Holy Week in the Western Tradition

A Brief Synopsis

Holy Week consists of two parts: the first four days, beginning with Palm Sunday; and the Triduum Sacrum (“holy three days”), which celebrate with particular solemnity Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

During the first half, the words of St Thomas should fill our hearts and minds: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (Jn 11.16) Through the liturgical rites, we follow Our Lord and, in heart and mind, follow Him by participating in His sufferings and death. Yet our focus is not to pity Our Lord, nor effect a somber mood. Rather, we participate by being immersed in His self-sacrifice, understanding that we must also put to death the deeds of the flesh, so that we might rejoice fully and full-throatedly as we are raised and glorified in Him.

During the second half of Holy Week, the Eucharistic liturgy, together with the Divine Offices (most especially the three Tenebrae services), draw us into more profound participation while, at the same time, inculcating in us the depth of joy that is located in Our Lord’s Passion. During these days, the words “Behold how He love[s] [them]” (Jn 11.36) should capture our meditations.

Briefly, these days may be summarized as follows.


PALM SUNDAY

Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week, when we remember Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Immediately after Lauds, the blessing and distribution of the palms take place. Each person receives a palm, and the clergy lead the faithful in procession around the Church, while joyful chants are sung culminating in the hymn “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” 

When the worshippers return, the Mass commences. During the Mass, the faithful hear the First of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the fulfillment of the promised King Messiah. “Christ our King, intercede for us!”


HOLY MONDAY

At the Mass, we will hear of Our Lord’s preparation for burial by the Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. While she anoints Him with fragrant oil, we also are reminded of Judas’ betrayal and, more sadly, his impending impenitence. May the Lord’s Spirit soften our hearts to be more like Mary!


HOLY TUESDAY

During the Mass, the Second of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Mark, is read. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the Suffering Servant, who willingly and freely bares the weakness, brokenness, and sin of all humanity. “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sin of the world!”


HOLY WEDNESDAY

During the Mass, the Third of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Luke, is read. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the merciful Physician who readily sacrifices Himself to heal our souls. Nowhere is this more poignantly presented than in the exchange between Christ and Dismas (the “good” thief on the cross). Lord, grant us this same mercy!

Following Vespers, the first of three Tenebrae services is prayed. Tenebrae is a service of prayer conducted in near-darkness. This service includes a candle ceremony, where candles are extinguished at the end of each psalm and the Benedictus. The central feature of this service is the mystical application of the Lamentations of Jeremiah to our participation in Our Lord’s Passion, and a glorious explanation of the Psalm 54 (55) by St Augustine.


HOLY THURSDAY

The Institution of the Mystical Supper is the focus for the Holy Thursday Mass. The Gloria in Excelsis is restored with joyful bells, and the Readings recall the events when Our Lord gathered with His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion. We hear that Our Lord loves us to the end, and calls us to love one another in the same way. In an interesting juxtaposition from Holy Monday’s Gospel, we see Our Lord washing the feet which will carry the Gospel throughout the world. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the Gospel of peace!” (In imitation of Our Lord sending His apostles, in both Eastern and Western Rite cathedrals the Bishop, as the icon of Christ surrounded by his disciples, enacts the mandatum by washing the feet of thirteen males.)

After all have received Holy Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is processed to the Altar of Repose where it remains for adoration until the Pre-sanctified Liturgy on Good Friday.

After Mass, toward the end of Vespers, the Altar is stripped while Our Lord’s prayer on the cross (Psalm 21 [22]) is solemnly chanted. Following Vespers, the second Tenebrae service is prayed. Once again, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are mystically applied to our participation in Our Lord’s Passion, and St Augustine instructs us on Psalm 63 (64).


GOOD FRIDAY

Our Lord’s Death on the Cross is commemorated with the Solemn Liturgy for Good Friday. The service is moving in its starkness and consists of four parts: hearing the Lord’s Word, the Solemn Prayers for all persons, the Veneration of the Holy Cross with its “reproaches” (improperia), and the reception of Holy Communion from the Pre-Sanctified. During the first part, the faithful hear the fourth Passion Narrative from the Gospel according to St. John. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord ascending His throne in glory as the triumphant King, as the sign declares.

Following the Liturgy, the third Tenebrae service is prayed. The ceremony is nearly identical to the previous two Tenebrae services. After completing the Lamentations of Jeremiah, St Augustine reminds us of the significance of Our Lord’s two natures as they relate to His Passion.


PASCHAL VIGIL

The Western rite knows two celebrations of Our Lord’s Resurrection. The first and most ancient is the Great Vigil which, in the first seven centuries, was kept throughout the night and climaxed with the celebration of Holy Communion at dawn on Easter Day. In the past 13 centuries, the Great Vigil has been assigned, in both Eastern and Western churches, to Holy Saturday afternoon or morning. (In recent decades, not a few Western churches have begun celebrating the Paschal Vigil later in the afternoon or evening, while also retaining the Easter Sunday Mass.) 

During the Paschal Vigil, worshippers gather quietly in the entrance for the blessing of fire. Then the Deacon leads the faithful into the Nave. While the worshippers are taking their places, the ancient Easter hymn of praise (Praeconium) is sung and the candles of the faithful and throughout the church are lit. Following this candlelight ceremony, Old Testament prophecies are read. This Service of Readings is followed by the blessing of the Baptismal font. The Litany of the Saints leads the faithful to a joy-filled celebration of Holy Mass. The service concludes with an abbreviated form of Vespers.


