Mary wants to help!

This weekend, I attended Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. While there, I explored some of the crypt Church (I could spend a week, easily!) It is amazing to see all the various miraculous appearences and answered prayers by the Blessed Virgin, all over the world--India, Croatia, the Philipines, and on and on. Sometimes, the person she appears to isn't even Catholic.

The Blessed Mother is so eager to bestow on us the blessings of her Son, not only spiritual blessings, but temporal ones, as well! She is a Mother who is overflowing with a desire to give her children everything she has to offer, if only they would ask!

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen!

Jesus' Third Temptation: Obvious, but then again maybe not

The third temptation of Jesus in the desert is, on one level, the easiest to understand and, on another level, the most difficult.

Satan offers all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, and all Jesus has to do is bow down and worship Satan. Of the three temptations in the desert, this is probably the only one where it's clear why the act being suggested would actually be wrong for Jesus. After all, there's nothing inherently sinful in turning rocks into bread, or even in flying from a parapet when you know you can fly. But worshiping Satan...now there's a sin.

At the same time, I often think that the obvious nature of the sinfulness in what's proposed to Jesus sometimes hides the real temptation. What was being offered was all the kingdoms of the world. Even if Satan's initial purpose in tempting Jesus was to determine Who Jesus was, by the time he got around to the third temptation, Satan almost surely had come to know that Jesus is the Son of God. Satan had to know that Jesus, as the One through Whom all things were created, would have no reason to desire the wealth of worldly kingdoms. He already had true dominion over the entire universe.

What Satan was offering, when he said he would hand over all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, is to withdraw his attempts to turn the world from God. Satan was saying, "Look, all you have to do is bow down and worship me, and I'm outta here. I won't try to turn anybody else against the Father, I won't try to sow suffering and selfishness, I won't even try to nudge nature to cause tragic disasters. You'll have the world back to yourself, and all the evil that I would have otherwise inspired will be averted." That's the nature of the third temptation of Christ: The temptation to believe that you can accomplish good by doing what is objectively evil.

Today, this contunies to be one of the most significant temptations among those with good intentions. It's difficult to trust God's justice in all situations of life, especially when so many of those situations involve what are clear and obvious manifestations of injustice. We so often want to balance the scales ourselves. Sometimes, it's not even a matter of injustice. How often will we tell a lie to gain some advantage?

But what about other situations? Many people, when talking about lying, like to point to the example of hiding Jews from the Nazis. The obvious implication is "Well, of course it's OK to lie in that situation!" I'm not going to argue whether it is or isn't OK. However, I am going to point out that this is exactly the same situation Jesus was in during the third temptation. Jesus knew all the evil that Satan was going to inspire throughout history. JesusĀ knew about the holocaust; He knew about the political murders of over ten million people in the Soviet Union under Stalin; He knew about all the abortions that would be performed in China as a result of their one-child policy. And that's just the 20th century.

But Jesus also completely trusted the Father. Whatever would come of not doing something wrong, Jesus knew that the Father still held dominion--still had everything, for all of time, under His Own providence. Jesus knew that victory was with God alone, and that no true victory could come from violating God's law.

To take up again the case of lying about the Jews hidden in your attic or basement--and I'm not trying to make a case against hiding Jews, or even lying about it--but just think: If someone who believed that lying is always wrong were hiding Jews, what then? When the Nazi magistrate comes knocking and interrogates him, that person is being called to trust God. But he's not being called to trust that God will keep him or the Jews alive if he refuses to lie. He's being called to trust that God's plan for justice transcends saving his own neck. He's being called to trust that the witness he's bearing--the witness to justice by hiding the Jews and the witness to truth by refusing to lie and the witness to solidarity by putting himself between the Nazis and the Jews--is ultimately serving God's plan and is fully accounted for in God's Providence.

This is the third temptation of Christ in the desert: The temptation to withold His full trust in God's plan and in God's Providence. But this can help us beyond the temptation to commit both minor and major acts contrary to the will of God: If we had the trust in God that Jesus had in the Father, our hearts would be serene, even amid the most dire and tragic of circumstances.

