In Medias Res

Anyone ever hear of Homer? I don’t mean Homer Simpson. I mean the storyteller of ancient Greece.

'Aristotle with a Bust of Homer' by Rembrandt
Homer told his stories in a famous way. He starts you out in the middle. Then, as the story unfolds, he fills you in on how things got to the point you found them at the beginning.

At the beginning of the Iliad, the Greeks have set up camp on the eastern banks of the Aegean. What are they doing there? Read on, and you will find out.

At the beginning of the Odyssey, Odysseus languishes in prison on the isle of Ogygia. How did he get there? Read on to find out.

Perhaps you will recall that, about a month ago, I started trying to review some of the changes in the English translation of the people’s parts of the Mass, the words which we will begin to use in two weeks.

When we first started talking about the new Missal, we discussed how we pray the Sacred Liturgy as our common work together. Liturgy means ‘public work.’

Now, I actually hesitate to use the term ‘liturgy’ at all. Not because I don’t like to talk about our public prayer together. But because the Sacred Liturgy draws us in like Homer draws his reader into his stories. I can’t claim to know the whole story at this point. Only the saints in heaven can claim to understand the liturgy fully. Whenever we come to church, we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Sacred Liturgy. Yet its full reality eludes our grasp. It surrounds us like a cloud. We see it, and yet much more lies beyond our sight.

We do the liturgy, yes; it is our work of prayer. But at the same time, the Liturgy does us. We make it happen, and yet it changes us, lifts us up. It is not something we invent. We receive it, and then gradually make it our own.

As we share in the liturgy over time–over years, through a lifetime–more and more opens up to us. Things that have been there since we first started praying in church–but which we never understood, which were obscure and dark–suddenly fill with light. Over time, by applying ourselves to the work of praying with the Church regularly, we understand more and more about God and His works.

When everything is said and done, the Lord will call us to account for how we have capitalized on all the good things He has given us to use. He has given us all our particular gifts. What He has given us all in common is the Sacred Liturgy of His Church.

Now, the time has certainly come for me to wrap up the topic of the new translation of the Missal. The best thing at this point will be simply to get on with it. But we had probably better address one last aspect of the business.

In two weeks, we will have our pew cards. We will also have the new book. The priest will read all our beloved old prayers from a new translation. They will sound rather different. More formal.

For example, at the beginning of Mass this Sunday, the priest reads this prayer:

Father of all that is good, keep us faithful in serving you, for to serve you is our lasting joy.

On this Sunday next year, the priest will say:

Grant us, we pray, O Lord our God, the constant gladness of being devoted to you, for it is full of lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good.

You might think to yourself, when I start praying from the new book: Gosh, Father White sounded a little stiff even before we started using this new translation of the Missal. Now he talks like Winston Churchill up there.

This new translation of the Missal poses a genuine intellectual challenge for all of us. It demands a high level of concentration. It may require a few trips to the dictionary.

Can we doubt, though, that the Lord asks us to meet this challenge? What did the poor servant who buried his talent in the ground say? “Master, I knew you were a demanding person!”

To pray the liturgy makes demands on us. It is leading us by the hand to sublime heights. Under such circumstances, any worthy guide makes demands. The Sherpas who guide their charges up Mt. Everest have strict requirements about the people they will take with them. And the summit of Mt. Everest crests a lot lower than the height to which the public prayer of the Church leads us.

But I do not want to sound forbidding. We will get the hang of it. All the effort we make to get used to the new book will bear fruit in the end. Everything we don’t understand at the beginning will grow clearer with time. The great drama of God’s love for His people will continue to unfold, as it has been unfolding since the beginning. May we let it draw us deeper and deeper in.

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