Monday 22nd April 2019

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Reverence As A Way Of Life In Church And Beyond

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In a previous essay, we looked at reverence as an overriding principle of fitting sacred worship. Here we return to the subject of reverence to consider some specific ways by which it is expressed in the sacred liturgy and in other aspects of life as well.
Lent is a particularly opportune time to reflect upon reverence, for it is a season of serious soul-searching, a season beginning and concluding with solemn rites that bring us to a hushed standstill before awesome events and mysteries. It begins with a rite that literally writes the remembrance of death on our faces, the imposition of ashes, and as it draws to a close we enter Jerusalem with Christ on Palm Sunday, kneel with Him, and before Him in Gethsemane on Holy Thursday, and kiss His crucified feet on Good Friday.
How can we even dare to approach such sacred mysteries without a spirit of reverence?
The teaching of our Lord that He is really present in the Holy Eucharist, that the Holy Eucharist is truly His Body and Blood, is filled with implications for what transpires in church. Our Lord’s condescension does not end when the Sacred Host is fragmented, or when a drop of the Precious Blood falls from the chalice; rather, He remains very much present even in the particles that fall from the Host, even in a droplet from the chalice on the floor.
In willing to become incarnate and in giving Himself to us as sustenance in the Holy Eucharist, He knowingly chose to risk this, to expose Himself to this. Our response needs to be dictated by faith in what Christ has done, and therefore we need to respond with the utmost reverence, even when our God takes on the aspect of a “mere crumb” or droplet before our eyes.
I distinctly recall witnessing an instance when following Holy Communion the Communion plates were given to the priest, and he quite purposely refused to look for any sacred particles upon them, but instead immediately stacked them one atop another and brusquely sent them back to the credence table, making it very clear that he didn’t believe in showing any reverence whatsoever for any particles that might have fallen upon the plates.
His behavior implied a contempt for what the Church has always believed and taught about the Holy Eucharist. Our behavior should be precisely the opposite. The reverent use of the Communion plate at Mass should be a way of life in every Catholic church and chapel.
We need to see our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as the axis of our lives, as the supernatural center of our universe, as it were. And therefore when in church, we need to keep ourselves ever conscious of the Real Presence by remembering to genuflect each and every time we pass before the tabernacle. To some, and perhaps even to ourselves, this may seem needlessly repetitive or even obsessive, yet it is in fact an outward expression of what the great spiritual writers have taught for centuries, that we should strive to keep God in mind at all times.
Whether we know it or not, our exterior deportment in church and in the sacred liturgy impacts our faith and that of others who see us. The reverent actions and gestures of a parent speak volumes to the mind of a child.
The detailed, reverent ceremonies of the sacred liturgy form the very fabric of “active participation,” serving to make both the clergy and the laity pause to think about what they are doing, saying and witnessing during divine worship.
Yet for decades now, there has been a mentality in careerist liturgical circles that the Holy Eucharist as Christ originally intended it can only be discovered and restored by denuding the liturgy of its solemnity and elaborate ceremonies, which these academes allege are a corruptive ritualization imposed by later generations out of touch with the simple ways of Jesus.
Who was it, then, who first started ritualizing and ceremonializing the sacred liturgy? Was it Constantine? Was it some grim, humorless bishop of the “Dark Ages”? The Spanish Inquisition, perhaps? I dare say it was Our Lord Himself who instituted the ceremonialization and solemnization of the sacred liturgy. For as the evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate, the first Mass took place not during any ordinary meal but rather within the ritualized setting of a Passover Seder.
And although St. John in his Gospel does not describe the portion of the Last Supper regarding the Holy Eucharist, his account of the rest of this supper is thickly laden with solemnity, beginning with the washing of the apostles’ feet, clearly no casual affair, but rather a ritualized gesture during which none of the apostles other than St. Peter dared to utter a word.
Had He so willed, our Lord could have instituted the Holy Eucharist in the far less formal setting of one of the spontaneous mass gatherings of thousands assembled to hear Him preach during His public ministry, the sort of setting He chose more than once for the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish to satisfy the physical nourishment of His flock. Instead, He gives us this sacrament within the Holy of Holies of “a large upper room furnished” (Luke 22:12; Mark 14:15), with only His apostles present, sequestered from the noise of the outside world, on the very threshold of His death upon the cross. Thus modern attempts to make the Mass casual and jovial violently wrench the Holy Eucharist out of the context within which Our Lord Himself placed it.
In addition to defining our orientation toward God, reverence likewise molds our response to that most fundamental truth of human society — “. . . God created man in his own image…male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
It is part of the God-given complementarity between man and woman that men instinctively feel a certain reverence toward women, that men want to hold the door for a woman, that they greet a woman with a much gentler, more reverential taking of the hand than the ordinary hearty handshake they would give to another man.
There is also that very special sort of chaste reverence, a beautiful reverential “fear” as it were, that a man feels toward a woman he loves; as Dietrich von Hildebrand observes, “Being in love always implies a respectful, chivalrous attitude toward the beloved — a certain element of humility even, a melting of the soul, of the rigidity of the ego” (Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1997, p. 17).
And in times of danger, men instinctively perceive that it is their God-given duty to put themselves in harm’s way and even lay down their lives to protect a woman.
Women, for their part — those, at least, whose attitudes haven’t been distorted by the indoctrination of radical feminism — manifest a certain reverence toward men as well, albeit in a different way from that of men for women. They instinctively recognize the headship role of men as husbands and fathers in family life, and the headship role of priests in the Church.
If you have ever seen any of the photos or videos of St. Teresa of Calcutta — arguably the most famous, admired, and powerful woman of the twentieth century — meeting Pope St. John Paul II, what always comes across is her incredibly childlike deference toward him, as if she were just a little girl running to her father. And for all the jesting about women telling their husbands what to do, even a wife who is determined to prevail in disputing a family decision with her husband will often enough insist that the final decision must still come from him.
Suffice it to say that human nature is hard-wired for reverence.

Restoration Of Harmony

Satan is the father of irreverence. He hates the sacred, he hates all that is sacred, and so he seeks to hurl against the sacred all that can desecrate it. Art that makes the human face and form hideous, music that makes life and love ugly, immodest clothing that blasphemes against the Temple of the Holy Spirit, architecture that makes man crawl on his belly rather than raise his eyes to Heaven all suit Satan’s purposes quite well.
In his irreverent rage Satan likewise hates God’s design of a male and female human race. When he beheld the original harmony and unity, the unsullied complementarity, between man and woman, he hated it. And so he sought to destroy it.
At the beginning of the third chapter of Genesis, we encounter Satan for the first time, stalking the first man and woman, the first married couple, lying in wait for them in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-7). Almost immediately after Adam and Eve both disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit, enmity arises between them, Adam quick to blame his wife for his own sin: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12).
Ever since, Satan has been the father of divorce and adultery, the father of all ideologies that make man and woman despise each other, the father of all that drives a wedge between man and woman, the father of all that dares to deny or even mutilate the divinely instituted and irrevocable differences between man and woman. From Eden onward, Satan has been the instigator of every sinful encounter between man and woman.
There are many reasons for our Lady being on Calvary when Christ accomplished our redemption on the cross, but surely one of the most important was that man and woman should be together for the restoration of what they had lost in Eden, including the restoration of harmony between man and woman. Has there ever been a greater harmony and complementarity between man and woman than that between Jesus and Mary?
We inhabit a culture that revels in irreverence as if it were a civic virtue. On the first Good Friday, as Satan unleashed his irreverent fury upon the Son of God, upon His Body and Blood, His Soul and His Divinity, the sky turned black. But when at three o’clock Christ gave forth His spirit to the Father, light returned to the Earth.
And in that late-day light, as the splendor of sunset drew near, a man named Nicodemus came “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight” to bury the Son of God (John 19:39). A day that began with the utmost blasphemy ended in reverence. We live in an irreverent age. But in the end, reverence will have the final word.

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Fr. James Schall passed away today. A Jesuit priest & Georgetown professor, he served as mentor & model to a numberless many (including me). With penetrating insight & wit, he pointed us to Christ & those great Catholic minds we mustn't forget.

Fr. Schall, requiescat in pace.

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