Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Father's Joy

I went to Mass this morning, as is my custom now. A year ago, you couldn't pay me to sit in a church. It just seemed like there was nothing there for me & nothing for me to do. I was merely a spectator. But I so enjoy being a Catholic. The Mass obligation is no longer such once I step into the sanctuary. I would be lying if I said I didn't have thoughts of not going simply because I didn't want to face the world. But Mass kind of forces me to do just that, in a gentle way of course. Its also Catholic belief that skipping Sunday Mass is a mortal sin, for which I would have to go to confession before being able to partake of the Eucharist again. I don't know if I honestly hold to that same belief with my whole heart, but I'll consent to "fulfill my Sunday obligation" out of respect for the authority of the Church.

Today was one of those days. I all but barreled into the sanctuary (spiritually speaking) & as I knelt down, my thoughts were fully engaged & racing. I really had to focus to quiet my body & mind, to push out the activity & conversations around me. All became invisible for a moment & it was just me & God. When I finished praying, I opened my eyes- "in the zone"- ready for Mass. What a blessing it is to be able to come in & assume a position of reverent prayer. I don't have to worry what people will think because others are doing it too. If someone did that in my former faith tradition, they might be called a radical, obsessive or holier than thou.

As we were listening to the readings, I happened to be scanning the congregation. My eyes fell upon a man & his daughter a few rows ahead of me. She was about 7 or 8 & appeared to be reading or drawing or something. Her father, seated to her left, was sitting there watching her with a smile. He reached over & started stroking her hair. I expected her to flinch or look up at him or pull away, but she didn't move a muscle. This was normal to her. Dad must do this all the time. As I was watching, I began to tear up because I felt in my heart that this is how God the Father sees us. This is how He experiences us. There was joy in that father's face... tenderness in his touch. How often have I flinched or pulled away or looked up at God to say "What do You think You're doing?!"

Sometimes God's love startles me, much like it does in the Eucharist. I partake of the Body & tremble with the Blood in my hands. I return to my pew in a kind of shock, as if I'd just been saved from certain death. Its that kind of feeling- something close to the adrenaline rush one gets when nearly missing a wreck or other catastrophe. But I HAVE been wrecked. I HAVE encountered a catastrophe. God's love wrecks me. Its a catastrophe I can't resist. I'm reduced to rubble & He is there with me. My thoughts returned to the father & his child... How God must feel toward us when we're in His presence! Whether we just sit with His love or are "wrecked" by it, He doesn't flinch. He stays & holds us together. He stays & builds us up.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Yes & Amen

I've been an official Roman Catholic for 3 weeks now. I'm still filled with immeasurable joy. I've partaken of the Eucharist 4 times & it continues to be a source of wonder for me. What does that dry little wafer & that wine DO? Or is it the moving out of my seat & stepping into the slow flood of people that effects change? Is it bowing to Jesus & rising up to meet the eyes of the priest or extraordinary minister as they proclaim "Body of Christ" or "Blood of Christ" respectively? I can't be silent... I speak the "Amen" half wanting to shout & half wanting to cry. I partake with heart racing & insides trembling. Maybe its just anxiety. Maybe its nothing. I cross myself & make the long journey back to my seat. I flip the kneeler over & sink down into my own little world for a bit. I don't actually pray- I can't- I'm so overwhelmed. I close my eyes & think, "I've just partaken of the Eucharist- Jesus' own Body & Blood. What does that even mean?!". Head in my hands, I am quiet & listen to the rhythmic "Body of Christ", "Blood of Christ" as the remainder of the congregation files past me.

The Eucharist is all these things- from stepping into the slow flood of people to looking into the blazing eyes of the ministers as they hand me the wafer & the cup. It is the Body & the Blood, the racing heart, the trembling, the desire to shout & cry all at the same time. And after I partake, I carry The Presence with me on the long journey back to the safety of my pew. The Eucharist means Thanksgiving. And why am I thankful?! Because its Jesus' promise of "Yes" to me, to which I respond "Amen"! It is what joins me with the Church, the communion of saints & life everlasting. What a privilege.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Stolen Property

For the third temptation, Satan gets bold & entreats Jesus to bow down & worship him in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world. I think this one really pissed Him off. I can imagine Him saying "Away from Me Satan!" with a roiling, thunderous shout. He tells the devil to "Worship the Lord your God & serve Him only", so Satan takes off & some angels attend to Jesus.

What on earth made the devil think Jesus would bow down to him? We may never know. It seems ridiculous to even consider. But if Jesus is setting an example for us in besting these temptations, what might we learn from this one?

