20 C+M+B 16: Myrrh and the Liturgical Year

Three_kings magi map

The wise men offered Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, because He is a king. Frankincense, because He is a priest. Myrrh for His burial.

With their gifts to the baby, the magi revealed the full mystery of the life of Christ, even while He lay in the manger. This baby reigns as God. He has consecrated Himself as High Priest of the human race. He will offer the sacrifice of His own death on the cross.

On Epiphany, we look forward to celebrating the full mystery of Christ, as the liturgical year unfolds before us. The pilgrim Church lives through the passing of time by celebrating the entire human life of the eternal Word, through our annual feasts and seasons of the full calendar year.

Let’s ask ourselves one question, on Epiphany, as the Christian liturgical year begins; let’s ask ourselves this: When we say “the mystery of the life of Christ,” what do we mean?

We’re not talking about a whodunnit mystery, to be sure. Nor are we talking about some kind of “mystification” of Jesus’ life, as if we Christians took it upon ourselves to add something gripping and theatrical to an otherwise unremarkable human life. No. We deal in facts, when we celebrate our Sacred Liturgy. Historical facts which, taken together, make up the “mystery” of Christ’s entire pilgrim life.

liturgical-cycleOne particular fact must begin our explanation of what we mean by the “mystery” of Christ. Namely, Jesus’ utterly unique identity.

At every moment, many babies get born, all of them beloved of God. But among them all, Jesus alone is God made flesh.

A great mystery of faith, the Incarnation. But, as I said, not a mystification. Quite the opposite. God became man to de-mystify Himself, to reveal Himself to us. He took our human nature to Himself for a reason, a divine reason we can begin to grasp when we contemplate all the events of Christ’s life.

Why did God become man and live a human life? God did not suffer from boredom or loneliness. He hadn’t run out of cellphone data, and decided to become man in order to visit the Verizon store to get more.

No. He became incarnate for us. To save us. To give us hope, and a future beyond death. To show us why He made the universe in the first place: For us.

This divine reason–God’s unconquerable generosity and love–this divine reason for the Incarnation makes all the mysteries of Christ’s pilgrim life shine with their true meaning.

Did God need to learn how to speak Aramaic and read Hebrew? No. But Jesus learned how to speak and read in order to show us that learning to speak and read means something wonderful. It’s part of the way to heaven.

Did God need a table and chairs? So He became a carpenter to make them for Himself? No. Jesus became a carpenter to show us that daily hard work makes a part of the way to heaven.

Did God need friends or fame or loaves or fishes? No. But Jesus won friends and fame, multiplied loaves and fishes, worked other miracles, made enemies–and died at their hands–all for us. To open for us the great door that leads to God.

We love the baby Jesus, with His Mother and St. Joseph, with the animals and shepherds. When the Christmas season ends, we say goodbye to the crèche with sadness. But a true Christian can never be sentimental about Christmas.

On the eighth day of His life, they circumcised Him, and He shed the first drop of the Precious Blood He was born to shed. On the twelfth day of His life, the magi arrived, and one of them offered oil to anoint Him for burial. Christmas does not mean endless nicey-nice. Christmas marks the beginning of the mystery of God living a human life and dying a human death for us.

The mystery of Christ’s life must be a mystery because the final goal of His mission is so transcendent. If God became man solely to distribute Home-Depot gift cards, no mystery would surround the business. We’d get the gift cards, redeem them for some 2×4’s or gardening equipment, and be done with it.

But God became human so that we human beings could share the life of God. When we know that Jesus became man for that reason, grew up and worked for that reason, taught and healed the sick for that reason, instituted the sacraments, died, and rose again for that reason–when we study the events of the life of Christ as the mysteries of divine love that they are–then the idea of sharing the life of God becomes less and less mystifying. And more and more real.

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Pope St. Pius V and John 3:16 in Action

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. (from the gospel at today’s Holy Mass)

At the beginning of today’s Mass, we acknowledged that God provided us with Pope St. Pius V so that, among other things, we might “offer more fitting worship.”

