In the preconciliar Church, crucifixes, religious statues and images of the saints were covered with purple veils from the fifth Sunday of Lent through Good Friday, a period known as Passiontide. Even though the practice became optional at the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, many churches continue to observe the ancient custom.
The tradition alerts us to the fact that we have entered a time of more immediate preparation for Holy Week. It also removes much of the visual stimulation we normally experience at church to help us listen with greater attentiveness to the words of the Passion narratives read on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Anticipation for the Easter season when the coverings will be removed also is intensified.
But there is an even deeper meaning to the practice. Veiling these holy objects reminds us in a strikingly visual manner that the faith we cherish was made possible only through the work of Christ in his suffering and death on the Cross. When the images, statues, and other religious articles are covered or removed entirely, we are confronted with the stark reality that, without the passion of the Christ, none of the subsequent flourishing of Christian values, culture, or tradition would have come into existence.
The glorious architecture erected in every soaring cathedral, the words written into flowing pages of great Catholic literature, the images painted on the canvasses of breathtaking works of religious art and the melodies sounded through the notes of sublime sacred music simply would never have come into being. We would have remained in our ignorance without the truth of God revealed in Christ and the Catholic intellectual tradition that followed. The moral goodness of saints like Mother Theresa and the enormous charity of Catholics in every age simply would vanish from the landscape of human history.
We have come to the end of our current message, Mass Communication. For the last five weeks, we have been exploring the various parts of our Sunday liturgy and what they say about our faith. In this last installment, we learn that the Concluding Rite of the Mass is not a simple dismissal. Rather, the blessing by the priest with the sign of the Cross, the words sending away the assembly, the actions reverencing the altar, and the recessional all echo the words of Christ to his disciples both before his death and after his Resurrection: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21; cf. 17:18).
Through the Word proclaimed and preached and the Sacrament shared and received, we are empowered to go out into the world to be Eucharist and bread for others. Indeed, our mission lies beyond the four walls of the church. Just as the apostles boldly made known the good news of Jesus and generations of disciples developed the Church out of the ashes of the Crucifixion as the greatest force for good in the world, we too are called to leave each Mass with the same solemn duty.
To the extent we ignore that charge, we tragically veil the beauty, goodness, and truth of our faith from a world in so much need of it.
Nearly a month after a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a national movement encouraged students to “walk out” of their schools last Wednesday for seventeen minutes, one minute for each of the seventeen people killed in the massacre. According to CNN, “the nationwide protest is both a memorial and protest action . . . to pass stricter gun control laws.”
At Saint Brendan School, we honored the lives of the fallen students and faculty members with a safety day, prayers for their eternal rest, and a moment of silence at our morning school Mass. It is entirely fitting that a Catholic community pray for those who have died and for prudent legislation that would prevent such tragedies in the future.
I write this article a few days before Wednesday. I pray for the safety of all students around the country and hope that their courage will produce both a moving tribute to the victims and an enduring witness of the power of solidarity, especially in the face of such an outrageous act of violence.
Today we hear in the gospel Jesus’ own reaction to the death of his close friend, Lazarus. Jesus wept for the tragedy, and the heartbreak, and the outrage of death itself. He was deeply troubled by the loss that comes with death. The word “perturbed” used in the passage comes from the Greek word embrimaomai, which connotes anger. Indeed, death is an outrage because it is fundamentally opposed to God’s plan. The loss that comes with death is real, the sense of abandonment by those left behind palpable.
Yet, our most fundamental belief is that God himself experienced the outrage of death. All the terror and suffering of this fallen world has been felt by the Creator. We believe in a God who does not absolve himself from the conditions of this world or stand by idly, watching from a distance. We believe in a God who enters into our pain and into the fullness of the human experience. Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, God takes responsibility for the fallen world we have established. Christ’s death is nothing short of radical solidarity with the darkest parts of the human condition.
This week, we explore the meaning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, as we continue our message series, Mass Communication. The bread and wine that have become the Body and Blood of Christ are a tangible declaration of his voluntary death for our sake. What is loss of life for Christ becomes nourishment and food for us all. What is his sacrifice re-presented on the altar each Sunday becomes a feast. What is his resurrection from the dead as we receive the Risen Christ in communion is God’s pledge that, amid the suffering and sorrow of this life, one day we also will rise, every tear will be wiped away, and, like Lazarus, Christ will call us forth from our graves.
Death is an outrage but Christ has conquered it and the victory is ours. This is what we remember each Sunday, as we receive the Lord and say, “Amen,” which means “I believe.”
