Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mould and Vinegar, Bless The Lord

Thursday’s on this blog is Liturgy Day. I am going through the Mass, bit by bit, to see how each small part of the Mass shows forth the pattern of Christian discipleship in the world.

We are at the very end of the offertory rite, with the prayer over the offerings. This is one of the changeable texts of the Mass, varying according to the season or feast or saint of the day. The liturgy always does this, referring back to where we are in time while pulling us into the contemplation of eternity. I will talk more about this next week when we discuss the preface.

This Prayer Over the Offerings sums up everything we just did, and so it is a good place to review what I’ve been talking about the previous weeks. We bring bread and wine to the priest, and he brings it to the altar. He gives thanks to God for these natural gifts ‘fruit of the earth and work of human hands’, and in various ways prays for God to mercifully accept this offering and make it His own.

The concluding prayer encapsulates all these themes in various ways. The prayer for today, for example is this: “Accept, O Lord, the sacred offerings which at your bidding we dedicate to your name and, in order that through these gifts we may become worthy of your love, grant us unfailing obedience to your commands.”

As I have discussed in past weeks, there is a certain path of Christian discipleship laid out in this simple and fairly short rite of the Mass. Going on from here, we will see what Christ does with the offering, and the emphasis surely and deeply shifts to His action, and rightly so. But at this juncture, we see our own part in it, what we are to do.

We are to bring whatever we have—the bread and wine that is the whole substance of our person, our lives and everything in them—and give it to Christ (symbolized by the priest) who brings it to the altar (to His own place of love and gift, the Cross). We are to give thanks to God for everything we are and have, that which delights us and brings us pleasure, that which is heavy and burdensome.

We are to be utterly mindful of our complete unworthiness, that the gifts we bring God—our whole life—is marred and marked by sin and selfishness. His acceptance of the gift and His choice to unite Himself to us and transform our lives into His life is a gift of mercy on His part, not anything we deserve.

We see in the prayer I quote above that He does graciously make us worthy of His love, and that He does this by giving us the grace to obey His commands. Boy, do we ever have to take this prayer to heart! I am always a little perplexed these days at some of the conversations around ‘communion and who may receive it’, when churchmen who are older than I by far do not seem to acknowledge in their positions that… well, that God’s grace is real, you know?

That we are not left orphans. That we are not left without help from on high, and that this help is specifically given to us that we may obey His commands. There seems to be some disconnect somewhere—that somehow God’s moral law is over here, but the messy reality of people’s lives is way over there… and that’s all there is to it. A gulf separating the moral law, the Divine Law which springs from the eternal Wisdom of God, and the ‘real world’ of human stumbling and striving and mess. And since it is an unbridgeable gap, let’s just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. Everyone come to communion, yay! Really?

Do we not believe that Jesus really has come to us to bridge that gap? That we can bring Him our messed up lives, our moldy bread and cheap vinegary wine, and He will help us to make it into pure fine wheat and choicest vintage? And that it is worth it? And that we need to have come to some basic point of obedience before we can enter the fullest depths of communion? But that even while we’re on the way, there is mercy and grace surrounding us in the process?

We have to bring our bread and wine to the Priest and lay it on the Altar—basic surrender, basic discipleship. Everyone has to do that—people whose lives are in some kind of sort of basic order… well, sort of (we’re all sinners, after all), and people who may have some terrible disorder to some degree baked into the structure of their lives—irregular marriages, homosexual orientation, cohabitation, work situations that are unethical.

We all bring whatever we have to Christ, but the bringing it to Him is the surrender of it to Him so He can purify us, not so that we can arrogantly demand He take us as we are so that we can take Him as we like. All are welcome, all are called, but the welcome and the call is to the obedience of faith, which takes the incarnate form of obedience to the moral law and to the Gospel.

So that is Christian discipleship, both revealed in the liturgy but also lived out truly in the liturgy. And that is why we cannot mess around with these things and change things carelessly out of some misguided sense of compassion. We have to help people, meet them where they are… but always in tenderness and in truth. Anything less, and we are no longer offering our gifts to the Lord, but instead holding our gifts to ourselves and demanding that God give us Himself on our terms, not His. And that is not Christian discipleship.

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