“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.”
These enigmatic words of our Lord are a challenge for interpretation. Does our Lord really mean that we should not call anyone, “father,” “dad,” “daddy,” or so forth? No, this is not what He means. Rather, our Lord’s injunction to call no one on earth “father” is really all about the primacy of God in our lives. Christ is telling us that nothing should get in the way of our confession of Him as Lord.
There are many different ways that we recognize God’s absolute Lordship over our lives. One is our obedience to His law, present in the Sacred Scriptures, such as the Ten Commandments and the many other teachings, and in Sacred Tradition, in the Church’s definitive teaching about faith and morals. We also recognize Christ’s Lordship when we set time aside each day for prayer, particularly when we dedicate the first moments of our day to Him. This recognition of the absolute Lordship of God, though, is must fully present when we worship Him here at Holy Mass.
When we come together to worship the Lord at Holy Mass, we recognize the importance of worshiping God in the way that He desires to be worshiped. The structure of the worship that we have received through the centuries may seem to some as rigid, stifling, or just boring. But that could not be farther from the truth! Worshiping God in the way that He desires to be worshiped is actually liberating. It frees us from the possibility of incessant debates about how we ought to worship. This frees worship from the realm of taste – what I like or what you like, modern taste or old-fashioned taste.
“No liturgy designed by men could be ‘worthy’ of the subject of their homage, of God at whose throne the heavenly choirs prostrate themselves with covered faces, having cast off their crowns and ornaments before offering adoration.” Worship invented by men is simply not worthy of the almighty and all-knowing God who created us and sustains us in being. On the contrary, man-made worship of God is what the Israelites were guilty of when they made the golden calf in the desert.
As Moses was receiving the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai, the Israelites despaired of his return. They were not content to worship God in the way that He desired – in mystery, in symbol, and in signs. Rather, they wanted something that was tangible, something they could relate to, something relevant to them. So they melted down the golden jewelry given to them by the Egyptians – which was supposed to be for the worship of the true God – and made a golden calf, to which they offered sacrifices. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai their punishment was harsh: He ground the golden calf up into dust, mixed it with water, and forced them to drink it.
The golden calf continues to be worshiped today by many people who mistakenly believe themselves to be worshiping God. This happens every time that worship of God takes the model of human creativity instead of divine revelation through Tradition, as so frequently happens to Christians outside of the fold of our Holy Mother, the Church. It can happen even within the celebration of Holy Mass when the focus becomes turned on ourselves rather than on the God we are here to adore. Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The deepest cause of the crisis that has upset the Church lies in the obscurity of God’s priority in the liturgy.”
Because this – the most holy Sacrifice of the Mass – is the way that God has desired for us to worship His almighty majesty, adoration is the fundamental reason for which we come to worship God. Certainly, we have other motivations as well: to listen, to be instructed, to feel connected to one another, and to receive the Lord Himself. But even this last end – what we receive from God – is secondary to the primary reason for our worship: Adoration of the most high God.
Worship that is primarily adoration takes a posture of humility before God. St. John Vianney wrote, “We have not deserved to pray, but God in His goodness, has allowed us to speak to Him. Our prayer is like incense that He receives with the utmost pleasure.” It is a privilege to be allowed to speak to the Lord!
Everything at Holy Mass should serve to adore God. Proclaiming the Scriptures recognizes Him as our supreme teacher and guide. In the homily, the priest does not perform as if he were in a show, or use props or multimedia presentations that would distract from God. Even our reception of Holy Communion is most fundamentally an act of adoration because it conveys our deep dependence on the Lord.
St. John Chrysostom, one of the early Fathers of the Church in the 4th Century, exhorted his flock to treat Holy Communion as an act of adoration of the Lord. He told them “to approach only if they were full of ‘fear, veneration, and reverence.’ … ‘The angels who guarded Jesus’s tomb did so with fear and collection, while you—who are going, not to an empty tomb, but to the table where the living Lamb offers himself—approach in a disorderly fashion, noisily, each one joking with his neighbor.’” The saintly bishop’s words echo through the centuries as relevant today when one sees people in the communion line greeting their friends on their way up the aisle rather than seeking to receive the Lord with a spirit of recollection.
Our conduct in church, both in and outside of Mass, ought to be marked by the gift of the Holy Spirit of the fear of the Lord. This gift leads to a wonder and awe in God’s presence. That is something that we should ask ourselves on a regular basis: Do my actions in God’s house express a wonder and awe in His presence? Or rather, do they express indifference, especially towards Jesus present in the Most Blessed Sacrament?
