A series of three sermons delivered over Summer 2019 by Fr. John Nuttall.
As I’m with you for three Sundays, I thought I would preach on a THEME. (Don’t worry, it won’t be Brexit or the adventures of Donald Trump!).
As any good student of the liturgy knows, the sermon or homily can be based either on the Readings or a liturgical text. The theme arises because I have a problem. As the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said:
“When the preacher is preaching it is his life that is speaking, and God is listening.”
That is a daunting prospect. So, what is my problem?
When I was doing Parish work it was quite common to celebrate ten Masses per week, including funerals and school Masses – that’s 500 per year and I’ve been a priest for forty seven years – that’s twenty three thousand five hundred (23,500) Eucharistic Prayers in my lifetime. How do I (how do we) avoid falling into “robotic” mode? Perhaps the danger is even greater for the congregation because the prayers are made on our behalf – we can simply fall into being passive listeners.
I remember doing a supply many years ago (not in this area) where a teenager told me after Mass that their regular priest recited the Eucharistic Prayer as if it meant nothing to him.
My resolution of this problem is to meditate on the Eucharistic Prayers so that every word, every sentence becomes meaningful – and that’s what I propose to do with you in the coming weeks.
The Eucharistic prayers (there are more than four – we have EPs for children and for reconciliation) take as their basis the words of Jesus at the Last Supper as recorded by the Synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians – or do they? All sources talk about “When supper was ended” or “as they were eating” – This is a Passover meal and the accounts differ:
Matthew and Mark have the “Bread” and “Cup” words together AFTER the meal whereas Luke and Paul have the meal inserted between them.
Has someone got it wrong? No – the accounts simply reflect an already existing liturgical practice.
I don’t want to go on a long history lesson on how we got the Eucharistic Prayers but there are two key moments.
Justin Martyr (150 AD) gives us an account of the Eucharist in which he says “The President then prays and gives thanks as well as he can.” In other words there was no written prayer – he improvised. You can imagine Mass starting at 10.30 and, by 2.00 in the afternoon the President asks, “Have I gone on long enough?”
Hippolytus (215 AD) gives us the first written Eucharistic Prayer. It marked the end of extempore liturgical prayer and it is what we currently use as Eucharistic Prayer II.
Let’s start gently, by looking at the preface. When I’m reading a book I normally skip the preface because I want to get to the main course, but the liturgical Preface is an important part of the Eucharistic Prayer because it gives us a specific reason for thanksgiving – it focuses our thoughts.
Let me offer one example. It is from the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation which states:
“Your Spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship. Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.”
It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the rotten things in our world – the situation in Syria, the persecution of minorities, terrorism, the denial of human rights, xenophobia, telling people to ‘go back home’, mass shootings in America. So I need to thank God for bridge-builders, those who work for reconciliation and peace, because this is a sure sign that the Spirit is actually at work!
So, something practical to do! Come to Mass a little bit earlier. Take a minute to ask yourself “What do I need to thank God for today?”
– The gift of faith.
– My family and friends.
– My health.
– For peacemakers.
– For the gifts and talents given to me by God.
– For those who help me grow in faith and understanding.
– For those who make our world a more beautiful place.
“Father, it is our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give You thanks……”
Some years ago I worked in I.T. in a large Secondary School just outside Leatherhead.
One of my jobs was to ensure that every child was able to ‘log in’ safely to a computer. But they have a habit of forgetting passwords! One very tender Year 7 came to the I.T. workshop 3 or 4 times a week so I suggested he used his favourite football team as his password – Except he didn’t like football! Next, I thought he could use his pets name – thwarted again – he had 2 cats, a dog, three gerbils and a couple of goldfish. So, I wrote a password on a piece of paper (telling him never to show anyone else). Two weeks later my line manager was surprised that he had never come back.
“What password did you give him” she asked?
I told her the password I had written for him which was AMNESIA
Why am I telling you this? Well, we’re looking at the Eucharistic Prayers in slow motion and they are peppered with words like “memory” and remembering:
– “Do this in memory of me”
– “In memory of His death and resurrection…….”
– “We celebrate this memorial of our redemption”
This ‘remembering is the very antithesis of Amnesia. In fact the Greek word for ‘remember’ is ANAMNESIS – literally ‘not forgetting’
This is not simply casting our minds back 2000 years ago, it is to move that unique event into the present moment to represent or re-live it, so that a contemporary community can draw on its benefits.
