Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Sermon – October 30, 2011 – Ite Missa Est

31 Sunday Ordinary Time – October 30, 2011 – Ite Missa Est

Malachi 1:14b-2:2b,8-10, Psalm 131:1-3, 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9,13, Matthew 23:1-12

A great many of you come to this church quite often. Do you feel safe and secure here? Does worship here provide you with some relief from the challenges at work, home and school? Is it a place where you can bring your sorrows and joys? Do you find God here?

Where else can people meet for an hour to pray, sit quietly, sing songs, share sacred food, drink and signs of peace? You know the commercial about Las Vegas. “What goes on here, stays here.” Well, what goes on here in this church does not stay here. There is a country out there that desperately needs a bit of the sweet honey that stirs our spirits in this holy place.

You might think it seems strange that while local and global communities are in financial strain here at St. Vincent’s we are talking about the way we worship and a new translation. Liturgy is no small matter. What we do here matters. It is connected to and can shape our everyday lives.

To guide our renewed appreciation of public worship we have spoken about preparing for the liturgy, listening to God’s Word, setting the table with our gifts and grasping the Eucharist as holy things for holy people. Today we come to a topic about the end of the liturgy — the dismissal rites. What are we being dismissed to do? What do we do after Mass? How do we carry the principles of peace and justice celebrated here beyond this place? In the words of Paul to the Thessalonians heard today, “How do we put God’s Word to work?”

Some of the inspiring and game changing teachings of the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council are worth remembering. All people of God are called to holiness not just those who are ordained. All baptized persons are members of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We share different gifts and functions for the common good, not for our own gain. Faith and good works are essential partners in the ministry of the church. We cannot have one without the other.

What we experience during worship can open up possibilities for the world, our lives, after liturgy. Inspired by each other’s presence, moved by the holy spirit, provoked by the word of God, nourished by body and blood of Christ, you and I dare to return to our everyday communities fired up to be radically influential in the public square.

Last week the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a statement called “Towards reforming the international financial and monetary systems in the context of the global public authority.”  The title is a mouth full but so is the document. It stated “Every individual and every community shares in promoting and preserving the common good. To be faithful to their ethical and religious vocation, communities of believers should take the lead in asking whether the human family has adequate means at its disposal to achieve the global common good.” How do we do that? Who is doing that?

Kate Ward, who grew up in our parish and is now a doctoral student in theological ethics at Boston College, is a model of someone taking the lead to put God’s Word to work. She contributes to The Theology Salon, a blog that deals with theology and social, political, and economic life in the United States. In her comment on this Vatican document, Kate wrote: “It’s a rich starting point for further dialogue, and an inspiring reminder that at least one small group of powerful, wealthy men believes[I think she is referring to the clergy in the Vatican] — as do the protestors [she is speaking about Occupy Wall Street] — that a more just, humane world economy is possible.”

Kate Ward’s blog and her research is but one example of what you and I can when “the Mass is over.” There are many possibilities and opportunities for carrying out the word of God in matters of justice and peace in our daily routines. All we have to do is find one, pick one and do something about it. Don’t leave your spirit here.

As we plan to begin using the new Roman Missal on the First Sunday of Advent there are concerns about the translation. Regarding the words for the dismissal at the end of Mass Pope Benedict explains [in Sacramentum Caritatis #51], “In antiquity, missa simply meant ‘dismissal.’ In Christian usage, however, it gradually took on a deeper meaning. The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission.’ These few words [writes the Pope] succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church.”

Liturgical language is very important and I will talk about it next Sunday. However, the words we use at Mass are not the only things to be concerned about. As today’s gospel reminded us, how we practice what we preach also demands our attention.



Sermon – October 23, 2011 – The Liturgy of the Eucharist

30th Sunday Ordinary Time – October 23, 2011 – The Liturgy of the Eucharist

Exodus 22:20-26, Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51, 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10, Matthew 22:34-40

Note: This sermon was delivered by Betsy Rowe-Manning, Parish Life Director, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY.  Betsy’s sermon is the fourth in a series of talks designed to prepare the parish for the new Roman Missal which will be used beginning November 26-27, 2011.


