Saturday, November 12, 2011

In worship, as in all of life, we take out as much as we put in. (Reflections on the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mt. 25:14-30)

“Father, I don’t think I’m getting anything out of the Mass anymore!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that statement, from good friends, from former students, from parishioners, and once, from my own sister. Well, she didn’t exactly call me “father”; she never really does. But she said pretty much the same thing. “I’m just not getting anything out of the Mass”.

One time, a young man, a parishioner at one of the churches where I help out on weekends came to me—before Mass even started—and rather gravely, admitted he had barely managed to drag himself out of bed that morning to get to Church.
“I just haven’t been getting anything out of the Mass lately, father”, he said. Since I didn’t have early Mass that Sunday and I was simply sitting in the church garden enjoying the morning, I figured I’d give him a few minutes and ask what was going on.

“I don’t know”, he said. "Like I told you, I’m just not getting anything out of it”. Since asking him “why” was obviously not going to work, I thought taking another route in addressing the matter might work better. “You know what”, I said, "I’d like to confess something to you. You don’t have to keep it a secret, but I don’t always tell people this. I too have, at one point, felt like I wasn't getting anything out of the Mass". I guess he was taken aback, and for a couple of seconds he just sat there, staring quizzically at me, until finally, he opened his mouth and said, “Whatever do you mean?”

I decided to share my own experience with him—something I’d like to now share with you guys as well. Before I was ordained thirteen years ago, I remember how excited I was about being able to finally celebrate Mass, so excited that I would dream about it. Seriously! Finally ordination day came, and then one Thanksgiving Mass after another. I sang all of my Thanksgiving Masses. I practiced all the parts and prayers, over and over again, making sure I didn’t miss a single note.

At each of those Thanksgiving Masses after ordination, I gave of myself a hundred percent. I prepared for the liturgy, made sure everything was in order and in place; I didn’t want to be talking about myself during the homily—like simply thanking people and all that—so a month before the scheduled masses, I had already several possible homily outlines prepared. Needless to say, it was me putting everything I had, and everything I was into the Mass I was celebrating—all of me!

Fast-forward to three years after my ordination day, when the memory of those first Thanksgiving Masses had already receded into the distance, their details beginning to blur. It was a Thursday night, I had just come back to my room after presiding over five Masses in a single day. I remember sitting there, completely exhausted, unable (or unwilling) to even flick the remote and turn on the TV. I just sat on the couch and stared at the ceiling for what seemed like an eternity. (Of course, I was also teaching philosophy and theology at the seminary and three other universities at the time). “What was that?!” I thought to myself. “Did I really celebrate all those masses, or did I merely breeze through each one of them?” I tried to recall what I said in the homily. Nothing! I remembered the Gospel reading; but what exactly did I preach on? Blank! “Wow!” I thought. “I guess I somehow just 'breezed' through them. Scary”. I fell asleep on the couch and forgot about the whole thing when I woke up the following morning.

A few weeks after that episode though, this time during Mass itself, at the seminary chapel in Manila, right before the “Our Father”, I found myself getting this sensation that can only be described by the Heideggerian word unheimlichkeit“uncanniness”. Don’t laugh; because I really did. What exactly am I talking about? I was there, in the midst of the liturgy; I knew I started the Mass, I knew I read the Gospel, preached the homily, accepted the gifts that were offered, said the Eucharistic Prayer, and was now about to introduce the Pater Noster. But why did it feel like I was “asleep” or “unconscious” as I was going through the motions of those earlier parts of the Mass? Was I, in fact, asleep? Did I really go through those earlier parts? What’s going on? I must've 'breezed' through the Mass again! But this was just one Mass! Not five!

In my heart, I knew—as if God had awakened an uneasy realization in me—that something was not quite right. The liturgies with His people that I had so eagerly awaited to celebrate with them during my long years in seminary, had become something I did simply because I had to do them. They had become part of my routine, and the initial fire had seemingly been reduced no nothing more than a flicker. Whereas my words and actions used to be conscious and deliberate, they had now become mechanical, even contrived. I was “no longer getting anything out of it”. Something wasn't right; and it saddened me and I guess filled me with dread.

At the end of that Mass, I lingered in the chapel a while longer. Then, after breakfast, I knocked on the door of an old Belgian priest, Albert (God rest his soul.) and asked if we could talk. I shared with him my experience, and the dawning realization I had at liturgy that morning. Albert was my confessor when I was a seminarian, and when I became a priest on formation staff at the seminary, he became a confidant and a friend, an older brother-priest who had, with great fidelity, ‘navigated’ the often complex and tricky waters of the life to which I too found myself drawn. I left his room that morning with two thoughts that have guided me ever since—one of them I share with you today. (The other I'll save for another future homily.)