First Holy Communion - Overjoyed and Disappointed

My granddaughter and grandson both received their First Holy Communions this weekend. I'm overjoyed at this! In truth, this is such a joyful occassion that I went back and forth with myself for a while about whether to even post something about my disappointments with how my granddaughter's First Communion Mass was executed. However, I decided that the joy of the occassion is what made the disappointment so accute. So, here goes:

Because one of my first communicant grandchildren lives in Indiana and the other lives in North Carolina, I was only able to attend one. I attended my granddaughter's FHC Mass at Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

It was a disappointing study in irony.

The church is one of those round churches that became so faddish in the 70's--the kind with a semi-circular plan that looks more suited to a concert hall than a church. The tabernacle, as is sadly common in modern church designs, is off to the side, completely outside of the sanctuary. This isn't part of my disappointment, but I wanted to give an idea of the layout of the church, to set the stage for the Mass.

You would expect the first communicants to process up during the entrance procession. This didn't quite happen. They had each child, one at a time, process forward, bow before the altar, and then walk off to join his or her family, who were sitting in the pews. This happened for all the first communicants. Then we all stood for the entrance procession. But here's the irony, an irony that could come up again: On the day when these children would be receiving the Lord in His full Presence for the first time, they were made to march up to the altar and bow rather than being allowed to genuflect to Jesus in the tabernacle. They got to show veneration to a symbol of Jesus, while completely ignoring the real Jesus that was right in front (well, a little to the side) of them!

This irony was repeated a number of times throughout the Mass. Various children were involved in the different parts of the Liturgy of the Word (readings, petitions, etc.), as you would expect. Each one approached the front of the semi-circular stair to the sanctuary, bowed to the altar, walked around the stairs to the left side, to right where the tabernacle is, then ignored the tabernacle while they walked up into the podium in the sanctuary.

During the Eucharistic Prayer, the first communicants were all assembled in the sanctuary, behind the altar with the priest and servers, where they stood for the entire Eucharistic Prayer. This is, perhaps, the most disappointing irony: That on the very day when these children would be first allowed to fully participate in the Eucharistic Feast by receiving the Real Presence of Our Lord, they were denied the privilege of kneeling before the altar at the very moment when that Presence was made a reality! That these children's entry into this Communion with Jesus is such an awesome occassion for joy only amplifies the disappointment I feel in how poorly their awareness of Who they were receiving was channeled during the Mass.

What we "see" at Mass

Some people seem to prefer Mass to be said with the priest in the versus populum attitude, rather than ad orientem. One of the things that sometimes comes up in discussions of this is that people like to see what's going on. To be sure, there is a visual component to Catholic worship, which is important. Even though the realities reflected and achieved through Catholic worship are invisible (at least, to our natural senses), Catholic worship is nonetheless very rooted in the physical world.

However, it's important to see the right thing when we see "what's going on" at Mass, or any other Catholic rite of worship. During the Mass, there are two very good reasons for the priest to be on the same side of the altar as the rest of the congregation. Actually, they are the same reason, but at two different levels. One reason is the ministry of the priest, which is to act as one of the congregation, but on behalf of the entire congregation. The other is the priest's role as an alter Christus, another Christ, Who pleads before the Father on our behalf.

During the Mass, there is a hierarchy of ministry. We, the congregants are supposed to make ourselves active participants in the Mass; however, this active participation is, first and foremost, the action of uniting ourselves attentively with the intentions of the priest. The role of the congregation is, through the ministry of the priest, to be united with the Sacrifice of the Cross and the Mystery of the Resurrection, which are made present at every Mass. The priest's commission is to act on our behalf in approaching the Altar of God. This Altar is eternal and mystical, but is made manifest during Mass in the physical altar at which Mass is offered. Acting on our behalf, the priest approaches that Altar to join us to Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross. Because the priest is one chosen from among us ("chosen" by virtue of his ordination) to act on our behalf, it is visually more appropriate that he is on the same side of the altar as we are. On the other side of the altar, of course, is God the Father.

