Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Attraction of Tradition

Catholic tradition is antithetical to a church's effort to reach people, bureaucrats will tell you. In light of such synodic wisdom, I find it funny that this past Sunday, after Mass, an occasional visitor announced to the pastor his desire to become a member, and said it was in part because of things like the fact that we have the commemoration of the saints in the Mass, and the availability of the blessed Baptismal water at the entrance of the nave. I too find such customs refreshing, in more than one way, in a Lutheran church. Instead of following the mind of Synod, such as the spiritually and liturgically empty and fraudulent Ablaze program, I recommend that churches and schools follow the evangelical tradition of the Church, that is, just be the Church, and at least some will come with you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ashes: Leave On, Or Wipe Off?

The Reverend Bryce Wandrey, Anglican priest & former Lutheran priest, has suggested that it is more appropriate to wipe off one's ashes from his forehead after Mass than to leave them on all day. I too have been thinking about this very issue lately, but my thinking has gone in the exact opposite direction.

Bryce is commendably concerned about a Christian sense of modesty, and about not wanting to unnecessarily advertise one's piety. More on that topic below. Bryce also sees his decision to wipe the ashes off right away when leaving church as based upon a literal reading of Matthew 6. I would respectfully suggest that such a reading might be literalistic, but not literal. That is to say, I do not see this text as speaking to the question of what Christians should do with the ashes that are ritually imposed upon them on Ash Wednesday. Indeed, it would be inappropriate to advertise our fasting by walking around with drooping, tired faces. Instead, the Christian who submits himself to rigorous fasting, and such a creature is rare today, does well to throw water on his face, and stand up straight before going out, lest his fasting become an overt boast, just as the one who shouts his prayers on the street corner is making his prayer an overt boast.

I would urge, in fact, that just as our Lord's words in Matthew 6 against those who pray "in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men," shouldn't keep Christians from praying (aloud, and with the sign of the cross) before and after meals when out in a restaurants, likewise His words in the same chapter against showing off one's fasting does not mean that we should be hesitant or timid to fast publicly.

Let me offer examples, to be very clear. When at a restaurant, it is not boasting or showing off one's fasting by asking the server for the vegetarian menu. It is not showing off when one orders the fish, even when everyone else at the table forgets that it's Friday, or it just isn't that important to them. It is neither condemning nor boasting on his part to try to remain true to such traditions. It is not boasting or showing off when one discusses the topic of fasting openly & publicly. In all of the above scenarios I have seen Lutherans condemn Catholics and other Lutherans wrongfully. There is no way to read the heart and the motives of those who behave in ways to which some may be unaccustomed. Rather, we should accept each other where we are at, and support each other.

Getting back to ashes in particular, this is not a custom that is really directly pertinent to fasting. It does imply it, in my opinion, but it should be considered as a slightly separate issue. Ashes are a sign, like the sign of the cross, which we also ought to be bold to practice in public. Wearing ashes is a sign and witness, both to ourselves, and to everyone who sees it. It is a sign of our penitence, our confession of our sinfulness and mortality, and yes, in a broader way, of our faith in Christ, and our allegiance to Christian tradition. For all of these reasons, I suggest it is good, right, and salutary to keep the ashes on one's forehead until getting ready for bed, even it they were imposed at an early morning Mass.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Feria Quarta Cinerum

Fat Tuesday brings with it several customs, which survive to varying degrees in Christian lands. The name, Fat Tuesday, or its equivalent in any number of languages, connotes one aspect of this day. That is, it is the culmination of the Carnival season, in which we enjoy, sometimes in a very festive manner, the pleasures of life, such as sweets, and yes, meat itself, which traditionally are given up during Lent (the Lenten fast has taken different forms, and perhaps I will offer a word or two on that topic later). Another name for this day offers a clue to a very different aspect of this day, namely, Shrove Tuesday. For it is a traditional day to confess one's sins to the priest, and seek absolution, as a fitting way to begin the spiritual journey of Lent. I would like to offer a word here, however, on a Fat Tuesday custom in my house which is perhaps less known than the above two. On this day the palm branch, which has adorned our living room crucifix since last Palm Sunday, is taken down.

Many Lutheran pastors these days practice the blessing and giving out of palm branches on Palm Sunday, which is a very good thing. Some of those pastors also encourage their people to take those palm branches home, and to put them up in a prominent place, such as a "family altar," or on the wall behind a crucifix, and to let it aid prayer and devotion in the home. That also is a very good thing. The palm branch is rich in Christian meaning, which I cannot begin to fully cover here and now, though perhaps I might dwell on it a bit more when Palm Sunday comes around. I will just say that one of the things I personally love about the palm branch is that it reminds me of the dynamic, organic liveliness of the mystical Body of Christ, especially when I place it behind the crucifix, as you see it pictured here. For it makes me think of the cross itself as the Tree of Life of paradise. For Christ, the Blessed Man, shall be like a tree planted by the water-side, that will bring forth his fruit in due season. Many parishes also practice the blessing and imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The Wednesday after Quinquagesima, known as Feria Quarta Cinerum, or Dies Cinerum, the day of ashes, is named in this way because of the tradition of beginning the forty days of the Lenten fast with a very visible sign of our penitence. Ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. Now the part I rarely hear pastors explain is the connection between these ashes and the palms from Palm Sunday.