EASTER SUNDAY

The Resurrexi Mass (“Mass of the Resurrection”) is the chief celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection. It commences with the blessing of the faithful with the holy water that was blessed at the Great Vigil. Then the Mass proceeds, with the Gloria in Excelsis sung once more with great joy! While the usual order of the Divine Liturgy is maintained, it is augmented with the acclamation of “alleluia” numerous times, and with the beautiful Easter sequence (Victimae paschali laudes) as well as many familiar Easter Scripture readings and hymns. In addition, flowers once more decorate our altars, and joy pervades our hearts and minds as we proclaim, “Christ is risen: He is risen indeed, alleluia!”

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Making Use of Lent

However hard this past year has been, it has been necessary for our health and the health of others. We have sacrificed much: our movements, our usual interactions, our normal routine, and sometimes even those healthy release valves (groups, therapists, gyms, etc.). As a parish, we’ve done all we can to adapt, and you are to be commended for your patience, understanding and care. Additionally, I’ve seen several instances of individual best practices and person-to-person compassion—all of which is laudatory.

If we’re honest—myself included—some­times our worst self has bled through: by giving into fears or anxieties, by being less civil and well-mannered, by thinking the worst of others or leaders, and by letting our convenience overtake concern for others.

When we see these latter thoughts and behaviors arise in us, we should (again, in honest self-reflection) ask how well we’ve maintained our spiritual health. For example, have we spent more time complaining than praying; more time searching for stories that confirm our conclusions than searching the Scriptures; more time distrusting others than building up our faith in God; and more time sinking into ourselves than strengthening our relationship with Our Father.

For myself, it has been easier not to ‘redeem the time.’ Perhaps for you, like for me, it has been easy not to be more diligent and earnest in prayer; or not to using extra time to read the Scriptures or other spiritual treasures. Instead, it’s been too easy to set aside prayers entirely or pray only minimally, because it’s hard to focus or because something else seems more interesting.

Lent is the time when our prayers can transform how we speak; when our fasting can increase hunger for Our Lord; when our meditation on His sacrifice and mercy can grow a desire to be merciful to others.

When this happens (even apart from pandemics), we develop spiritually unhealthy habits: griping and judging, fearfulness and despondency, apathy and indifference, meanness and pride, overindulgence and licentiousness. I don’t wish to suggest that these unhealthy habits are primary, or that they overrule the well-doing that I’ve seen. However, times of stress certainly requires us to be more on guard, and helps us focus on behaviors we might have missed or dismissed as unusual.

Lent is the time to work on developing healthy habits. It is time when our prayers can transform how we speak; when our fasting can increase hunger for Our Lord; when our meditation on His sacrifice and mercy can grow a desire to be merciful to others.

In brief, Lent gives us the opportunity to ‘redeem the time’ (Eph 5.16) by encouraging us to draw closer to Our Lord, and to focus on what matters most. In this way, Lent is a great gift—as perhaps this pandemic has been or can still be.

There is no greater time to make use of this gift of Lent than now, as we begin to see the relaxation of some of the previous restrictions. Immediately, our thoughts will turn to getting back to “normal.” But is the old normal something we really want? Wouldn’t it be better to use this Lent (and the lessons from the pandemic) to establish a spiritual ‘new normal’?

Lent generally—and this Lent in particular—gives us time to stretch our spiritual muscles; to cultivate the garden of our souls; and to strengthen our hope. It gives us time to pick up our prayers, and to establish spiritual best practices, to set in place a routine that strengthens our spiritual well-being.

In brief, if we let it, this Lent can help us do what St Paul urges: ‘redeem the time.’

To do that, we need more than resolutions and promises. We need to look carefully at the gifts Our Lord has given us—even in these hard days. We need to take to heart the gift of His Body—both in the Sacrament and in the Church; His Body gathered as well as His Body sacrificed and distributed.

There we will see, I’m convinced, the hope that has truly sustained us, the life that has truly nourished us, even when we devalued it or cast is aside. For the Lord’s Body contains within itself all sweetness, all goodness, and all generosity. That we have made it through these days, then, means that He has seen us through. That our worst fears have not occurred means that Christ, in His Body, has protected and guarded us. And that we will be able to embrace each other means that His embrace has not failed us.

So let’s neither look back with regret for how we should have used the time better; nor forward in a fantasy of what one day we might do. Let’s instead live for now, focused on Our Lord’s presence in the present. And in doing so, let’s return with hearts full of gratitude, and with the desire to be as diligent about our spiritual health as we’ve been about keeping physically safe.

May God be gracious and merciful to us all.

-Fr John

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Breaking Through Broken

Has the coronavirus broken you—your habit of prayer, your attendance at Mass (either in person or via livestream), and your desire for the Holy Sacraments. Has it made “living-room church” normal because it’s easier, convenient, less of a hassle?

As a result, has COVID also broken your patience, your optimism and hope? Has it caused you to be more judgy, and driven you away from those who don’t fit your ideas? Has it isolated you and driven you more and more into yourself, and thereby? Has it created in you an “us against them” and a “me against the world” mentality?

Perhaps some of these notions were always there, as tiny seeds of vice, embedded deeply within your soul. But before this pandemic, we were able to bury or even cut off the roots of these ungodly feelings and desires. For we interacted with each other, and with many other people, and so realized that everything is actually much more complicated than we think it is right now. And the way we learned that is from our conversations, our relationships, with others.