In the first temptation, He could have taken control of the situation & set up a smorgasbord in the desert. But His bread (drawing from another scripture here) was to do the will of the Father. That meant denying Himself & taking up the proverbial cross of hunger & thirst. Can we deny ourselves & take up a cross of hunger & thirst for the things of God?

In the second temptation, He could have thrown Himself down from the highest point of the temple. Hundreds of people would have seen God's angels save Him from certain death. Imagine how effective His ministry would be from the get go! He'd be a celebrity! But Jesus wasn't about to test God on matters of death or fame. Life is a gift to be revered & all glory is God's. Jesus wasn't going to take that for granted.

And now, He's offered all the kingdoms of the world for the simple act of bowing down to the devil. Its been speculated that Satan offered Him what wasn't even his to give. Perhaps he had stolen these kingdoms from those who did bow. In the same way, the world promises us life, success, abundance... but these things aren't the world's to give. If we bow to the world, we lower our shoulders to be saddled with a heavy yoke to bear. Only Jesus can give us abundant life & success in our endeavors. His burden is easy & His yoke is light. Even if Satan did own all the kingdoms of the world, none of that could even begin to compare to what awaits in heaven... Jesus knew this. Do we?

Promises, Promises

At the second temptation, the devil tells Jesus to throw Himself down from the highest point in the city. Everyone will see God magnified in this act! Think of the possibilities! He reminds Jesus He can essentially do whatever He wants because He'll be saved no matter what... But Jesus replies that no one should test the Lord. How many people test the Lord by believing they can take a flying leap into the ether, hit rock bottom, forsake the heart of their faith & still be assured eternal salvation? Jesus saves for good, no matter what! To God be the glory! (I'm being sarcastic here.) Even Jesus wasn't willing to test God in such a way.

Catholicism doesn't promise me salvation based on who I am (a child of God), what I confess with my mouth or even what I believe in my heart. It doesn't actually "promise" me anything. Instead, it extends the grace of Jesus' exhortation to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind & strength & to love my neighbor as myself. Like Paul, the church encourages me to work out my salvation with fear & trembling. Like Peter, the church reminds me that I am part of a royal priesthood, a chosen people, a holy nation & I should live my life as such. In all these instances, I am called to love, to work, to serve & to live up to the standards to which Christ has called each of His followers. Catholicism does not promise salvation, but makes it available, accessible. Through the sacraments, through the Mass, through the Word, worship & prayer, salvation can be found when lived out within the community- Christ's own Body- the church. There is no other Name by which we can be saved. Jesus has done His part & I must do mine. I must put His gift of salvation to use or its no good to me. It would seem the ultimate success of Christ's mission is up to us in the end...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Stones To Bread

We all know the devil is a master of deception. No where in the Bible did anyone turn stones into bread. However, in Matthew 3:9, just before the temptation, Jesus was talking to the Jews & telling them how God could raise up a people for Himself from the stones... The devil later incites Him to turn stones to bread, no doubt "improvising" on Jesus' own words. He had been fasting in the desert for 40 days & nights by this point & could have made bread out of thin air if He wanted. Instead, He replied "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God".

I got to thinking how Satan twists words... Some Protestant movements teach you can have whatever you want if you just believe, from healing to money, to fame. Jesus DID say "I will do whatever you ask in My name" (John 14:13)... however, there seems to be a catch. The end of that verse implies that what we ask needs to bring glory to God. If it doesn't, our request is irrelevant. What would bring Him greater glory- a miraculous healing or a courageous faith-filled survival story? It all depends on God's will. Perhaps suffering will lead more souls to salvation. Afterall, it was His will that Jesus be in the desert for 40 days & nights. Man doesn't live only by what He gets from God's hand for his physical life, but also by what comes from within God for the life of man's spirit... Not only bread, but the Breath, the Voice, the Word.

Catholicism rings true for me because its not a free-for-all like most forms of Protestantism seem to be. Whatever "rules" we have are actually based on our respect for God, not on selfish desires for control. How would turning stones into bread be selfish? It would have been a matter of survival, right? But Jesus knew He had been led into the desert for a reason. It certainly wasn't to succumb to starvation or wild beasts, so He trusted His Father's Word, glorifying Him by His restraint.

Culty

My best friend informed me the other day that my sudden immersion into the church feels kind of "culty". I guess my life has been turned upside down & its beginning to show. Where I used to talk about work or school all the time, now I talk about church & my "new" beliefs. I talk about the conversations I've been having with new people. I talk about doing activities outside of church or getting involved in ministry with folks within the church. I'm known in the community because of RCIA & other functions I've attended. I'm starting to do things I've never done before & I suppose that can be a little unnerving.

