Taking Up Our Cross. . . In Reverence
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire. HEBREWS 12:28–29
Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” JOHN 12: 7–8
My three-year-old son has a tendency to be unruly at Mass. He seems to enjoy the power he can exercise over us in a crowded church. On one of his recent outbursts I took him to the back of the enormous cathedral, where, moments later, I felt for the first time that the Holy Spirit might have prompted his behavior. Had he not been acting up and had I not brought him to the back of the church, I would not have encountered two powerful images.
First I noticed the bishop, clad in red vestments, his hands extended in the orans position. It was the image of Christ on the cross. Now, I have been attending Mass all of my life and I know that the priest represents Christ, but I had never seen this as clearly as I saw it at that moment. There was something about the vestments and the outstretched arms that said to me, “This is Christ!”
A little farther back, I noticed something else: a young woman prostrate in the aisle of the church, her forehead touching the floor in adoration. To be honest, my first reaction was one of protest. I’ve been educated in Church circles, and know all about “correct” posture and behavior during Mass. I am also well acquainted with the “Judas game” some well-educated Catholics play at Mass, in which individual acts of worship are criticized for form rather than praised for intent. Instead of worshipping Jesus like Mary of Bethany, who reverently poured out expensive nard upon the Lord’s feet and dried them with her hair; they resemble Judas, who chastised Mary for not selling the ointment and giving the proceeds to the poor.
As I continued to watch the young woman’s prayerful prostration in the cathedral that day, it struck me that what the young woman was doing—whatever her motivation—was beautiful. In a certain sense, it was even prophetic, for it drew me back to what I was doing. In my heart I thanked her for her witness. Both the bishop and the woman in prayer made it possible for me to participate as fully as possible in the Mass that day, holding my son and offering myself with Christ to the Father in my own poor way.
Reverence and Worship
In Earthen Vessels, Benedictine Father Gabriel Bunge explains that the early church fathers recommended prostration—kneeling with the forehead to the ground—to overcome dryness in prayer. When the body expresses the humility and submission of true worship, the mind is better able to be in tune with God. I witnessed this again last year, while visiting a community of priests, brothers, and nuns called the Community of St. John. This community is attempting to revive this ancient practice. Attending Mass at their monastery in rural Illinois, members of the community all prostrate themselves during the consecration of the Eucharist and again after receiving communion. It was without a doubt one of the most moving liturgies I have ever attended: Simple but reverent, in the presence of other people who were caught up in the consuming fire of God.
We live in a strange time. Differences are elevated on one hand and tolerance of these differences is seen as virtuous. Yet this toleration does not often extend to those who wish to worship God, especially in the liturgy. I thought of this again while I was dining as a guest of another monastic community. During the meal, several monks knelt out for some community infractions. There was nothing in their non-unified act that made the dinner less communal. If anything, it made it more real—symbolic of the various roles we all play in community at one time. If we cannot let the smallest infraction or deviation pass—the casual attire of the younger crowd, the Cheerios and sippy cups of the toddlers, or those who come in late or leave early—we cannot worship God very well. Reverence for Jesus should be our instinctive response to his presence, whether in the Eucharist or in another human being. Those who claim to follow Christ, yet lose sight of both his message and his person, fall prey to worshipping an ideology rather than a Divine Person. If we are consumed with self, the consuming fire of God cannot touch us.
The Real Prayer of St. Francis
St. Francis of Assisi taught his followers to reverence Christ and his cross wherever they might find themselves. The prayer attributed to St. Francis that begins, “Lord, make me a channel of your peace,” was in fact not composed by St. Francis; it was misapplied to him in a prayer book. The true prayer of St. Francis was one he taught his friars to pray whenever they would pass a Church or the sign of the cross made by two branches in a tree. They were to prostrate themselves toward the church or the cross and pray, “We adore you Christ and we praise you present here and in all the Churches throughout the world, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” The cross reminds us of the true Christ, the one in the Gospels who was constantly misjudged by the religious figures of his day. If we are not careful, he will be misjudged by us as well. We need to worship him alone.
The Power of the Cross by Michael Dubruiel is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.