On Friday morning The Today Show carried a story about Bon Jovi which totally captured my attention.  Not because it involved a rock star.  I can’t even name another!  No, the story was all about THE SOUL KITCHEN, a “pay-what-you-can” restaurant he and his wife Dorothea just opened in a former auto body shop near the Red Bank train station in central New Jersey.  The restaurant provides gourmet-quality meals, served in the style of a fine restaurant, to the hungry while enabling them to volunteer on community projects in return without the stigma of visiting a soup kitchen.  Paying customers are encouraged to leave whatever they want in the envelopes on each table, where the menus never list a price. The Soul Kitchen seeks, as we do here, to become a “WELCOME EVERYONE” place to be.

We’ve dedicated the past weeks to deepen our understanding of the Celebration of Word and Eucharist and to a renewed appreciation of just what we do here when the community gathers.  After the prayer over the gifts, we begin the Eucharistic prayer.

Liturgist and theologians today see the whole Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory.  The whole prayer is one Berakah, one prayer of blessing over the bread and wine, and it is by this prayer of praise and thanks that the bread and wine (and we) are consecrated and changed into the body and blood of Christ.  The prayer recalls what God has done, focusing especially on the redemptive work of Jesus, including the account of the Last Supper. The Last Supper narrative points in two directions at once: back through salvation history to the Exodus event and forward to Calvary. More than a mere “remembering” it involves the actual presence of God’s saving deeds.  What we do here, then is sacrifice (make holy) and meal (to create and celebrate community)

The best way to understand Eucharist (and all the sacraments) is to turn to the history.  Historically, it is clear that the church has reflected on the Eucharist under various aspects as driven by specific questions concerning Eucharist throughout the centuries.  This historical truism provides the key for us to view the Eucharist one time as Real Presence, another as the sacrifice of the Mass, and still another, as the Eucharistic meal.  One particular focus did not negate previous views.  It’s a matter of emphasis not cancellation.

Politics, convenience and practical necessity also influenced the ritual. Candles were added..  The ordained adopted the dress worn by civil officials.  At a time when the focus was the Real Presence, the laity ceased to receive communion.  Churches were deep dark cavernous buildings without PA systems.  At key points of the prayer ringing bells got the people’s attention.  Don’t you wonder what significance future generations will give to the hand sanitizer used each week prior to Communion?

Through the centuries what began as a meal around one table was altered, renewed, expanded, and morphed into grand pageantry.  It was inclusive then exclusive, free flowing then rigid. Intimate then remote, participatory then a time to observe.

During the last 50 years the emphasis and our behavioral patterns have been on Eucharist as meal.  The pattern is clearly the urgent need for community – the focus is on the assembly of believers, the gathered community, just what does it mean to be church.  Our altar is the community table, each of us has a role, the ordained preside and lead us in the prayer that is ours. We use more substantial bread and pass the cup.  And we do this, not only because there is fellowship in such signs, but also because there is symbol.  Jesus was broken and passed around; so too, must we be if community is to be created.

What will change for us in the Eucharistic Prayer?

1. We’ll learn new Eucharistic Acclamations.

2. In the prayer before communion where we now pray:  “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed ….” Beginning in Advent we will pray the word of the centurion who asked Jesus to cure his son:  “Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

During his interview with Matt Lauer Bon Jovi said, – “So much separates people: social status, education, poverty and wealth … yet we ALL need to eat.  THE SOUL KITCHEN is a place based on and built on community – by and for the community.”

Sound familiar? “…  And the second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.


Sermon – October 16, 2011 – Holy Things for Holy People

29 Sunday Ordinary time – October 16, 2011 – Holy Things for Holy People

Isaiah 45:1, 4-6, Psalm 96:1, 3-5, 7-10, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b, Matthew 22:15-21

The interior of the sixth century Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna Italy glitters with Byzantine mosaics. One of them, high above an apse wall shows the Emperor Justinian with clergy on his left and military leaders on the right. It is an example of the political blend of religion and imperialism then. The mosaic also shows Justinian bearing a plate of bread. On the opposite side of the apse is another mosaic showing the Empress Theodora holding a cup for wine. Both of them are bringing gifts to the altar for the Liturgy.

