Monday, March 29, 2010

“Alleluia” “Praise God, You People”

At the beginning of Lent, we laid the word' alleluia' to rest. As Ash Wednesday unfolded, 'alleluia' was banished from our worship, our songs, our prayers not to return until the evening of Easter Saturday, banished for the more than forty days of Lent. Within some Christian traditions, this practice is referred to as “burying the alleluia” so as to unearth it from the tomb on Easter Sunday. This is not something new, not a recent liturgical fad. In fact, many can remember the days of Lent when not only was the 'alleluia' to disappear, but so too the statues, the crosses and the paintings in our churches, all covered with black drapes until Easter Sunday morning when all would be uncovered once again and the songs and choruses of alleluia would redound anew.

'Alleluia' is an odd word for us to have kept within our liturgy anyway. Although it has been used within our celebration of the liturgy from the very beginning, alleluia is not a Greek or Latin word, the languages of the early liturgy.   Like 'hosanna' and 'amen' it comes from the Hebrew scriptures. It is not even really a word but a phrase, a derivation of “Praise Yah, you people” with “Yah” representing the first two letters of YHWH, the personal name for God.  When one works even further back into the original Hebrew, the imperative “to praise” seems to have the sense of “to boast joyously in praise,” to seem to act foolishly and madly.  There’s a sense of spontaneity in uttering the phrase, almost in the way that it is used today in some evangelical congregations where members of the community punctuate the preaching of the sermon with 'amen' and 'alleluia.'  The early Christians seemed to have taken it as their own acclamation early on. We see it in the Book of Revelation, where St. John in chapter 19 has a vision of the heavenly host crying out over and over again 'alleluia!'  The early texts of the liturgy testify to its usage within the celebration of daily prayer and the Eucharist.  "Alleluia' seemed to capture the great rapture of faith and the promise of salvation at the heart of Christian praise and hope.  “Alleluia! God is great! God has done and continues to do wonderful things!”

But beginning around the seventh century, something interesting begins to happen.  As the custom of keeping a preparatory season for Easter develops – what we now call Lent- the 'alleluia' begins to disappear from usage during these forty days.  We don’t have any writings from this time as to why this happened only evidence that it did.  It probably happened as the season of Lent became less about preparing men and women for entrance into the Church at Easter and more of a season of penance and conversion.   Lent also came to focus heavily on the passion and suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ culminating with the celebration of Good Friday and the development of extraordinary representations of the Passion of our Lord within some cultures.  As a season of sorrow, penance, fasting, abstinence, and contrition, Lent just didn’t seem to contain a place for an 'alleluia.'

Down to today, we keep the tradition of “burying the alleluia” during the season of Lent right down to today.  There is a wonderful moment in the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday when the 'alleluia' makes its appearance once again, just before the proclamation of the Easter Gospel.  One year, I was in a church in England for the Vigil and the music people of the parish took this to a very creative and wonderful place.  After the proclamation from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we sat in silence as the doors of the church were opened to allow the damp chill air of the evening in.  Unexpectedly, off in the distance, we heard the notes of the Easter Alleluia being played on a trumpet.   After a brief pause, the notes sounded once again, this time much closer.  A final pause of thirty seconds or so, and this time, the Alleluia was right outside the door.   Inside the church, a cantor stepped in front of the door and began to sing Alleluia! Alleluia Alleluia! as she made her way down the main aisle towards the front of the sanctuary at which point the organ, the choir, the trumpet, and all of us were invited to lift up our voices in an Alleluia! of praise. The whole moment was magical, as if the Risen Christ had entered the church, having started from off in the distance and drawing closer and closer once again until he stood in our midst as he did with his disciples in the upper room so long ago and said, “Peace be with you.”

And so this Easter, the Alleluia which had been “buried” in Lent is unearthed from its tomb and we hear it sung anew.   Perhaps in its notes we hear the voice of the Risen Christ drawing near to us speaking words of hope and renewal, calling us out of the tomb of worry, of stress, of sin, of life’s burdens:

“Rise, let us leave this place…. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity. [from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Of Images and Imagination

I remember a “Peanuts” cartoon from a long time ago in which Charlie Brown, Linus, and Schroeder are lying on the side of a hill looking up into the sky at clouds. It went something like this. Linus starts off by saying, “Those clouds over there look just like John Trumbull’s painting of the Declaration of Independence 1776 with Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison all front and center.” Schroeder says, “I can see the notes of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Eroica in those clouds over there. Pause. Then Linus asks, “What do you see, Charlie Brown?” “Well,” Charlie Brown replies, “I was going to say I saw a cloud that looked like butterfly over there but it seems somewhat insignificant now.” With a little imagination and time, one can often see many things in the natural patterns of the world around us: clouds that look like animals or plants or people or even ‘historic’ paintings, patterns in the sand on a beach that look like particular countries or rivers or images, the whorls on wood or lumber that resemble something else. With all the millions and patterns around us, it’s no wonder that every once in a while something that occurs naturally by chance is going to look like something else.

