Tag Archives: Scripture

Psalm 39: An Individual Lament

13 Nov

In The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Roland E. Murphy identifies Psalm 39 as “an individual lament, in a highly original form” (1:582). I will describe in this paper how Psalm 39 exemplifies an individual lament, following an identification of the characteristic elements of this type of psalm. I will then discuss ways in which Psalm 39 is unique: How it diverges from the typical form of the individual lament, and what elements of the psalm of lament are emphasized to a greater degree in Psalm 39 than in the usual individual lament.

Claus Westermann specifies eight distinctive parts of the “Psalms of petition or lament of the individual” (Westermann 64). The first of these parts is the address. In Israelite psalms of lament, addresses are notably brief, especially in comparison to the frequently lengthy introductory addresses of ancient “Babylonian and Egyptian laments” (Kolarcik 15). The addresses of Israelite psalms of lament presume “proximity [to] and familiarity” (Ibid.) with their addressee, who is invariably God. The second component of a psalm of lament, according to Westermann, is the lament proper or the complaint, directed against God or against enemies of the psalmist, who are often depicted as a “powerful army,” deceitful accusers in a “court scene,” or animals, for example (Kolarcik 16). In the case of a penitential psalm, the psalmist’s complaint is self-directed, in lament of his own sin. Complaints may be aimed at more than one of God, an enemy, or the psalmist’s self, even within the same psalm. Laments also feature expressions of “hope and trust in God,” termed by Westermann as a “confession of trust” (64) and by Michael Kolarcik as a “review of past” (15, 17). The psalmist expresses trust in God based on a historical record of God’s intervention on behalf of Israel. The “review of past” may also adopt the form of a sapiential reflection.

“In light of the trust” in God that Kolarcik cites as “the foundation of the lament, the psalmist then makes known the specific petition” (17). Such petitions are imperatives; the psalmist demands that God respond to them.  Psalms of lament may also include a series of “additional motive[s]” for God to answer the psalmist’s plea: God, says the psalmist, “will benefit from intervention on the psalmist’s behalf” (Kolarcik 18).  Some psalms of lament feature a “double wish,” whereby in entreating God to act in the psalmist’s defence, the psalmist also calls for a divine curse or punishment upon his enemy. Notably, in no psalm does the psalmist ask for the ability or strength to crush an enemy, but the psalmist entrusts this action to God. A statement of “divine response,” which conveys “assurance that the lament and the petition have been heard” (Ibid.), is included in some psalms of lament. Lastly, most psalms of lament contain a “vow to praise” God (Ibid.) should God alleviate the causes of the lament.

Of Westermann’s eight elements of an individual lament, he names five of these as “constituent parts” of this type of psalm: the “address, lament, confession of trust…petition, [and] vow of praise” (Westermann 64). The order in which these parts appear in a particular lament are unimportant to Westermann (Ibid.): “This… basic scheme… never becomes stereotyped.” Psalm 39 contains four of five of Westermann’s essential parts of an individual lament, lacking entirely a vow to praise. This psalm incorporates none of the other three elements of individual laments: motives, a double wish formula, or a statement of divine response.

Psalm 39 does include a brief address to God that, not unusually with respect to psalms of lament, is linked closely with the core of the psalmist’s address: “Listen to my prayer, LORD, hear my cry” (New American Bible, Psalm 39:13). However, Psalm 39 is atypical in the placement of its address in its next-to-last verse. The address, Kolarcik observes, is designed to open “the dialogue to what is important for the psalmist”: that God answer the petition (15). As such, the address most frequently serves as an introduction to the remainder of the psalm of lament, and is therefore not placed near the end of such a psalm. Instead of beginning with an address to God, Psalm 39 opens with a lengthy review of the past relationship between God and the psalmist (vv 2-4).  This review of the past is followed by the psalmist’s petition: “LORD, let me know my end, the number of my days, that I may learn how frail I am” (v 5). The placement of this petition within Psalm 39 is not unusual for an individual lament. However, James L. Crenshaw writes that “a peculiar feature of laments within Psalms [is] a decisive transition from plea to confident trust that [the LORD] will act to rectify the situation” (Crenshaw 81-82). Such a transition is present in Psalm 39. However, the expression of trust  (vv 6-8) begins as a sapiential reflection that continues until verse seven– a true statement of trust occurs in verse eight, “You are my only hope”– but also, according to Murphy (1:582), as a complaint against God: “You have given my days a very short span” (v 6a).

Several alternations, in fact, from review of past (vv 2-4, 6-8, 12, 13b), much of which is contained in sapiential reflections (vv 6-7, 12, 13b), to petition (vv 5, 9, 11a, 13, 14), take place in Psalm 39. The first lament cited by Murphy (v 6) is contained within a sapiential reflection, but the first clear complaint, directed against God, is expressed well into Psalm 39: “You were the one who did this… I am ravaged by the touch of your hand” (vv 10, 11b). The lament here is split by the petition, “Take your plague away from me” (vv 11a). Psalm 39 then concludes with an unresolved petition: “Turn your gaze from me…” (v 14). As Murphy suggests, the “dark note” on which Psalm 39 ends nonetheless conveys the trust of the psalmist in God amid what is likely mortal illness. This verse may also serve as a reminder from Torah: “[God’s] face you cannot see, for no [one] sees [God] and still lives” (Exodus 33:20).

