Summary: Our innate destiny is union with God, and it is celebrated and effected in Eucharist, during which we bless each other many times.

5th Sunday of Lent 2011

The Spirit of the Liturgy

The great Christian author, C.S. Lewis, wrote an appendix to his masterful little book Screwtape Letters. In his moral tale, Screwtape is the name given to a kind of middle-management demon, who is responsible for training and supervising the evil spirits who tempt humans to turn their backs on God. The appendix is an essay called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” and it takes its theme from a verse from Peter’s first letter. There, Peter tells Christians that our adversary, the devil, goes about the world like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. C.S. Lewis expands on that theme, telling us that hell is like a diabolical banquet, in which human souls are the fare. The demons complain about the quality of their supper, the mediocrity of the sinners on whom they dine, but at least have no gripe about the quantity. As Screwtape lifts his glass to propose a toast to the author of evil, he asks in surprise, “what is this delicious bouquet I inhale?” It is a vintage Pharisee. He says “different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden and fermented together to produce its . . .flavour. Types that were most antagonistic to one another on Earth. . .Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.”

We have been warned. Our innate destiny–what we were made for–is union with God. We are designed to be divinized at the end of our life. But that destiny is warranted, not guaranteed. Our ancestors tried the Tempter’s shortcut. He lied to them–if only they would disobey the Creator’s command, they would be like God, knowing good and evil. They disobeyed, and immediately realized that they had already known the Good–the Good God–and their reward for rebellion would be to know evil. So God, in His mercy, cast them out of the idyllic world into the world of weakness and struggle and death. He put a fearsome angel on the way to the Tree of Life, lest we eat from that tree in our weakness and know eternal misery.

There is only one way to the resurrection of our spirit, soul and body, and that is to become like Jesus Christ. He is the way, the Truth, the Life. He is true God, and if we are to become like God, we must become like Him, obedient, merciful, open to all who desire God’s mercy. The very opposite of the Pharisee. We are compassionate because Christ has been compassionate with us. My weakness is not solely due to original sin and its effects. After baptism I have sinned, by my own volition I have sinned greatly. In fact, without the grace of God that’s the only thing we are really good at, isn’t it? That’s why in the new translation I will beat my breast and declare that I have sinned, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. But by His grace I have been raised from the death of sin, liberated from slavery to sin, forgiven and healed and strengthened to resist the temptations of the enemy. In that way we can all hope to attain the resurrection which is an eternal banquet of love in the presence of the Trinity and all the angels and saints.

However, the eternal banquet is not some feel-good dream in the sweet bye and bye. Our sharing in the eternal banquet began at our first communion. The banquet continues in the nitty-gritty now and now, today, as we hear the word of God, inspired by the Spirit of God that raised Jesus from the dead and is at work in us to give us life. The banquet is specially present in the Bread of Life and the Cup of salvation that we share. That cup is called our “Blessing Cup,” and it is the cup that Psalm 23 foreshadows–the cup overflowing with the love of God. That is the greatest blessing–Jesus, who is the gift of the Father, the gift of love.

Our Mass is filled with blessings, from the beginning to the end, because our Mass is the enduring gift of love from the Father. The new translations will help us better appreciate the gift of God, the blessings He gives us in the Church. If we are attentive, and recognize that all of us are called to exercise a kind of priestly ministry in the Church, we will be less likely to be like Pharisees and end up in the vintage tasted by the devil.

The Latin Dominus vobiscum is properly translated “The Lord be with you.” This is a prayer, a blessing, and a very ancient one rooted in our Hebrew past. It is a prayer offered to God by a bishop, priest or deacon on behalf. It is a supplication that God be near you. God will be near you in every Mass, even more so than in our secular life, because He is present through Word and Sacrament.

But next Advent you, a priestly people, will more clearly exercise your priestly function. Instead of the clumsy and redundant “and also with you” of the 1970 translation, you will pray, “and with your spirit.” This, too, is an ancient prayer, sprung from our Hebrew roots. You are praying that the same presence of God that rests on you will be active in the lives of the clergy. Frankly, I think one of the reasons scandal has tainted priests during the past half century is that we haven’t been adequately exercising our responsibility to pray for them. I accuse myself of that fault. Let’s do better.

At the beginning of Mass, the priest may also bless us with the prayer “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” This emphasizes one of the graces that should flow from every Mass. The Holy Spirit should bring us together in good works and evangelical outreach to a world that desperately needs Christ–our unity, our communion, should attract others to Christ and His Church.

Just before the Gospel, the deacon asks the priest for a blessing, and the priest responds: “May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips that you may proclaim his Gospel worthily and well, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That is followed immediately by the deacon’s blessing of you, and your blessing of the deacon. The implication is that the deacon will proclaim to the best of his ability, and that the congregation will listen with open hearts.

The final blessings of Mass have not been changed. One of the true gems of the Mass of Paul VI is the addition of the triple blessings for special feasts, and the final blessing during Lent and Advent. But please recall that the priest’s blessing of the congregation begins with the same blessing dialogue that began the Mass–The Lord be with you, followed by your priestly blessing, and with your spirit.

The banquet of life, then, which we foreshadow and make real in time here, gives the lie to the devil’s feast. There, selfishness reigns and rebellion is toasted. Here, we eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation looking to advance the growth of Christ, and become perfected in service to the world and growth in the Holy Spirit.