It is rather late this year, but we have finally begun the holy season of Lent, this intense time in the Church’s life when we dedicate ourselves to what is most important: coming back to the Lord with our whole hearts through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The first of these three ancient Lenten disciplines, prayer, is our central theme for the observance of Lent this year. (Based on the last couple of weeks I can understand how you might have thought it was going to be almsgiving, though!)
We will be focusing on prayer in a few different ways during Lent. First, this Saturday is our family day of recollection, where families will have the opportunity to focus on how they can pray together as a family. Next week, we will be asking you to commit to our “One Percent Challenge,” 30 days of giving God at least one percent – 15 minutes – of each day (or if you already do that, then to give one percent more!). You will hear more about that next week, though. As a parish, we will be focusing on prayer this Lent through our Tuesday evening Lenten series for the next four weeks.
The Lenten series will begin at six p.m. each Tuesday evening with a simple soup supper in the church basement, followed by a talk and a half-hour of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. There will be free child care and a separate youth track, so this is a very family-friendly event. You will have the chance to get to know other folks from our parish, grow in knowledge about prayer, and even have the chance to live out what we are learning through time in silence with the Blessed Sacrament.
Over the four weeks of the series, we will be talking about four different approaches to prayer. We will address: 1) Prayer in the context of the Mass, 2) Prayer during times of suffering and difficulty, 3) Prayer with Christ in the Scriptures, and 4) Encountering Christ in silence. Each week, my Sunday sermon will serve as an introduction to the Tuesday evening talks. So if it seems over the next few weeks that I am leaving some things hanging or have not quite tied up all the ends, that will be on purpose! You will have to come on Tuesday evening to get the rest of the story.
Fortuitously, the readings at Holy Mass today lead us in the direction of encountering God in the context of worship. In the first reading, we hear Moses instructing the Israelites on the manner of offering the sacrifice of thanksgiving – giving the first fruits of their harvest to the Lord. In the second reading, St. Paul instructs us to “call on the name of the Lord,” and in the Gospel, Christ refutes Satan’s temptation to worship him with the first commandment: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”
What, though, does it mean to worship God, and what does it have to do with prayer? On the one hand, worship, or the Mass, would seem like a strange place to start in terms of prayer. The Mass is the highest form of prayer, so you would think that is where we would end. Yet at the same time, for many people, the Mass is their most common experience of prayer, so it makes sense to start on a level playing field. All of us here, regardless of our experience of other kinds of prayer, have in common a familiarity with Holy Mass.
The Mass can also teach us something important about the essence of prayer. If we were to attempt a simple definition of prayer, we might use “talking with God.” And while this is a good starting point, it is also somewhat problematic. If prayer is talking to God, then the most important prayer is what we … do. But that is not the case at all! In prayer, the most important things that happen are not our initiatives, but God’s.
That is why, much more than just talking to God, prayer is communication with God. There are two important implications of this truth: First, it means that prayer is not just about what we say and do, but about what God says and does to us. Second, it means that prayer is not just a matter of words. Think about it this way: I remember going to visit an elderly, homebound woman who was not able to speak because of a stroke. She would try to express herself, but it was not clear what she was trying to get across. Her husband came over, laid his hand on her shoulder, and looked lovingly into her eyes. She looked up at him with a radiant smile and a sense of peace spread over her whole body. No words passed between them, but they were definitely communicating.
We will come back to this image of a powerful communication beyond words when we discuss the role of silence in prayer, but I bring it up now because silence is an integral part of what it means to pray in the context of the Mass, especially during this time of Lent, when silence becomes an even more important part of the liturgy. Think about it in terms of a beautiful piece of music, especially Gregorian chant or Renaissance polyphony. In these genres of music, the silence between the notes is part of the music itself. It is the reason that it has such an evocative power and why it is so particularly appropriate for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is a silence that is pregnant with meaning, in which the beautiful melody has the chance to echo through the church and through our minds.
So often we come to Mass thinking that we need to do something in order really to be participating. But the Mass teaches us that before we ever begin to pray, there is One who is already working, already speaking to our hearts. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we come to re-present – to make present again – something that happened 2,000 years ago but is made truly present in the context of what we do here in the action of the whole Church.
The biggest risk to prayer at Mass is not what you would expect. It is not crying babies or distracting thoughts. It is the spirit of activism, the idea that we need to be doing something at Mass in order really to be praying. If we did a survey of people on their way out of Mass and asked them, “Who was participating the most in Mass today?”, we would probably be told, “The people who did the readings,” “the ones who helped distribute Holy Communion,” or “the lady behind me who sings rather loudly – she was really participating!” But this would be a mistake.
Now, there is nothing wrong with reading the Scriptures at Mass or with serving as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and I do not mean to belittle at all those who so generously offer their time and abilities to assist us in worshiping the Lord. Similarly, congregational singing is a great way to praise almighty God, but it is not always a good determiner of true participation either. There is a real danger in believing that fulfilling a liturgical role or participating in an exterior manner is the highest form of participation in the Mass, and thus true prayer.
The reason for this is not because performing liturgical ministries means that someone is doing too much at Mass. Rather, it is because he or she is not doing enough. That point is really important so let me repeat it – the objection is not that exterior participation means that someone is doing too much at Mass and we need to do less. No. On the contrary, exterior participation is not doing enough.
Worshiping God with a true spirit of prayer is difficult. It means an intense offering of self that unites us on the level of our very being to the sacrifice that Christ is offering in the Holy Mass. When we settle for merely external participation in the great drama of salvation that is the Holy Mass, we have missed out on a deeper reality into which God desires to draw us during the celebration of the sacred mysteries.
Moses instructed the Israelites to bring their first fruits, the very best of their harvest, to make the thanksgiving sacrifice to God. That is what God asks of us too – our very best. Surface level participation would be too easy. True prayer is not a matter of what we do, but who we are in the light of the mysteries revealed in the Holy Sacrifice.
If true participation – true prayer – in the Mass is not just the external things we do, though, what is it? That is where I am going to leave you hanging. If you want to know what true prayer means in the context of the Mass, then you will have to come to our Lenten series this week. Once again, we start at six p.m. on Tuesday evening. I hope to see you all there!
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
I Sunday in Lent, A.D. MMXIX