I had friends at my old church & was involved in ministry there on & off, but it wasn't like this. I can't seem to find the right words to explain the difference between the two. Its like life & death. There was something missing for me on the Protestant side... a connection I find I now share with my fellow Catholics. I have an indescribable joy that I didn't have as a Protestant. Oh, how I tried! I never liked church much as a Protestant, but I actually get excited about Mass. By the end, I feel like shouting from the rooftops. I want to be a Christian when I leave. As a Protestant, I would drop in from time to time on a whim... I never seemed to get much out of being there. Sometimes it felt like being a Christian was merely symbolic, just like everything else.

Another concern my friend has is that I'm following blindly... How can I logically believe such & such? I get grilled often. What I DO know with certainty is that Jesus comes alive to me in the Catholic church, as does my faith. When I rub up against others with the same experience, sparks begin to fly. Is that "culty"? Or is it Christianity?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Confirmation Is Conformation

Tonight was RCIA, our first official "meeting" as neophytes. We will be called as such for the next year. It simply means we are new Catholics.

This evening we gathered in the church to partake of a special Mass just for us. Father talked about the chrism oil (olive oil & balsam) & had the director pass the flask so we could smell it. It was the oil we were anointed with at confirmation. He wanted us to remember what happened at the Easter Vigil... that it was real. For the rest of our lives, every time we smell this oil, we will be reminded of our confirmation. And that's intentional. He said the Catholic faith is very sensual in that all the senses are engaged- sight, sound, smell, taste & touch- encompassing the fullness of our humanity. That's definitely true. Maybe that's why I feel so alive as a Catholic... all my senses are drawn up together & handed to God in the Mass.

Afterwards, he invited us up to the altar. We stood around him as he went through his prayers & consecrated the bread & wine. He said he wanted to give us a closer look at what he does up there. I forgot parts of the responses we usually say, but stumbled through it (now I know why priests always read their lines from the missal!). After he had consecrated the elements, we partook together. I couldn't tell whether I wanted to laugh or cry. I felt overwhelmed inside. It was my third Eucharist.

When the Mass was ended, we went back to the meeting room & talked about what it meant to be confirmed. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we were confirmed as a royal priesthood, a chosen people, a holy nation. We are called to be servants, spreading the good news of Christ with the gifts God has given us. "So the laity, like the ordained, share in the priestly or prayerful, prophetic or teaching & royal or servant office of Christ." (From the Decree On the Apostolate of the Laity)

Wow.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Doubting Thomas

The Gospel for yesterday took us to the moment where Thomas placed his hands in Jesus' wounds. Father gave a corresponding homily about our perceptions v.s. reality. Thomas couldn't believe- wouldn't believe- that Jesus had risen from the dead. Even though so many people had already seen Jesus, it seemed impossible that they could be telling the truth. Thomas believed what he wanted to, but when Jesus suddenly appeared in his presence, Thomas had no choice but to abandon his point of view. He had been wrong.

I recently hurt a friend of mine because I too was a doubting Thomas. She told me she was offended by something I did & I thought it was ridiculous... impossible! Of course she was just being over-emotional & I was the rational one. It wasn't until we sat down & talked face to face that I realized I had done a great disservice to our friendship.

Thomas couldn't believe Jesus was alive till he stood face to face with Him. He had convinced himself that everyone else was crazy & he was the rational one. He wanted definitive proof & Jesus gave it to him. He showed up. In a similar way, my friend showed up on my doorstep unannounced. She invited me to place my hands into her wounds... And I had no choice but to abandon my point of view.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Second Sunday of Easter

Easter just keeps going & going... Apparently the season actually lasts till the Lord's ascension. Thats fine with me. Today at Mass we had incense, a blessing with holy water & sung prayers. There's something about these special additives that are just... well, special! I think when the priest sings the prayers rather than speaking them, its kind of human & divine all rolled up in to one. The priest at my parish has a great tenor voice but sometimes flubs or seems unsure of himself... Perfection is wonderful, but the humanity he brings to it is what gets me. It reminds me that we're all coming to God with what we've been given by Him & nothing more. Its humbling.

Today the incense wafted back to the last rows where I was sitting & I couldn't help but think of the Eucharist- my first on my own, as part of the community. I was not parched like before by consuming the Body. When I reached the Blood, there was literally only half a sip left, but it was just as refreshing as it had been the 1st time. I found myself filled with such joy as I returned to my seat & sang out the last words of "Breathe", a popular worship song from my teenage years. Whatever doubts I have about my chosen expression of faith seem to melt away when I step foot in the sanctuary. Being able to partake of the Eucharist only strengthens my faith & joy. JOY! Its not been a well used word in my vocabulary until recently.

