As I grade my students' papers this evening, I've been listening to some recent sermons from Fairwinds Baptist Church. This blog post will record some of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I listen...
My recording began as the worship leader was emphasizing that today was Palm Sunday. "This is PALM SUNDAY MORNING," the leader emphasized two or three times.
This emphasis raises so many questions in the ears of me, a Catholic listener:
Where do you get the idea of including Palm Sunday in your liturgical calendar?
If you get it from the Catholic Church, why do you take this one particular day from the Lenten calendar but not others, such as Ash Wednesday?
Why do you emphasize a particular day as part of a liturgical calendar, when the Bible doesn't specifically command this day to be celebrated? Could this be a tradition of men?
I ask these questions only because I find it so common for the Catholic Church to come under attack by certain denominations, only to find those same denominations quietly borrowing from the rich traditions of Catholicism. It is a tricky game to play: on the one hand, non-Catholic groups seem to want to visibly separate themselves from the Catholic Church from which their ancestors broke. On the other, these same groups can't make the break complete, in part (I would suggest) because the best, truest, holiest things about them are all things found in the Catholic Church.
The gospel message (at least an important part of it): Everything God desires to give to his Church can be found in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is the natural home to everything God has given His Church.
If you are not a member of the Catholic Church, you do not have access to everything God desires to pour into your life as a member of the mystical body of Christ. To paraphrase Catholic-convert G.K. Chesterton, you probably have three or four things that are emphasized to the exclusion of one hundred other things that God also desires you to have (the fullness of the truth and the sacraments being two of the biggies). This is NOT to say that those 3-4 things are not good in and of themselves. Further, it is plain that some non-Catholics accomplish more for the good of the kingdom with those 3-4 things than some Catholics do with everything. However, we don't want to measure our gifts relative to how other Christians (of any denomination) are using theirs.
We should measure our willingness to accept God's gifts against his generosity to give them. And God's generosity will NEVER be outdone.
Let us adopt the simple spirituality of St. Terese of Liseaux, who summed up her desire for spiritual goods in terms of her response as a child to the toys of her siblings:
"I want it all!"
As a Catholic, I don't just want Palm Sunday, I want the entire liturgical calendar of our ancestors.
As a Catholic, I don't just want to hear the word of God, I want to commune with Him through Holy Communion.
As a Catholic, I don't just want to be washed with water that symbolizes my salvation, I want to be washed clean by water and Spirit through the sacrament of Baptism.
As a Catholic, I want the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. I want truth that is unchanging, that is eternal, and that is not blown around by the latest theological fad or schismatic tradition. The truth is objective, and thus it can be named. The fullness of revealed truth subsists in the Catholic Church.
As a Catholic, I want it all: the Bible (all 73 books), the Mass, the Sacraments, the History, the (unchanging) Traditions (unchanging), the Saints, our spiritual Mother Mary, and the unparalleled Beauty found within the Catholic Church. I want the Doctrines and the Moral Teachings that have been preserved by saints, doctors, and martyrs of the Church. I want a Church that has been, is, and will always be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. I want the Church founded on the Rock (Peter and his successors, each of whom participate in a unique, Sacramental way in Christ headship of the Church), the Church that holds the Keys of the Kingdom, and the Church that is so mystically united to Christ that Satan will never successfully influence (and thereby corrupt) a single one of her doctrinal or moral teachings.
With one short life to live, why settle for anything less?
Yet, we must pray that God increase this want, because not in a million years could I want these things for myself as much as God wants to give them to me.
Yes, today is Palm Sunday! Let us rejoice and thank God for the ancient Church that delivered to us this celebration. And let us worship together, in unity, our Lord and King!
Okay, time to get back to grading and listening...
Next came a baby dedication. Pastor Carlo made it very clear that they were praying this baby would come to know Christ as Savior at a young age.
Because this phraseology brings up a question that I have never heard Pastor Carlo address, I'll go ahead and ask it again:
If this baby died before coming to know Christ as savior, would it go to heaven under any circumstances? If so, what would those circumstances be? Would admission into heaven still depend in some way on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus? And finally, can you back up your answers to these questions from the Bible?
I address these concerns in much greater detail in a previous post.
The majority of the service was what many Baptist churches call a "cantata," where the chorus basically sings a greater-than-usual set of pieces tied together by a common theme.