I have thus analyzed how, in its elements, structure, and emphasis, Psalm 39 exemplifies a psalm of individual lament, and I have highlighted differences in this psalm from the typical form of an individual lament.

Bibliography

Crenshaw, James L. The Psalms: An Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Kolarcik, Michael. “The Psalms of Lament,” in RGB2263H F Lecture Notes, 15-19. http://individual.utoronto.ca/mfkolarcik/PSALMS3_3Laments.PDF. Accessed 16 October 2011.

Murphy, Roland E. “Psalms.” In The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, 2:569-602. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

 New American Bible.

Westermann, Claus. Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981.

This paper was submitted in November, 2011; MDiv Year III, Semester 1; for a course entitled “Psalms” (RGB 2263HF) at Regis College, Toronto, Canada. Hopefully this Christmas season is not causing  many to lament, but as I show, the purpose of the lament in the Psalms is to convey trust in God that is at the root of any good complaint!

Serving with Our Whole Being- Reflection for Mass of September 16, 2011

16 Sep

Friday, September 16, 2011
Memorial of St. Cornelius, Pope and Martyr, and St. Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr
Readings: 1 Timothy 6:2c-12; Psalm 45:5-6, 7-9, 16-17, 18-19 (R: see Matthew 5:3); Luke 8:1-3

As a Basilian Associate teaching high school French and English at Instituto Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (INSA) in Cali, Colombia, three years ago, when I would teach the last class period of the day, there would not be much time between the end of my class and Evening Prayer in the house. I certainly did not have enough time then to prepare lesson plans or to grade homework. I did have just enough time to clear my mind after teaching before walking across the schoolyard to the house for silent reflection before Evening Prayer with our community there.

Before proceeding to the house, I would stop in regularly to speak with the school’s psychologist, who had become a good friend of mine. She would practice her English with me, while I would speak to her in Spanish. During one of our conversations, a woman came to greet the psychologist. She had two of her children, students at INSA, in tow. The mother and children smiled brightly, sharing what was clearly a joyful moment with the psychologist. When they left the room, the psychologist turned to me and said, “You wouldn’t know this by what you just saw, but the woman who was here is a single mother with HIV.”

Sadly, this story is not unique in the apostolate we Basilians serve in Cali. In addition to poverty and diseases such as HIV-AIDS, rates of substance abuse and violence are extremely high. Women are frequently the single parents; the poorest of the poor; the abused; those who serve their communities most eagerly, and often serve us with the deepest reminders of the ills of a society and of the socially-ingrained sin of the world[1] on one hand, and of profound joy and charity amid these ills and sin on the other.

Of the four evangelists, Luke arguably pays most attention to the social position of women of his time.[2] When the story I just recounted occurred, I was writing a reflection on the passage we hear in today’s Gospel, the first three verses of Chapter 8 of Luke. These verses break from the narrative before it of the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s house[3] (although, significantly, that story also centers upon a woman and Jesus), and the Parable of the Sower directly after it.[4] Luke introduces characters as though he will continue with a story about Jesus, the women, the Twelve, and the unnamed “many others.”[5] However, at least in the case of the women, two of them, Mary Magdalene and Joanna– if this is even the same person as in Luke 8– are only named in one other place in this Gospel, at the empty tomb along with Mary, mother of James, in its resurrection narrative.[6] Susanna is mentioned in Luke only in the passage we hear today.

Luke tells us so little about “Mary, called Magdalene,”[7] Joanna, and Susanna. We know that Mary had been healed of “seven demons,” a grave spiritual infirmity,[8] and that Joanna had marital ties to Herod’s court.[9] Yet there is so much in so little in this passage. Indeed, I am drawn to just two words. First, in English, Mary, Joanna, and Susanna, among “many others,” are said to have “provided for Jesus and the Twelve out of their resources.”[10] The Greek word in this sentence for provided is διηκόνουν, a conjugated form of the verb διακονέω (di-a-ko-ne’-o).[11] We derive the English word “deacon” from διακονέω. This is not to say that the women in today’s Gospel reading were engaging in institutionally-ordained diaconal ministry; this meaning of “deacon” is anachronistic to the Biblical context. However, these women were engaging in important service (διακονία)[12] in the nascent Church at a time when lively debate among Jewish and Judeo-Christian leaders was taking place about the role of women in public worship.[13] Luke undoubtedly goes beyond what many of these leaders deemed comfortable in the place he accords to women, but he goes further yet in writing that the women provided for Jesus and the Twelve “out of their resources.”[14] The Greek word translated as “resources” is ὑπαρχόντων (u-par-chón-ton).[15] The English word here limits the range of meanings of a Greek word that has connotations of being in addition to one’s resources or goods.