But now, even if we are able to see others in person or via Zoom, we are forced to live more with ourselves. We feel cut off and alone, because we’ve been taught to think that others can hurt us—even our closest family and friends, even those whom we love in our parish. And we fear that they may threaten not just our health but also our deeply-held ideals.

We feel cut off and alone because this pandemic has taught to think that others can hurt us—even our closest family and friends, even those whom we love in our parish.

Ideals, values, our way of seeing ‘truth,’ our view of what is best and good—all of this needs to be challenged in order to sharpen, shape, and modify us. And as we are shaped by our interaction with each other, our compassion rises above our prejudice; our love tamps down our fear; our empathy reduces our fear.

That might be, then, how we’ve been broken. The pestilence that has shifted us to see friends as enemies. The restrictions—good and necessary as they have been—have unwittingly constricted our soul.

Honestly consider, then, the several questions that I raised in the first two paragraphs of this essay. For these may reveal the ways that the devil is taking advantage of this virus.

And then ask yourself one more question: how am I taking advantage of this time, this challenge, this shift from what I thought was normal?

Wherever you are in this spectrum, know that St Michael’s Church is always open for you, always ready to embrace you, always available to help you. Not just on Sundays. But during the week—with daily Mass, with private prayer in the church, with individual conversation, with online gatherings.

I promise to do all I can to make sure you are listened to, and your voice heard. But more importantly, you will find here what you’ve always sought since the day you first arrived in this place: the kindness and mercy of Our Lord Jesus which heals what is broken, and gives hope where there is fear and restlessness.

May the Love of God be within each of us.

Rev Msgr John W Fenton

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Loving Enemies

Love your enemies. That statement by Jesus is unique to Christianity. What is even more unique is how that statement is lived. We see ‘love your enemies’ when we look at Jesus in His Passion. He tells Peter to put away his sword, and then heals one of the men brutalizing Jesus. He doesn’t resist. He isn’t defensive. And as He is dying, He asks God the Father to forgive them because they are ignorant about who they are really attacking; because He truly loves them.

We also see ‘love your enemies’ in action with St Stephen. His last moments are similar to Jesus. Treated with injustice, brutalized, put to death—and this holy deacon begs Jesus to forgive them.

‘Love your enemies.’ But that’s not all. ‘And pray for those who persecute you.’ Which is what Jesus, St Stephen, St Peter, St Paul, and holy women and men throughout history have done. They have prayed for their persecutors, those who terrorize them, the abusers, and those who mistreat them. And the prayer is not ‘Make them stop’ but ‘Forgive them, be merciful to them, do not hold this wrong they are doing to me against them.’

All of this is challenging in the abstract. When our enemy is a nameless, faceless person; someone on social media or someone in the news or someone far away—those folks are difficult but also easier to love.

But when someone is attacking you, someone from your own family, someone you know well, someone like Judas or Saul—when that is your enemy, then the command to ‘love your enemy’ truly matters. And that is really what Jesus is talking about. The person who is raging against you. The one who is getting in your face, yelling and screaming at you, threatening you, making you feel unsafe—that is the one, above all else, that we are called to love. That person, in that moment, is the one out of 99 that Jesus, through you, reaches out to.

“That’s what I would really like: that even at the moment when your enemy is raging against you, you then turn your eyes to the Lord your God and speak the words of Jesus or St Stephen: Father, forgive them.” (St Augustine)

So watch yourself, especially when your enemy is someone close to you, someone you know. Watch yourself that you don’t become their enemy. Instead, love them. For “in no way at all can your raving enemy do you more harm that you do to yourself, if you don’t love your enemy. He can damage your house, your stuff and, at most, if he’s given the authority, he can harm your body. But can he do what you can do by your hatred: can he, as you yourself can, do any damage to your soul?”

To love your enemy, then, is to protect your soul. To love your enemy is not simply an ideal for saintly people. It is what you must do to make sure you don’t throw away the love of God and your heavenly inheritance. We must not let our passions, our hatred, our desire to strike back, our extreme words, or any aggression of any kind get ahold of us. For then we kill our very self far more than no enemy, no matter how brutal, can do to us.

I say this to you for two reasons. First, too many of us are saying and sharing and posting and retweeting things that are truly hurtful—to our family, to our parish, to those who aknow us. This is hatred in words, and it is slowly killing us when we give into it. Standing up for what we believe in does not mean lashing out at those who disagree or who are even wrong. The Christian responds to these things, not by laying down, but also not by picking up the gun or the phone or any other weapon of metal or words. The Christian responds by saying, “Father, forgive them” and by trying, at all costs, to win the enemy by love. And he does this chiefly to guard his own soul; and then also to help Christ win back one from the 100.

The second reason I’m reflecting on our Lord’s command is because of the response to terrorism from our Patriarch in Damascus. The decades, even centuries, Christians have been persecuted and put to death. These brothers and sisters in Christ know their enemies—their faces, their names, where they live. And the Patriarch’s own brother, together with another bishop, were kidnapped and possibly brutalized 7 years ago. And what is His Beatitude’s response? “Christians…are still paying, with their lives and their fate, taxes to terrorism and violence: displacement, kidnapping, murder, and many a tribulation. Despite all this, [Christians] remain faithful to their pledge of love for Jesus Christ, as the Lord who redeemed them on the Cross and implanted them in this East two thousand years ago, to proclaim the joy of His Gospel.”