Jesus is alive & well, alleluia indeed!

Threat of Confession

Lastnight was the one week anniversary of my becoming a Catholic. Today I'll attend my 1st entire Mass as such. I find myself taking inventory- have I committed any grave sins since my last confession?

I noticed that I'm more aware of my temptations now & the thought of having to go to confession seems to steer me clear of "grave" sin. I don't fear guilt or shame about the threat of confession. Its a place of grace where I can be reconciled to God & HEAR the words of absolution... but I do find my fear of God increases when temptation stares me down. The threat of confession reminds me that I'm part of something bigger than me, that I am not my own & my loyalties are pledged to God. Its also made me realize that I'm not quite as horrible as I thought I was. Since grave sins must be committed with full knowledge & consent, many things, I find, aren't actually instigated by me! I am merely faced with the choice to pursue or back up. The threat of confession helps me turn around & walk away. Of course I'm not perfect & I can tally up plenty of venial sins, but those won't keep me from partaking at the Lord's table as long as I repent.

I have to admit, as I find myself on the other side of the Vigil, I've been looking at the things I'm meant to believe as a Catholic. I've known these things all along, but part of me bristles at the idea that one unconfessed sin can send me to hell or that there are different shades of sin (some of which can be brought to God alone & some of which need the sacrament of confession to absolve)... Still, I can't deny that the threat of confession alone helps keep me vigilant, aware, proactive.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Small Town Baby

I was praying the Joyful mysteries of the Rosary today. Its amazing how much of a struggle it is to commit to just 15 minutes of prayer sometimes.

At the end of the 3rd mystery, Mary & Joseph have just presented Jesus at the temple. Simeon made his speech & the old prophetess Anna comes waddling in. The scriptures say she went & told those who were awaiting the redemption of Israel all about Jesus. Redemption to her was summed up in this little mound of flesh that pooped & peed & drooled. Yet she saw the same thing in Jesus that Simeon did. She saw a redeemer... THE Redeemer.

Redemption, I think, did not come by the cross alone some 3 decades later. Redemption was not a one time, flash in the pan event. It was conceived in the womb of Mary's obedience to God. Redemption grew within her, a slave to the process of becoming. He conceded to be a formless embryo, a tiny alien fetus, always human, always Divine. His tiny organs, fingernails & facial appearance developed as he drew His sustenance from the safety of Mary's belly. Though the Light of the World was conceived in darkness & born in darkness, the darkness did not overcome Him.

Jesus, now alive in heaven, is ageless. But here on earth, the Redeemer grew in wisdom & favor with men. They had no clue who He was. According to scripture, it seems they always assumed He was just the carpenter's son, some kid from Nazareth who would never amount to much. It seems no one really expected great things from Him, even though He was smart & well received in the community. It was small town politics in Nazareth... you know the kind. Nothing good could come from there, so why would Jesus be any different? And yet, Jesus' redeeming power has been given to each one of us who believe. Conceived within the womb of our obedience, it grows, drawing substance & strength from us, who receive substance & strength from God. When we give birth, what will others see? Just a small town baby? Or the Redeemer of the world?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Make Me A... Branch?

"Lord, make me a branch..."

To become a branch, first you must blossom-
from bud to flower & servant of bee.
Learn how to grieve & weather the winter with prayer & patience till spring.
You'll bear fruit in your season when you are stronger.
But for now, hang on just a little bit longer...

Yesterday I watched the sun set behind a small tree. I got to thinking about how the thickest branches directly connected to the trunk don't bear leaves, they bear branches. The smaller branches shoot out from the larger ones & on & on. A leaf or a blossom or ripened fruit clothes a tree with substance & colour & make the tree pleasing to the senses, but its the branches that make all this possible. Without branches, the tree isn't much of a tree!

I began to think of Jesus as the tree trunk & the apostles & saints of old as the thick branches connected to Him. We are connected to various tiers of branches, which have grown out over time. The branches closest to the trunk bear a different kind of fruit. They no longer bear just a few dozen leaves, but a dozen new branches with a dozen leaves of their own. As a whole, more life can dwell in the bosom of the tree, more protection is offered in its shade. More oxygen is released into the air & more seeds can be carried off... go ye into all the world indeed. Lord, make me a branch.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Faith

Already I've been questioned about how I can believe in the Real Presence (among other things). I say "by faith". Why on earth would I want to go & sit in a room with a cracker (adoration)? That's insane! I say "because I've experienced something". Yes, pictures that come to me are from my memory & scriptures that come to me are obviously from the Bible, but just because they are in my head & "spoken" in my voice doesn't mean they aren't of God. I believe God uses our ordinary memories, emotions, experiences & "thought voice" to speak to us more often than He vocalizes or sends angels & pillars of fire to get a message across.