I would like to make a suggestion to any pastors who might see this, though it is surely too late to implement it this year. That is, when the people are given the blessed palms on Palm Sunday, and encouraged to make reverent use of them in their personal devotional life, it would be very fitting to also encourage them to bring those palm branches back to church on Fat Tuesday (this will be convenient if they come to the daily Mass), or as early as the Sunday of Quinquagesima. Then, when the pastor has gathered these now dry palm branches, he can reverently burn them, and from them make the ashes that he will use on Ash Wednesday.

Yes, the pastor can simply buy ashes from a church supply company. And I don't condemn those who do so. But making them at the church, out of the palm branches used in the parish during the previous year, can be a very meaningful custom for the people of the Church. First, blessed objects should never be simply tossed in the garbage. When they have served their purpose, or have become unusable, holy objects ought to be reverently disposed, preferably by being burned, or buried. A custom like what I am recommending would take care of this (the problem of how to reverently dispose of the blessed palms of the parish) in one convenient action. Second, it would tie the Church Year together more fully in the minds of the people. It would visibly connect for them the symbolism of the palm branches of Christ our King and the ashes of sin and mortality, which He took upon Himself for us.

A final note. As we get set to begin this Lenten season, dear friends, I hope you will have, and take, the opportunity to go to Mass often, to hear the Gospel, and be renewed, nourished, and refreshed in our pilgrimage through the wilderness of this life by the One Who is the Bread from heaven, and the Bread of Angels.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

George William Rutler on the Cure of Ars

Father George William Rutler is a priest I admire for his intellect, his wit, his uncompromising commitment to tradition in a world that desperately needs it, but also because he proves that a man can effectively minister to people in the real world of today despite his tendency to wear his cassock. He is parish priest at the Church of Our Savior on 38th Street & Park Avenue in New York. Like his friend the late Richard Jon Neuhaus, he knows that the real task of theology takes place at the altar, and in the confessional, and in the pulpit. Today's Roman Catholic seminaries, for the most part, are not exactly known for producing great preachers. Good preaching can be found, but it is rare. It is no surprise, then, that neither Rutler nor Neuhaus learned his preaching from Catholic seminaries. They are blessings to the modern Catholic Church from without.

Rutler, I hasten to add, is one of the finest writers in the Church today. If you are unafraid of reading writers of another communion, and with whom you will not agree in every instance, then please discover for yourself the writings of George Rutler, or if you know him and haven't read him in a while, take him up again. Aside from his humor, intricate knowledge of history, and fine writing style, he will also enrich your devotion to Christ in many of his writings.

One such writing is his book on Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, the nineteenth century priest who served for over forty years as pastor of the same rural French parish, Ars, outside of Lyons. I share the following brief section from this book (The Cure D'Ars Today: St. John Vianney: Ignatius Press) because it is typically Rutler, & also because it is a good example of how Rutler cannot help meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord even in the midst of a discourse on one of His saints.

"We are speaking of a real man with a real face. The insistence of the preacher persists in his case: for 'our hands have handled" him. Thousands saw him and spoke with him and watched what he did. I say it again; this was a real man with a real face. He told a fluttery visitor, 'The Queen of Sheba expected too little, but you, Madame, expected too much.' Some overestimate what he revealed; others underestimate what he concealed. Saints can look like anyone else. Perfection lies in symmetry and not in caricature. Saul was 'a head and shoulders taller than any of his fellow-countrymen'; he would have been fellow to no one had he been ten heads taller. Vianney was monumentally unspectacular that way. But he was not alone in this; freethinkers shrank from the long Jesuitical shadow of Saint Ignatius, who was a little under five feet two inches tall, about the height of Vianney. An ordinary appearance holds the most ponderous secrets; a hard face is the easiest to decipher and a soft face is the hardest to like, but the ordinary face is the confidential profile of all antecedents and homelands. Lincoln was told a beard would give him more character; Warren G. Harding had a nobler head. Eliot wrote better than Sitwell, but he looked like the bank clerk he was, while she looked like the cathedral she was not. And that is why great religious art is of necessity allegorical; a plaster statue cannot capture so free a thing as the freedom of a saint, and the best way icons represent the limitless dimensions of grace is by being totally flat. In the last analysis, only a most delicate grace may discern the barrier between banality and perfection. Banality in itself can be the very depth of imperfection: the more vindictive Henry VIII became, the more he resembled soft ice cream. A man who met both said Lenin describing his massacres looked mild, while Gladstone was positively fierce when served sherry in the wrong glass. Part of the dreadfulness in real tyrants is the way they make wickedness seem as ordinary as the saints make goodness. It is worse than legalizing a crime; it is more like legalizing everything. The mind must be acute beyond normal perception to detect in the pedestrian Saint of Ars a man walking the highest road.