In last week’s gospel account, Jesus encounters a woman sitting at a well. When he asks for a drink of water, she says, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” When he offers to give her living water, she responds with similar incomprehension: “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep.” The woman soon comes to believe that Jesus is some sort of “prophet.” Following her encounter, she returns to the village, asking the others whether Jesus could “possibly be the Messiah.” At the end of the story, what Jesus has been trying to convey all along is finally declared by the townspeople: He is “truly the savior of the world.”
The shifting names for Jesus in this story, from “Jew,” “Sir,” “Prophet,” and “Messiah,” to “Savior of the World,” are signs that a lack of faith eventually can give way to genuine belief. In a similar way, the story of the man born blind, who was given sight by Jesus in the gospel account this week, evinces the truth that faith can develop over time.
Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, one of three obligatory annual pilgrimages to the Temple at that time. During a key moment, most likely after the ceremony of light that ended at dawn when the Jews would face away from the rising sun to repudiate pagan worship of the elements, Jesus announces that he alone is the true “light of the world.” He is faced with immediate rejection and an extended argument with “the Jews” erupts.
Soon thereafter, Jesus heals the man and again faces controversy from the Pharisees, who take exception to the healing because it occurred on the Sabbath. Over the course of a lengthy inquisition, the Jewish religious leaders increasingly demonstrate their blindness to Jesus’ identity, while the once blind man begins to see more clearly, first referring to Jesus as a “man,” then as a “prophet,” as one who is “from God,” and finally as the “Son of Man,” to whom he offers worship that is fitting only for God. Over time, the man healed of blindness comes to realize that Jesus is the light of the world.
The fifth century Christian writer, Prosper of Aquitaine, penned the now famous saying in Church theology: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, which is translated as “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” In other words, the Church has always acknowledged that what we believe comes out of how we worship, not the other way around. Because the true vocation of all human beings is the right worship of God, all faith first arises within liturgical ritual.
People come to church for many reasons, and not everyone sitting in the pews believes everything the Church teaches. But it is good that they are with us because, ultimately, spiritual growth and enlightenment are rooted in the practice of our communal prayer and worship. To grow in our faith through the liturgy should be our hope, as we continue to explore the various parts of the liturgy and what they say about our faith in our current message series, Mass Communication.
On a long journey home, Jesus passes through the region of Samaria inhabited by people considered to be the ethnic and religious rivals of the Jews. He stops at a well for some water and encounters a Samaritan woman. A story of faith ensues, as Jesus leads her on a journey to new life in the Spirit. The stages of her faith development mirror the spiritual growth each of us experiences when we are willing to listen to God’s Word and seek to encounter Christ in his Church.
Since drawing water normally was done with other villagers in the morning or evening, the presence of the Samaritan woman at the well, alone in the heat of the day, suggests that she had something to hide. Indeed, we later learn that her lifestyle was irregular. Most of us come to church with something to hide from God, others, or ourselves. But when we choose to connect within the community, open up and share our pain, we begin a journey to a better life.
Jesus first asks the woman for a drink, but he actually is thirsting for more than regular water. He wants to give her something far greater than the physical water for which she had come to the well. He longs to give her spiritual water that will satisfy her completely. As we learn to connect with other believers, we begin to experience healing in the living waters of Christ that move us away from a superficial desire, like consumers, merely to quench our thirst for a moment to a deeper commitment of faith as a disciple.
Over the course of their discussion, Jesus foretells a future when the whole world will come to worship the Father in a new way. True worship, he says, is “in Spirit and truth.” The Mass today is the greatest form of worship ever known. We pray to the Father through the truth of Christ in the Holy Spirit. And when we break out of our spiritual isolation and pray together, we cannot help but come to know the Lord more fully.
Soon the woman comes to see Jesus as more than a man, a prophet, or even the Messiah. He eventually reveals his divinity by using the divine name given to Moses in Exodus 3:14 (“I am”). Similarly, we come to church and participate in small groups to grow in faith and begin to see Jesus for who he really is.
At the end of the story, the woman leaves her water jar and goes into town to tell her neighbors about Jesus and “many more came to believe in him.” After connecting with others at church, praying together at Mass, finding healing in the community, and growing in faith, then we too are ready to love others by inviting them to encounter and know Jesus.
This week in our message series, Mass Communication, we are learning how important it is to listen to God’s Word each week. Just as Jesus led the woman on her spiritual journey, the Church helps us to connect, pray, heal, grow, and love. But only if we are really listening.
Father Roger Gustafson