I speculate therefore whether the Evangelist might have wanted to convey that the women were serving Jesus and the Twelve out of their being– who they were– more than merely out of their material resources. These little-known women and “many others,” then and now, in a special way the poor and the infirm– the single mother in Cali with HIV, for example– model for us the dedication of our whole being to the service of one another and of our Lord, who graciously gives to us his whole being in the Eucharist we celebrate.


[1] Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 116-121. Gula discusses social sin, “a relatively new… concept in Roman Catholic theology,” at some length. He writes that “the notion of social sin articulates how social structures can shape our existence for the worse.” Gula highlights “but a few examples” of what he defines as social sin: “patterns of racial discrimination, economic systems that exploit migrant farm workers, structures [that] make it necessary that persons be illegal aliens and that sanctuaries harbour them, and the exclusion of women from certain positions in the church.” (Reason Informed by Faith, 116).

[2] Carroll Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:138.

[3]  Luke 7:36-50.

[4] Luke 8:4-8.

[5] v 3.

[6] Luke 24:10.

[7] Luke 8:2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] v 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11]διηκόνουν,” in The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, edited by Wesley J. Perschbacher (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990), 101.

[12]διακονία,” in The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, 92.

[13] Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” 2:138.

[14] Luke 8:3.

[15]ὑπαρχόντων,” in The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, 417.

Like the Teacher in Mercy- Reflection for Mass of September 9, 2011

9 Sep

Friday, September 9, 2011
Optional Memorial of St. Peter Claver, Priest; Friday of the Twenty-Third Week of Ordinary Time
Readings: 1 Timothy 1:1-2, 12-14; Psalm 16:1-2a+5, 7-8, 11 (R: see 5a); Luke 6:39-42

One might find it difficult to see mercy as the focal point of the words of Jesus that we hear in today’s Gospel: “How can you say to your neighbour, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite…”[1] That last word, “hypocrite,” is especially harsh to my– to our– ears, yet by criticizing his hearers and calling them hypocrites, Jesus draws attention beyond the criticism itself to the mercy of God.

However difficult it is to see mercy in these severe words, in between the metaphors of the blind person leading another blind person[2] and of the speck or log in one’s eye,[3] Jesus speaks words of warning against pride, but then words of consolation. On one hand we, Jesus’ disciples, cannot be “above the teacher.”[4] To think we could be greater than God is foolish as it is futile but, despite the logical impossibility of exceeding God in any particular divine quality, for example mercy, Jesus tells us on the other hand that “everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.”[5]

How, though, does one become “qualified” and thus “like the teacher?” Let us take up again the example of mercy, and how we might become as merciful as Jesus, the incarnate God; our teacher. In the Gospel of Luke mercy is singled out among the most important attributes of God. Moreover, this Gospel’s author teaches that mercy is not just characteristic of God, but that we, too, are expected to act mercifully toward one another. Just three verses before the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”[6]

One who is merciful does not hold grudges against another for small (and often not-so-small) wrongs, the proverbial specks in the eyes of other people. One who is merciful is at once mature and continuing to grow in self-knowledge. By self-knowledge, I do not mean a narcissistic self-flattery that fails to recognize our own wrongs, but an awareness of where we stand before God and openness to the mercy of God, who knows us even better than we could ever know ourselves. Only by God’s mercy, in which we are called to be “like the teacher,” are the logs in our eyes– our more grievous faults compared to the specks of others that might escape our awareness but for God’s grace toward us– removed. Only then are we disposed to lead the blind toward God in mercy and in purity of heart.

I have long been both challenged and encouraged by the fact that, while Matthew’s Gospel includes the extensive Sermon on the Mount, more than half of Luke’s Chapter 6 from which we hear today is taken up by the Sermon on the Mount’s Lukan parallel, the Sermon on the Plain. Many exegetes contend that Matthew portrays a more transcendent God (this is debatable) with Jesus teaching from the mount.[7] In contrast, Luke writes of Jesus teaching on a level plain, in the midst of the crowds. Luke’s lesson is that the instruction of Jesus on the plain is not too lofty for us; in fact, again, the more “accessible” Jesus of Luke’s Gospel expects us to follow after his example and his teachings, especially that on the abundance of mercy that God has toward us and asks us to have toward others.

We have great examples in the saints in how to follow Christ’s teachings: “Be merciful… everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.”[8] One such saintly example is Peter Claver, a prophetic voice for the African slaves in colonial Cartagena in what is now Colombia. Born in Barcelona, Spain, St. Peter Claver’s missionary vocation was recognized by Alfonso Rodriguez, another saint who was a Jesuit lay brother and mystic in Mallorca. After arriving in Cartagena in 1610, St. Peter Claver’s advocacy for the humane treatment of the Africans and indeed for the abolition of the slave trade that saw one third of African slaves die in transit between Africa and the Americas, drew the ire of slave traders and even of many of his own Jesuit brothers. After forty-four years in Cartagena, Peter Claver died, bedridden and neglected. Peter Claver, patron saint of Colombia, is nevertheless one of the Church’s great messengers of God’s mercy, giving his life as one “like the teacher.”[9]

As we continue this Eucharistic celebration, let us pray that, through the intercession of St. Peter Claver, our Basilian apostolates in Colombia and throughout the world might be beacons of mercy to the disadvantaged. May we be to all people “fully qualified” in the mercy of God, following after our Teacher, Lord, and Saviour, Jesus Christ.


