Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation
CHAPTER 10: SACRED TIME - THE LITURGY
Just as there is sacred order, so there is sacred time. One of the first things I do in the morning is to look at the Ordo and see what time it is in the real world of the Christian mysteries. A date – October 3, 2004 – is meaningless in the world of faith. It’s an arbitrary notation. If it’s the feast of the Ascension, or of a saint, well then, that is really what time it is. At Madonna House we hope you learn to live in sacred time as well as sacred order.
Pope John Paul II said that if the Lord had not decided to give us the Eucharist, there would be no priesthood. But the Lord willed to give to his Church the very same powers he had when he walked the earth. She possesses the divine authority to guide and teach in his name; the power to forgive sin, and change bread and wine into his very Body and Blood. The person who is given these powers through the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the ordained priest. The Pope has also said that his own ordination to the holy priesthood was the greatest day of his life, even more profound than becoming Pope. On the day of his priestly ordination he became the presence of Christ in the Church in a way essentially different from what happened at baptism: he became another Christ among his brothers and sisters.
I’m sure you’ve heard by now the oft-repeated statement of the Council that the liturgy is the source and summit of the Church’s life. The Council also said, in the document on the Ministry and Life of Priests, that “priests fulfil their chief duty in the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice” (III,I,13). Also important for our consideration in this Chapter is the following: “The other sacraments, as well as every ministry of the Church and every work of the apostolate, are linked with the Holy Eucharist and are directed toward it”(II,I,5) This is not to say that the liturgy is the priest’s only service, but it is his most important and sublime ministry. It is the “why” of his priesthood and defines who he is n the Church.
Please God, if you go on to the seminary, you will study the theology and history of the liturgy. You will be taught how to celebrate the liturgy, and how to involved the people of God in a prayerful and meaningful way. At the very beginning of Dear Seminarian, Catherine pleaded: “Of all the prayers we must know, the best is the Mass, and it is you who can best teach us this prayer” (15). It is surely important to understand and be convinced theologically of the centrality of the liturgical action.
But we learn not only with our minds but also through experience. You could read all the books in the world about liturgy, but if you do not experience the daily power of a well-celebrated liturgy, and do not seek to live out the mysteries you celebrate in your daily life, your preparation will be sadly deficient. You must be able to communicate to people how the liturgy influences and gives meaning to daily life.
In our pre-seminarian program we do have a brief course on the liturgy, but the whole accent is on the living out of the mysteries in one’s daily life. Catherine emphasized this as what priests really need to teach the people about he Mass:
Just as it is possible t study the scriptures without having the Word dwell in us, so it is possible to study everything about the liturgy without having a living experience – a good taste – of what the liturgy is and how it can conform us to Christian our actual lives. But how can you really teach people what Catherine asked for if you have not lived and experienced it yourself? The emphasis, therefore, in our program, is on the experience of liturgy and how to have this experience draw you closer to Christ in your daily life. Unless you yourself have an experiential love for the liturgy, you will not be able to communicate this love to others.
I would like to begin with a teaching on the theology of the word mystery as a way of showing you how to make the connection between the Eucharist, the liturgical year, and daily life.
The word “mystery” in ordinary usage connotes something hidden from our minds. We speak of a “Murder Mystery,” that is, we don’t know “who done it.” Actually, this meaning of something hidden from our minds is the first use of the word in the scripture. It was used to refer to God’s plan in Christ which had been hidden from all eternity but which now has been revealed: “Beyond question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, Ws preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). Also, the same meaning of the word is in Ephesians: “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure which he purposed in Christ” (1:9).
What I want to emphasize as strongly as possible is that this is no longer the deepest meaning o the word. Very early the Christians used the word mysterion in the sense of the pagan mystery rites. In that context it meant that the gods here and now were acting upon the members of the cult. When one celebrated these mysteries, they were being acted upon by the gods. Thus, the Fathers of the Church began teaching: “Since Christ has ascended into heaven, his presence has passed over into the mysteries.” By “mysteries” they meant especially the Eucharist and the other sacraments. Through the sacred signs, Christ is still present, though unseen, acting upon the believers.
