Today is one of those disjointed days, highlighted every few minutes with a Facebook update from family or friends. Yes, today is my birthday, and without sounding irreverent, I have now lived more than twice as long as Christ, but with considerably less influence. Serious focus today, our “Liturgy Monday,” will probably not be possible. So instead, let me share a few funny anecdotes of my own liturgical experiences. Or of those I know about. Or legends.
There are several variations of this account. The portable clip-on microphone seems to have been a difficult adjustment for older priests. A pastor was blessing his baptismal water at the Easter Vigil when his glasses slid down his nose and plopped into the water. The pastor said softly, “----!” The new PA system worked perfectly, unfortunately.
A famous bishop was officiating at a large parish Confirmation. After communion his regular master of ceremonies put the miter on his head—backward, so that the two ribbons fell across the bishop’s face as he sat in the presider’s chair. The horrified pastor rushed over to assist, but the bishop grabbed his arm. “No, leave it the way it is. I want everyone to see what an idiot he is.”
I attended an ordination in Maryland years ago where the presiding bishop’s microphone was on an adjustable pole. There was a grand entrance procession and the choir was in rare form, and finally the church was still and the bishop stepped forward to solemnly begin. He must have nudged the pole, because the microphone began an agonizingly long and noisy descent to the floor. At first the bishop gamely tried to save face by “scrunching himself smaller” as they say, but that soon became no longer possible and the master of ceremonies went to all fours desperately looking for the adjustment ring to stop the descent. All of this under the watch of a thousand or so set of eyes.
My order had a much beloved friar who served as MC for all of our Franciscan ordinations. He never made a mistake like that—except once. I attended an ordination where somehow no one had been advised or assigned ahead of time to read the Gospel! The ritual calls for one of the deacons (of those being ordained that day) to proclaim the Gospel. The powers that be selected the deacon and notified him as the music of the processional was beginning. I know this story is true because it was my ordination and the MC cried, “Tommy, you’ve got to help us.” The celebrant, by the way, would soon become Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
It was not a good day for the MC. After the ordination there was a reception at our seminary, in the garden courtyard. Father MC was a gifted botanist, among other things, and I ran into him in the courtyard to find him very upset. “Tommy, people are dropping their cigar ashes into my elephant’s ears.” (You can’t make this up.)
One year as pastor I forgot to arrange for ashes for Ash Wednesday. I didn’t discover my error till about 9 PM on Tuesday night. I called the first parishioner I knew who had a fireplace and asked him to have a fire that night in his living room. One Palm Sunday one of my young readers proclaimed that after Jesus’ death the women departed “bearing their breasts.” Another reader proclaimed that “I am the alfalfa and the omega.” One of my senior members laughed out loud at that. Another time I was going through a wedding rehearsal at another parish’s church when some of the groomsmen, unknown to anyone, had arranged for a guest appearance by a local celebrity known as “The Red Hot Mama.”
I am lucky that I have few truly ghastly wedding errors in my packet, though I did once address a couple by wrong names. It is interesting how loud a collective gasp sounds in a church. (I did, however, make sure in the future to have the first names of every couple on an index card sticking out of the top of the wedding manual.) Once, in Massachusetts, I was standing at the sacristy door as a wedding of one of my college’s alumni was beginning, and the host pastor said to me, “You did get your authorization letter from the (Massachusetts) Secretary of State, right?” Huh? In DC, as a non-resident clergyman, I had to purchase a $15 license to start my own religion, so I could perform a Catholic wedding in Georgetown. I still have it, by the way, in case things go bad.
I will close on this “happy” note. I swear this happened. A parish often gets requests to perform funerals for people it does not know. I always did them as a matter of good will. I thus was doing a Word service for an individual when I discovered that there were two distinct families in the church, and they hated each other. There was hissing and nasty things being said across the aisle. So I stopped, and I got a chair and sat in the middle aisle, next to the casket. (I will add that I was young and idealistic then.) I tried to make peace between the two groups. It didn’t go particularly well, and we wrapped up. As I was walking through the parking lot, a man came up to me and said, “Just what were you trying to do in there?” I replied that I was trying to effect some reconciliation. The man became enraged and said “A church is no place for reconciliation!”
I can’t remember what the priestly funeral stipends were back then, but that day no amount was too high.
While we have our faces set forward to Ash Wednesday and Lent, it is probably a good idea to take a look at where we've been. Yesterday was the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, the last of the Ordinary Time Sundays till the end of May., The Lenten and Easter observances have assigned Scripture readings for those Sunday's (and weekdays) and draw from all four Gospels. We will not be rejoining St. Mark's chronicle until late spring. We actually resume St. Mark’s narrative on the Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, as Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, respectively, supersede the Seventh and Eighth Ordinary Sundays.