“We celebrate this memorial of our redemption” so that now we are liberated, now God is at work in us.
To really understand this we have to go back to our Jewish roots. One of the rubrics for the Passover Meal says: “Tradition teaches us that in every generation, we ought to look upon ourselves as if we, personally had gone out of Egypt”
It is amazing when you start to probe something like the proper meaning of a word where it takes you.
I put ‘Memory and history in Judaism’ into Google and it came up with two fascinating quotes.
One was by David Milliband who said, “I do not speak Hebrew, but I understand that there is no word for ‘History’, the closest word for it is ‘Memory’”
The other quote was from Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Rabbi from Poland. He wrote “In remembrance lies the secret of redemption”.
It would be all too easy to say we have fulfilled the command of Jesus “Do this in memory of me” by simply following a ritual, after all we’ve come to Mass! We’ve obeyed the wishes of Jesus!
In celebrating Passover, Jews knew there were also ethical demands attached to it, things that should modify our behaviour. So, for example, Deuteronomy states:
“You shall love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt”
So our remembering has to include all those things that Jesus taught his disciples!
– Take up your cross and follow me
– Don’t be a hypocrite, practise what you preach
– Love your enemies
– Blessed are the peacemakers
– Blessed are the merciful
– Love one another as I have loved you
– Don’t judge
– Turn away from wrongdoing
– Be compassionate – Just like your Father
Unless we embrace all these things (and much more) we are not really disciples and are guilty of selective amnesia.
So far, in our slow-motion examination of the Eucharistic Prayers we’ve talked about:
1) The prefaces – The reason for Thanksgiving.
2) Remembering – Bringing a past event into the present.
In this final part we’ll look at the Holy Holy – one of the three acclamations that punctuate the prayer.
When I was a teenager I was quite irritated by my Parish Priest – he was always forgetting things (he once forgot a funeral). His black suit was so old that it was turning green, and his sermons!
“Here,” someone said, “The Sermon on the Mount became a mountain of a sermon”!
When I complained to my Mother she brushed this all aside by telling me “Well, he is a Holy Man”. So, I formed the early impression that if you were ‘Holy’ you had your head in the clouds, feet off the ground and weren’t quite in touch with reality. And of course, it isn’t any of that!
The Holy Holy Holy is based on scripture. The first part comes from Isaiah:
‘I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, seraphs were in attendance. Each had six wings and one called to another and said “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth id full of His glory”’
The second phrase, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’
is the cry of the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. It comes from Mark’s Gospel, but it is familiar territory for a devout Jew – It is from Psalm 118.
This latter part is really looking at what is about to happen in the Eucharist.
‘The one who comes’ is Jesus our Saviour, made present in, and acting through bread and wine.
As if to amplify that, Hosanna is cited. This is a word that has changed meaning over the years from being a cry for help, to ‘Hurrah, Salvation has come’.
What do we mean when we call God Holy, or as the Eucharistic Prayer puts it ‘You alone are Holy…….? Simply that God is set apart in the sense that He’s separate from sin, corruption and impurity. God is perfect in all ways, in a category by himself, unmatched by any other being or thing in the universe.
There is no contradiction between what God is and what God does and all we can do is bend and worship.
But there are implications for us to become Holy. In a seamless transition we move into the body of the Eucharistic Prayer with the words:
‘Lord, you are Holy indeed, the fountain of all holiness’
‘All life, all holiness comes from you through Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit’
We are called to be Holy because we already are that, consecrated to God but we struggle on a daily basis. It is a call for integrity of life, no gap between what we are, and what we say or do!
Paul refers to the Corinthian Christians as ‘Holy’ and yet some of them led pretty disgusting lives!
Human holiness does not mean perfection. It does not mean never sinning. Only the holiness of God means that. Christians are holy because God has set them apart to be holy. When people see us living as God wants, then His name is held holy, ‘Hallowed be thy name’, we want to discover and do Gods will more than our own.
In conclusion I just want to say two things.
We’ve only scratched the surface of these prayers. There’s a lot more to discover so it’s over to you. Make them the basis of your own prayerful reflection and they will nourish you. In the liturgy the work of our redemption and sanctification is brought about.
Lastly, just before we say / sing the Sanctus we hear the words like ‘And so we join the angels and the saints as we proclaim…..’ Our earthly liturgy runs parallel with the celestial liturgy. When we die our purpose is to worship and adore God for eternity.
We’d better get used to that now!