[1] Luke 6:42

[2] v 39

[3] vv 41-42

[4] v 40

[5] Ibid.

[6] v 36

[7] John L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:69. Carroll Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 2:115.

[8] vv 36, 40

[9] Pierre Suau, “St. Peter Claver.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11763a.htm. Accessed 9 September 2011.

Clothed with Humility- Reflection for Evening Prayer of August 31, 2011

31 Aug

Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Wednesday of the Twenty-second Week in Ordinary Time
Liturgy of the Hours: Wednesday, Week III
Reading for Evening Prayer: 1 Peter 5:5b-7

During a recent family reunion, I came across two icons of Christ, ruler of all– in Greek, Χριστος Παντοκράτωρ (Christos Pantokrator)– that belonged to two different relatives of mine. Since taking a course in New Testament Greek last year, I have become even more fascinated by icons, especially this one, Christos Pantokrator, than I had been previously.

What does the Christos Pantokrator icon have to do with the reading from 1 Peter from tonight’s Evening Prayer, though, and what does it have to do with our lives as religious, as Basilians, as priests or, in my case, as one in formation for ordained priesthood?

In the very first verse of the reading from tonight’s Vespers, the author of 1 Peter exhorts us: “Clothe yourselves with humility.”[1] When we look at the icon of Christos Pantokrator, and indeed of many icons of our Lord, he is clothed on the inside with a red garment, symbol of divinity. Overlaying the red, though, is an outer blue garment: Christ’s divinity has been clothed in our humanity. Therefore, by his Incarnation, Jesus Christ assumed our frail nature, of course without losing any of his divine nature. This is a valuable lesson in the virtue of humility. Not only does God show “kindness”[2] toward the humble, but God also shows us concretely the way of humility by becoming one like us, just as the ruler of all once created us in his image and likeness.[3]

Humility, I think, is one of the most difficult virtues for most people to practice. Perhaps this is because of the greatness of our human nature. One of my favourite Psalms, Psalm 8, praises God thus for the creation of human beings: “You have made them little less than a god.”[4] I know all too well by experience that this nearness to divine essence with which we have been created so easily leads to misplaced ambition and hubris. I am the last person who should be leading a reflection about humility!

When Jesus’ own Apostles let their pride get in the way of acceptance of the Cross– of giving everything they were in hope of the Kingdom of God– Jesus reminded them of their place in bringing about that Kingdom. Examples abound of Jesus reminding the Twelve– and us– of the humility with which he himself lived. The most striking instance of this to me is when he placed a child among his followers, who had been quarrelling over who among them was the greatest.[5]

As I was leaving the Vancouver airport to come home to Toronto just days ago, my two-year-old niece provided me with a reminder of humility clothed in godlike dignity. As I held her and said, “Bye, Molly, I love you,” she laid a big, sloppy kiss on my cheek that brought tears to my eyes. If Molly were to be represented in an icon, she would be wearing a blue inner garment draped in red which, of course, is how our humble Queen and Mother, Mary, is often depicted.

Out of the mouth of this babe, to paraphrase Psalm 8 again, came a defence “to silence the enemy”[6] that is pride, which deludes us into thinking that we do not need God.

Lastly, humility does not mean that we ought not to have dreams, cares, and ambitions. Such dreams, cares, and ambitions are normal and should be encouraged, as long as they draw us closer, especially as Basilian religious, to the dignity given to all of us by God. 1 Peter says, “Cast all your cares on [God], because he cares for you.”[7] After all, our God is a God who has clothed us “mere mortals”[8] in his image. As the Psalmist says, we are thus “crowned with glory and honour.”[9]

“O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!”[10]

This reflection was originally given during Evening Prayer (Vespers) of August 31, 2011, during a retreat of the Basilian Fathers’ Scholasticate in which I am currently living.


[1] 1 Peter 5:5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 1:27

[4] Psalm 8:6

[5] Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48

[6] Psalm 8:3

[7] 1 Peter 5:7

[8] Psalm 8:5

[9] v 6

[10] vv 2, 10

Homily Assignment on Vatican II’s Decree on Priestly Formation, Optatam Totius

8 May

The following is the last of three assignments I submitted for my course entitled “Thought of Vatican II” at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON Canada (MDiv Year II, Semester I, dated 7 December 2010). One of the options for this “integrative” assignment for those who foresee entering ordained ministry was to write a “homily,” taking into account one of the Decrees or Declarations (not one of the constitutions: Sacrosanctum Concilium, Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium, or Gaudium et Spes)  of the Second Vatican Council as well as liturgical readings for the day on which the homily would be preached (It was not actually required to deliver the homily orally; only to write it). As I had presented earlier in this course on the Decree on Priestly Formation, Optatam Totius, my homily assignment focused on the same document. The original preface I wrote to explain the imagined liturgical setting and readings appears before the homily itself, and an appendix with the readings appears after it.

