In today's first reading from Nehemiah Ezra reads the Law of God to the people of Israel. We are told that "he read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law."
What struck me as I read this passage was the reaction of the people upon hearing God's word proclaimed by Ezra. "Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD, their faces to the ground."
As I read of their reaction, I could not help but contrast it in my mind to the response that millions of Catholic faithful will give upon hearing the word of God proclaimed to them at Mass today; that is, a half-mumbled and rather apathetic sounding, "Thanks be to God." Ho-hum.
We are taught that the Scriptures are the word of God, divinely inspired by our Almighty Creator for our instruction and sanctification. A gift from the Maker of the Universe. Do we realize how precious this gift is? Or have we allowed it to become pedestrian and uninteresting to us? Do we take it for granted? Is there truly any gratitude, wonder and awe in our "Thanks be to God?"
I confess, I don't hear it at Mass from those around me in the pews. And I often don't feel it myself. We need to be better.
Those who heard Ezra proclaim the law to them fell to their faces, all because their God had spoken to them through this holy writ. We have that same gift with us today; but we have so much more. Today's Gospel makes that clear. Jesus stands before the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah. "Today," he tells the assembly, "this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus is the Word of God. He is the perfect Image of the Father. God was no longer communicating with His people simply by inspiring prophets and scribes; He took on flesh and blood to come among them and speak with them directly.
If hearing God's law proclaimed is reason to fall prostrate, what do you do when you encounter that God face to face?
I was told a story once by a priest that has stuck with me for years. He was talking with a Muslim student at a school this priest was assigned to as chaplain. The priest was talking about the Eucharist being the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The young Muslim man listened and then waved him off, saying, "That is what you teach, but you don't really believe that."
The priest was taken aback, and asked the young man how he could make such a statement. The answer was simple. "You claim that the bread and wine become the body and blood of your God. But I see you all at Mass go up to receive Communion. You shuffle forward like you are waiting in line at the bus station. If I truly believed that was God on the altar, I would not be able to get up off my knees."
The priest was humbled. We should be, too. The young man has a point.
Am I saying we need to all fall prostrate on the church floor when we hear the Scriptures read at Mass? No, that is not what the Church asks us to do. But we ought to ask ourselves honestly if our attitude, our posture, our expressions truly reflect what we believe in our minds and hearts. Wen we say, "Thanks be to God," when we hear the Word proclaimed, are we truly thankful? Is their gratitude in our hearts and in our voices at the gift of God's word in the scriptures?
When we kneel down before the Blessed Sacrament, are we kneeling in homage to our very God, to whom we give worship? Or are we kneeling because.... well, that's what you do at this point in the Mass?
When the priest asks us to lift our hearts to the Lord, and we respond, "It is right and just," are we just saying the words, or do we take that opportunity to actually raise our hearts to God?
When we say "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy," are we just repeating what the priest or the cantor says, or are we asking our Savior to have mercy on our souls?
My point is only this. Let our words and our actions mean something. When we participate at Mass, let us truly participate in our prayers, our words, our postures. We are given an amazing and earth-shattering opportunity to come into the very presence of the One who made us and give Him worship. Even more amazingly, He offers to us forgiveness and healing, should we ask it. And even more amazingly, scandalously so, He offers to us Himself, to be taken and consumed into our very bodies so that He may live in us, and we in Him.
That Muslim student had a point. How can we get up off our knees? I don't know who he was or where he is. But I like to think he's a Catholic now. We could use more people like him in the Body of Christ.
WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374 | POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723