Anyone who received the Lenten ashes today will know the supreme irony of that action.
In today’s Gospel, which is the Gospel on every Ash Wednesday, our Lord counsels the very opposite:
When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
Moments later, we dutifully queue up to receive the ashes on our heads. Here we are, beginning a forty day fast not in secret, but with a loud declaration.
I take two lessons from this. The first evokes a great scene at the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
Aslan is not a tame lion, and Jesus is not a predictable teacher whom the disciple can easily pin down. Any Christian who thinks they have figured the Lord out, that they can serve him and please him without much effort, is mistaken.
We won’t find all the answers to life’s questions there in black and white, not even in the Bible. And we can’t reduce the truth and wisdom of our Christian faith to creeds and formulae. To be a faithful disciple, we have to pray. We have to speak to the Lord and constantly learn from him. He has to become an intimate friend. And like all friends, Jesus will often surprise you.
I think wearing ashes on our heads, in direct contradiction to the instructions the Lord has just give us, is a good reminder that Christian discipleship is a constant struggle. We will never follow him perfectly. We’ll never figure him out completely. Aslan is not a tame lion.
The second lesson follows from the first. We’re all hypocrites. We might appear to follow Christ externally, but sometimes internally we’re not following him at all. On Ash Wednesday we invert that. We appear to contradict the Lord’s advice, while interiorly we resolve to worship him and fast and do penance privately. Secretly. Cheerfully.
On Ash Wednesday we assume the appearance of hypocrites. Jesus himself calls us out. And it’s not just appearance. It’s all true. You’re a hypocrite!
It’s good for us to acknowledge the fact — not so that we can glory in it, but so that we know ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us. The more we do that, the more dependent we become on grace. We will beg God to convert us, not from the outside in, but from the inside out.
Whatever your view of Gandhi, he was a man of profound thought who influenced millions. He was once asked about his view of Jesus Christ. His reply is rather devastating:
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
That claim is sadly resonant. We’ve probably all encountered a Christian whose behaviour has challenged our faith in Christ and his Church. Even more certainly, our own behaviour has somewhere, some time, scandalised someone.
I don’t mean scandalised like ‘pass-the-smelling-salts I-think-I-might-faint scandal,’ which is a quaint relic of the past. Skandalon is the Greek work for “stumbling block.” It’s easy to imagine one’s bad temper, or lack of charity, or rank hypocrisy, becoming a stumbling block to another person’s faith in the truth and authority of Jesus Christ. As a young lawyer working in South Africa, Gandhi was scandalised by the racism he observed in men and women who called themselves Christians. Hence his devastating observation.
Pope Francis, it seems to me, invokes this tragedy often, when he rails against modern-day scribes and Pharisees in his daily homilies. I think it must underly his zealous emphasis on the mercy of God. He knows — as we all know — that there are millions and perhaps billions of people who seek a peace the world cannot give, but the scandalous witness of some Christians prevents them from approaching Christ. The pope’s solution, I think, is to preach the mercy of God in season and out of season.
In calling the Year of Mercy, he’s conscripting the rest of the Church to join his effort. Just as the behaviour of Christians can be a stumbling block to faith, so the behaviour of Christians can be a bridge to Christ; a channel of grace. The witness of the saints is proof enough of that.
What if every Christian corresponded with the grace pouring down from Heaven during this Year of Mercy, and became another face of the mercy of the Father; another Christ? This, I think, is the Holy Father’s noble vision for this holy jubilee. Hence his exhortation that we become familiar with the works of mercy, and practice them as often as we can.
I have suggested to my parishioners that conscientiously enacting each of the fourteen works of mercy constitutes a good Lenten discipline. To that end, I have distributed the attached document as an aid. Some of the illustrating examples are very good, and others are trite. But that’s good! It might motivate you to discern better applications proper to your context.
It never ceases to amaze me how many friends and acquaintances tune into Mass For You At Home at 7 or 6 or even 5 in the morning, depending on the local TV schedule. But then, I never have been a morning person.
Several messages and emails have come my way, alerting me to the fact that I offered this morning’s TV Mass, and apparently I’ll reappear the next two Sundays. Some of my own parishioners remarked on my TV appearance, so I’m much relieved that I did not simply repeat the homily I prepared for television.
The truth is I don’t remember what I preached about in the TV Mass, because it was filmed more than a year ago. It definitely shared no resemblance to my homily this morning because today I focused on the Holy Father’s vision for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and maybe even Pope Francis himself did not know about the Year of Mercy twelve months ago. I certainly didn’t know about it anyway, so I am quite certain I did not invoke it for my TV congregation.