Preface

The liturgical setting of the following homily is a Mass of ordination to the presbyterate. In this homily assignment, I will correlate the core teachings of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Priestly Formation, Optatam Totius, with the Scriptural readings I have selected for this Mass.  The first reading, Isaiah 61:3a, focuses on the universal divine commission to serve persons most in need. The Gospel acclamation, Luke’s quotation from Isaiah 61:1, carries forward this notion of service into the Gospel reading, Luke 22:14-20, 24-30, which joins the imperative of humble service given by Jesus to his apostles and to their successors with the institution of the Eucharist. Likewise, Psalm 116:12-13, 17-18 and its responsorial verse, 1 Corinthians 10:16, relate the themes of service in God’s name an Eucharist as both communion– among human beings and between humankind and God– and thanksgiving for God’s goodness. The second reading, 1 Peter 5:1-4, applies the Christian obligation of humility specifically to presbyteral ministry; a presbyter is not to work for his own gain, but for the good of all among whom the presbyter ministers.

Homily

The Fathers of Vatican II were highly attentive toward the significance of formation for ordained priesthood and toward presbyteral ministry itself. Two Conciliar decrees, Optatam Totius and Presbyterorum Ordinis, focused on these respective subjects. Vatican II as a whole was primarily a council of renewal of the Catholic Church, a council at once of aggiornamento, or bringing the Church up to date, and of ressourcement, a return to sources– to tradition both Biblical and extra-Biblical, with a special esteem of the early Church Fathers– and ultimately to God. This need for renewal of the Church is acknowledged in the opening sentence of Optatam Totius, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Priestly Formation. This document begins by entrusting much of this ecclesial renewal to its priests and those who form men discerning the Sacrament of Orders. Optatam Totius declares: “This sacred Synod well knows that the wished-for renewal of the whole Church depends in large measure on a ministry of priests [that] is vitalized by the Spirit of Christ.”

The foundation of all priestly formation, then, is Christ, in whose priesthood the ordained participate. The priest is called, says Optatam Totius, to be vitalized, that is, enlivened, by the Spirit of Christ. In Christ’s Spirit– as our first reading from Isaiah puts it, “the Spirit of the LORD God”– the priest is anointed for service to God and to the Church, the people of God. During this very liturgy of priestly ordination, the priests, once vested with stole and chasuble, will be anointed with chrism on the palms of their hands. The Holy Spirit of Christ, begotten of the Father, is at this point called to rest upon the candidate for Orders, through the prayer from the Rite of Ordination that coincides with the anointing of hands: “The Father anointed our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. May Jesus preserve you to sanctify the Christian people and to offer sacrifice to God.” Together, the anointing with chrism of the hands of the newly ordained and this prayer recall the constant presence of the Holy Spirit among us. Not only in Holy Orders, but in our Baptism into the priesthood of the faithful, in Confirmation, and in the Anointing of the Sick recipients of these Sacraments are anointed with chrism. Thus, from our reception into the Church until our reception into the company of the saints in heaven, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us as God’s Spirit is on the prophets and upon Christ. In the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life” (cf. the Nicene Creed), we are perpetually vitalized.

Renewed by the Spirit of the Lord, the Church and priesthood within it are by nature transcendent of earthly borders, such as those between nations, languages, cultures, and social classes, yet at the same time God shows preference toward the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. To these, Isaiah writes, he had been “anointed to bring good news… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.” Jesus made Isaiah’s mission his own from the beginning of his ministry, as we have heard in today’s Gospel Acclamation. That verse is drawn from Luke who, uniquely among the Gospel authors, includes Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah 61 before the Synagogue assembly in Nazareth on the Sabbath. In Luke, this is Jesus’ first act of public ministry. Jesus begins, as had Isaiah before him, by announcing that he had been sealed by the Spirit to evangelize, to free those held captive by that which is not of God, to restore sight to the blind, and “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.” We might recall that Jesus’ first act of prophecy, the words of Isaiah from the scroll, was well-received by his audience. However, for declaring that his message of reconciliation and of healing would extend to those most in need, whether Jews or Gentiles, Jesus draws the assembly’s rejection. Undeterred, Jesus continues his mission, as the concluding sentence of Luke 4 illustrates: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.”

The same proclamation of the kingdom of God for which Jesus was sent is also our purpose and our imperative in priestly ministry in Christ’s stead. An entire chapter of Optatam Totius is devoted to “matters [that] have a special bearing on the sacred ministry” of the presbyterate, namely those of pastoral service: “catechetics, preaching, liturgical worship, the conferral of the Sacraments, works of charity, [and] the duty of seeking out the straying sheep and unbelievers,” according to article nineteen of this decree. Not to be disconnected from the intellectual and spiritual formation for priesthood treated in previous chapters of Vatican II’s Decree on Priestly Formation, nonetheless “the promotion of strictly pastoral training” for priests-to-be is given a special place as the title of the sixth chapter of Optatam Totius. Without this pastoral dimension, the import of the Catholic priesthood and of priestly formation is minimized. As pastoral training is necessarily linked to intellectual and spiritual formation of clergy if priestly formation is to be considered holistic so, too, I go as far as to say that those pastoral services enumerated in article nineteen of Optatam Totius all ought to be understood as works of charity. Here I do not read into Optatam Totius a concept not in the document; the same article nineteen of this decree underscores the chief “qualities to be developed in seminarians,” such as promotion of dialogue, and “a capacity to listen to other people and to open their hearts in a spirit of charity to the various circumstances of human need.”