A few years ago when I was the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston, a story broke in the media concerning the appearance of an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a window at a hospital in Milton, MA. At some point, someone had looked up at a third floor window on the side of the hospital and seen the image. They mentioned it to someone else who mentioned it to someone else and eventually it became a news story. Suddenly, hundreds of people were flocking to look at the window, a makeshift shrine was set up at the base of the wall, people were praying the rosary and everyone had an opinion on what the image was or wasn’t. Archbishop Sean wisely directed me to say that we had no comment on the image or say in the matter. Eventually, though, we were asked for some help and guidance from the hospital administration as to what to do. So early one morning before anyone else was there, myself and a few other ‘experts’ drove over to Milton Hospital meet with a representative of the hospital and see the window. We all agreed that the image really did look like a somewhat out of focus image of the Blessed Mother, which one we weren’t sure. It was kind of a cross between Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe but it was fairly distinct whatever. I asked the hospital representative if anyone had looked at the window from the inside or outside to see what may be going on. He said that it was pretty clear that a crack had developed at the top of the window frame and that moisture on the surrounding cement sill had percolated between the double panes and then condensed with some sediment from the cement. He pointed out a few other windows on the building where the same had happened, although none looked like the BVM or anything else. So, clearly there was a natural explanation for what had happened – a leak in the window frame that by happenstance formed the image, nothing miraculous. At the end of the day, the image of Mary on the hospital window was not a miracle, just an incident of nature. Today, the window is still there with the image of Mary visited by a few now and then and considered more a curiosity than anything else.

A few months ago there were a number of news stories about a woman in Methuen, MA who saw an image of Jesus on the scorched bottom of her iron. If you look at pictures of the iron, it kind of looks like Jesus, but if you want to push it, it kind of looks like other things as well. Like gazing at clouds, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. The woman who owns the iron seems to have things in good perspective. She showed it to others because she thought they “might want to see an image that surprised and cheered her.” She makes no miraculous claims, has no intention of putting it on display and doesn’t plan on selling it on Ebay. The image made her smile. I can remember standing in the parking lot at Milton Hospital and looking at the image of Mary in the window and smiling too at nature and God’s whimsy. God has given us the gift of human imagination which allows us to perceive his hand in many things, both by happenstance and by human design. It is also allows us to be surprised and even cheered when we find those images in the strangest of places and things.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Thou shall ... Thou shall not ..."

The gym I belong to has signs throughout the place politely and clearly reminding us what to do and what not to do: Do not drop the weights. Please wipe down apparatus when finished. No chalk allowed. Please return weights to the rack when finished. No more than 30 minutes at a time on aerobic equipment. Please leave bags and coats in lockers. No outside shoes permitted in sauna. No spandex (I threw this one in; there really isn’t a sign saying “no spandex” but there ought to be!). All these rules help keep the place neat, safe, and well ordered. No one that I know, including myself, seems to mind these rules. They make sense because they are “common sense” and from time to time we all need polite reminders, even the common-sense ones.

So I was thinking if the gym posts clear and polite rules, perhaps we should do it inside the church. We need signs. We need rules. We need regulations as polite and clear reminders for good order even inside our parish Church building. But then I realized I hung a number of icons and there really wasn’t room left on the walls for these needed signs. The alternative then is to put them here in the weekly bulletin. In keeping with our biblical heritage, these rules will be in the form of “thou shall” and “thou shall not.”

1. Thou shall always make an effort to say “hello” and to welcome everyone. Everyone includes Yankees, Jets, Canadians or Lakers fans as well as your mean third-grade teacher from years ago now retired and sitting alongside you at Mass.

2. Thou shall make every effort to get to Mass on time. Now I know there are times when people are late for a good reason. Life has a way of surprising us occasionally with the unexpected that causes us to be late. But there are some of us who habitually come late to Church. Arriving late not only disrupts Mass and those in the immediate area, but it also makes it hard for the latecomer to worship and to pray because of the ‘run-in, run-out’ mentality. Would it really hurt to give God an extra few minutes of worship and arrive earlier?

3. Thou shall not read the parish bulletin during any part of the Mass (including the Homily!) nor use the bulletin to make paper airplanes, origami or confetti while inside the church. After Mass you can use it to wrap fish, line the birdcage or any other creative use. However, please read the bulletin before using it for these tasks.

4. Thou shall never “shhhh,” or glare at parents with noisy children. Now for the flip side –

5. When children are getting out-of-hand noise-wise, thou shall take noisy children out to the lobby or outside until they calm down. Many parents already practice this and I thank you very much.

6. Thou shall not put a single dollar bill in the collection basket. Now I know there are some who give their children a dollar and some coins to put in the basket along with their envelope. Thank you. But apart from that practice and that of the widow’s mite – really, putting a single dollar bill in the basket? Let me ask you, how long has this been going on? Years? Friends – a dollar doesn’t buy what it did in 1980, 1990, 2000, or even 2009. Things cost more for all of us. Could you consider increasing your generosity, even slightly? (Okay, I probably just annoyed a few readers at this point – any time you talk money, you get in trouble with some people no matter how valid the point.)

7. If you or your children have to go to the bathroom, thou shall wait until an appropriate break in the liturgy to move. There are times during Mass that offer a natural break to move: after the opening prayer, during the collection, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer. It is distracting when someone gets up in the middle of when I’m, say, preaching ... especially when the culprit is my mother. “Hey, Mom! Show a little respect up here, will ya!

8. Thou shall not leave Mass while still chewing the Host (in other words, can you stay until the end? What is so important that you must leave early? Does the Lord run-out on you?)

9. Thou shall not snore during the homily.

10. If people are snoring, thou shall wake them up.

11. Except if it’s children.

12. Thou shall sing at Mass, except if you’re my brother. He couldn’t carry a tune if it was in a briefcase. On second thought, it might not be a bad idea to let him sing. Everyone around him would hear and sing louder, hopefully drowning him out.

13. Unless you’re a doctor, nurse, EMT, police officer, firefighter, first-responder or someone on-call, thou shall turn off pagers, blackberries, iPhones, cell phones, laptops, iPods, mp4 players, game boys, and any other electronic device before Mass. We have many elderly with pacemakers in our congregation. It is good to minimize electronic interference for the sake of their hearts!
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