There's no explanation as to why I feel drawn to sit in a room with a cracker in a glorified lampstand. It really does defy logic. There's no explanation for why I feel tangible fear about walking through that door every single time. But when I get there, I feel such incredible peace that I don't ever want to leave. Its not just a cracker to me anymore- though my senses still want to say so. There's something more to it.

Again I was asked, Do I really believe the communion wafer is the Body of Christ & a cup of wine is His blood? I say "yes, by faith". I trust the words spoken by Jesus in John 10:37- 38. "Don’t believe me unless I carry out my Father’s work. But if I do his work, believe in the evidence of the miraculous works I have done, even if you don’t believe me..." Forget my oh-so pious answers- do my encounters with the Real Presence change me? I can't rely on my intellect, my emotions or the how or why... I have to rely on the "what". What are the results of being in or partaking of the "Presence"? If it doesn't change me, then its just a cracker in a glorified lampstand. If it doesn't cause me to hunger for righteousness, then the Eucharist is just a wafer & wine. Faith without deeds is dead. If my faith in the Body & Blood of Christ doesn't compel me to serve God, its worthless.

Super Duper!

I don't know what I was expecting after being received into the Church. I think some small part of me hoped to be indued with recognizable super powers when the priest anointed me. Maybe its a residual expectation from my Assembly of God days. I know I've technically been given power through the gifts of the Holy Spirit & even as a Protestant I must have had them... But maybe I believed I would receive some kind of upgrade or something! I awoke Monday morning absolutely exhausted. I looked in the mirror & it was still "just me".

It seems the gifts of the Holy Spirit are more like those little grow capsules you put in water. Over hours or days, they grow multiple times their original size. Unfortunately, with the Lord, a thousand years is like a day & vice versa, so I might be waiting longer than expected. Here I sit, staring at the supposed fullness of God's gifts at the bottom of my glass. They don't look like much at the moment. But eventually, as these gifts emerge, they'll take on definition within me & become part of me... at least that's what the package said.

At one of our RCIA sessions, the deacon spoke about vocation & how one knows what theirs is... He said (in general) that our job is to become fully "us" & to be fully accessible to God. How do I become "fully me"? I suppose by being "just me" & watching the gifts of God sit there at the bottom of my glass. My only job is to keep my glass full so those things can grow in me. My job is to watch & pray & be responsive to God...

Bazaar

"We're getting closer to the Vigil. It feels like standing in line for an enormous roller coaster. I know when I step foot into church this evening, there's nothing but a padded bar between me & the gravity of the next few days."

I wrote these words less than a week ago. The "coaster car" of reception into the Church has come clacking back to the beginning much like it left. There are no bolts to tighten, no scratches to buff out, no bodily fluids to clean up. All is well. The car lies in wait, anticipating its next death-defying trip with a new group of candidates & catechumens come fall. As for me, its on to something new... I'm a neophtye & I get to go on the big kid rides now.

I'm still a little disoriented as I attempt to step off the platform... There's a sea of activity around me & people everywhere. Like the annual Church Bazaar I grew up attending, its another world entirely... everything seems enormous & threatens sensory overload. I know a kiddie roller coaster in a parking lot is nothing compared to "the real thing"... food booths & local bands pale in comparison to what God has in store for me. So here I am, looking for familiar faces, pawing at the tickets in my pocket & wondering what comes next!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Day 1

Its been almost 24 hours. I showered earlier but can still smell the chrism oil from lastnight... its faint, but present, reminding me of what I've done, or rather, what Christ has done in me. I am a Catholic. What does that even mean? Do I feel different? Yeah, actually, I do. I feel... awake, light, full of joy. I received multiple gifts lastnight & have been looking at them all day with a sense of wonder. Aside from my own senses, these gifts, pictures of the evening & the people I've met along the way are my only proof that it ever happened, that I ever made this journey. It still seems surreal.

Oddly, the meaning of this Easter for me seemed more about being received into the Church than celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. But then in a way, I WAS celebrating His resurrection by celebrating my own... Without Him, I wouldn't be where I'm at now.