There is really only one Mystery, the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These divine Persons act upon us in innumerable ways. We are constantly in communion with the Mystery through countless avenues and mediations. The Eucharist is the greatest expression of the Christian mystery because it is actually Christ himself, Body and Blood, soul and Divinity, entering into us; it is an unmediated communion with the Mystery. The Trinity is seeking to restore us to our original image and likeness, to return us to the Father, through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Think of it in terms of being influenced by a person. If we admire someone, and wish to b like him or her, how does this happen? Well, you may be fortunate enough to have personal contact with that person, as we did with Catherine. Thus you can speak tot hat person, observe how he or she lives, what he or she says. The power of their personality, actually present to us, influences us. Or, if the person is dead, like Ghandi, you may read his writings; perhaps see the film on his life; often think about him; try to imitate his virtues in your life. A person can be present to us in a variety of ways: physically; through the written word; by telephone or TV.
The enormous difference about Christ, however, is that he is always actually present to us, whether we are adverting to his presence or not. He can act more powerfully, of course, whenever we are thinking about him, reading about him, or meditating on his words in the Scriptures, or even seeing a film about him. His presence takes on a variety of forms and manifestations.
Why the liturgy is the “source and summit of the Christian life” is because there, together with our brothers and sisters, we try to bring the full force of our love and attention on the primary manifestations of Christ’s presence: in the community, in the Scriptures, in the priest, and above all, in the sacred food of his Body and Blood. In the latter, he is present to us in an absolute and unique way, really and truly, only under the appearance of bread and wine. In the Eucharist we meet Jesus as perfectly and as truly as it is possible to meet him in this life.
Every personal encounter is multifaceted, multidimensional. Our meetings take place according to our words, our gestures, the topic of our meeting, and so on. So too with Christ. In the liturgy we encounter the various mysteries, or dimensions, of Christ, which are the various graces of his Heart that he wishes to communicate to us. Thus, gradually, we are restored to his image and likeness.
The mystery, the Person, of Christ is inexhaustible. Because of our limitations, we must assimilate the total mystery of Christ over a period of time. According to the different feasts, now we enter into the grace of one mystery of his life (say, his baptism), and now another (say, he passion). We go from mystery in the liturgical year to another, so we can acquire an ever deeper identification with his Heart.
There are several approaches I could take to develop what I want to say here. I could concentrate on the liturgical meaning of one daily Eucharist, and show how what is symbolized there, what Christ mediates there about himself, can be lived out in your daily life.
For example: Christ is present on the altar every day in an act of total self-giving – victimhood. This inspires us to give ourselves to others in a selfless way. At the daily Eucharist we experience our total oneness as we together receive the Lord’s Body and Blood. This should flow over into breaking down the walls of disunity among us. The hierarchical nature of the Church is symbolized at each Eucharist, with priest and people, each serving in their appointed capacity. This should help us observe the nature of the Church in our communal activity. And so on.
The approach I have chosen, however, concerns more the whole liturgical year, sacred time. Christ is the center of time and history. We approach him through movements of the heart, not by a sequence of events. Yes, we have to act outwardly. But if our attitudes and affections are not gradually being transformed into those of Christ, we are not actually moving forward on our journey to the Father, the only movement that is meaningful and truly real – with eternal significance. Without these movements of the heart, we are quite literally “marking time,” “wasting time.” Time is for movement towards Christ.
The mysteries of Christ we celebrate in the liturgy are meant to permeate our daily lives, our attitudes, transforming them into the be-attitudes Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount. Then we are truly in God's time, which is movement towards him by attitudes of the heart.
There is no use trying to describe to you what our liturgical celebrations are like. You have to “come and see.” Suffice it to say we try to make them beautiful and to celebrate them with a loving faith. For each liturgical season, and for many feasts of the saints, you will find reminders in the community outside of the liturgy: banners, book displays, perhaps spiritual readings on the particular mystery, relics displayed for veneration. In short, you will be immersed in the sacred time of the liturgical year as a part of your stay with us.
What I want to do now is go through some of the feasts of the liturgical year, point out a few aspects of the mysteries, and show how you can grow in these attitudes of Christ’s life during the day. Our life seeks to provide the atmosphere, the divine milieu, where the mysteries of the liturgy can continue to penetrate the day. If you are open with the right attitudes of the heart, the mysteries of the hearts of Christ and his Mother will penetrate your own heart. You will experience how the liturgy and your daily life are connected.
St. Bernard intones the notes of the beautiful spiritual song of Advent:
During Advent we do not make believe that the Lord has not already come. We realize that our longing for him to come into our life now is not as intense as it should be. So Advent is a time for increasing our longing for his coming into our lives. And one of the lessons the Lord teaches us during this season is that the longing in our own hearts is but a faint longing of his desire to come to us.