To proclaim the joy of the Lord’s Gospel: the Gospel of mercy, love, kindness, forgiveness—that is our only task. And that, more than anything else, is what it means to love your enemy.

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Standing With The Mistreated

These past few days I’ve had on my mind, close to my heart, and in my prayers my former parishioners at the Lutheran parish I served for 11 years in Detroit; the many fine clergy and laity from Protestant and Catholic parishes that I worked with when I was involved in community organizing and building houses; the students I taught and families I worked with in inner-city Milwaukee; some of the students at the Catholic high school where I taught for 9 years; the Orthodox laity in Detroit that I knew who were involved with the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black; and my nephew and his mother.

All of these persons have at least two things in common: they are African American, and they are friends and family.

These days have brought a spotlight to the fear they walk with daily; a fear that many described to me through the years. It’s not the fear of being different, but the fear of being treated differently. Not the fear of what they do, but the fear that when they do they will automatically, or unthinkingly, be judged as a menace or a problem or a threat. Not the fear to speak out, but the frustration of not being heard. It’s the fear deep in their bones that they are less than human, that they must be ‘kept in their place,’ and that their contributions to society have no value. And, regardless of the make-up of their community, they walk and drive the streets with a visceral fear of police and of being mistreated by certain unrestrained police officers.

These are not fears I’ve heard about from the media or from a distance. These are fears and anxieties that I’ve heard when I have sat in living rooms, at parish gatherings, in classroom discussions, and through tears in one-on-one conversations. The afraid don’t rush into these conversations, and they don’t speak quickly and openly. But they will speak once you’ve earned their trust by taking seriously their fears, recognizing their particularity, treating them with dignity, and listening to them as brothers and sisters, as wise men and women—as humans.

Part of the frustration and anger we’ve seen expressed in these past few days is that of my friends and family; and those whom we too often put unconsciously or deliberately in their ‘box.’ Regardless of what we may individually think, their fears need to be heard, acknowledged, and not swept aside. And persons of color that we know, that we speak with, need to hear clearly and directly from us that we do not condone violence or threats of violence against them.

I have another nephew who is a police officer in Florida. And we have several law enforcement personnel in our parish, as I’ve had in all the parishes I’ve been blessed to serve. These friends and family—they’ve also been on my mind, close to my heart, and in my prayers these past few days. These are good men and women who take seriously protecting the lives and rights of others, and who show dignity and respect in their service.

And like my black friends, these days have brought a spotlight to the fear they also walk with daily: a fear that they will be judged or maligned by the actions of those they quickly condemn.

Both groups have sat side by side in churches I’ve served, in graduation parties I’ve attended, and at my family reunions. In fact, some are both African American and in law enforcement. And while they disagree on several things, both groups agree that police brutality of every kind must be not merely condemned but eradicated; that police tactics that seek to harm or disable should be used only in extreme circumstances after all other measures have been exhausted; and that, in every case, the dignity of the individual person must be maintained.

Both groups also agree that the protection and sanctity of every life, from conception to natural death, is vital and inseparable from Christian morality. And that this sanctity means more than keeping hearts beating. It also means uplifting and supporting so that they live better here. But more so, sanctity of life means that we see that the life of each person, and our own life, is intimately and inseparably tied to Christ the Life of all the living. So we protect and fight for the life of each person because in each person we see Christ.

These truths are truly tested when the least, the overlooked, the berated, and the marginalized receive an undue proportion of mistreatment and abuse. Whether here in America or in the Middle East and Turkey or elsewhere, intimidating tactics force not just the mistreated but all who look like them to look over their shoulder in fear, and to lose their voice. And when others don’t stand with them, then they come to expect that no one cares.

Standing with those in need does not mean attacking. Violence doesn’t assuage, but rather incites more violence. All forms of violence are against the Christian ethic. This includes words spoken or typed in anger, against the stranger or friend on Facebook or even against people we love in our own family and parish. Angry and extreme words are acts of violence which do more lasting and deep-seated harm than other forms of violence. And words of hate-filled anger reveal a violent heart for which we must repent (which has two parts: confession and change).

Standing with those who are afraid, and who have seen their greatest fears come to life on TV means, first of all, listening to individuals in their homes, businesses and coffee shops. It means hearing the fears of African Americans (as well as others); and being open to changing your attitude as well as your thinking. Then your offer of support is authentic, and is aimed at real individuals instead of labeled people. And offering support includes support for material needs, for emotional well-being, and for inalienable rights. These rights, as we know, are God-given. And they are rooted in a truth that we Christians hold dear: that each of us, from best to worst, from least to greatest, have been made in the image of God.

Christ Jesus speaks to this truth when He reveals the questions we will be asked at our last end. He asks not about doctrines we can recite, but doctrines we have lived. Has our faith been seen in our morality? Is our creed lived out when we keep the Lord’s Commandments? Are we doers of the Word of mercy and kindness, and not merely hearers?

Christ’s answer is that, for our own salvation, we need to seek true and lasting justice, and live for all, regardless of our own experience, politics, or fears. That’s easy to do when it comes to a bag of food or writing a check. But living for all also means sitting, listening, and working for the good of those who live in fear and who have faced trauma and mistreatment.