Easter Vigil Part 1

Lastnight, shortly before midnight, I received my first communion in the Catholic Church. Four hours is fairly long for an evening service, but time seemed to fly by. Once everyone had crowded into the fellowship hall, we were called out to the courtyard to witness the Easter Fire. The fire is a symbol of Christ's resurrection, & even now reminds me of a "phoenix rising from the flames". The fire was blessed & the Easter Candle was brought out. This thing is huge. The priest started carving a cross into the wax- the Greek letters Alpha & Omega were fixed at top & bottom and the numbers of the year went in each tiny pseudo square created by the arms of the cross. He said:" Christ yesterday & today, the beginning & the end, Alpha & Omega; all time belongs to Him & all the ages; To Him be glory and power, through every age forever." And we all said "Amen." The candle was then lit from the fire & brought back to the fellowship hall by the deacon. We followed & lit our candles from its flame as we went back to our seats.

We sat in darkness, in the candlelight... waiting. I looked up at the large domed lights which hung from the ceiling. The reflection of so many candles burning seemed like starlight. The deacon approached the altar shouting "Christ our Light!" & the candle was eventually placed in a stand at the altar & incensed. Something called the "Exsultet" (or Easter Proclamation) came next. It was long & it was sung, but it was fascinating to listen to. It's like a hymn of praise that summarizes the story of our faith.

Next came the readings. There were 7 of them- a couple from Genesis, one from Exodus, two from Isaiah, one from Baruch and one from Ezekiel. Between each, a responsorial psalm was sung & the priest led us in prayer. He later explained that we have these readings to remind us of our history because this is all the Jews had in their day- they had no New Testament, just the stories of old- we are the continuation of those stories...

After a final song, we were dismissed to the sanctuary of the church. We entered into warm light. The joyful "Gloria" was sung while the consecration bells sounded & I noticed the solemn purple banners of Lent had been replaced by gold, signifying the celebration of Easter. We filed into our pews & picked up the last few verses while everyone was getting settled. I remember thinking "Here we go!"...

Easter Vigil Part 2

Easter Vigil Part 2

After the Gloria, we had a short prayer & then a reading from Romans referring to baptism. A responsorial psalm preceded another reading, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. Here, we heard about Jesus' resurrection. No sooner had the priest given a short homily & we were out of our seats again... just the candidates & elect. We were invited to the front & faced the altar. We were prayed for & something called the Litany of the Saints began. The cantors were essentially continuing to pray over us in song, asking for the mercy of our Lord & the intercession of Mary & all the saints. They went through a looong list of names from John the Baptist, right up to a few medieval saints. It was wonderful & I imagined all these people of old crowding in behind us or watching over us... After the litany, we filed down the aisle to the baptismal & the congregation followed suit. We prayed for those being baptized & watched as father detached from his microphone, emptied his pockets, kicked of his shoes & got in the water. The elect renounced their sins & made their baptismal promises. One by one, they entered into the water. Once on their knees, they were dunked- head first, three times & then anointed with oil. Did I say anointed? I meant smothered. The priest poured oil on their head & even smeared it on their faces as he prayed for them. Pretty powerful stuff.

After baptism, we went back to our seats & waited for folks to return. As we sang, the priest returned in gold vestments & began moving through the church, sprinkling the congregation with holy water. We renewed our own baptismal vows & continued singing until the baptized arrived at the sanctuary doors in white garments. They came to the front to stand before us. Each sponsor &/or Godparent was given a candle (which they lit from the Easter candle) & they handed it off to the newly baptized. We joined the priest in prayer & they returned to their seats. Then came the time for the candidates to approach the altar with our sponsors &/or Godparents. Since we've already been baptized, we were handed our own candle & lit them ourselves, some from the Easter candle, some from each other. This was the definitive moment. We made our profession of faith by repeating the creed. The priest came around to each one of us & said "The Lord receives you into the Catholic Church..." I didn't faint & I didn't cry. I felt like leaping for joy instead. I resigned myself to a stupid grin as we made our way down the center aisle & lined up facing the newly baptized. It was our turn to be anointed. The priest went down the line & called each person by their chosen confirmation name. Mine was Francis, after St. Francis De Sales. I have no clue what the priest said to me as he formed the sign of the cross with oil on my forehead. I only remember shaking his hand as he said "Peace be with you". The oil smelled so wonderful. He made his way back up the line of the newly baptized, anointing them a second time.