In Hebrew, the word “wait” also means “hope.” God himself has inspired our longing and hoping for him. Indeed, he has already come into the world, and into our hearts at baptism. He is now waiting for us to respond more completely to his presence and desire to enter those areas of our hearts into which we still have not invited him. The penitential aspect of Advent emphasizes the blocks of resistance we still put up to his comings.
In our teaching and preaching during Advent there is also an emphasis on the Lord’s Second Coming. (It frequently appears in the prayers of the liturgy.) Is the Second Coming a part of your Christian consciousness? In the Creed we profess, “And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” When the early Christians came together for the liturgy they believed the Lord would come during their celebration. Imagine the longing they must have had! “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Someone once asked me if Madonna House is an apocalyptic community, meaning, I presume, do we see the Lord’s second coming as immanent as many private revelations are suggesting these days.
My own response was that we believe in and long for the parousia, the scriptural word for the second coming, as it is a deep and essential dimension of the Christian revelation. This aspect of our faith was very fundamental to Catherine’s own Russian-inspired spirituality. Over forty years ago she taught the following as part of our faith vision: “The Apostolate of Madonna House and its members are pilgrims in this world proclaiming the Second Coming of Christ, when all things will be restored in Him.”
The Second Coming of Christ is not a doom’s day scenario, when everything is going to explode at the Lord’s coming. It is difficult to desire such a catastrophic event. Rather, it will be the final phase of his restoration of the world – a new earth as well as a new heaven. This, indeed, can be longed for and prayed for.
St. Bernard’s third, invisible way, fits in perfectly with our Nazareth approach to life: Christ comes in every moment of the Father’s will. Attentiveness to his coming, moment by moment, is the royal road on which we walk towards our final meeting with him, either in death or at his parousia, his appearance.
Christmas is truly a beautiful time of gratitude at Madonna House. The carolling, the lights, the meals, the community life – all serve to feed our hearts with thanksgiving for the great gift of the Father to us in his Son. It’s the season of wonder – that God loved you, yes you, so much that he gave you his only son as a gift. Our life is to be lived in thanksgiving for such a gift.
In the coming of the three Kings at Epiphany we realize that Jesus has come for the whole world, and our missionary zeal is renewed. Even thought there are “rays of truth” (Vatican II) in other religions, there is no comparison with the coming of God to earth and all other ways f trying to know and love God. Christ desires that all the children of the earth hear about him, and have the opportunity to believe in him. The three Kings are symbols of the longing of all the peoples of the earth to know the true Savior of mankind.
In the Eastern Church, the emphasis of Epiphany is on the Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan. Stemming from this mystery, both East and West have always had a special solemn blessing of water. When the Lord descended into the river, all the waters of the earth were blessed. We follow the Eastern practice of processing to a nearby river and depositing a crucifix in the still moving waters under the ice. It is a prefigurement of the final restoration, when this sanctification will be brought to fulfilment by the Second Coming.
“Epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearance.” Again, in communion with the Eastern tradition, we celebrate the manifestation of the Trinity at the Jordan, when the Father spoke, and the Spirit descended upon the Lord Jesus. It’s also a liturgical reminder that every mystery of our faith is really trinitarian – a work of the whole Trinity.
Thus, during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle (which was the second after the Lenten-Easter cycle in the early church), we emphasize openness to the comings of Christ, thanksgiving for our Redeemer, and an awareness that the whole world is bathed in the sanctifying presence of the Trinity.
After Epiphany, Lent is not far away! It is, f course, the great season of conversion. We emphasize that constant conversion is one of the greatest graces we can receive. We tend to be saddened if we discover some area of our hearts still not given over to Christ. We should rejoice and be grateful! The saints always knew they were in need of constant renewal and conversion. We ask the Holy sp9rit to come and enlighten us, but then we are dismayed when he does so! No. If you are trying to learn something, you are glad when faults are pointed out to you. So too, if we are seeking holiness, we should be glad when the Holy Spirit points out our faults and failings.
The central mystery of Lent is Christ in the wilderness. We were in him then as we are now. In the desert he conquered all our temptations against the world, the flesh, and the devil. The good news of Lent is that his victory is totally in us and available to us. We teach how to call upon his victory in all our struggles; how to allow his power and strength to replace our own feeble efforts. We teach how to pray for oneself. So many people do not really pray for themselves. They mostly strive to overcome their faults through will power or good intentions. They wonder why their efforts fail. They fail because they do not call upon the power of the triumphant Christ within them. We need grace, and that only comes through prayer.
