, the time and place of baptism is at the discretion of the pastor or even laypersons and our discussion here would not apply.)
Just about all of the commentaries on infant baptism talk about the appropriateness of celebrating the sacrament in the context of the Sunday or Vigil Mass. The general reasons appear to be twofold: the first is the unity of the sacraments of initiation, intimate connection between baptism and the Eucharist. One diocese observed that the application of weekly attendance at the Eucharist actually begins with infant baptism and offers a number of pastoral suggestions on how this might be done. The second reason generally expressed is the appropriateness of a family presenting a child for baptism surrounded by its regular community of family and friends in faith. I think that a third consideration is the obvious catechetical one of awakening understanding of the ongoing power of baptism and the attendant responsibilities in the general congregation that participates.
The rules and guidelines do not insist that all baptisms take place in the context of a parish mass on Sunday. I have considerable faith in my own parish that this determination is made in congenial conversation with the family regarding the decision to celebrate the infant baptism before the large numbers who attend weekend Mass . In other circumstances I have come across pastors and (more likely) pastoral associates or volunteers whose approach to pastoral sensitivities are sometimes one-dimensional, who take a "one-size-fits-all" approach to liturgical and pastoral circumstances.
For example, anyone who has worked in parish ministry for any length of time is certainly aware that many parents who come forward to present a child for infant baptism are not themselves practicing the observance of the Catholic faith in the fashion we might hope for. Both Vatican and local guidelines give considerable attention to this. One point is clear: no parents, and no infants, are to be summarily dismissed based solely on past performance. The guidance appears to assume that the child is innocent of the deficiencies of the parents and entitled to the saving waters of baptism. Just about every document I reviewed called for a Catechumenate – like faith orientation for fallen away Catholics. For our purposes here, the question would be the length of such a discernment process vis-à-vis the amount of time between the birth of the child and its baptism. There may be cases where parents are not ready to stand at the altar in full communion in the celebration of their child's baptism at public mass, and yet there is no need to delay the child's baptism unduly. In such cases a more private alternative celebration of baptism may be more appropriate, depending on pastoral judgment of the pastor and formation team.
Similar to the above cited situation is the case of parents whose marriages are not blessed in the church, who are living in what we often refer to as "an irregular situation" and ipso facto unable to receive the Eucharist in their current situation. I am assuming that part of the faith formation of such a couple prior to baptism will include a discussion of their marital situation and the possibility or probability of undertaking the annulment process or processes. The law as I read it does not forbid the baptism of infants whose parents are not married in the church, again based on the grounds that the child is something of an innocent party fully deserving baptismal initiation. Even with all the goodwill in the world, parents in these circumstances may find that obtaining an annulment and having their marriages blessed or convalidated in the Church may take some time and this circumstance will conflict with the canonical directive that infants be baptized reasonably soon after their birth. It would be a hard thing to expect of parents in an annulment process, for example, to stand before the public in a Sunday Liturgy when they are not yet able to receive the Eucharist in full communion with the assembly.
There are other interesting and important guidelines to note as well. It is consoling to note that a number of pastoral directives make a point of stating that a single mother may present her infant for baptism, so long as her general faith intentions are good. In one diocese I came across a very interesting pastoral consideration. This is the case of two same-sex parents who are civilly married in one of the many states that now permit such marriages, and present an infant or young child for baptism. The couple would be legal guardians either by natural birth or adoption. The advice given by one diocese on its Internet site indicates that if at least one of the adult parties gives evidence of the normal prerequisite faith disposition, the child may be accepted as a candidate for infant baptism. This is a new area of pastoral consideration with multiple implications, but again the spirit here is the spiritual benefit to the child.
A number of diocese also make the point that there are many people who are by disposition shy or introverted, for whom standing before an assembly of 1000 congregants or more would be a psychologically stressful ordeal. For all of the circumstances noted above, I think it is fair to say that the wisest pastoral course of direction is the offering of multiple options for the celebration of the baptism of infants. Clearly, the public Sunday observance enjoys the greatest support of theology and law, but Vatican and local directives seem quite open to the multiplicity of pastoral considerations. The celebration of Baptism is one of the greatest opportunities for evangelization in any church, and accommodation to the needs of family and parents creates a goodwill that extends far beyond the rite itself.
I am including here the Diocese of Richmond's instructions on the baptism of infants for its clarity and excellence.