My emphasis on the pastoral aspect of the presbyterate and of priestly formation, and on all pastoral works as works of charity, comes from my experience as an associate of the religious community of priests to which I belong, the Basilian Fathers. I was sent early in my priestly formation to Cali, Colombia, to teach high school French and English and to learn Spanish. As I gradually learned not only a new language but a new culture, I noted that, in addition to abject poverty, most people of the Basilian school and parish had received little catechetical instruction. The mission of the Basilians in Cali, then, was at once to alleviate the material poverty of those whom we served, as well as to provide an education– often entirely subsidized– to these people in both religious and secular disciplines. From that, there developed a deep bond of love between the Basilians and the residents of our parish neighbourhood. This was impressed upon me one day when, as a community manual labour exercise, I was washing clay roofing shingles in our schoolyard. A poor man on the street approached the schoolyard gate and greeted me with a smile, “Hola, Padre”– “Hello, Father!” Not yet ordained at that time, I had difficulty then– and I still do– with being called “Father,” for the pastoral responsibility that this title denotes, yet if I were to be called Father, all my works, I prayed, would be acts of charity. My priesthood, modeled after that of Christ, would be pastoral by definition. Priesthood is an anointing to pastoral acts of charity, whether one is a parish priest, a high-school, university, or seminary instructor, a scholar; whether one is praying, in recreation, or is washing shingles in a schoolyard. Priesthood is pastoral charity, oriented toward the good of human community and finally toward God.

My appointment to Colombia increased my awareness that priesthood, as a ministry of ecclesial leadership in charity, takes into account both the universal Church and the local church.  At the same time, the universality– the catholicity– of the Church became more evident to me as did the particular needs of local churches, regions, and nations. I was sent from Edmonton to Cali, after only six months as a Basilian associate, the earliest stage of formation in our religious community. The differences between the two churches are remarkable; the relative affluence of Edmonton over Cali, the religious devotion inherent in Colombian culture, and the linguistic dissimilarity between the two places are but a few of these distinctions. Nonetheless, the same Mass is celebrated in both Edmonton and Cali; Edmontonian and Caleño Catholics belong to the same Church in communion with the See of Rome.

Regarding priestly formation in particular, Optatam Totius holds in tension the recognition of the necessities of local churches and of those of the universal Church. The decree begins with an accent on the former: “Since the variety of peoples is so great,” says article one of Optatam Totius, “only general rules,” such as the establishment of “Program[s] of Priestly Formation” by regional bishops’ conferences, “can be legislated.” In Optatam Totius’ next article, though, which begins its chapter on “the intensified encouragement of priestly vocations,” the document is clear that “the task of fostering vocations devolves on the whole Christian community.” The encouragement of vocations to ordained priesthood evidently begins at the local level– in homes, in schools, and in parishes– yet it extends universally. To those who will be ordained shortly: The best way to encourage vocations, not only to the priesthood but to the specific vocation to which God calls each Christian, is to live your own divine calling to Holy Orders joyfully. In today’s second reading, the author of 1 Peter acknowledges that his vocation as an elder– literally, a presbyter– is not easy. He is “a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed.” Articles nine and ten of Optatam Totius echo this eschatological balance of 1 Peter of the “obligations” and even “hardship of the priestly life” with joy “in the blessedness promised by the Gospel” and by a “profound identification of” the priest’s entire life with that of Jesus Christ.

Priesthood, configured to Christ, is more than the power to confect the Eucharist, although this sacerdotal privilege is not unimportant. As per article eight of Optatam Totius, the priest must “be taught to look for Christ in many places: in faithful meditation on God’s word, in active communion with the holy mysteries of the Church… in the bishop” whom they assist, “the poor, the young, the sick, the sinful, and the unbelieving.” The Eucharist is only the beginning of Christian service; the priest who confects it for and receives it with the people of God must not, as today’s Gospel and second reading both affirm, “lord it over” those whom we serve as leaders. The Eucharistic feast must be united with and must give way to service. Moreover, as we heard in today’s Responsorial Psalm, the Eucharist, over which the priest presides, is at once an act of thanksgiving and one that draws human beings into ever-closer communion with one another and with God.

Let us pray, then, for the priestly candidates present before us here, and for all priests and those in formation for Holy Orders, that they might be joyful instruments of and participants in the priesthood of Christ. In this Eucharistic celebration we thank God for the gift of priests, “the hope of the Church,” as concludes Optatam Totius, and for those entrusted with their formation.