Even though it was Palm Sunday, the first song sung by the Choir was "Jesus Christ is Risen Today." And, right after, a new worship leader spoke about glorifying our risen Christ, a Christ who lives.
In the Catholic Church, we place a greater emphasis in the liturgical calendar on what Palm Sunday really offers us: a chance to place ourselves in the position of those who waved palms in the air when Jesus arrived on donkey's back, and also of those who would soon yell "Give us Barabbas," and "Crucify Him!" We meditate on Christ's death on Palm Sunday; we consider that Jesus died before we allow ourselves to consider that he now lives. We take time to do this, almost a whole week, in fact. We trace Jesus's footsteps to the upper room, where he offered himself through the institution of the Eucharist. We follow him out into the night on Holy Thursday Mass, which ends not with singing but with a somber, silent procession out of the church. We arrive back at Church on Good Friday, where we recite once again the passion and death of Jesus, and we kneel on our knees and kiss the cross of Christ, uniting our sufferings with his, meditating on our own impending death as well as the little deaths we experience everyday. On Holy Saturday, we experience Jesus's absence. Every tabernacle across the planet is emptied of its usual resident, the Lord of Hosts. Jesus is absent from us.
The Easter vigil Mass then begins in darkness, and as all of salvation history is recounted in Word and Psalms, and as the light of Christ is spread by candlelight around the sanctuary, we recognize Christ as the light of the World and as the Savior foretold from Genesis 3:15 and through every later stage of salvation history. Jesus Christ is RISEN INDEED! We proclaim it with great faith and fervor!
The Catholic Church in her wisdom knows that we human beings need this. We need a week of focus on Christ's death to really savor in a unique way (during the year) the power and glory of Christ's resurrection. Let us humbly take the Church's wisdom into consideration as we carefully plan how our liturgies follow the liturgical calendar!
Surely, it is not wrong to sing "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" on any day, as he is truly reigning in heaven. Yet, the point of the liturgical calendar is not to remind God of this fact. The point is to remind us, but more deeply, to make the passion of Christ present to us - and to make us present to it.
I invite my non-Catholic brothers and sisters to consider giving the Catholic Church a try. You may find that its liturgical calendar alone allows you to experience time and the truths communicated through this theological sculpturing of time to be impressed ever more deeply in your heart and soul. Come join the thousands of converts to the Catholic Church who have found their spiritual lives deepen beyond anything they had thought possible, even through such simple things as the liturgical calendar.
Another song picked up on the language Jesus used at the last supper: "Do this in remembrance of me." To which the choir responded: "we remember what you did for us." I comment on this here only to point out that the Hebrew that Jesus used means something much closer to: "Do this as a memorial offering of my sacrifice." If read against the background of the Jewish passover, which uses the very language that Jesus was drawing on, then we can presume that Jesus meant and was understood to be communicating something much closer to the Catholic understanding: that Holy Communion actually makes present and re-presents the sacrifice of Christ. We don't just remember back across the years; rather the event that took place years ago is made present to us, and we to it. We enter into the sacrifice of Christ and participate in the offering of this sacrifice. While at one level of how our mind is working, one might be able to call this "remembering," this is not likely the only thing Jesus had in mind.
I invite my Baptist readers to study a good Catholic study Bible such as the Navarre Bible, or consult one of the many good sources explaining the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. You will learn, as I once did, that if we only read the Bible through the lens of our 20th-century, western prejudices ingrained in our English language, you likely interpret it quite differently from what the original writer intended, and what the original audience unanimously understood. (Speaking of: I invite you to study the writings of the early church. Ask them the question: how did you understand Jesus's words "Do this in memory of me"?)
Another song meditated on the crown of thorns, proclaiming, "they crowned you with thorns, but we crown you with praise." While I appreciate the sentiment, and we should rightly crown Jesus with praise, it is important not to forget that we also crowned Jesus with thorns, and we continue to do so every time we sin. It was our sins that Jesus took on. What do our sins look like? We need only take a long look at a crucifix to answer that question. On Palm Sunday, it is also appropriate that we place the words "crucify him!" on our lips, since we indeed proclaim this when we sin, when we refuse to believe, when we refuse to be unified (did not Jesus offer his passion so that we would be unified in John 17?), when we refuse the riches of grace God wants to put into our lives. Of course, we are all guilty of each of these sins, and God calls us to repentance and to suffering. There is a sense in which the crown of thorns will remain in place until each of us has joined Jesus in wearing it.