We leave St. Mark for now in his Chapter 7, perhaps a fitting place to break the text and move into Lent. According to Father Moloney's commentary, in chapter six the wheels begin to fall off the wagon of what started as a joyful mission of the Heralding of the Kingdom of God. Jesus' signs and wonders evoked very strong reactions. Plots to kill him appear in the religious establishment as early as Chapter 3. On the other extreme the Twelve are feeling their oats as the visible front line of a mission that so far has been cost them nothing and on the contrary has propelled them to more than fifteen minutes of fame. Peter in particular is evolving into Don King, eyeing the gate receipts and expressing frustration with Jesus when the latter goes off to pray. "Where have you been? Everybody is looking for you!" (Note the hyperbole.)
Moloney believes that the breakdown came to a head when Jesus sent the disciples on a proclamation/works crusade. The mission probably went well. Certainly the Twelve thought so, proclaiming all that they have accomplished in terms of signs and wonders. From their self-report Jesus adduced correctly that his men have not grasped the heart of the mission: that it is God working through them, not their own personal charisma or strength that lay beneath whatever good this crusade of the Twelve had wrought.
From Chapter 7 forward, the subtle but ongoing separation begins to become evident to the reader as the unfolding message of the Markan Christ becomes more evident. Three times Jesus will announce that he is to suffer and die at the hands of sinful men; this is too much hard talk for the Twelve, and Peter actually criticizes Jesus for talking in such manner. Moloney observes that the Twelve begin to become indistinguishable from the more peripheral listeners and even the casual observers. This separation will continue up to and including the Passion narrative, when the breech becomes complete: they all flee, alongside a man so eager to make his escape that he fled naked. Mark, curiously, is the only evangelist who includes this naked runner factoid. For centuries the Church tried to decipher this man’s identity, the majority opinion being that the young Mark himself had been the man. Modern scholarship looks at him as a symbol of abandonment, the last remnant of Jesus’ followers; perhaps the Church itself, as Mark’s audience in the late 60’s AD, was apostatizing in large numbers in the face of Roman persecution. To add insult to injury, the original text of Mark’s Gospel (16:8} depicts the women fleeing in anxiety from Jesus’ empty tomb, telling nothing to anyone.
Perhaps a Markan Lent raises the question of what we would do “when the creek starts to rise.” This weekend we heard the news of shootings in Denmark in which one victim was a bodyguard protecting a synagogue. A few years ago I reviewed Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews (1988) and I noted then that historically the Jews have lived what Christianity has professed. Jewish witness of the Scripture has brought upon itself the derision of outcast which sadly endures to this day. Christianity in the Western World does not need guards at the door because we are in the world as indistinguishable members. We are safe. We are Peter. We will flee trouble before anyone snatches our clothes in a confrontation of faith. Which leaves only a forty day nagging question: are we Christ’s?
Lent is at the door, and for those who engage in major sacrifice, the 40-days can seem like a long time. However, there was a time when the observance of this season of penance was longer than it is today. Up through 1969 the liturgical calendar for this time of year looked somewhat different than it does today. “Ordinary Time,” the season marked by the use of ordinal numbers to designate the weeks, was not yet in use. Instead, Sundays in January and February were referred to as “Sundays after Epiphany.” Yesterday, I believe, would have been the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in the previous calendar.
But the number of Sundays after Epiphany depended upon the date of Easter and varied considerably. Easter is celebrated after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The dating of Easter has a long and disputed history which will a make for an interesting discussion down the road; for our purposes here, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. It was not unusual for us Buffalonians to play in snow during Easter break when Easter was early; by contrast I can recall late April Easter vacations with temperatures in the 80’s.
Prior to 1970 the Church observed an 18-day “pre-Lent” with purple vestments and suppression of the Gloria and other signs of rejoicing. The three Sundays prior to Ash Wednesday were purple penitential Sundays with rather challenging names: Septuagesima Sunday, Sexagesima Sunday and Quinquagestima Sunday. This little season was sometimes referred to as the “season of Septuagesima.” The names are numerical: 70th, 60th, and 50th days before Easter respectively, though the math is a little suspect here. I was pleasantly surprised to find a rather good discussion of these three Sundays in Wikipedia.