Appendix: Readings for Homily Assignment on Optatam Totius

Thought of Vatican II- SMT 3670 HF

Readings are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, selected according to The Rites of the Catholic Church, trans. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1980), 2:102-106.

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-3a

1The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;
3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 116:12-13, 17-18 (Response: 1 Corinthians 10:16)

12What shall I return to the Lord
   for all his bounty to me?
13I will lift up the cup of salvation
   and call on the name of the Lord

 R: Our blessing-cup is a communion with the blood of Christ.

17I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
   and call on the name of the Lord.
18I will pay my vows to the Lord
   in the presence of all his people. R.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 5:1-4

1Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you 2to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it— not for sordid gain but eagerly. 3Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. 4And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.

Gospel Acclamation (Luke 4:18-19)

 Alleluia.

 The Lord sent me to bring good news to the poor and freedom to prisoners.

 Alleluia.

Gospel Reading: Luke 22:14-20, 24-30

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it* until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

24A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. 28‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; 29and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, 30so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: We Believe as We Pray– Reflection for Mass of April 1, 2011

1 Apr

Friday, April 1, 2011
Ferial– Friday of the Third Week of Lent
Readings: Hosea 14:1-9; Psalm 81: 5c-10ab, 13+16 (R: 10+8a); Mark 12:28b-34

Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad– Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God is one LORD.”[1] This greatest of ancient Jewish prayers is a case of the principle Christians would later call lex orandi, lex credendi: the law that is prayed comes to be the law that is believed.[2] Indeed, Jews still pray the Shema twice daily as the LORD commanded them in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”[3]

These words of the LORD clearly were assigned a place of prominence; they were to be fixed as the primary focus on the hearts, on the homes, on the heads, and on the bodies, specifically the wrists, of the faithful. Similarly, Jesus affirms for us in today`s Gospel that this prayer leads us to a deepened faith, again illustrating for us the notion of lex orandi, lex credendi. That faith gives rise to a love of God that becomes affixed in our hearts, in our innermost homes that are our souls, in our minds, and in our bodies wherein lay our strength.[4]

Out of six hundred thirteen Mitzvot, or religious statutes, in the Torah,[5] Jesus cites only two as the Commandments than which there are none greater. The first is the Shema of Deuteronomy, while the second is from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”[6]

In its original context in Leviticus, the scope of this second of the greatest Commandments is restricted to the Israelites’ “fellow countrymen,”[7] those bound to the covenant between the LORD and Israel. However, Jesus challenges us to broaden our horizon of who our neighbour is. Of course, we need not to walk too far through downtown Toronto to have our concept of neighbour challenged: near to here we find the poor, the mentally ill, the addicts, the newcomers and refugees. Jesus reminds us that these, too, are our neighbours. One cannot be said to love God without loving these people, often the least valued and most forgotten of our preoccupied, capital-oriented society.

I have increasingly been taking note in my reading of the Gospels of late how many pericopes end in silence. Today’s Gospel reading is another example of this; the scribe who had asked Jesus which is the greatest Commandment, and indeed all the other religious leaders with him, did not dare “to ask [Jesus] any question.”[8] I doubt that these religious leaders fell silent because they were wholly satisfied with Jesus’ answer. They knew how correct and how wise Jesus had been in expanding their sense of neighbour and, with it, their sense of God. They knew all too well, as we know all too well, the rectitude of Jesus’ teaching and how difficult this teaching is to live out. If our love of neighbour does not extend to those who evoke the most disgust in us, then even our worship, our “burnt offerings and sacrifices,”[9] become not an act of love of God but an act of proud idolatry, of saying “‘Our god’ to the work of our hands.”[10]

Even amid our pride and our failure at times to see the least among us as our neighbour, though, Jesus still tells us comfortingly, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”[11] How, then, do we make up this distance from God’s kingdom? On our own, entrance into God’s kingdom is impossible. Only in relationship with God, through consistent prayer, will our weakness, our divided hearts, and our distance from God be overcome, and will we come to see our neighbour, and God, for who they truly are.

That regularity in prayer is the point of the Shema. By praying the Law enjoined on us, we will gradually come to believe in that which we pray: lex orandi, lex credendi. Then, that in which, or better yet in whom, we come to believe, God through an expanded notion of neighbour, we will come more fully to love.

WRS

[1] The Shema– Hear, O Israel! http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Torah/The_Shema/the_shema. html. Accessed 30 March 2011. See also Deuteronomy 6:4.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1124. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s1c1a2.htm. Accessed 30 March 2011. This section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.”

[3] Deuteronomy 6:6-9.

[4] See Mark 12:30.

[5] Judaism 101: A List of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments). http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm. Accessed 30 March 2011.

[6] Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31.

[7] Leviticus 19:18.

[8] Mark 12:34.

[9] Mark 12:33.

[10] Hosea 14:4.

[11] Mark 12:34.