This weekend we continue our series of sermons leading up to changes in the liturgical texts of the Mass. We do so to enhance our understanding of and appreciation for the Liturgy, the organization of which has not changed. Two weeks ago we discussed the Introductory Rites and how all of us can prepare for Mass even before we arrive here. Last week we spoke about the Liturgy of the Word as a gift to all and the importance of listening to it, appropriating it and making it accessible to others. This week we focus on the preparation rite at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Early in the history of the church the laity brought different gifts to the altar table as depicted in the mosaics I mentioned. Those gifts would include food for people who live in poverty as well as milk, honey, water, wine and bread. As the liturgy became more clerical the practice ceased, some think by the end of the seventh century. It was reinstated with the reforms of the Vatican Two Council and here at St. Vincent’s members of the assembly set the table with a cloth and then bring the gifts directly to the altar. Candles and sometimes dancers with fragrant incense accompany this significant symbolic procession.

The procession with gifts is significant because the sacrifice we offer to God is indeed our sacrifice. Thus, the gifts we bear are not only those of homemade bread, wine and monetary offerings, but also of ourselves. They symbolize our lives, who we are, what we do, our joys and our sorrows. It is easy to overlook this understanding because for generations we were taught that the priest was offering the sacrifice to God for us; that he said the Mass for us; that we heard his Mass. Listening carefully to the words of the Eucharistic Prayers today we learn that all who are present during Mass, clergy and laity, offer to God not only the body and blood of Jesus Christ but also themselves.

What about that word sacrifice? We use this term to describe our offerings at Mass. What does sacrifice mean to you? What does it mean to spouses who are abused, persons fighting cancer, troops dying in battle, children who are hungry, people who are homeless, unemployed? Can we say to them offer it up to God as a sacrifice? How many times have we heard someone say to us when we are hurting, “Offer it up.” What does sacrifice mean? The word is derived from two Latin words sacer which means “holy” and facere which means to make. To offer sacrifice is to make something holy. The very body and blood of Christ, our body and blood, are the “holy things” given for us to be shared among ourselves and with others.

As we explore ways to enhance our worship here at St. Vincent’s we do not wish to exclude anyone from participating fully in the fruits of the Mass. Participation does not mean only listening and watching. Surely it is not limited to what we say and sing. It could mean that we might use the same postures and gestures like extending our arms during blessings and prayers or bowing together with the priest at certain times.

To participate in the liturgy in a full and conscious manner is to respond to the calling received from God. We are chosen to identify with Jesus and all he said and did. We are hope for the hopeless. We are eyes for those who long to see. We are strength for those who are despairing. [1]

Perhaps that is what Jesus meant as he was quoted in today’s gospel, “Repay to God what belongs to God.” He was not talking about money but the holy things we give to one another. The preparation of the gifts and the altar table represents the joys and sufferings, expectations and possibilities not only in our lives but in those of others, known and unknown.

Perhaps someday full active conscious participation in the liturgy will mean, in the words of Pope Paul VI in his speech at the conclusion of the Vatican Two Council, “No one is a stranger, no one is excluded, no one is far away” [2] from the life of the church.


1 From the lyrics of “You are Mine” written by David Haas. GIA Publications, 1991

2 Paul VI, Second Vatican Council Closing Speech, December 8, 1965

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Jacob’s Ladder: Reaching for the Numinous in Uncertain Times

Jacob’s Ladder: Reaching for the Numinous in Uncertain Times

Note: This is the text of a paper I delivered as part of a panel discussion at a recent Symposium on “Transcending Architecture: Aesthetics and Ethics of the Numinous” which was held at the School of Architecture, The Catholic University of America, October 6-8, 2011.

The first words in the theme for this Symposium, “Transcending Architecture,” could be read as a double entendre. As a modifier the word “transcending” describes architecture as a means for delivering human beings to an experience of what is a numinous episode. However, as a verb, the word “transcending” also suggests to me a movement beyond our conventional expectations of how architecture functions as a pathway from the profane to the sacred.