I filmed more episodes of Mass For You At Home a few weeks ago, at the height of Victoria’s heat wave. (Remember that? Good times!) Some of these episodes won’t be broadcast until February 2017, though I recall filming a couple of Masses which will air this winter also. The set has undergone a radical redesign, exploiting Channel Ten’s cutting edge displays and some photos of churches the producer took when he recently visited the Holy Land.
Here’s a few photos I took before filming started:
When you compare these images to what you see on episodes currently airing, which were filmed using last year’s old set, you immediately recognise a vast improvement. I don’t think I ever realised how much the old set evoked Play School!
It’s worth remembering that Play School is one of only two TV programs in Australia which is older than Mass For You at Home. The other program is Four Corners. So Mass For You At Home is the third longest running program in Australian television history, and the oldest continuous program on commercial television. Not a bad effort, that.
People occasionally approach me and encourage me to publicly pray the Prayer to St Michael the Archangel after Mass. This was common practice at Mass until 1964.
According to legend, some time in the 1880s, Pope Leo XIII collapsed on his chapel floor one morning after Mass, and it seemed he was not long for this world. A short time later, however, he came to and related a conversation he overheard between God and the devil. Satan was granted one century to wreak his worst on the Church. The Holy Father promptly composed the Prayer to St Michael and mandated its recital after Mass.
It’s a great story, but it’s highly apocryphal. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Church is engaged in spiritual warfare, and St Michael is a powerful intercessor. Since 1964, the prayer to St Michael has been a private devotion, but one which was strongly encouraged by Pope John Paul II:
May prayer strengthen us for the spiritual battle that the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of: ‘Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.’ (Eph 6:10) The Book of Revelation refers to this same battle, recalling before our eyes the image of St Michael the Archangel. (Rev 12:7) Pope Leo XIII certainly had this picture in mind when, at the end of the last century, he brought in, throughout the Church, a special prayer to St Michael: ‘Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil…’
Although this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.
Pope Francis consistently invokes warnings against the devil, and counsels strategies for spiritual battle. One of his earliest acts as pope was to consecrate the Vatican to St Michael the Archangel and to St Joseph.
It sounds like the statue of St Michael was an initiative of Pope Benedict. The pope emeritus is also the one who initiated the explicit invocation of St Joseph in the Roman Missal‘s Eucharistic Prayers II to IV, a measure which came into effect under Pope Francis. Whatever the details of the consecration of the Vatican, it seems Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are of one mind about the significance of St Joseph and St Michael in safeguarding the Church.
So it’s with all that in mind that I have started to habitually invoke St Michael when I pray the Third Eucharistic Prayer, which allows for discretionary invocation of specific saints. I’m also going to order prayer cards to St Michael and encourage parishioners to pray the prayer privately immediately after Mass. I don’t have the power to mandate a liturgical recital of the prayer, as I’m not pope, nor am I a bishop. (“No other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 22.)
I’ll send the prayer card off to the printers shortly. But first, dear reader, you might advise which of these designs I should go with:
If Christmas really is “the most wonderful time of the year” (though I’ve never liked that song), the days between Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord might qualify as the least wonderful time of the year.
It’s in these days that Christmas draws to a close, the tree is removed and the lights are dismantled. I don’t have the heart to get rid of the Christmas cards yet — that can wait until the Presentation of the Lord. I know the hard-core also keep their trees up til then, but I think by 2 February there’d be more pine needles on the carpet than there would be on the branches.
As I removed the decorations from the Christmas trees in the parish church and presbytery, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited came to mind.
The strange spectacle of an undecorated tree, standing tall, dry and dead, evokes that most evocative of scenes, when Cordelia secretly observes a priest decommissioning a Catholic chapel
He took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room.
Once the December issue of The Priest was sent to the printers, I had hoped to have more time blogging.
That was probably a bit naïve. For starters, the silly season of pseudo-Christmas — the unhappy successor of Advent — intervened. But in the less demanding days since Christmas, a lot of my “computer time” has been occupied with www.clergy.asn.au, which after The Priest is my biggest responsibility as editor of the ACCC.
My favourite WordPress developer, Elegant Themes, has finally — after two long years of development — released its flagship magazine theme, and I have spent a lot of time adapting it for the Confraternity’s purposes.
It’s far from finished, but if you follow the links to get a feel for the new look. The pages of the website, which relate information about the ACCC are complete. For example, visitors can register for the upcoming conference in Armidale.
Now I’m working on a much larger task: uploading every article ever published in The Priest. There are hundreds of these, and it’s a worthwhile project, I think, posting these online. They would have been a great help to my seminary studies, if only I’d had access to the archive when I was a student. Even now, I try to read one or two of the theological articles each month, as part of my systematic reading. The ‘prototype’ article is complete: Consecrated religious in Australian parish life. One formatted; 499 or so to go.