A Brief, Prayerful Announcement– Reflection for Mass of March 25, 2011– Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

25 Mar

 

Friday, March 25, 2011
Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord
Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14, 8-10; Psalm 40: 7-10; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38

…And now, a brief announcement… “The Holy Spirit [has] come upon [us], and the power of the Most High [overshadows us].”[1] Nine months from today, we will celebrate Jesus’ Nativity, but the process of our bearing Christ into our world begins now, as we celebrate this Solemnity of the Annunciation of our Lord. We are urged, then, to begin, if we have not already begun, to be converted and to open our hearts and minds to renewal, to be better disposed to do the will of God… End of announcement.

Looking over my notes for the Liturgical Presiding practicum, I saw that our class had been told clearly about proper brevity and placement of announcements within the order of the Mass. Announcements are to be made where a natural break occurs within the Mass, for instance between the reception of Communion and the Concluding Rites, so as not to be disruptive to the flow of the liturgy.[2]

Amid our activities outside of the Mass, although in a different way than at Mass, announcements can be timely and humourous, thought-provoking, or even inspiring. For example, a creative television commercial may make one laugh or be likely to buy a product or adopt a lifestyle change. More deeply, the expected birth of a child within a family, announced during a family dinner, is a message of remarkable beauty.

However, many announcements are ill-timed, too long, repetitive, or disruptive, whether within or outside of Mass. Let us return to the examples of the television commercial and the pregnancy announcement. Some commercials are effective by their repetition in moving us to buy the products advertised, yet I detest seeing the same commercial multiple times in a row, unless it is a profoundly creative use of thirty seconds. Such a recurrent announcement is disruptive to whatever show I am trying to watch.

How might the announcement of an impending birth of a child be as disruptive, albeit in a different way, as the repetitious or dull television commercial? Today’s Gospel, I think, answers that question. I imagined upon re-reading Luke’s infancy narrative that I had been given the role of evaluating the Angel Gabriel’s technique in Liturgical Presiding. I do indeed have a similar assignment for the class I am in; for it I took notes on last Sunday’s Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. The presider was not an angel.

If Gabriel were not an angel and if this were a Mass, the little Pharisee in me concerned with liturgical rubrics would have had a lot to say. In class, we are reminded not to begin Mass with a secular greeting in place of a “sacred” one, and thus to begin in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and then “The Lord be with you.”[3] Poor Gabriel gets off to a bad start here: “Hail, full of grace.”[4] The Greek imperative Χαῖρε, which we read as “Hail,” can also mean “Rejoice” or a simple, underwhelming “Hello!”[5] No wonder Mary found Gabriel’s salutation disconcerting! Then Gabriel proceeds to make a verbose and unfocused announcement. He not only tells Mary that she will bear a child, but that the barren Elizabeth will as well.[6] Then Gabriel simply departs from the scene.[7] If I had been in Mary’s place, I, like her, would have been “greatly perplexed.”[8] Herein, though, lies the success of Gabriel’s announcement: It allows for Mary’s participation in the narrative, much as the participation of the People of God during Mass contributes to good liturgy.

Mary’s fiat– her faithful “Here am I,”[9] which does not replace her perplexity at her conception of God made human but overcomes it– is an announcement in itself. In fact, her announcement is the most important one of today’s Gospel reading. Let it be our announcement, too, then, for it is appropriate at all times and at any time. And now, our brief, prayerful, announcement: “Here [are we], the servant[s] of the Lord, let it be done to [us] according to your word.”[10]

WRS


[1] Luke 1:35

[2] “Eucharistic Liturgy.” Course notes handout, Liturgical Presiding, SMP 3165 HS (Toronto: University of St. Michael’s College, 23 January 2011).

[3] Dennis C. Smolarski, How Not to Say Mass: A Guidebook on Liturgical Principles and the Roman Missal, 2nd ed. (New York, NY/ Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003), 51.

[4] Luke 1:28. The Greek Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη (Hi’-reh, keh-cha-ri-tō-meh’-nay) literally translates as “Hail, [woman] being (or, who is) made graceful.” See also The Greek Bible, http://www.greekbible.com/index.php.  Accessed 23 March 2011. Search for Luke 1:28, then click on the word κεχαριτωμένη to open the lexical entry for the verb χαριτόω, “I make graceful.”

[5] The Greek Bible, entry on the verb χαίρω. http://www.greekbible.com/l.php?xai/rw_v-2pad-s–_p. Accessed 23 March 2011. This word appeared on an exam in the New Testament Greek course I am taking, as part of a multiple choice question, “God revealed himself to Moses on Mt. Horeb (Exodus 3:14) in the Septuagint (The Greek translation of the Old Testament) as…” The correct answer (in Greek, from the Septuagint) is Εἱμι ὁ ὠν (“Amy ha own,” meaning “I am the one being” or more eloquently, “I am the one who is.” One of the incorrect choices, which was good for a few laughs in class, was Χαῖρε, το ὀνομα μοι Θεος ἐστίν (Hi’-reh, tah ah’-nah-mah moy thay-ahs’ es-tin’), which means in this context, “Hello, my name is God.”

[6] Luke 1:31, 36.

[7] Luke 1:38

[8] Luke 1:29

[9] Luke 1:38

[10] Ibid.