How we live for another will take a different shape for each of us, given our unique circumstances. But individually, and together, this is a life that we must regularly learn and re-learn, and dedicate ourselves to. For we, who are baptized into Christ, are called to live no longer for ourselves but for those who need us most, confident that in these ways we are living for Christ.

At least in our parish, and especially at this time, I invite a conversation among us. Not a conversation to persuade or win people over to our side, but a conversation where we begin to listen to each other: our thoughts, our fears, our hopes, our challenges, our opportunities. Such a conversation, if done with open and honest hearts and attended with prayer, will both strengthen our parish and will show each of us how to engage in meaningful conversations with others we meet.

Rev Msgr John W Fenton
Pastor

Resource: Fr Paul Abernathy on Racial Reconciliation

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This Week’s Fast

Unique to the Western tradition are the “Embertide” fasts. These fasts occur quarterly, and encompass Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday for the appointed four weeks. Those weeks are: the third week in Advent, the first full week in Lent, Pentecost week, and the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the Feast of the Holy Cross (September 14).

During the Embertide, and most fittingly during Pentecost week, these were days when the entire community joined the candidates who were to be ordained on Pentecost Saturday. Those men selected to be made deacons or priests would fast and pray on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday before ordination.

In thanksgiving for this gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and in solidarity with these men, the whole Church both fasts and prays for those whose lives are re-ordered to deliver to the faithful the mystical and life-saving gifts of God.

The faithful pray for the Spirit’s grace both upon the men who will be ordained, and upon the whole church so that she may increase and her members may grow in faith and holiness. Our Lord’s Church cannot grow in faith or holiness without His sacred ministers. Their ministry is to deliver His gifts—the sacred mysteries—which unite us to Christ, seal us with His Spirit, heal our bodies and forgive our souls, and strengthens our life in and with each other until we together attain the fullness of the kingdom of heaven.

But there is something more that is revealed in this Ember Day practice. The whole Christian community fasts and prays (while only some are being ordained) because this Holy Sacrament—unlike all the sacred mysteries—centers the Christian parish family. That is the essence of this sacrament. Fr Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, puts it this way:

If each man [or woman] is to find in Christ his own life, if Christian engineers find in the Church what it means to be a Christian engineer, if a Christian novelist finds in the church the idea of what is Christian art, if a Christian father and a Christian mother find in the Church the essence of Christian parenthood, there must be someone in the center of the community who, just as Christ, has nothing of his own, but in whom and through whom everyone else can find his way.

Liturgy & Life

In practical terms, this means that the priest is the one who re-presents Christ; that is, who repeatedly makes Christ present. And it is the same with the deacon: he also presents Christ again and again.

The significant difference between the priest and deacon is that the priest’s primary focus is making present Christ’s compassion and mercy for the soul (i.e., through the sacraments and visitations), while the deacon’s primary emphasis is making present Christ’s compassion for the body (i.e., through material assistance and prayer).

These roles are clearly demonstrated in the Divine Liturgy: both when the deacon reads the Gospel, and when the priest dispenses the Eucharist, leads the prayers, and gives the blessing. In these instances, the deacon and priest first proclaim “Christ is in our midst” (“The Lord be with you”) before exercising their specific ministry. And the faithful acknowledge this whenever they respond, “And with thy spirit”—that is, and with the Spirit who was given to you in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Likewise, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is exactly that: a re-ordering of the life of the ordained man. No longer does that man have a “private” or “individual” life. No longer can he make decisions based solely on what is best for himself, his health, his prosperity or success, or even his family. And no longer can he set aside, even when “vacationing” or on his “day-off,” his duty and responsibility to serve at the altar or pray the prescribed prayers.

In a very real sense, then, the ordained man is “under orders.” In every moment, he must “become all things to all men.” He must “do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” For his life is no longer his own, but is offered up as Christ gave Himself completely as a self-offering for men.

This is why Holy Orders is a sacrament which conveys the grace to bolster and sustain those who are ordained. And perhaps you see why it is both good and necessary for the whole Church to join in the fasts and prayers—not only for the men who will be ordained, but even more so for the priests and deacons who now serve. For by your fasting, you remember the sacrifice; and by your prayers, you support and encourage them in being faithful to their orders.

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Truth’s Spirit: A Homily

What we are tempted to see as defeat, is really victory. What we tend to believe is the end, is really the beginning. What we are sure will undo us, really hides our salvation. The grave that announces the end is really the gate to unending and more abundant life. And the overwhelming darkness that we fear, truly can usher in the splendor and warmth of the true Light. This true Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overwhelm it; for this true Light gives light to everyone coming into the world.

This is the Spirit’s testimony. It is not his truth, or a truth. Truth Himself is conveyed and delivered to us by Truth’s Spirit. The Spirit of Truth reveals, unmasks, and presents the One who is Truth. That is what Jesus means when He speaks both of Himself and of His Spirit by saying, “The Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.”

Yet Truth’s Spirit’s testimony is not mere words. Just as it is not mere propositions. For the Spirit is also called the Comforter: the One who comforts.

The Spirit comforts us by declaring forthrightly that the victory in this combat stupendous remained with Life; the reign of death has ended.

But more than just declaring and proclaiming and preaching, this Spirit comforts us also by giving—by giving into us the Life that death tried to kill; and by giving into us the Love that hatred wanted to murder.

