Don't take for granted symbols

Readings: Prov. 9. -6; Ps. 34; Eph. 5.15-20; Jn. 6.51-58

We Roman Catholics, and all other twenty-two rites, of the worldwide Catholic Church use many symbols in our church buildings and religious services. Symbols help to involve the entire human person; God has created us as embodied spirits. Symbols reach and express our five senses, plus our minds, hearts, and souls. Around 1535 during the Protestant Reformation, the highly intellectual John Calvin, who already had broken away from Martin Luther, stripped from his church buildings and services all symbols. Calvin's church had bare walls. Not believing in the Real Presence as do the Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and Episcopalians, Calvin taught his Presbyterian followers that the only thing symbolic in his services was the Eucharist. I invite you to know, enjoy, and not take for granted, the rich tradition of the 2,000 year old Catholic Church.

When you walk into a Catholic church anywhere in the world, your eyes are to be drawn architecturally up the center aisle to the altar of sacrifice, and up to the crucifix. As you step into the church, you place your hand into the holy water font to remind you of your baptism, and you bless yourself as you had been baptized "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." You proceed up the aisle and you genuflect on your right knee out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament which resides in the tabernacle, as indicated by the red sanctuary light; Christians have been genuflecting at least since the fourth century. Before Mass begins, you kneel down in our pews and say a few prayers. We kneel because St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Steven the First Martyr fell down on their knees before the Lord as noted in the Acts of the Apostles, and as St. Paul urged in his letters to the Philippians and Ephesians, and as cited by church historians Eusebius and Tertullian. Throughout Western Church history, kneeling has been the posture of penitents and suppliants.

Glance around the church. Enjoy the beauty of the stained glass windows which in many Catholic churches depict scenes from the Scriptures or the lives of the saints. During the period of early Gothic architecture, about a thousand years ago, because most people could not read, the Church portrayed Bible stories by means of stained glass windows. The Stations of the Cross appeared around the 12th century after Muslims for two hundred years, violently had prohibited Christian pilgrims from visiting Jerusalem and walking the Way of the Cross. Crucifixes are hung in every Catholic church to remind us of the kind of death which Jesus died for us; in this small church our walls and windows are covered with over 200 crosses. Every Catholic church has paintings, pictures and statues, certainly of Jesus, probably of the Blessed Virgin Mary, maybe St. Joseph, and other saints. In this church we have portrayals of the Holy Family, plus our parish's patron St. Joseph, the founder of the Vincentians St. Vincent de Paul, the Daughter of Charity St. Catherine Laboure through whom the blessed Mother gave us the Miraculous Medal, and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque through whom Jesus initiated devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and of course, our local saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Mass begins with the procession of altar servers, liturgical ministers, deacon and priest walking up the center aisle. Usually we sing a song of praise to God. The entire congregation stands; we are a community, united in posture to show our unity in worship and belief. The people in procession arrive at the sanctuary, and genuflect to the altar of reservation where the tabernacle stands. Right after this genuflection, everyone's focus shifts to the altar of sacrifice. Thereafter during Mass we bow to the altar of sacrifice, not to the altar of reservation. The focus has shifted. We begin Mass with the Penitential Rite during which we sinners seek God's mercy. The liturgy is divided into two parts: the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. During the liturgy of the Word we hear four Scriptural readings and the priest's homily. The priest's homily is related usually to the day's Scriptures, but he also may choose to preach on some relevant theme or saint's day. All of today's readings speak about symbols: From Proverbs, "Come eat the food and drink of the wine which I have prepared." From the Responsorial Psalm, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord." From St. Paul, "Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." From the gospel, "I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world." Sunday homilies are to last about ten minutes.

The liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the presentation of the gifts by representatives of the congregation. The collection of money at the same time represents the people's gifts to be used for the good of the church, and especially the poor. The priest, with the priesthood of the laity about which St. Paul writes, offers the gifts of bread and wine. The Eucharistic Prayer, and not simply the words of consecration, change by faith the bread and wine into the sacramental Body and Blood of Jesus. Communion is distributed under two species as the primitive church had done. Since the Second Vatican Council the church has reinstituted reception under two species at all Masses. Throughout the Mass we sing because music touches our souls and bodies in ways that word cannot. We Catholics use incense to demonstrate the Old Testament exhortation; "Let your prayers rise like incense." (Ps. 141) Bells highlight three moments of the liturgy of the Eucharist: the epiclesis when the priest prays that the Holy Spirit might come upon the gifts and transform them, and at the two elevations while the celebrant prays aloud the words of consecration.

The final words at Mass are "The Mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord and each other." We have received a mission; we have been sent forth to put our faith into practice, strengthened by Word and sacrament. We leave church as a community led by the priest.

Our Catholic church buildings and services are very rich in symbols. Thank God for your Catholic faith and religion. Don't take for granted our crucifixes, holy water fonts, pews with kneelers, statues, incense and bells, and tabernacle. Let your five senses plus your mind, heart, and soul be touched by how you worship here.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley