Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ before Pilate

Christ before Pilate
First Station of the Cross
Assumption church, Fairfield, CT*

Christ the King: B cycle                                  

Today's feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. Pope Pius IX instituted the new feast after a devastating world war which saw millions killed and empires fall. The Kaiser of defeated Germany was forced to abdicate his throne; the Tsar of Russia was deposed and executed by angry revolutionaries; the Austrian empire--the heir to the Holy Roman empire which had lasted for over a thousand years--was broken up into a number of small states; and the Turkish empire, which had ruled the Middle East for over 500 years, was also overthrown, an event which led to the anarchy in that area which persists even today. Even though the English monarchy survived the war, the mighty British empire was mortally wounded.

At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ. The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year. Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading from the Book of Daniel s[eaks of one who has received “dominion, glory, and kingship.”

            His dominion is an everlasting dominion
That shall not be taken away,
His kingdom shall not be destroyed.

In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.

Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Ever since the time of King Henry the Eighth, the kings and queens of England had acted as head of the Church of England. Old traditions held that the King even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.

By the time of our revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A King was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.

But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?

In today's gospel from St. Luke we see our King on this last Sunday of the Church year on trial before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. In this scene Pilate puts the question to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered:

You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. 
All year we have been reading St. Mark’s account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. We've followed Him on the journey, heard the famous parables, witnessed the miracles and the miraculous cures and healings. He asked us to take up our cross and follow Him and promised that if we would do so we would enter into His Kingdom. Actually, He said that His Kingdom would enter into us--that the Kingdom of God would be within us.

Let's end this Church year by visualizing the scene on the Cross. Let's imagine that we are one of the thieves being crucified along with Jesus and that our own journey through life is coming to an end. Wouldn't we want to hear the famous words in the gospel when the King turns to us and says,

            Amen, I say to you,
            today you will be with Me in Paradise.


Reading 1. Daniel 7: 13-14
Reading II. Revelations 1: 5-8
Gospel. John 18: 33b-37 (You say I am a king)

*Image by Melissa Destefano

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The First Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving in America was celebrated in St. Augustine in Florida when a Spanish priest said the first Mass on the newly discovered continent. That would have been about a century before the Pilgrims landed.

The word eucharist is a Greek word that means thanksgiving. Its root, from which our word charity is derived, literally means a gift of love, in particular a gift of divine love. The earliest Fathers of the Church used the word Eucharist to describe the Sacrifice of the Mass. Holy Eucharist means Holy Thanksgiving.

The Mass consists of two parts: a liturgy of the Word, and a Liturgy of the Eucharist. The second part begins with the Offertory. Members of the congregation, representing the entire assembly, bring up the gifts of bread and wine that will be offered to the Father. What is the purpose of the procession? What is the nature of these gifts?
It is a natural thing for people who have been blessed or gifted to want to give back. As the Psalmist says, “What return shall I make to the Lord for all that He has given me?” Here we have the basic reason for attendance at Mass. We come not to get something out of it but to try to give thanks to the Lord for all that we have been given.

What can we give back? A few dollars? A tenth of all we earn? What do a few coins or pieces of paper matter to the Creator who has given us every good thing? The only thing we have of any real value is our immortal soul. Again the Psalmist says, “a soul contrite and humble You will not spurn.” Ultimately, the gift that we bring to the altar at the Offertory is the gift of our very selves, the promise that we will give our whole life in service to God and our neighbor.

After the Offertory procession the priest goes up to the altar and prays that the bread might become “the bread of life,” and that the wine might become “our spiritual drink.” Then he prays that our sacrifice “may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”

Please note that it is “our” sacrifice. The priest acts as our agent, our representative, our ambassador in presenting our offering to the Father. Will the offering of ourselves be acceptable?

After the completion of the Offertory, the priest begins the Eucharistic or Thanksgiving prayer. He asks us to “lift up our hearts,” and says, Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. Thanksgiving is the theme of all that follows. In the Preface we pray: “Father, it is our duty and our salvation…to give you thanks through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.”

Again, is our gift worthy? The priest understands his own unworthiness and introduces a new priest or ambassador. “We come to you Father, with praise and thanksgiving, through Jesus Christ your Son. Through Him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.” In other words, our gift, our sacrifice, the gift of our very selves must be merged with the gift of our Lord, with His own Sacrifice on the Cross.

We then proceed to the Consecration of the Mass. The words of consecration in our missals were being used by the earliest Christians even before they were written down by the four Evangelists and St. Paul. Our Lord had said to “do this in remembrance of Me.” When we hear the words of Consecration we are taken back to that first Eucharist which our Lord celebrated on Holy Thursday. When the priest pronounces the words of Consecration not only does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, the celebrant becomes Christ. We believe that at every Mass it is our Lord himself who is he celebrant, our agent, our ambassador.

If we believe this, we have been given a great gift, the gift of Faith. At the end of the Eucharistic prayer we join in the acclamation or “Great amen.” Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father.”

Now we can proceed to Communion. We have brought our gifts to the altar. The sacrifice has been offered and accepted and now we publicly prepare to receive back more than we could ever give—the Body and Blood of Christ. To prepare ourselves we first recite the Lord’s Prayer to ask for forgiveness and healing. In the Rite of Peace we offer the Kiss of Peace to our neighbors as a sign of reconciliation.

Just before the reception of Communion we say two more prayers asking for peace and forgiveness. First, the ancient Agnus Dei or Lamb of God, and then we paraphrase the words of the roman centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Now we are ready to receive the body and Blood of the Lord.

After Communion there is very little left to be done in church. Our Eucharist or thanksgiving has been accepted. Our gifts have been returned to us a hundredfold. The priest dismisses us telling us to “Go in the peace of Christ to love and serve the Lord.” We have been transformed and now we are dismissed to go and transform the little corner of the world in which we live. ###