On one hand, it is difficult to disagree that architecture has a role in shaping cultures, attitudes and value systems. It does.  Some edifices can transport even the most cynical person to heights never imagined.  On the other hand, one must ask if there are realities, still emerging, not fully understood, that are altering the role architecture plays in the hunt for a holy experience. My perspective will be focussed on religious architecture in the United States, more specifically architecture for worship.

In the texts of the Torah and the Koran  there is the story of Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebecca. While seeking a spouse in a foreign land, he dreams of a ladder set upon the earth but reaching to the heavens. He imagines angels going up and down the ladder. Seeing God by his side, Jacob proclaims, “This is none other than the house of God … the gate of heaven.”

Although there are different interpretations of this biblical story, it complements the diverse philosophies and theologies that later would also claim God is mysterious but accessible not only by faith and good work but also because of a wild imagination.

Dualities often shape our imaginations. We use contrasting words to organize and categorize ideologies and realities; words like left and right, heaven and hell, rich and poor, good and bad. The word “mystery” is often used when something real cannot be explained.  Other words like ineffable, transcendent, liminal and numinous offer possibilities for rising above the situation. These words give promise and hope. However, they are not strategies for successful living or discipleship. What we call divine is considered outside ourselves, unknown and removed from what and where we are. Then we try to figure out how to attain it or get there by climbing Jacob’s Ladder.

However, what if the holy other is more present than we ever imagined.  Annie Dillard wrote, “Beauty and grace are constantly performing whether we will it or sense them; all we can do is be present when they happen.

Countless human experiences are testimonies that the holy other is frequently met face to face in real time without the aid of a stepladder, or a religious building, or an artistic venue or the quiet beauty of a desert.

Human relationships and our attention to each other and the environment are found in our neighborhoods, the favelas, the battlefields and flooded towns. Here the experience of the numinous is cradled in times of joy and hardship. The arts, architecture, language, music — all works of humans hands — serve as narratives expressing and affirming our lived experiences. Sometimes they endorse  nothing more than the status quo, bolstering what is already familiar and comfortable. Sometimes, they offer new insights  boldly helping us see things in new ways, taking us to new places. What the arts and architecture know best is the human spirit. They can play back to us our stories. James Ingo Freed called the Holocaust Memorial a “resonator.” They can also shake our foundations.

Jacob’s Ladder then  is just one of many archetypal examples of a link between us and what is thought to be mysteriously beyond us.  Mountains, rivers and deserts serve the same purpose. The Ladder also suggests that there is a hieratic order in creation that, regretfully in my mind, separates the creatures from the creator.  For example, churches in western Christianity that disconnect, by design and distance, clergy from the laity, the holy of holies from the nave are good examples of such compartmentalization. They disregard, in a Christian context,  the significance of the incarnate God and the belief that Jesus changed forever the notion of an intangible deity. It also not only ignores the Pauline understanding of the people of God as living stones — the dwelling places of the holy one, it spurns those early Christian writers who eschewed temples and altars.

Of course, the time honored principles employed to create stimulating architectural forms, symbolized by Jacob’s Ladder, are still effective. A linear, vertical orientation, expansive volume, profuse light, the harmonious organization of organic materials, all in proper scale, with delightful proportions can serve,  in Jungian terms, as outward expressions of innermost longings. Joseph Campbell reminded us that buildings can reveal in a temporal way what is mysteriously illusive.

Further, there is no doubt also in my mind that the employment of these ingredients is not constrained by time or place or a particular building typology.  An appreciative study of architectural and religious history provides emotional if not empirical evidence that the experience of the numinous especially in places of worship, knows no boundaries and may be discovered in the simplest ritual chamber, great cathedrals and temples and in contemporary mosques and churches.

Are there ways, then, to shift the paradigm, to transcend the conventional ways built forms take us to a numinous or liminal experience? How can theologians, architects and artists  help others to perceive, recognize and respect other humans, eight million seven hundred thousand species and innumerable but not inexhaustible natural resources? Can clients, architects and artists work to create spaces and objects of beauty that reveal and celebrate the cosmic enterprise that is not out there somewhere but one that embraces us here?