Wikipedia picked up on one of the more challenging aspects of this little Lenten warm-up for catechists and theologically inventive altar boys. The feasts of Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord were fixed feasts on January 6 and 13 respectively. They were not, as today, celebrated on Sundays unless they fell on Sundays. Wikipedia reports that the earliest possible date for Septuagesima Sunday was January 18, when Easter occurred on March 22 in a non-leap year. Thus, for us kids who attended and served daily Mass, there were rare occasions when only five days transpired between the liturgical observance of the Incarnation and the penitential trappings of the Redemption. In some years you could really overdose on intensity. As mentioned above, the reformed Catholic calendar eliminated these three Sundays, replacing them with the Ordinary Time liturgies. Some portions of the Anglican and Orthodox Churches maintain a vestige of this season in their yearly observances.
I always wondered about the good sisters who taught our religion classes and would ask: “Class, what Sunday is next Sunday?” “Quinquagesima Sunday, Sister.” “And how do we spell that, class?” “Uh, Q-U-I-N-Q-U…mumble mumble…etc. etc.” Even bullies in my class quivered at the challenge. Catechists have always had a tough time of it. How did your teacher explain the multiple subtleties of the January 1 Holy Day, “The Feast of the Circumcision?”
Today, February 2, is the observance of the Presentation of the infant Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple, an episode depicted only in the Gospel of St. Luke. (See Today's readings.) This story is included in the Christmas Infancy Narratives despite the fact that totay we are well into Ordinary Time. In many locations and religious communities the Christmas observance extended up to this Fenruary 2 feast. I came across a rather good discussion of this Feast at a website called CatholicCulture.org, a very readable essay that goes further than I can here. This feast began in the Greek Eastern Church where it was called “the Encounter.” Around 600 A.D. the feast was taking root in Rome and later in Western Europe, and in France the feast became associated with the blessing of Candles, from which we get our popular title, Candlemas Day. If you look into your daily Missal or the Altar Missal, you will see an impressive ceremony for a procession and blessing of candles.
In 1969 Pope Paul directed that the name of the feast be changed to the Presentation of the Lord (from the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady.) Technically, by virtue of divine intervention, Mary was not in need of purification from the uncleanness of childbirth attributed to the event in the Jewish observance of the day. (If you have seen the fine film, “The Red Tent,” you have a sense of the customs of the time.
Paul VI evidently wanted to bring attention to the person and destiny of Jesus in this Gospel narrative. Luke and Matthew are the only two evangelists to include Infancy Narratives; Mark (the first evangelist) and John (the last) do not discuss Jesus’ earthly origins. Matthew and Luke have significant theological reasons for creating their respective Christmas prose. Matthew wishes to establish Jesus as the New Moses, and has the child flee from Herod (Pharaoh) and hide in Egypt (as Moses did in the basket among the reeds.)
Luke’s Infancy writing is a little more complex. He wishes to immediately establish Jesus as the new Spirit-filled Prophet and gives us the memorable faith statement, “conceived of the Holy Spirit.” He wishes to portray respect for Jewish Law and practice by having Mary and Joseph obey all the dictates of Law: circumcising their child, seeking maternal purification, making the traditional offerings to the Temple.
But both Matthew and Luke have another point to make. Their infancy stories are, in fact, predictions of the Passion and Death of Christ. Rage, sinister cunning, and death will pursue Jesus to Calvary. Matthew’s account of the Holy Innocents (the little boys killed by Herod) makes it clear that blood and tears will follow this new child throughout his life. Luke on the other hand, is more psychological in his telling of the tale. He quotes Simeon as telling Mary (the perfect disciple) that she herself will be pierced by a sword. Luke does not elaborate, leaving up in the air a good deal of tension over how Mary’s son will impact her—the preeminent disciple--in difficult ways.
The introduction of Candles by the French into today’s feast does makes eminent sense in another Biblical theme: the later Old Testament contains references to an Israel delivered by God, which would become “a light among the nations.” (The baptismal candles given to parents and godparents today are done with the prayer that the family will give forth the light of Christ.
It is sad that we don’t celebrate this feast on Sunday (except in those years when February 2 does fall on a Sunday.) The blessing of candles presents a catechetical opportunity: a lit candle in the home when the family gathers for prayer. Let me go one step further: although candles used in the celebration of the Eucharist must be white and of beeswax, this rule does not bind in your home. Have you considered a scented candle—the color of the appropriate liturgical season—installed next to the place where you pray, mediate, read, study religion? I used to use Yankee Candles, but when the cost became prohibitively high, I switched to my Publix grocer and Walgreen’s pharmacy for third of the cost. When I’m in my easy chair, candle lit, coffee at the reach, a quilt if necessary, and a sacred text or religious study in hand, I feel like I am in God’s study.