We returned to our seats for the Prayer of the Faithful & the offering. Then it was time for the Eucharist. We exchanged the sign of peace, prayed the Our Father & prepared for communion. Those of us in RCIA were invited to partake first. I wasn't nervous... I don't even think I was particularly excited... I just "was". Time seemed to stop as I bowed & approached the priest who said "Body of Christ" & placed the Host in my hand. I was struck by its size, colour & texture- small & beige with an embossed cross. I think I even forgot to say "Amen". I felt dumbfounded. Here I am, with this wafer... Jesus... in my hand. I placed it... Him... in my mouth & was struck by the dryness. It made me feel parched as I went to the wine. Remembering to say "Amen" this time, I partook. I'm not a big fan of wine, but I found it oddly refreshing. I handed it back & crossed myself as I returned to my seat. That was it. My first communion. I was simply dumbfounded. I didn't shake, I didn't cry... I didn't laugh in the priest's face out of nervousness like I thought I would. Instead, I felt this quiet, strong sense of resolve... As if I were a fencepost, now firmly planted in rock rather than sand.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Vigil Fears

One hour to go. Will I pass out? Will I cry too much? Will I tremble uncontrollably? Will I drop the Host? Will I dribble the Wine? Will I forget to say something or neglect to reverence God with a bow, genuflection or sign of the cross? Will I laugh or smile when it seems completely inappropriate? Will I trip in one of our many processions? Will I inadvertantly set someone or some thing on fire with my candle? Can I do this?! Arghhh!

Vigil Hymn

Flame in darkness, word & water, oil, spirit, bread & wine...
Risen Savior, now appearing, all my heart & love are Thine...
Make of me a new creation, long hidden in the tomb,
raise me also by Your Spirit, born of Your mother's womb.
O Womb of earth! You held the One Who was the Single Strand...
O Hope of Heaven! Veiled in flesh, You stooped to grab my hand.
Who, but You, could vanquish death? Who, but You, could Be
the Source of Life Who bore my sorrows,
Comforter, Counselor, King.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

As I experience my first Holy Week with the Church, I'm in awe at how much I've missed. As a Protestant, I used to say that I didn't need all the gold & vestments, I didn't need the rituals or the prayers, the altar, the crucifix or even Mary. That was extravagant & merely a "form of godliness without the power". I had Jesus & the Bible & that was enough for me. At least that's what I used to think. I've spent roughly 8 months with the Catholic Church now & tonight is the much anticipated eve of my confirmation.

I attended Good Friday service at my parish this evening. This is the only day of the year that Mass isn't allowed to be said anywhere in the world. The priest & deacon entered the sanctuary in their red vestments & prostrated themselves at the altar for a time. We had the readings & another "Passion Play" where a lector, the priest & deacon interact with each other and us. We had prayer called the General Intercessions where the priest sang & the deacon called for us to kneel & stand, kneel & stand over a course of time... 10 times in all. At first it felt kind of funny, but it began to feel more reverent as we went along. Then the deacon went to the back & a couple guys from RCIA carried an empty wooden cross up the center aisle behind him. The deacon cried out three times "Behold, the wood of the cross!" It was fixed into a stand at the foot of the altar & the deacon & priest stood on either side to keep it stable. We were invited to venerate the cross & the congregation began filing out of their seats. Some people kissed it, some knelt, some bowed. I got on my knees, took hold of it with both hands & placed my head against it briefly. I wished I could've stayed longer, but it was sort of a cattle procession, so I went on my way & fell apart in the pew. After that was communion (with bread only, consecrated the night before) & we were dismissed in silence.

I can no longer say I don't need the symbolism embodied in the outward adornments. Its these very things that've helped me catch a glimpse of just Who Jesus is, what He's done & why I follow... Its these very things that've helped me remember who I am... I'm part of the Body of Christ & He is in me...

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Thursday

The church was sparsely populated till just before the priest walked in. I sat with my RCIA group, my sponsor & her husband. There was a fantastic choir for the evening & the new vials of oil were brought to the altar- of the sick, of the catechumens & of confirmation- they were blessed by the archbishop this past week & will be used in the parish until next year. Then it was Mass as usual up until after the homily. The priest announced that we would be engaging in foot washing- all of us- not just a few. I guess most churches take just 12 people & have it done as something symbolic, but this parish takes all.

As far as I can tell, most of us went to the altar barefoot or in socks & sat in chairs that had been set up for the occasion. Fresh warm water & towels cycled through. My sponsor got down on the ground & washed my foot & then I, hers. We walked back to our pew & I sat & cried for a bit. This was a profound experience for me, though I don't know why. Perhaps it has to do with father's homily on the last supper & how Jesus said "unless I wash you, you have no part with Me"... I personally think the foot is right up there with the gross parts of the body. So for me to wash someone else's foot is monumental. It wasn't so bad, by the way. To handle someone's foot is like taking hold of their very core- they walk, run, stand, etc. on these feet. You may as well be holding their heart. And maybe that's what Jesus was doing when He washed the disciples' feet. Maybe He was holding their hearts in His hands & washing them clean, sort of like a baptism.

