Year B Lent 5
I don’t know if you all are aware of this, but I’m basically a male model. A few years ago, Catholic Saint Louis Magazine came and took pictures of me in an article about people who dress well for Mass (a helpful parishioner informed me that he read it, looked at the picture, and drew a mustache on me). Before all the kids starting doing it and it became cool, I was already wearing bow ties on a regular basis, which is another way of saying that I am a nerd. But it has always been important to me to dress well for Mass. It is my way of being reminded that when we step into the presence of God on Sunday, it is the most important moment of the week. You may notice that attitude carries over into the way I dress as a priest, too. The way I look at it is that wearing beautiful garments is a reflection of the glory of God.
It’s funny, I remember as a kid watching my dad go off to work at Southwestern Bell each morning in suit and tie, and today almost everyone in that same office wears polo shirts. I’m saying all this not as a setup to tell everyone to wear bow ties, although that would be amazing, but as a way of pointing out that we are far more casual as a society today than we were even twenty years ago, and that holds true in more ways than merely the way we dress.
Formality is considered stuffy or artificial and people want to relax, which is not all that bad an impulse. We tend to relax more in the presence of people we know and trust, and it comes with a sense of belonging and security. When it comes to prayer, it’s wonderful to realize that not every prayer must be a rosary or a written prayer. Christ is our brother, the saints are our friends, and speaking to them spontaneously and naturally is a sign of a strong, healthy relationship.
To me, casualness and formality is a both/and situation. Both have their place. If our private prayers are marked by intimacy, our public worship is marked by formality. This is because the form of the Mass is the container in which we hold our spiritual devotion. Without it we lose focus and spend our time trying to reconstruct the container.
When we have a certain expectation for how we pray, it is actually liberating. I remember when I first encountered the Mass I fell in love with the fact that we often act in unison. We cross ourselves at the same time, kneel at the same time, pray the Lord’s prayer together. In this sense, the formality is comforting. It’s a relief from constant self-consciousness, and we don’t have to fret about what to say or do next. The form of the Mass is important in the same way it’s important that the human body have a form, with specific shape and attributes. The beauty is created by the harmony and elegance of the parts working in a stable, understandable way.
One of the under-rated virtues that is encouraged by formality is reverence. There’s a really startling detail in the letter to the Hebrews, “[Our Lord] was heard because of his reverence.” His prayer was marked by deep emotion, but also by reverence, and this is what carried his words to heaven directly to the ear of God the Father.
Our worship must be reverent. If we had to define the word, we might say that reverence is the virtue that inclines us to show honor and respect for God. It is an interior disposition. However, like any virtue, it will always be reflected in our external actions.
How do we increase our reverence at Mass?
First, prepare for Mass ahead of time. We do this by the way we live our lives during the week. Do we pray regularly? Do we do any spiritual reading? Do we have any mortal sins on our conscience that need to be confessed?
Second, grow closer to Mary and the Saints. They reverenced Our Lord more than anyone. For instance, St. Josemaria Escriva says, “When you approach the Tabernacle remember that he has been awaiting you for twenty centuries.”
Third, renew your faith in the Real Presence. The Angel who appeared to the children at Fatima spoke of reverence before a Holy God. At one point the Sacred Host and Chalice were suspended in the air, and the angel prostrated himself in total reverence and taught the shepherd children to do the same. Every knee shall bow to Jesus. Pope Leo the Great says, “True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified…The earth…should tremble at the suffering of its Redeemer.” By reminding ourselves that Jesus is really, substantially here, we receive Him not only out of Godly fear, but out of love. It is easy to honor and respect those we love.
Fourth, don’t judge others during Mass. We all show reverence in our own way, and even though we pray together in a formal way, there is legitimate diversity and freedom within that formality. My Sunday best might not be your Sunday best. Someone else’s reverence in the way they hold their hands during the Lord’s Prayer might not be the same as yours. People ask me this all the time; as a priest, the book tells me to hold my hands like this in the orans position, which is a sign that the priest is gathering up the prayers of the people. The book doesn’t say what you do with your hands while you pray, so I won’t either. It would be clericalism for me to demand one way or another. You pray the Lord’s Prayer in the way that is most reverent for you. From this, we see how there is freedom within our formality.
Fifth, do the little things. Some things that work for me are: Genuflecting before entering and leaving a pew or whenever passing in front of the Tabernacle, bowing my head at the name of Our Lord, putting on my Sunday best, keeping silence before the Lord for a few minutes before and after Mass, and saying a prayer of thanksgiving after receiving the Eucharist.
It is so edifying to see the reverence of people here as they pray at one of the shrines, how you leave flowers for Mary and the altar, or watching parents teach their children to kneel for Jesus. This reverence builds up our community, and if we believe the Scriptures, makes our prayers more effective. It isn’t a magical formula to do this and kneel here and God will reward you, it’s more the fact that our external reverence creates a more prayerful disposition. When we reverently pray, it focuses us on lifting up our hearts to God. Cardinal Newman says that reverence is a natural impulse in anyone who loves God, and it stirs up in us, “feelings of awe, majesty, tenderness, devotedness and other feelings which may especially be called Catholic.”
Even more importantly, you might notice that in the time of Christ, a group of men came looking for Jesus at the Passover. They wanted to meet him and honor him. This reverence marked the beginning of his glorification, his Passion, and his revelation to the world as Savior. Our reverence, the way we pray together as a people, it shows clearly that God is with us.
O Lord may we love you and honor you.