“In worship, as in all of life, you take out as much as you put in”.

In fact, the more we put in, the more we will surely take out. It’s true of our studies, our jobs, our relationships, our friendships, our investments; it’s true of all life. (In fact I was reading a book on weight-training this week, and suddenly, Albert’s words just popped into my head—because it’s true even of working out and keeping oneself fit. The more effort and energy one puts into it, the more one gets the results he desires, provided he’s doing it correctly, and safely, of course. But I digress.)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of this very important truth in life. You have three men, with varying abilities, given varying gifts, ‘talents’ corresponding to their capacities, each one tasked by their master to make the most of what they had been entrusted. The first eagerly takes the five and invests it completely, thereby doubling it. The second does the same, investing what was entrusted to him a hundred percent, doubling it as well. The third, out of fear or laziness, or for whatever reason only he probably knows, chooses not to invest the money, but buried it instead. Buries it! He doesn’t invest it; he merely hoards it! And judging from his conversation with his furious master, probably thought he’d be praised for doing it. Well, we know how the rest of the story goes.

“In worship, as in all of life, we take out as much as we put in”.

The problem with the third guy in our gospel reading is that he didn’t even seriously put anything in; he just buried and hoarded what had been given to him. His problem wasn’t really fear, nor was it simply laziness. It was a lack of true generosity. And many times, when we—and I do mean ‘we’—find ourselves “not getting anything out of the Mass”, it's most likely because we haven’t been generous enough in putting into our celebration, what the occasion deserves or calls for.

But it’s also probably because we often tend to forget what the Mass truly is. It is the highest act of worship of our two-thousand year old faith community. It is the summit of our lives as a church, a community of disciples, gathered by Christ, offering worship, praise, and thanksgiving to the Father who has sustained us during the past weeks, months, and years of our life, and whom we hope and trust will continue to sustain us throughout the rest of our years.

The Mass is our act of worship! If we keep that in mind, it might actually embarrass us to ask, “What am I getting out of it?”—because that isn’t even the point. The point is rather to bring something “into it”, our selves, our lives, our hopes, our fears, our dreams, our voices, our everything - and unite it with Christ's offering of that "worthy sacrifice" to the Father. Of course, we will get something out if it—but only if we generously give of ourselves, and put something into it first.

(Mind you, this is not to excuse us priests from sometimes forgetting that we have been commanded to "feed" Christ's flock. We need to prepare well for the Masses at which we preside, through prayer, through diligent study, through serious homily preparation, and through the very integrity of the lives we live. We cannot encourage generosity among our flock if we are miserly ourselves!)

“In worship, as in all of life, we take out as much as we put in”.

The students here present will certainly know what that means—especially since the final exams for the previous semester, I’m sure, are still quite fresh in their memories.

And so today, I’d like to invite all of us gathered here, myself included—because as I told you, even we priests sometimes fail to put 100% of ourselves into our celebration of the Mass—let us all consider how much of ourselves we put into celebrating this most important act of worship of our two-thousand year old community of faith.

Do we come on time? Do we sing? One doesn’t need a golden voice to offer to God what he or she can. Do we respond to the greetings? Do we join in praying the psalms? Do we try to attentively follow the readings and the homily? Do we pray the Creed with our whole heart, believing what we’re saying? Do we really join in the prayers, especially those offered for all of us after the creed? Do we prepare ourselves well to receive Christ at Holy Communion and allow him to truly enter every part of our self? Do we say ‘thank you’ to him after we’ve received his body and blood? And finally, do we understand that what we’ve celebrated and experienced at Mass is meant to be shared with everyone we shall meet when the Mass is ended?

I leave you with the thought I left that young man who several years ago confided to me, as I did to him, that sometimes, we feel we aren’t getting anything from the Mass. Whenever we find ourselves asking, “Why haven’t I been getting anything from the Mass lately?”, we should instead probably ask ourselves the question, “What have I put into my celebration of the Mass lately? How much of myself, my heart, mind, body, soul and strength, have I put into my worship of God who has done nothing but love me? How generous have I been to him who has been most generous to me?” Trust me; it will clear a whole lot of things in your head.

“In worship, as in all of life, we take out as much as we put in”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)