The use of the thematic word “transcending” as a verb can stimulate a movement beyond the conventional understanding of the role of religious architecture in convening sacred experiences. In describing the daily human dance in Grand Central Terminal  in New York City, the writer Alastair Macaulay asks, “Are the people at Grand Central different? He was writing about the impact of the Terminal on human behavior comparing it with that of the  stale and dull Pennsylvania Station across town. In the article he recalls a story his mother told him. Her employer had a maid from Milan to whom she once said politely, “I understand the  cathedral in Milan is very beautiful.” The maid replied: “Oh, but Madame! You should see the railway station!”

This brings me then to the question of the teleology or end purpose of a built form especially one that is defined as a convener of numinous experiences. We casually call them sacred spaces. Is it the completion of the work itself? It is the satisfaction of the architect or client? Is the purpose of architecture to transcend what is tangible or is it something even larger but not always apparent, something not confined by categories or dualistic thinking? Could the purpose of architecture be to shape our imaginations about the deep dimensions of the creative process we are part of and then transform us and the way we live?

Buildings, especially in urban settings, that are sustainable in design, ecologically sensitive, and easy to navigate are places where the human spirit can be lifted up. Places of worship that also house  soup kitchens, food pantries, child care centers are expressions of how human beings can elevate themselves, climb that ladder, in face of dire circumstances. Imagine such buildings  with windows that look out to a city street or to nature. Such glazing would ground the congregation or individual in the immanent expression of God’s presence. Imagine if during worship the assembly sat in  concentric circles rather than longitudinal rows? That arrangement would help them focus on their collegial embodiment of the holy other experienced in the context of worship.

If the architect can also incorporate the components mentioned earlier — light, volume, materials, scale and proportion — and still manage to render the space delightful, functional, sustainable and accessible to all, then architecture can be a servant to humanity rather than an icon to be revered by us. 

When religious architecture is dull and unimaginative, when it fails to stir the mind, the body, the human spirit, it is easy to see why people are flocking to concert halls and museums.  The maid from Milan seemed to be saying that other venues can also provide a spiritual stimulus. What is going on in these places that evoke a sense of something beyond or bigger than a world view? Is it a bold, fresh architectural style alone or is it more about the story that is being told. Could it be that we humans  want to be refreshed and inspired now, to live peacefully with dignity in our own time; that we do not want to wait for paradise to show up somewhere beyond reality. We want to find it here and now?

Further, if religious behavior can provide us with any clues about the teleology or purposefulness of building types that are expected to provide stepping stones to a liminal or numinous experience, what is the shift in religious behavior in this country and elsewhere telling us?  The extensive research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life among other studies provides glaring statistics. Twenty-eight percent of Americans have left their childhood religion. Forty-four percent have switched to another religion. Sixteen percent practice no faith, a number that has doubled since 1990. Latest studies on the millennial generation point out the 18-39 year old age group claims to be spiritual but not religious.

Studies are showing that  while mainstream religions are concerned about dwindling congregations, independent, non-denominational churches are growing.  These communities are known for hospitality, lively music, charismatic preachers, advanced technology in proclaiming God’s Word and outreach programs in their communities.  They are not known for building places of worship that replicate the architectural, artistic and symbolic conventions usually employed by more traditional religious groups.  There is no Jacob’s Ladder in these places other than the spiritual experience of being connected with others in the same search for peace, stillness and holiness.

If architecture is not essential in the search for what is spiritual or sacred in the lives of these large numbers of people, these emerging Christian and Jewish groups, what can be said about the power of religious architecture and art in triggering a connection with the supernatural or numinous one?

As the place of mainline religion goes through a time of transformation could it be that the role of architecture as a stimulant of what is good, true and beautiful is indeed also changing? Are other places, not necessarily categorically defined or recognized as sacred indeed serving to convey the experience of what is liminal and numinous in life? Could it be that the time honored archetypes often mimicked in places of worship need fresh interpretations?