"Holiness is not godlike, and so they say some men have entertained angels unaware. The nature of God requires something other than godlikeness of his creatures. God does not look like himself; as perfect Being, he is himself and is thus an analogous world's single incapacity for simile. He is the I AM and not the I AM LIKE. His own revelation conceals him; humans can fancy to see him in sunsets and stars, but when he reveals himself in human form humans do not recognize him. They become like Matthew Arnold, who wanted to replace theology with poetry and lost the point of both. Listeners arrayed on the Palestinian hills said no man ever spoke as Jesus spoke; none suggested no man ever looked as he looked. In the garden he was mistaken for a gardener, and on the Emmaus road he was treated as any other man passing by. The deepest mystery for man is not God as a perfect circle, of God as a golden triangle, but God with a human face. The Shroud of Turin, for instance, shows a scratched and swollen face, which is not what one expects of perfection. But than again is the clue; perfection cannot be like anything, because its perfection overwhelms analogy. As a saint, Vianney was not godlike: he was godly. To be godlike would mean that he lacked the capacity for God. The lesson was learned in Eden a hard way and is repeated in each human life. 'Ye shall be like gods' can only mean ye shall not be gods. The dark vow dragged our ancestors onto a creaking stage where the castles and countries were painted canvas and cardboard compared to God's lost acre.

"'The saints are like so many mirrors in which Christ contemplates himself.' The Cure's language was Pauline; the saints are able ' catch the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, with faces unveiled, and we have become transfigured into the same likeness, borrowing glory from that glory, as the Spirit of the Lord enables us.'"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Carolyn Claas, R.I.P.

Last night I dreamed of my friend Carolyn. It was a friendly, social situation, which included siblings & old friends, though I no longer remember the details. When I first woke from the dream, for a distinct moment I had not yet regained the awareness that she has left us. It was like the state between sleep and waking that Proust describes so well in Swann's Way.

I have wanted to say goodbye to Carolyn via this blog, but have been unsure how best to do so. Let me simply & briefly say something of who she was and is. Carolyn Claas was one of the PK (pastor's kid) friends of my childhood. Her father, Pastor Ronald Krug, was one of my childhood pastors, who today still, I think, serves Christ and His Church at St. Paul's in Oconomowoc. When we were young, Carolyn and her brother Alan were among our close friends. Eventually I went on to pursue certain hopeless ambitions, and the Krugs moved on too. Carolyn has always remained, however, in my thoughts and prayers. I have clear memories of her wedding. She was kind enough to include me on her Christmas letter list for years, and I was always glad to see her pop in at my sister's place once in a while when I happened to be there, even in recent years.

About a fortnight ago I heard of Carolyn's sudden death. She was found at home in her bed. Thirty six years old. And healthy, as far as I knew.

I thank God for the life Carolyn lived among us. And I pray for her parents, Pastor Ronald and Barbara Krug. I pray for her brother, Alan. I also pray for my sister, Bedull, who always remained close friends with Carolyn. Carolyn was even Baptismal sponsor for my niece, Alexandra. I pray also for David, who was once married to her, and for her coworkers and other family and friends.

I remember Carolyn as fun loving; more importantly, I remember her as loving. She was a friend and sister in Christ who loved loving and serving others.

God has His reasons for taking you, Carolyn. Our challenge is to accept it, and be grateful. The place you hold in our lives and in God's Church is stronger now than ever. You have gone before us, and have gained a reward that we are unable to even comprehend. I can only say, thank you, and farewell, dear friend.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

saints' days at Saint Stephen's

The increased Eucharistic practice at St. Stephen's in Milwaukee continues to be a great gift. On Monday, 2 Feb., we had Mass for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yesterday, 3 Feb., we had Mass for the Feast of Saint Blaise, the physician who became bishop and was martyred in 316. Tomorrow, 5 Feb., we will celebrate the Feast of Saint Agatha, the early church Virgin & Martyr, with the Holy Mass. And on Friday, 6 Feb., again I will hear Mass, this time in celebration of the Feast of Saint Titus.

Even in the course of busy weeks, I find that getting to Mass in the morning is an immeasurable blessing, rather than the burden that some fear it would be.