This visual imagery at the altar is even more important when we consider the priest's role as an alter Christus. Christ Himself became one of us in order to offer an immolation of Himself to the Father on our behalf. By taking our nature, He puts Himself on "our" side of the altar, as it were. This is, perhaps, the most important aspect of the visual quality of the Mass: We are not supposed to see the priest; we are supposed to see Christ offering Himself to the Father for us. This is one reason for the vestments of the priest: They hide the man and bring out the ministry. When the priest is offering Mass, he is not doing so as "Father Tom" or "Father Bob" or Father Cotter" or "Father Gerald." He's offering Mass as Christ, and that's what we need to see.

The loss of sensory cues to this mystical, transcendent nature of the Mass may well be the most significant contributor to the drop in Catholic attendance at Mass over the past decades. If the Mass is just something I do--even if it's something I, along with the other people in my "faith community" do--then there's really nothing all that special about it. But when I realize that the Mass is not something we the congregation do, but something we participate in through the ministry of the priest; and it's not something done by this particular priest, but something done the universal Church; and it's not something done by the Church as a collection of individuals who want to come together to worship, but something done by the Mystical Body of Christ--in other words, only when I realize that the Mass is principally an Act of God rather than an act of man--does the Mass begin to have the attraction of something that I deeply need. Only then can I begin to grasp that the value of the Mass is far beyond anything I could comprehend intellectually. Only then do I start to develop that appetite for the Mass, not as a community activity (although it is communal), but as a priceless and intimate encounter with the Almighty.

Humility and the Second Temptation

In the second temptation, Satan challenges Jesus' position as the Son of God by throwing down a dare: Hey, if you're really the Son, then God will preserve you even if you throw yourself from this parapet. Satan even has a scriptural quote at the ready to bolster his temptation. By throwing Himself down and letting the Father (or His angels) preserve Jesus from harm, Jesus would be demonstrating His Own right to the title "Son of God." As with the first temptation, one might wonder "What would be wrong with that?"

Jesus' response to Satan's dare can be taken a couple of different ways. He quotes Scripture (as He does in response to all three temptations), saying "You shall not tempt the Lord your God." Some translations say "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." One way to read this is that Jesus is fortifying Himself against the temptation to test the Father's intention to preserve Him for His mission--or at least telling Satan why He (Jesus) shouldn't do what Satan is suggesting. Another way to interpret it is that Jesus is scolding Satan for presuming to put the Father to a test, or even for presuming to put Jesus Himself to a test. Perhaps Jesus is doing a little bit of both, but the second reading seems more apropos. Jesus, as a man, is well aware of His Own relationship with the Father. He would not be tempted to doubt the Father's care for Him or His will to preserve Him from harm. This temptation is less about Jesus putting the Father to the test and more about Jesus' temptation to turn from His mission of submission. Satan is tempting Jesus to make it all about Himself rather than about the Father.

This temptation will recur several times leading up to and during Jesus' passion. During His public ministry, Jesus would perform numerous signs to show that He was sent by the Father. These signs don't completely reveal Jesus' glory, but rather point to the truth that His comission is truly from On High. However, after the Last Supper, this would all be hidden until the Resurrection. In the garden, Jesus, even while knowing what is to come, prays to the Father "Your will be done, not mine." When the guards from the Temple come to arrest Jesus, He says to Peter "Do you not think I could call on my Father, and that He would not hesitate to send twelve legions of angels?" During His trial, Jesus gives no answers, except those that would lead inexorably to His crucifixion.

The real test for Jesus, however, comes when He is on the cross. Here, people begin taunting Him with the same dare that Satan gave in the second temptation: "If you're really the Son of God, come down from that cross and we'll believe in you!" Even the criminals who were crucified with Him taunt Him. In this, the Crucifixion, more than any other part of Jesus' mission, is reflected in the second temptation.

It is said that if we would truly love Jesus, then we need to love the Cross. Part of this is exercising a holy resistance to the temptation to glorify ourselves in front of others. Jesus even warns us to hide our good works so that only the Father, Who sees all things, would see them. This contentment to always show an example of love for neighbor--a love of complete self-sacrifice--while not seeking accolades for it, and even shirking recognition for it, is what the second temptation is about for us. To do this with confidence, we need to have complete trust in the Father's plan, the Father's love for us, and the ultimate justice and rightness of the Father's will. This is what gave Jesus the strength to carry His cross and what allows us to take up ours and follow Him.