The Eucharistic Life Part 1:
Greeting each other in the Lord’s name, confessing our sins and being assured of God’s forgiveness
During the Wednesdays of Lent I invite you to reflect on the importance of the Eucharist in our lives, and to give thanks. These talks will follow the shape of the Eucharist as we use it here. Today I shall speak about the gathering and penitential rites.
While we were living for a while in Poland, over 40 years ago, I met a wonderfully content, serene and wise woman of mature years. When I asked her what gave her such peace and joy, having lived through immense difficulties in wartime and then in communist Poland, she said it was the Mass and all that went with it. It contained her nourishment in word and sacrament, her art, music, drama, community, friends and her God of love. She was deeply thankful for this, the foundation of her life.
As we reflect on the Eucharist, it may be helpful for you think of what you particularly value about the Eucharist and why, not only as a head activity, but also as a heart activity. Perhaps you can thank God once again for particular celebrations of the Eucharist over the years.
The purpose of the gathering rite (r i t e) is that we, the people of God, the Body of Christ, may be gathering right (r i g h t). It is about awareness of who we are, what we are about and where we are going as we come to God. We enter the church with all kinds of needs, conflicts, doubts and hopes. There is much to be said for arriving quite a few minutes early in order to put on hold the busyness, tensions, and difficulties of our lives and to try and find our centre in God. This is often hard, but only then may we seek to allow our hearts and minds to be raised to the expectation that we have come to encounter Christ in word, in sacrament, and in his people around us.
In the gathering rite, we can come to a wonderful truth: that Jesus may well surprise us. He is never quite as we expect him to be. You may come with a visual image of Jesus that has been shaped perhaps by painted or sculpted images you have seen over many years. But in the liturgy that image may change if we gather right with hearts ready: we may be roused, confounded or even bewildered. We may have come tired, bored, in pain, or frustrated, fed up with what our lives have become. We may have come without expectation. To seek to set this aside prayerfully and instead to seek openness and expectation for all that will come in the Eucharist, is the way to gather right, expecting to encounter God, just as God is expecting to meet us.
The gathering rite is followed by a change of mood. Just as Jesus went from his baptism to a time of fasting, and then to his preaching of repentance, so in our liturgy we come to penitential rite. We are reminded that are called to be God’s children, but there is no room for complacency. God’s creation here on earth is not complete. Another image that may resonate here is that we may be a bit like the Israelites in Exodus, on our way through the wilderness. The gap between the messy form of humanity that we have now and the fullness of human potential revealed in Christ gives us no cause for satisfaction. Indeed we could easily be tempted to turn to despair at this point.
But Christianity does not indulge in despair as an antidote to complacency. The antidote to complacency is penitence, which alone will open the narrow gate into the verdant garden of new life. Penitence takes account of our human weakness, our failure to live in the image of God, but also of our dissatisfaction, our longing for something better, our deep desire for wholeness, our desire to build the kingdom. John Hadley once said that penitence is the song of the pilgrim, far from home, but still on the way. So there is no complacency, because God takes sin seriously, but it is never gloomy because forgiveness is to come. So here we are coming into the full perspective of what it means to be in God’s presence. Do you turn from sin to Christ? is a fundamental question in the rite of Baptism. That is the process which we go through in the penitential rite. Indeed we can understand this rite as a renewal of our baptismal vows.
During Lent and Advent in my last parish we all turned towards the font at this point in the service. Once the words of penitence had been said the absolution was given while the whole congregation was sprinkled with holy water from the baptismal font. Although I explained why this would be done beforehand, some were startled by what happened. But then people began to say that this ritual, this powerful symbolic act, was making a profound new link of understanding between their baptism, their continuing need of forgiveness, and the new life in God that was being offered to them.
There are many areas for us to focus our penitence on – personal, community, national, international. Today let us briefly think about our penitence for the church, which still often fails in its true vocation to be the Body of Christ in the world. How often are we too timid to proclaim that Christ is the Son of God? As members of the church we often hold back as we try to deal with what are sometimes called tyrannies of the minority who resist change in matters that are desired by the majority. As with many human institutions, the church has to face up urgently to evidence of widespread and very damaging historic sexual abuse. Many parts of the church are not entirely free of racial discrimination. And full acceptance of gay people remains far from complete. Though we may at first hesitate, we all have some responsibility for the immense wrongdoings of the world as a whole. We are called to reflect deeply upon these matters and to be penitent for our part in what needs amendment.
So today may be a day when we look again at ourselves and at those of our omissions and commissions that have a habit of repeating themselves. Perhaps we can prayerfully seek some greater understanding of the causes of these wrongdoings. Once they are understood maybe we can seek guidance from God or a friend, or someone we know, in order to find a way to live differently, to be freed from darkness, to be reconciled to a person or situation that troubles us.
St Chrysostom reminds us that reflection on our almsgiving may be important in our penance. Almsgiving may be a diversionary tactic to deal with guilt and selfishness. But generous almsgiving is a way to accept more fully and positively the needs of our neighbour and to share with generosity and compassion the gifts which come to us from God, and indeed which remain God’s. The right use of money remains something for us all to review. Money is an extremely powerful agent in human transaction, and the way we use it can reveal so much about the priorities closest to our hearts, and the balance between love of self, neighbour and God.
The story is told of a Franciscan priest who went to a world authority on mental health treatments. He asked the expert what the principal cause of mental illness is. After a pause the answer came slowly. It is not because of genetics or because of trauma, but is found in one’s inability to forgive, and the inability to forgive ourselves for being imperfect. Perhaps our inability to forgive is a matter for each of us to bring to God as we begin the drama of the Eucharist.
Having prepared as carefully as we may, the rite (r I t e) places our wrongdoing before God and ask for God’s forgiveness which brings to the right (r I g h t) place to begin to receive word and sacrament – net week. Amen.
Suggestions for reflection and action
1 What do you particularly value about the Eucharist and why?
2 Thanksgiving to God
3 How do you prepare for the Eucharist? Might this be changed and improved?
4 Are you open to surprise and change?
5 What visual image do you have of Jesus at this stage in the Eucharist?
6 Are there areas of complacency in your life that you need to shed?
7 Are there sins that involve you where forgiveness has yet to be offered or received? If so, can steps now be taken for forgiveness and reconciliation to take place?
8 Can you forgive yourself for being imperfect?