The story of Jacob’s Ladder is an excerpt from a biblical passage filled with intrigue, war, multiple marriages, dueling brothers and the emergence of imperialistic nations. In the end, the story does give birth to new ways of living. Perhaps the lesson is that the search for the gentle touch of a loving, unpredictable creator is found no where else than in the untidiness, the imperfection and the instability of human nature.

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Sermon – October 9, 2011 – Listening to the Word of God

28 Sunday Ordinary time – October 9, 2011 – Listening to the Word of God

Isaiah 25:6-10, Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4-6, Philippians 4:12-14, 9-20, Matthew 22:1-14

While studying at Syracuse University I would occasionally preside at a liturgy held in Unity Kitchen, a place where homeless, hungry people could get a hot meal. At one Mass something unusual happened during the liturgy of the word. Two people came to the ambo. One started to read the biblical text very slowly and in short phrases. The second person appeared to ponder the words and then — repeated them. I confess I became somewhat impatient, thinking to myself, “How long will this take?” I was humbled and embarrassed when I found out later that the second person could not read.

Today we continue our eight week series of sermons dedicated to improving our understanding of and appreciation for the Liturgy. We began last week with the Introductory Rites. The purpose of those rites and our own preparation even before arriving in church is to put us in a state of readiness to listen to God’s Word. This week we are focussing on the Liturgy of the Word. There is another helpful commentary in this week’s Bulletin.

Listening is hard work. It is very different from just hearing words. It requires setting aside our own thoughts and removing as many distractions from our mind as possible. The woman who could not read, repeated the words even more slowly and intently than the woman who said them first. The assembly also seemed to listen more keenly as they listened to the second woman.

Listening is the first step in learning about what God is saying to us; a Word that is interpreted in many ways and still being revealed in us and others.  Although the Word of God can never be exhausted embracing that Word, allowing it to fill us up, abiding by it in our lives it is not easy in a secular world filled with so many alternative messages. So much information is thrown at us these days we have to shut out some of it. Sometimes our own thoughts and concerns prevent us from listening to what others have to say. For example, it is not unusual to see people checking their smart phones, taking calls and texting even while having something to eat with friends!

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal contains an article which describes the late Steven Jobs, cofounder of Apple, as a secular prophet. The author quotes something Jobs said when he was first diagnosed with cancer. “Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition.”  [1]

While Jobs’s gospel sounds attractive and may have a faithful following others reject it because it is so self serving. Using advanced technologies may be part of the equation for achieving success in the world. We all use them for different reasons. Whether it is a good strategy for the communication of God’s Word or discipleship cannot yet be determined.

The Word of God is like the rich food and choice wine mentioned in the first reading today. It is given to all. It is thought that Jesus used the parable in the gospel to counter the practices of his opponents who were exclusive and self centered in their actions. The King in the story, on the other hand, invited anyone and everyone to come to his son’s wedding party. Do we relate to each other in the same way? Do we include everybody in our lives? Here at St. Vincent’s we proudly claim to welcome anyone and everyone. Are we leaving anyone out? Please let us know.

The illiterate woman repeating and proclaiming the Word of God in that soup kitchen taught me a lesson. Since it is intended for every person, the responsibility of the community is to study the Word, proclaim it and interpret so that it matters in our day to day lives. Sometimes we say we must practice what we preach. Could we say here is a gift? God’s gift to us. Use it every way you need to use it. Before we can do that, however, we have to remember and appropriate God’s Word in our own lives. Andrew Greeley in his book on The Catholic Imagination [2] wrote: Catholics come to church because they love the stories. That’s the first step — listening to the stories. The second step is sharing them with others.


1 Crouch, Andy. “The Secular Prophet” in The Wall Street Journal, October 8-9, 2011, C1-2”

2 Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA; London, England: University of California Press, 2000)


Sermon – October 2, 2011 – Preparing to Worship

Please note during the next seven weeks the homily time at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NY will be devoted to a renewed understanding of and appreciation for various parts of the Roman Catholic Liturgy. These sermons are being planned to help the parish prepare for worship according to the new Roman Missal beginning on the first Sunday of Advent. Next week’s topic: “Listening to the Word of God.”