After all had finished, we resumed Mass. After the Eucharist, we watched as the priest donned an ornate cape & took the Blessed Sacrament which was in something called a ciborium (essentially a gold cup/bowl type vessel with a lid), from the altar. He didn't touch it with his hands, only with the ends of the cape. We began singing as incense & candles processed before him out of the church. We all followed across the way to the fellowship hall, where the Sacrament was to be put "in repose", that is, locked away in a decorated box atop a simple altar. The place was filled with smoke & we knelt down on the ground & sang. It was quite the sight. Afterwards, the priest & deacon left in silence & most followed suit. I was one of maybe 10 who stayed in "adoration" & silent prayer. A vigil of sorts is kept until midnight to remember Jesus' agony in the garden & His betrayal... I would like to have stayed the whole time, but I have class in the morning. Ah well. Tomorrow we're back at the church for Good Friday.

Ticket, Please

Today is Holy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum (which means "three days"). Tomorrow is Good Friday (the 2nd day) & then comes Black Saturday (the 3rd day). Its on this 3rd & final day that we'll have the Easter Vigil, which means my official reception into the Catholic faith.

There's a Mass at church tonight to commemorate the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist & the priesthood. I want to crawl back into bed & sleep. I want to organize my apartment. I want to do homework or fold my laundry. Anything but this. Its not that I don't want to go to Mass... my heart craves it. No, its more so the idea that we're getting closer to the Vigil. It feels like standing in line for an enormous roller coaster. I know when I step foot into church this evening, there's nothing but a padded bar between me & the gravity of the next few days. I should be excited... and I am, but I'm also nervous. I kind of just want to get it over with at this point!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday

I remember seeing the dried palm fronds draped over a cross in my grandparent's house when I was child... but I never knew what they represented. I'd heard of Palm Sunday & knew it had something to do with Jesus' triumphal entry just days before He died, but I had never seen it celebrated. In the denominations I've been a part of, days like Palm Sunday went unnoticed or at best, got a brief acknowledgement in the form of a single scripture verse.

Today I went to my first Palm Sunday Mass. We met in the fellowship hall to obtain our palm fronds & gathered in a large circle. The music minister led us in "Hosanna in the Highest" by Carl Tuttle... 1 guitar, 1 djembe & 100 or so voices rang out. It kind of felt like church camp. The priest & deacon approached the front in their striking red vestments & sang with us. We exchanged the standard greetings, prayed & heard Mark 11:1-10. Then the priest & the deacon came into the crowd with a bowl of water & an evergreen branch. We were blessed with Holy water & everyone crossed themselves as the priest passed by. Eventually we candidates & elect walked out singing behind the priest, deacon, the music ministers & our RCIA director. The music faded as the rest of the congregation followed us into the church. The crucifix used in the procession was covered with a purple cloth, as well as the statue of the Virgin Mary. Covering images is tradition during this Holy week, but I don't remember why. The altar was covered in a bright red cloth with the typical white cloth over that... Candles glowed in their golden lamp stands, anticipating what came next.

Mass continued with the normal readings from the OT, Psalms & NT, but then came the Gospel narrative of "The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Mk 14:1- 15:47). Its a play of sorts.. The priest, the deacon & a lector were each miked & stood at opposite sides of the altar. And we, the congregation, were not exempt- we had parts to play as well. This was surreal to me, to suddenly become a participant instead of a spectator. The lector narrated & the priest played Jesus. The deacon played all manner of people & we, the people, played the crowd & other random bits. All of this was laid out in the missal & we simply followed along. When we got to the part where the crowd (that's us) had to say "Crucify Him!" chills ran down my spine. We said it a second time & I found myself holding back tears. I'm embarrassed to admit that the Passion has always been just another story to me. I understand that it happened- but it never really had any effect on me one way or the other. This troubled me, but not often & not long enough I suppose. Today... today was different. Even though I was standing there in a church reading from a book, there was something so... visceral about it. Everything seemed to fall away for a moment & suddenly I was one of THOSE people in the crowd, crying out against Jesus...

The Eucharist followed, I received a blessing from the deacon & spent the rest of my time weeping in the pew. I got a taste of the Passion this morning & suddenly this story that I've heard every year for the last 30 years has come to life for me- or should I say, has come to give me life...