In their historical context, the disciples need to hear these words. Jesus is about to be betrayed, tried, tortured, and executed. “These things will also happen to you,” says the Mentor to his followers. “The world will do to you what they are doing to me. Because the world hated Me before it hated you. And so it’s hatred of you is continued hatred of Me.”

Jesus needed to make sure His disciples understood this so that they would not be taken by surprise; so that they could see the context of their own suffering; so that they could maintain, endure, remain, and persevere.

Jesus needs to make sure that we hear these same words. Not because torture and execution are imminent. Not because people are out there trying to keep us from being Christian. But because we sometimes revert to a persecution, martyr complex. When we do, we lose heart and our love grows cold as frustration and adversity and hardship arise.

Most importantly, like the disciples, we need to hear about the Comforter, and the Truth He delivers into us, because we tend to believe that death is gaining the upper hand; that life is tenuous and frightening; that there is so much to be fearful about; that the ground keeps shifting beneath us; and that things will never get to better.

Our minds go there too quickly. And our spirits too often follow—or sometimes lead us—to the point of despair or indifference or rebellion.

It’s not that we need to be reminded that there will be a better day. It’s that we need hope—the hope the Spirit gives, the hope that is within the Spirit’s comfort, the hope that is tangible and authentic and digestible—we need that hope once again. If our bodies are frail, these days our spirits also seem more frail. They seem too ready to collapse, believing that God has forgotten us or that we don’t matter or that no one cares.

The Spirit’s comfort, the Spirit’s hope, is that we do not fight alone. In fact, we do not fight at all. The fight has been fought. The victory has been won by Another, and He has given that victory completely to us. So there’s really nothing to fear. Life has defeated death, so death cannot and will not end us. Christ Himself has undermined anything that can cause death. And Our Lord has paid for and redeemed everything in us our devils claim we’re guilty of.

Knowing this, for me—and perhaps for you—the frustration and tension remain. The anxiety and nervousness still rise. The feeling of unworthiness still sits heavy.

The Spirit’s comfort, the Spirit’s hope does not dismiss these feelings, these thoughts. Truth’s Spirit counters them with the Truth that Love Himself embraces us at our worst, welcomes us when we can’t welcome ourselves, and holds us when we are undone. And, while doing that, Love Himself then covers and chases away all the demons that frighten, all the passions that beset us.

Truth’s Spirit comforts us by speaking Truth Himself into us. Truth’s Spirit comforts us by speaking Hope Himself into us. And the hope is this: that God’s got us. That His Son has trampled down the path that we now get to trod. And we get to tread this path because this is how we follow in the footsteps of Christ; and this is the path we need to walk so that we attain that heavenly joy that our loved ones and forebears are now tasting.

To re-speak this comfort, this Truth, is the Spirit’s role. To help us believe Truth by continually bringing Him to our remembrance: that is also the Spirit’s role.

And our role is both to believe, and then to permit the Spirit to align ourselves with Christ, who is Truth. Not to proclaim ‘my truth,’ but to discard it knowing it’s incomplete, feeble, self-serving. To embrace Truth in place of ‘my truth’: that the Holy Spirit helps and guides us to.

Of course, we can fight back and resist. But the Spirit will continue to return, gently and lovingly, leading us back to Truth.

This loving, comforting Spirit—this is the Spirit who comes to us; the Spirit we have received. Having Him, we can support each other in suppressing the urge to strike back, to give into our worst self, and to lash out at those we love.

By our prayers for one another, we can support each other to let Christ live through us. Then will we be enabled and empowered to be good stewards; to minister to each other with kindness and graciousness; and to find the peace that subdues our frustration.

And it works the other way also: the more we help each other pursue compassion and benevolence; the more we use hospitality without griping or blaming; the more we sacrifice the way we think things ought to be—the more we will see Christ and the Truth that He is.

That we might be strengthened and comforted against the spirit of dread, let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; and let us consider one another, and encourage compassion and kindness in ourselves as well as in others; comforting one another with the Spirit of Truth; to whom, with the Father and the Son, belongs all glory, honor and worship, throughout all ages of ages.

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Pentecost Novena: Imitating the Holy Apostles

Right before Our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, “He commanded [the disciples] not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father.” (Acts 1.4) They waited, but not idly. The Holy Apostles waited nine days in prayer. And they were joined by others: the Holy Mother of God and about 120 others.

Nine days of prayer, imploring the descent of the Holy Spirit. Not making requests in a mantra-like fashion, but communing with their Lord in prayer: rejoicing in His promises, building on the hope He gives, meditating on His holy words, longing for His blessed presence, as well as asking for the grace of the Holy Spirit.

These nine days of prayer are known as a novena (derived from the Latin word novem, which means ‘nine’). A novena has, in time, becomes a particular Western devotion. It consists of nine days of prayer (public or private) whose character is hopeful mourning, yearning and fervent prayer.

While there are now various kinds of novenas, the original was a novena of preparation. It is this novena that you are encouraged to engage in during the days between the Ascension and Pentecost. In doing so, you will be imitating the practice of the Holy Apostles during this time.

Since Pentecost is the birthday of the church, and the days of Pentecost have historically been days of preparing and ordaining priests and deacons, you are encouraged to make a special intention in your novena prayers for your parish and its clergy.

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He Gave Gifts: Ascension Homily

Ascension Day Homily

Our bodies are frail. That is why the Holy Sacraments are vital and necessary and essential to our well-being—especially the Sacraments of Private Confession and the Holy Eucharist.