27 Sunday Ordinary time – October 2, 2011 – Preparing to Worship

Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:9,12-16, 19-30, Philippians 4:6-9, Matthew 21:33-43

During a visit to Paris years ago I went to a Russian Orthodox church for the Vigil of the Resurrection. The tiny church was packed. There were no chairs so everyone stood. Hundreds of tapered candles flickered in a cloud of fragrant incense. Innumerable icons surrounded us amidst the chants of the clergy and choir who were just steps away. The atmosphere was other worldly; heavenly I suppose. I watched as two elderly women rushed into this holy place, passed right in front of the archpriests as if they weren’t there, to greet their friends on the other side of the church. No one seemed to mind. I learned in that moment that human connections are sometimes more important than even Godly ones.

Two months from now, on the first Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday of November, our church will begin using a new translation for the celebration of the Mass, as it appears in a new Roman Missal. While most of the media has focussed on the debate surrounding the new texts, the language of the Catholic liturgy involves much more than words. When we do it well together it is a performance of ministry, music and movement, scripture, song and silence, communion and commitment to social action.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the first document promulgated at the Vatican Two Council back in 1963, almost 50 years ago! Many of us remember some of the teachings, others may have forgotten them or never heard of them or never wanted to hear them. Still others weren’t even born! The main teaching was that the Liturgy, the Mass, is not a private act of the priest or any individual but the work of the whole church, a sacrament of unity. We worship in response to the invitation from God to join Jesus Christ, son of God, in offering ourselves to God and to one another. Because of our baptisms, we are called to participate in this liturgy fully and actively, not just here in this church, but to carry our prayer out to the world we live in.

This renewed understanding of the liturgy led to the development of different ministries carried out by all members of the priesthood, ordained or not. All of those opportunities to minister are available here in our parish to the extent possible. There is one ministry that is not yet fully developed or understood in just about every Catholic community. It is the ministry of the assembly. A common perception is that certain members of the community prepare to serve the rest of us (e.g., readers, musicians, singers, acolytes, servers, communion ministers). But what about the rest of us? What do we do to get ready for the liturgy of the Word and Eucharist each week? Do we just show up, sometimes out of habit, looking for a miracle, curiously waiting to see and hear something happen, something that will inspire us? Or does worship involve preparation by all of us?

One way to prepare for Mass is to find a few moments in our busy schedules is to check out and think about the gospel reading for the following Sunday. Households with little children (I admit I really don’t have any experience of households with little children!) and young adults might discuss who Jesus was and what he did. Another way to prepare is to carry out at least one good work in the community to do something for someone else, a group or individual. The second reading today reminded us to continue to do what we were taught to do. That is the way the vineyard of God will produce good fruit.

The liturgy is a remembrance of Jesus Christ and how we embrace or identify with that life. It is God’s gift to us and our gift to one another. Doing something during the week will give us something to celebrate when we finally gather in this church. The liturgy can be thought of as the completion of a week as well as the beginning of one.

We have to admit, preparation before Mass starts here at St. Vincent’s, the church is, well, quite different from other parishes! Perhaps, cacophonous is the right word. Friends are visiting with one another. All ministries are tending to their tasks. The choir and musicians are warming up. Others are preparing the post-liturgy reception. At the same time we recognize strangers because all people are welcome in our church.

What’s missing? I hear some people say they would like a little more quiet time. The new missal reminds us to create an atmosphere of contemplation in the church, to help us settle down, to reflect on what we are about to do together — worship God in a sacred place. As we continue to be hospitable to one another, to visit with one another before Mass and take care of those last minute preparations, how can we manage to create a more quiet and prayerful atmosphere in church before and during the Liturgy? How can we be still long enough to let God speak to us?

The women in that Russian Orthodox church knew something in their hearts, something that no missal or catechism can teach. They came to worship God on a holy night, in a splendid church building, according to an ancient and rich liturgical tradition. Although our liturgy is not the same as the Orthodox Liturgy we also worship as a group. Those women did not forget that they were part of a community of diverse families, friends and strangers, all members of God’s vineyard, God’s household. Perhaps that is what we might remember above all else as we prepare to worship God with a new Missal.