Pius V in Santa Maria Maggiore
Pius V in Santa Maria Maggiore

Like the pope saints canonized this past Sunday, Pope St. Pius V led the Church in the wake of an ecumenical council. Like Vatican II, the Council of Trent aimed at reforming the Church and re-focusing the sacred ministers and the faithful on the fundamentals, the essentials of the Catholic religion.

Certainly our Liturgy ranks as the most fundamental of all the fundamentals, the most essential of all the essentials. And isn’t the worship of the Catholic Church really our united celebration of the truth of John 3:16?

If I might, let me quote the Catechism:

catechismBlessing is a divine and life-giving action, the source of which is the Father…When applied to man, the word ‘blessing’ means adoration and surrender to his Creator in thanksgiving. From the beginning until the end of time, the whole of God’s work is a blessing…In the Church’s liturgy the divine blessing is fully revealed and communicated. The Father is acknowledged and adored as the source and the end of all the blessings of creation and salvation. In his Word who became incarnate, died, and rose for us, he fills us with his blessings…The Church, united with her Lord, …blesses the Father ‘for his inexpressible gift’ in her adoration, praise, and thanksgiving. (CCC 1078-1083)

God so loved us, that He chose us to celebrate His blessing, week in and week out, in church. For His glory. For the salvation of our souls.

And for the sake of keeping the door open to all our neighbors–to keep it open, so that they, too, might share in this great blessing and this most-salutary of all celebrations: the living, breathing expression of John 3:16, the Sacred Liturgy of the Church.

St. Luke Feastday Homily: Growing up with Jesus

Maybe all of us can relate to the experience I had when I was growing up:

At some point—maybe seven or eight or nine years of age—I began to grasp somewhat the readings from the gospel in church. The readings from St. Paul’s letters still sounded like a foreign language. But the gospel readings penetrated my mind.

By the time I was ten, certainly, I had reached this conclusion: Jesus Christ makes life make sense. He had the most interesting things to say of anyone, ever. And He lived the most beautiful life. I need Him; I need to hear His words and the account of His deeds. He teaches life and love and truth.

Saint LukeSo just as I was realizing that I was my own person with my own decisions to make, Jesus Christ became the center of my reflections about life. And for one reason: Because I heard readings from the gospel regularly, every Sunday in church, through the years of my childhood. Jesus, the real Person, was a living presence in my mind.

I don’t think I’m so unusual here. This is the most common way that Christian experience develops, I think. The supernatural effect of the sacraments, of course, transcends what I am talking about. But on the level of human experience and the maturation of a person’s mind and morals, I think the experience of hearing the gospels read regularly in church, every Sunday, year after year while you’re growing up—pretty fundamental.

So, the significance of this: Jesus, the four canonical gospels, the Church, Sunday Mass—these are all connected at a level so deep, so “organic,” that they simply cannot be separated from each other or from the absolute essence of Christianity. Jesus lives in His Church; the Mass is where we find Him and become His friends, become part of His Body. And hearing the words of the gospels, on a regular basis, puts Him in our minds. He unites Himself with us as the most important and most intimate companion we have.

For over a century, people have used the phrase “organized religion” to dismiss the experience I am talking about. Whenever anyone uses this phrase, it is pretty much always to excuse their own absence from church on Sunday. “Organized religion” supposedly has its problems, seems foreign to modern life, limits my wonderful individuality.

Indeed, anything involving human beings always has problems, always falls short of what it should be—including any given Sunday Mass in any given parish church. It’s never everything that it should be, because fallible human beings are involved.

But: The means by which we come to be united with the most sublime and wonderful person ever, the most interesting and genuinely helpful role model, the most beautiful soul—can this be dismissed as “organized religion?”

Isn’t church on Sunday; isn’t hearing the gospel, week in and week out—isn’t it something much more than that? Isn’t it the love of God at work in the world, giving us Jesus Christ?