For our bodies are frail. They are easily overwhelmed by stress, harmed by accidents, undone by the unexpected, and overcome by tiny microbes. To think or even speak of our frailty makes us anxious and fearful because, to be quite honest, we want and plan for and expect a long life.

Our frailty is a result of our unhuman condition. ‘Unhuman’ because it was not what Our Father originally designed or wanted for us. But fragility, together with the certainty of death, was passed down to us as a consequence of our tendency to go our own way, think chiefly of our convenience, and focus mostly on our material and bodily desires. Ironic, isn’t it: the more we concentrate our efforts on length of days and quality of life in this world, the more we lose sight of and endanger never-ending life and the possibility of greatest joy and bliss.

Perversely, we prefer the unhuman. Partly because we can’t imagine life without our mis-ordered affections. And because we won’t consider what humanity beyond this life can be.

Yet the purpose of Our Lord’s Ascension is to reverse this inclination to look only at what we can see, and base our behaviors on materialistic science, and believe in our own self-satisfaction, and thereby continue in fear and increased anxiety.

This feast is often overlooked because we can’t see what it means. We naively think it’s the anticlimax to Our Lord’s life on earth. Or the crown jewel of His battle against Satan and evil.

But Our Lord does not ascend to impress us. And He doesn’t ascend for His sake. He does nothing for His sake.

Our Lord ascends to help us see what better really is. To see what our bodies can truly be, and what heights they can attain. Our Lord ascends to lift up our eyes. So that we see that our fear is misplaced, and our anxiety is misleading. Our Lord ascends not just to give us hope, but to locate our hope. Not in some ethereal, indistinct beauty. But in the concrete, physicality of His own glorified, transformed, human nature. A nature that He took from us, so that He could restore and renew our nature.

So when Jesus ascends, it not just Jesus ascending. It is us ascending—now, in Him actually and spiritually in heart and mind. And then later, in Him actually and completely, in body and soul.

By ascending, Christ is raising our human nature—everything who we are, all we can be in Him, the whole of what we are designed to be with God—He is raising our human nature to sit in heavenly places, in the glory that He shares with His Father.

That sounds lofty. And it should. For lofty, exalted, admired—that’s exactly where the Lord aims us when He pulls us out of the font and says, “I have called you by name; you are mine.” Not mine, as in ‘my property.’ But ‘you are mine’, as in ‘my love, my beauty, my beloved, the one dear and the one close to my heart.’

Those loving words, and the true love they reveal—like all true love—ennoble, dignify, and empower us—to live better than we believe, apart from our lusts and desires, completely for another.

We demean those words when we determine that our identity is tied not to Jesus but to our self-chosen narrative and truth. We diminish our baptism when we live as if we matter more than the Lord’s will and more than others. And we devalue our Lord’s ascension when we let our fears govern how and whether and when we will receive the Lord’s gifts.

For when He ascended, not only did our Lord lead into captivity Satan, our cravings, and our guilt—all of which sought to scare us into hell. When He ascended, Our Lord also gave us gifts. The sacramental gifts. The gifts where our salvation is most certainly located. The gifts which give us not the hope of hope, but Christ Himself; not the idea of deliverance, but the One whose deliverance we can taste, and share, and claim as our own.

Our Lord, in His Ascension, gave us these Sacred Mysteries, so that faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold. This is the strength of our life. It is light that intensifies the spirit of those who believe—so that we put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eye; so that we fix our desires on what is beyond our sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what was visible. For this reason, our Redeemer’s physical body both ascended into heaven while, at the same time, is delivered into the sacraments to be distributed to you. (cf St Leo the Great)

These sacraments mock our human frailty, not because we think we cannot die but because we are now sure that our anxiety is counter-productive and actually harms us more than we believe. At the same time, these sacraments increase our faith in what we will be, what we will have in fullness, even as they increase our desire for the life to come.

With faith nourished by these holy Sacraments, our forebears have lived “unshaken through oppression and imprisonment, through exile and hunger, fire and ravening beasts, and the most refined tortures ever devised by brutal persecutors. Throughout the world women no less than men, tender girls as well as boys, have given their life’s blood in the struggle for this faith. It is a faith that has driven out devils, healed the sick and raised the dead.” (St Leo the Great; Sermon 74)

Let us, therefore, drive away all fears of what might be or of what we might miss out on. And do not let earthly desires hold down our soul which is called upward to greater living. Instead, let us come quickly and often to receive our ascended Lord as He now comes to us, for us, and within us in His Holy Sacraments. These, and these alone, will lift up our hearts and minds. These Sacred Mysteries will give us the strength to travel safely through whatever lies ahead. And these Blessed Gifts will give us the courage to bypass fleeting experiences so that we might embrace the certain pleasures that Our Lord gives us in overflowing abundance.

With such faith we will be unafraid to help the downtrodden, and unconcerned with what others may say or do. And we will be committed to live not for our own gain, but so that the lover, the friend, the co-worker, the stranger, and the enemy may seek to join us because they see, by our words and deeds, the hope that the Sacraments have enlivened within us.