To that end, it is always rather distressing to see people enter the church and make no sign of reverence towards Christ’s real presence in the tabernacle. Or, likewise, to see people make a slight bob of the head rather than genuflect. Of course, our Lord understands that some people are not able to genuflect, but when so few of our young people know to make this basic sign of reverence, it is a sign that we have failed to teach them about the basic respect owed to God.
The genuflection is always to be preferred to a bow before the Lord truly present in the Blessed Sacrament because it is a better, fuller sign of our attitude of humility before Him. Just as our Lord humbled Himself by coming to earth as man, so likewise we humble ourselves by lowering our knee to the earth before Him who continues to dwell on earth in the tabernacle of our church.
Likewise, the fear of the Lord ought to inspire a health amount of trepidation about entering the sanctuary, the precinct of the Lord’s presence. (By the sanctuary, I am referring to the raised platform around the altar that would formerly have been enclosed by a communion rail.) If we use our imaginations and look with eyes of faith, when we look at the sanctuary we should see all the saints and angels gathered around the throne of the Most High. When the priest blesses the incense at the offertory, he recites an ancient prayer that asks for the intercession of St. Michael and all his heavenly army who stand around the altar. This is what we should see when we look toward the tabernacle: thousands and saints and angels gathered around the Lord’s throne: an awesome and intimidating sight. For this reason, conversations and discussions should absolutely never occur in this area. If there is someone in the sanctuary with whom you need to speak, you should await that person in the sacristy. Likewise, if someone needs to go to the sacristy for any reason, you should go through the vestibule.
However, even the sacristy should be regarded as a place of silent recollection, so that the sacred ministers can prepare themselves for the celebration of Holy Mass. Anyone entering the sacristy before Mass should do so quietly and respectfully. For example, if someone needs to check in with the sacristan as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion or a lector, he or she should do so without initiating conversation. Even seemingly polite inquiries (i.e. “How has your mother been doing?”) are out of place here and should be left for another time.
To this end, I would like to make a personal remark. I remember next to nothing about what happens immediately before or after Holy Mass. This is not because I am being inconsiderate or rude, but rather because I am intently focused on the celebration of Holy Mass. I realize that it is tempting to take advantage of the chance to talk to Father before Mass, but it is really not the time. Likewise, after Mass, it is also important for the priest to pray, make an act of thanksgiving, and attend to other matters. I always enjoy greeting the faithful after Mass, but after that I need time to attend to various matters such as reverently and prayerfully removing the sacred vestments, and making a prayer of thanksgiving. To that end, I want to ask that anyone who needs to speak to me after Mass, aside from the short greetings and pleasantries that can occur at the back of church, wait for me in the Monroe Street vestibule rather than entering the sacristy. Again, the sacristy is supposed to be a place of prayerful silence, and not a liturgical locker room. I will always leave the church after Mass via the Monroe Street door, so you will be able to catch me there, or really, an email will be even more effective. (To all of this there is a very important exception, which are requests to go to confession, which I do my absolute best never to turn down, even if they come at seemingly inopportune times.)
Another generally lamentable trend in our culture is that of a casual approach to every interaction. I visibly cringe whenever a representative of my doctor’s office or someone else addresses me by my first name over the phone. Since when do we call people we have never met by their first names? Is this because I am hopelessly old-fashioned? No, I am convinced that the lack of reserve that our modern culture has with other persons, a lack of respectful distance, of polite reserve, has lead us to a casual approach as well to our worship of the most high God, to a casual approach to his presence.
We heard in the Psalm today: “I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child on its mother’s lap.” This attitude of stillness is what ought to mark our worship of the Lord. True adoration takes place in the silence of one’s heart, not in the noisy and wordy prayers of the Pharisees, who loved their piety to be seen by others. Every one of us, I am sure, has noted a forgetfulness of God present in our society. The first and most important way for us to combat that forgetfulness of God is to be mindful of Him right here in His holy temple. Mindfulness of God begins with being mindful of His presence among us in the Blessed Sacrament, reserved in the tabernacle of this and every Catholic church.
Our culture is marked by a false and exaggerated egalitarianism that holds that everyone and everything is all the same (instead of the truth, which is that all are equal, not the same). This has led to an overly casual approach to other people, which has bled into the way that we regard God. God is of course near to all who call upon Him, but when we have a casual approach to God, we easily lose sight of why God’s nearness – Christ becoming man in the Incarnation – is so extraordinary in the first place. God is the great and almighty, the Most High above all worldly powers. If we lose sight of this central fact, we will soon give in to the temptation to adore the golden calf through worship of our own making, rather than the respectful and contemplative worship that is worthy of the most high God.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
XXXI Sunday through the Year
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen, Ind.