More on God’s Local Address

As you may recall, back in June, we kept the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. We meditated on: This is My Body and This is My Blood.

The Lord Jesus fed 5,000 men and their families with miraculous bread and fish. Then He explained the food that does not leave us hungry again, namely His Body and Blood. The people asked each other: “Will this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Will Jesus Christ give us His sacred flesh to eat? As we reflected in June, the answer to this question is: Indubitably, yes. Yes, He will. Yes, He does.

The Body and Blood of God, on the altar, in the tabernacle, given to us in Holy Communion: This is the central mystery of salvation. The prayer life of Christ’s Church revolves around This is My Body, This is My Blood.

As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it:

At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 47)

God made man, the Savior and Redeemer, in all His grace and glory: We can say that He has an address in our zip code. Namely in church (Catholic).

Continue reading “More on God’s Local Address”

The Sacred Liturgy: Local Yokels and Jesus Christ

Okay. Let’s see who has been paying attention. On Sundays so far this year, we have been reading from the Gospel according to Saint …? Mark. Amen.

True or false: The gospel of Mark is the lengthiest, wordiest, most long-winded gospel.

Amen! False. St. Mark wrote the briefest, tersest, most to-the-point gospel. So brief that it does not take an entire year of Sundays to read it. It doesn’t even take a full eleven months of Sundays.

We have an extra month to work with here. We have the golden opportunity to read one of the most pivotal, one of the most fascinating, one of the most illuminating chapters of the entire Bible. This particular chapter also happens to be wicked long—69 verses.

So today we start reading… John 6! Amen.

All four evangelists recount the Baptism of Christ, and all four narrate Holy Week and Easter. Other than that, there is only one episode in the Lord’s life that all four gospels recount, namely…The Feeding of the 5,000!

Not a co-incidence. The Lord revealed His divine intentions on the hillside that evening. God became man in order miraculously to feed the hungry of every time and place, including us. He did some things which have produced the stunningly wonderful effect of providing us with nourishment for immortality. Let us pause to consider what He did, as the Fathers gathered at the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago paused to consider it:

Continue reading “The Sacred Liturgy: Local Yokels and Jesus Christ”

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.’

Continue reading In Medias Res

Everybody’s Holy Day


People say that Catholics have a hard time observing holy days in our thoroughly secularized culture.

But that is not exactly the case when it comes to keeping All Saints’ Day. Just about the entire American population observes this holy day—by doing something unusual the night before, be it dressing up, or giving out candy, or watching horror movies.

Continue reading “Everybody’s Holy Day”

Hierarchic Veneration

The archangels preside over all the angels which interact with us here on earth. Each of us has a kind guardian angel to guide and help us to do good. Our guardian angels look to the Archangels as their models and guides. The Archangels did the great work of guiding the heroes of the history of salvation, which we read about in the Bible.

But the Archangels would not want us to forget that they themselves stand below countless hosts of higher angels. These celestial choirs sing the praises of God perpetually in heaven.

So we venerate the angels and archangels; the angels and archangels venerate the cherubim, seraphim, thrones, dominions, virtues, principalities, and powers.

Today we keep a special feast for the Archangels. But, of course, as we discussed a little bit on Sunday: every Mass makes a feast for us in communion with the angels. The angels celebrate the perfect liturgy of heaven, and we praise and worship God fittingly to the extent that we participate in what they always do.

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N.B. We can look forward to more extensive references to the multiple orders of angels in the revised translation of the Missal. The translation we have been using often elides references to the various orders.

Yes. Liturgy. With Heavenly Songs.

Last week, we talked about our upcoming transition to a new edition of the Missal, our prayerbook for Mass.

The Lord be with you. –-And with your spirit.

Well done.

We will start using the new Missal on the First Sunday of…? Advent. November…? 27.

When we get together to pray and offer the Mass, the ceremony we perform has a special name: Liturgy. The word comes from ancient Greek and means “public work.” The common work we do together in church: the liturgy.