Nothing is stronger against worries and apprehension of what will be; nothing is stronger against the fear of our mortality—than the kindness of mercy and the generosity of love which Our Lord has lived for us, plants in us, and lives through us. And all that is demonstrated in His Ascension through which we are enabled to taste and see the Lord’s goodness; to whom belongs all glory, honor, worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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Aiming Your Prayer: An Rogation Homily

In the nine days following Our Lord’s Ascension, the Holy Apostles and the disciples spent their time in prayer. St Luke tells us that they self-quarantined for their spiritual well-being, not in fear but in preparation, not to keep away from others but to enter into a deeper, closer communion with God.

That’s what prayer is. Entering into a deeper, closer communion with God. Taking our relationship with our Father beyond the wanting and asking stage, beyond seeing God as the one who is supposed to sort out our life, make things better, and fulfill our requests.

Yet too often, my prayer, perhaps like yours, is a list of things that we want God to do, or a list of people we want God to bless. So when we pray, we lay out a series of asks or appeals or even sometimes some demands.

It’s okay to give God a list. But when we do, we’re having a one-way conversation. A monologue, where we say stuff and don’t expect to hear anything back. That is, if we actually say our prayers out loud. But how many times do I pray not aloud but simply in my head? How many times is my prayer to my Father a mental activity; me thinking my requests?

Jesus meets us at this very basic and simple level in today’s Gospel. And He wishes to nudge and lead us into better prayer. He begins where we’re at when He says, “Whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

Asking. With the expectation of getting. Perhaps that’s why our prayers lag. Why we find them a chore. Why praying isn’t enough. Because we see them as transactional, me approaching God and expecting some kind of payoff. As is God is nothing more than a sugar daddy.

When we see God that way, then we think praying is about getting results. Either I should feel differently, or I should see some change (in me, in my situation, in others). And when we don’t get that, we think that prayer is not being heard and not working.

The key to prayer, however, is not the word “Ask.” The Holy Apostles and the disciples did not spend 9 days pestering the Holy Trinity with repeated, mantra-like, petitions and requests. They did not think they could pray themselves out of their difficulties, or pray away the stress, or be prayer warriors for good against evil. The Holy Apostles and the disciples spent 9 days both listening to Our Lord, and then aligning their will and desire with His.

That’s a more mature type of prayer. One that I truly need to work on, and perhaps you as well.

That’s a notion of prayer that begins not with me and my fears and desires and goals for myself or others. Rather, that’s a notion of prayer that begins with taking in and taking to heart Our Lord’s desires, His fears about us, and His vision of what we can truly be in Him.

And that prayer begins with these words: “In my Name. Ask in my Name.”

What does it means to ask in Christ’s name? Two things. First, we’re setting aside, in fact casting off, what we want and think is best in favor of whatever Our Lord Jesus gives, offers, and bestows on us. And second, we’re focused on things that go beyond today’s inconveniences, frustrations, and hardships; and instead are zeroing in on the things that make for our unending peace and joy.

In prayer, that’s what we really should be after. Not temporary fixes or momentary relief. But uninterrupted peace, and the joy that cannot fade. In Jesus’ own words, we’re praying ‘in that day,’ for His day—His day which we get a glimpse of at Mass, and which the angels and saints by their prayers support us in attaining fully after the grave.

So not just getting through life. But getting into the abundant life. That’s the goal of our prayer. So our prayer is aimed at a life where our first thought each day is no longer “what shall I eat, what shall I wear, what shall I do.” Rather, our life is focused on living completely and without reservation for another; and living without limiting our Father to a giver of stuff.

Living life fully. We can do that now, even if we are restricted and limited. Heaven knows that holy men and women did that—in gulags, in concentration camps, in isolation units. And apart from the extremes, they lived life fully in monastic cells, in simple homes, in uncluttered lives—by living in relationship, in communion, in the joy of their heavenly Father.

Living life fully, even though we are now restricted; living unencumbered by the clutter in our heads and the many things we think we must have; living the life to come, now in the present—that is where our prayer should lead.

Our prayer, then, ought not be based on what we can get from God. Instead, our prayer should be entering into a conversation with a person. In fact, with the three Persons who speak with the same united voice.

That the Three-in-One speak implies that we hear. In fact, that our prayer begins with hearing. That we listen when we pray.

So much noise gets in the way. In our heart. In our head. In the stuff swirling around us. So much noise, which distracts, frightens, worries, and creates doubts.

To quiet the noise means that we begin simply: by saying aloud the words that Our Lord Jesus prayed. Words that speak to our anxieties and hopes. Words that chase away the noise, as we listen attentively.

The listening, then, is not listening for something inside our hearts or minds. The listening is picking up and reading aloud the words of the Psalms. And thinking through how they fit. And asking the Spirit to help us see what is hard to see.

Starting with the Psalms is starting with the Prayer Book Jesus wrote and used. Those prayers are less about asking or telling God what to do, and more about talking to our Father and His Son about what angers or frustrates, what scares or worries, and what excites and encourages us.

That’s the kind of conversation that builds and maintains a relationship. And that’s what the Holy Apostles and the disciples were doing, isolated from all others, for nine days. They were laying open their hearts by borrowing words that Jesus Himself had loaned them in His Psalms.

And then we progress in our prayers from asking—to saying, “We are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should ask You” anything. On account of this, we will be with You, O Lord, regardless of how our life now is; we will take up Your words and make them our own, so that Your way and will truly becomes our will and way of life.

To this Lord Jesus, who prays the Father for us, together with His all-holy Father and live-giving Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever and unto the ages of ages.

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