Bottom line: Pope Benedict is calling us to a more reverent celebration of the Mass. The examples of Abraham and Mary can help us achieve that goal.
You may have heard that Pope Benedict issued a document regarding the celebration of the Mass. It is an important document that calls us to celebrate the Eucharist with renewed reverence. Today's Scripture readings can help us achieve that goal. The readings speak about meals with unique guests. In one case Abraham receives some mysterious visitors. In the other, Martha and Mary receive their dear friend, Jesus. By observing how Abraham and Mary receive their guests, we can learn how to participate more reverently in the Mass.
In the Old Testament reading, Abraham, the great Patriarch, receives three visitors. But something odd happens. Instead of addressing them in the plural, he uses the singular. He calls them "Sir" or "Lord" and he bows to the ground before them. The early Christian writers saw this passage, Genesis chapter 18, as a reference to the Trinity: One God in three divine persons. As they said, "Abraham saw three, but adored one." After the act of deep reverence, Abraham and his wife Sarah prepare a lavish meal for the visitors. The meal, which Abraham and Sarah had with the divine visitors, points to the Mass.
In the Gospel the reference to the Mass is even more evident. The two sisters, Mary and Martha, receive a wonderful guest into their home. He is Jesus, the Lord, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The Gospel does not describe the meal itself, but focuses on what happens before the meal takes place. While Martha prepares the meal, Mary sits reverently at the Lord's feet, listening to him with complete attention. This is important for us. Mary is an image of reverent listening. Pope Benedict speaks about this kind of reverence in his new document on the Mass. With this image of Mary in our minds, I would like to now turn to the papal document.
On July 7, the Holy Father issued a statement called a Motu Proprio which relates to our celebration of the Mass. The decree allows for a more liberal use of the Mass of Pope John XXIII. There has been some misunderstanding about this document. It is not about celebrating of Mass in Latin. That is already possible in the current rite. I have been saying a Latin Mass on Tuesday evenings for around five years. No special permission was required.
Also the document is not about the priest and people facing the same direction. That is also possible with the current Mass of Pope Paul VI. If you read the rubrics carefully you will note that at various points they instruct the priest to "turn to the people."* Those rubric imply that at some moments we are both looking the same direction. So the document is not about giving priests permission to say Mass in Latin or to face in the same direction as the people. What it does allow is the more widespread celebration of the Mass used for many centuries, with the slight modifications Pope John made in 1962.
As the pope notes in his letter to the bishops, the Mass of Pope Paul VI will remain the normal or ordinary form while the Mass of Pope John will be the extraordinary form of liturgical celebration. He observes that "the use of the old Missal presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language." With a certain humor he adds, "neither of these is found very often." The pope knows his priests.
In spite of the fact that the Mass of John XXIII will not be widely used, the pope notes that many people have asked for it. He speculates that they were disappointed not so much with the Mass of Paul VI, but with the way the new Mass was celebrated. Many priests, he says, were "not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal." Instead, they had the idea that the new Missal was "authorizing or even requiring creativity." These attempts at "creativity," the pope notes, "led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear." With some sadness the Holy Father says, "I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusions."
So did I. I look back and recognize that I contributed to some of the confusion. Still, it is not too late. All of us can learn from Abraham - the reverence with which he received the three visitors - and worshiped them as the one Lord. And, even more, we can learn from the great example of Mary.
Sometimes people say that if you come to Mass and do not receive Communion, you are practically wasting your time. But that is not true. Mary did not consider it a waste of time to listen to Jesus - as we do in the first part of the Mass. And she did more than simply listen. She sat at his feet, devotedly absorbing his presence. Her posture - seated at his feet - was more like kneeling than sitting. We can learn a lot from Mary. Even if a person, for whatever reason, cannot partake in Communion, they are still doing something awesome by placing themselves in the Lord's presence.
The Mass of Pope John XXIII put emphasis on being in the Lord's presence. I remember that Mass as boy and as a young man. Although I couldn't follow - or even see - every gesture, I knew something magnificent was happening. Most of the congregation read a translation while the priest prayed in Latin. There is nothing magical about that language, but it did convey a universality and a connection with the past, which we easily lose sight of.
When we shelved the Mass of Pope John, we lost a sense of rootedness. We lost a sense of universality. And, unfortunately, we also lost a sense of reverence. I don't blame that on the Mass of Pope Paul. It arrived at a bad moment - the beginning of the seventies. Rather than challenging our culture, we tended to conform to it. Instead of opening ourselves to the power of the Mass, we tried to make the Mass "relevant."
I compare this to what I recently experienced at a Shakespeare Festival. They have something called "Shakespeare for a New Generation," which on the surface seems fine. However, in one case (Romeo and Juliet) it involved dressing the younger characters as contemporary high school students. It distorted the meaning of the play. The priest who attended the performance with me said that they need to let Shakespeare be Shakespeare. The same applies to the Mass. We need to let the Mass be the Mass. Like Shakespeare, the Mass requires preparation to appreciate what it has to offer. That is what we see this Sunday. Both Abraham and Mary spent time attentively listening and marveling before partaking a meal with the Lord. We need to do something similar.
To summarize: Our Holy Father is calling us to a more reverent celebration of the Mass. The examples of Abraham and Mary can help us greatly toward that goal. Abraham saw three persons, but reverenced the one Lord. Mary sat at Jesus feet listening with rapt attention, that is, with reverence. The Mass of Pope John XXIII, even though it will not be widespread, can help us recover a sense of reverence. Jesus underlines the important of reverence - of blocking everything else out so we can concentrate of the one thing that matters. As he said, "Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."
*For example at Communion, the rubrics say, "Taking the host, he raises it slightly over the paten and facing the people (versus ad populum) says aloud, 'Lord I am not worthy...'" Then, "Facing the altar (versus ad altare) says inaudibly, 'May the Body of Christ bring me to everlasting life.'" Even though the priest ordinarily faces the people during the Eucharistic Prayer, he should be aware that in reality they are looking the same direction. The prayers are not directed to the Father, not to the people.
From Archives (16th Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Catholic Scripture Study - Book of Revelation, 35th Anniversary Reunion in Salt Lake City, Why Mormon Presentation Did Not Convince Me)