Our heavenly Father beckons us to do this work of prayer together. When it comes to adapting ourselves to this new Missal translation, maybe some of us are thinking, like the first son in the parable: “No! I will NOT re-learn how to go to Mass!”

Let’s think about it. The first son’s reply may have come from honest fatigue. Maybe he had intended to rest on that particular day. Maybe his lazy, good-for-nothing, con-artist brother had not done a lick of work for months or even years. Who knows? The second son may very well have had a good reason to resist his father’s directive.

Continue reading “Yes. Liturgy. With Heavenly Songs.”

Dust unto Dust

Did you know that the Roman Rite of the holy Catholic Church admits of particular local uses?

In other words, some priests are allowed to include ceremonies as part of the Catholic rituals that express the faith in a distinctive way. One example: Franciscan priests of the Holy Land are allowed to carry a life-size replica of the body of Christ in a procession on Good Friday. These particular uses must of course be approved by the authority of the Church.

Ashing-up a lot of people’s foreheads today has inspired me to work on a particular set of ceremonies, which I will entitle the “Memento Mori Use.” If approved, I will put the ceremonies into practice someday…

According to the Memento Mori Use, all Masses will be celebrated in black vestments. (On Easter Sunday, the priest will wear a black vestment with gold trim.) Mass will be celebrated every day using the prayers of the Rite of Christian burial.

–Christmas Mass in a black vestment? Christ was born to die, my friends.

According to the Memento Mori Use, a catafalque will be kept in front of the altar at all times, flanked by six candles.

The only difference between a funeral Mass and a daily Mass will be: at a funeral, the catafalque will support an actual occupied coffin. At all other Masses, the faithful will meditate on the fact that someday a funeral Mass will be said for each of us, and it will be just like this Mass.

The catafalque will figure prominently in the administration of all the sacraments in the Memento Mori Use. After a child is baptized, the baby will be placed on the catafalque, and antiphons will be sung reminding all present that we are born to die.

Memento Mori Use catechesis will require memorizing the Creed, the seven sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the Our Father, and the Dies Irae. (Parts of the Dies Irae will be chanted at all liturgies.)

M. M. confirmands will approach the Bishop wearing full-length black scapulars. Confirmation names will be chosen from among the Christian names of dead relatives. Before administering the sacrament, the bishop will stand beside the catafalque and encourage the young people: “Remember that you have your whole life on earth in front of you! And it is, in fact, very short.”

At weddings, the couple will kneel in front of the catafalque before exchanging vows, and the celebrant will invite them to meditate on this question:

“Dearly beloved, think about the fact that someday you will be dead and buried, and your children will be dead and buried, and your children’s children will be dead and buried, and the cemetery in which you are buried will be overgrown and forgotten, and no one on the face of the earth will remember you or your children or your children’s children.”

“Do you really think it is necessary to get married?”

In the Memento Mori Use, the priest will frequently stand before the altar holding a skull, and the faithful will process up the aisle and pause briefly to gaze upon the skull. M.M. Catholics will all try to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre.

Memento Mori Use parishes will have titles such as Holy Death of Christ, Holy Death of St. Francis, Holy Death of the Martyrs, Holy Death of St. Joseph, Holy Death of St. Sebastian, etc.

The Memento Mori faithful will process through the cemetery not just once a year on All Soul’s Day, but on every Sunday. Boy Scouts in M. M.-Use-parish troops will earn merit badges by constructing their own caskets. Memento-Mori Catholics will generally prefer to sleep each night in their own caskets.

Memento Mori Catholics will be the most joyful of all the faithful, because the repeated ceremonies of the Use will have made death a friend and removed all fear.

What I am going for is a perpetual liturgical experience which will make the Ash Wednesday exhortation of, “Remember, man, that you are dust…” seem like the friendly greeting that, in fact, it is.

Because we are not long for this world, people.

[Thanks to M.J.P. for helping me work out the details.]