I’m treading old ground here. I wrote a very similar blog post back in November 2012. Back then I seemed to think I’d have the entire project finished in 12 months. Hmmm… I’ll do my best to blog regularly for the rest of these peaceful school holidays. But no promises!
Several weeks ago, some parishioners of mine showed me a beautiful set of boxes they dust off every Christmas.
The boxes were new and ornate, but made to look old — 1001 Arabian Nights old. The interiors were lined with red satin and contained gold, frankincense and myrrh. I was confident I could find something similar online, and sure enough, I found it:
These boxes struck me as very Montessorian. I’ve blogged about Montessorian pedagogy before. It’s an effective and fruitful way of catechesis. Hence my interest in buying these myself. I located a “deluxe set” on Amazon which set me back $50, including postage and handling. Quite reasonable, really.
The chest of gold is octagonal, and contains a glass globe filled with water and large flakes of gold. The chest of frankincense is round, and contains large grains of incense. (I’m chewing on one now, which is a Mid-East custom apparently. It’s a pleasant tasting gum, but not so pleasant I’d do it again.) The chest of myrrh is square, and also contains large grains of incense. I’ve always presumed that the myrrh presented at Bethlehem was in the form of oil, but of course the Scriptures do not specify. It could just as easily have been presented in resin form. (I haven’t chewed on the myrrh, though apparently it is good for toothache!)
I put the set to good use during today’s Epiphany Mass. Some of the children who frequent Sunday Mass assumed the identities of Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. (In other words, they hung hastily prepared name tags around their necks.)
During the homily, I called each “wise man” forward, and he processed from the back of the church bearing his box. At the sanctuary steps, he opened his box and showed his gift to the congregation before kneeling at the crib and placing his gift before the infant Jesus. While all that was happening, I shared some thoughts on each gift:
Even now, gold evokes royalty, and gold is a gift fit for a king. Especially the King of Kings!
We are called to join Melchior by presenting Jesus with our own gold. We can to that literally by giving money to the Church, and to charity. But we can present other sorts of gold also. Think of the old saying: “if you want to know how rich you are, think of all the things you have that money can’t buy.”
Our friends, our family, health, happiness — we can present these treasures to the Lord too. We can thank and praise him for these gifts, and detach ourselves from them by freely offering them back to God.
Incense, then as now, was used in worship. Caspar’s gift was fit for God, which is exactly who Jesus is: the Word Incarnate; God made man.
We can join Caspar by offering our own worship, especially at Mass. There’s no greater way to offer worship, than to participate in the Mass. But there’s an additional, more metaphorical way by which we can present the Lord with frankincense. Clouds of sweet-smelling incense rising towards Heaven evokes “the odour of sanctity,” or as St Paul puts it, “the fragrance of Christ.” (2 Cor 2:15)
Our own gift of incense to God is a desire to live a noble life. To show understanding and friendship to neighbours. To bring peace and joy to friends. To show mercy and affection to enemies. In other words, to make “the fragrance of Christ” our own.
The ancient Egyptians used myrrh in mummification. And the Jews used myrrh to anoint the bodies of the dead and prepare them for burial.
Hence Balthasar’s gift of myrrh evokes death. It’s a prophecy of the Lord’s passion. The next time myrrh is mentioned in the Gospels is at Calvary: “They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he refused to drink it.” (Mk 15:23)
We can imitate Balthasar’s gift of myrrh by offering sacrifice, especially in the little things. The hot weather, a stubbed toe, illness and tiredness are common discomforts which we can offer to the Lord in place of myrrh. We can smile at those who annoy us, hold our tongue and listen to others attentively, and make good use of the time God gives us.
I think anyone who spends any time on the Internet is familiar with the old joke about “three wise women” who aren’t mentioned in the Bible:
There’s no doubt that the three gifts of wise men are less practical. Tradition does hold, however, that the gold and frankincense financed the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and our Lady kept the myrrh in safekeeping, until three decades later she anointed her son’s body in preparation for his burial. So the gifts were certainly auspicious.
The greatest symbol of the Epipany however, is not gold, frankincense or myrrh, but the star which guided the Magi to Jesus. The star of Bethlehem is evocative of the light of Christ, which we carry within us — the fruit of our baptism and Confirmation, replenished by prayer and holy communion. In the word’s of today’s Solemn Blessing:
Since in all confidence you follow Christ,
who today appeared in the world as a light shining in darkness,
may God make you, too, a light for your brothers and sisters.