And then, the feast of feasts – Easter! Probably most Christians still do not understand that the central mystery of Christianity is that Jesus died and came back to life again. “If Christ be not risen, your faith is vain, and you are still in your sins,” said St. Paul. Above all the mysteries of Christ, we try to make you realize that you now live in the Resurrection: not only has Jesus risen to new life; you have as well. You now live a totally new kind of existence. The fact that Jesus had really died and come back to life again dominated the consciousness of the apostles and early disciples. It must also dominate your own. As you go about your daily tasks, you meet the risen Christ everywhere, just as he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. The Christian life is living with the risen Lord.
But we are not only risen with Christ: we have also – wonder of wonders – ascended with him to the Father’s right hand. In some real sense, we have also ascended with Christ. I believe the Ascension is still one of the forgotten mysteries of Christ. The complete paschal mystery is the death, rising, and ascension of the Lord. His Passover is not complete until he ascends to the Father’s presence. One of the emphases of this feast, therefore, is a longing to see the Father’s face. How Christ must have longed to return to the Father. Does the Father play any dominant role in your Christian life? The Ascension will draw you to him.
Pentecost. I fear that the Holy Spirit is still the forgotten Person of the Trinity. He is the greatest gift of the New Testament: we have within us the very Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and who will guide and teach us about who Jesus is. His presence and activity should also dominate your Christian consciousness.
And then, the long season of “Ordinary Time.” In English, there is a misunderstanding about this word. It comes from the Latin “ordinarius,” which in canonical, liturgical Latin means just the opposite of “ordinary.” It actually means “fullness, extraordinary.” The bishop in a diocese is the Ordinary, that is, he has the fullness of the power of the apostles. And we have the term now, “extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.” These are helpers to the priest, who is the ordinary minister.
All this to say that “ordinary time” means the presence of the fullness of the mystery of Christ. You might say that all the mysteries are present every day. On feast days we celebrate one aspect of Christ. Every day the whole mystery is present. It means perfectly ordered time, because lived in the fullness of the mystery of Christ. This fits in very well with Nazareth, where we live every moment in the presence of the Holy family.
In this brief presentation I have related the liturgy to your own personal life with the Lord. Another whole area you will learn about some day is how to relate the liturgical action to life in the home and society. This will be part of the Holy Spirit’s teaching as you contemplate the mysteries of the liturgical year throughout your life.
The people in the parishes will want to know how the liturgy is related to their lives. By celebrating meaningful liturgies every day, we try to give you an experience of sacred time. As you are immersed in sacred time, the Spirit will penetrate your daily life and you will experience yourself the connection of liturgy and life.
I cannot fail, in this context of liturgy at Madonna House, to pay tribute to the late, great Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B., who personally planted in Catherine’s heart the living relationship between liturgy and life. Fr.Paul Marx, O.S.B., opens his study of Virgil Michel and the Liturgical Movement with these words:
Virgil Michel’s great charism was to stir Catholics out of their social complacency by showing that the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ demands the incarnation of the Gospel into the whole of life. And, for him, the mass was the absolute center where Catholics received the nourishment for this christianization of culture.
Dom Virgil visited Catherine’s fledgling Friendship House in Toronto in the early 1930’s. When Fr. Marx interviewed Catherine in Washington, D.C in 1953, this is what she related Fr. Michel had said to her: “How fortunate you are. This is what I have been dreaming about. [Her store front apostolate.] You are discouraged. You need the Mass. You must persevere by all means. You have a vocation. Study the Mass, live the Mass. Between two Masses you can bear anything.” (Ibid., 379)
Years later, when Catherine was writing down her own reflections about Dom Virgil’s visit, she said this:
Dom Virgil, on that day so long ago, also taught her little band how to pray the Divine Office, which was very unusual for those times. Ever since, all communities of Madonna House pray some part of the Divine Office of the Church in common every day. This, too, will be part of your liturgical formation: praying the universal prayer of the Church in union with thousands of your brothers and sisters all around the world.
At the end of her remembrances of that day, Catherine carried on a little prayer/conversation with Fr. Michel. She considered him one of the most passionate and zealous priests she had ever known: “One more thing, Father Virgil. Ask the blinding Flame of Love in which you now dwell to send more tongues of fire, like you, onto this cold earth. Priests burning with zeal for souls. Priests who are flames of his divine love. Priests who have but one desire – to be other Christs. We need them in the marketplaces, Father Virgil, desperately!” (Ibid. 106-107)
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