It’s Christmas Eve, eve today, that is, the day before the day before Christmas. I have spent some of the day travelling the Hurunui to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Late tomorrow afternoon I will begin to celebrate the Masses of Christmas. If these gatherings are anything like last year each of our little Churches will be full of people. I’m looking forward to celebrating the birth of Christ with parishioners and friends. While our numbers are small during the year, Christmas is a different scene. Many people follow a deep attraction to worship at this time of the year. A person’s willingness to follow this attraction is proof of the presence and action of God in their life.
It is important that we keep in mind, especially in the presence of greater numbers, that it is not about the numbers. It is always much better to pray with half a dozen people who are following some sense of attraction to God, than it is to fill a church with people who just like the politics, music or preaching of a particular denomination.
To have ‘filling our churches’ as our motive for ministry, is a tragic reduction of the heart of the evangelisation mission. The reason that we evangelize, is so that people will be able to live more deeply in personal friendship with Jesus Christ. This life must be our motivator. Every other aspect of human existence is the fruit of this encounter.
The language we use ‘in church’ is often an obstacle for good people. A sermon flowing with words like adoration, beatific vision, catechesis and dogma may be thoroughly orthodox and inspiring to the theologian, but will not touch the hearts at a parish Mass. But these big words are important since they are the windows to essential knowledge of our faith. The big words are our linguistic short-cut, our method for conveying all that scripture and tradition teaches us about each aspect of our faith. Therefore it is important that when we use these words, we also provide the meaning in an understandable, accurate and attractive form.
At times, for a particular audience, we might speak about (for example) the “incarnation” without using the word itself. Our hope is that with good catechesis
there will come a time when the simple use of this big word will remind the hearers of the full meaning of the incarnation of Jesus. The hope too is that when we hear a word that we do not understand (perhaps in a sermon), that we have enough intellectual curiosity to lead us to search out the meaning. In this way we take responsibility for our own growth in faith.
And now to the word that got me started on this thinking this morning. I was reading a well-intentioned piece about the Catholic’s “Sunday obligation
.” The writer was enthusiastic, and had clearly grown to experience Sunday Mass as the heart of his life every week. But his little reflection with repeated use of the “obligation” word, left me with a heavy feeling. I am of the generation that finds the language of “obligation” (at least initially) pretty unattractive.But then I did some more thinking and a bit of research.When we use the word “obligation” in Catholic life we refer primarily to the personal desire within every human person to do whatever leads us to encounter the divine. While the Church uses the word “obligation” about the baptised person’s participation in Sunday Mass and regular confession, the heart of the “obligation” is the voice of the deep-felt need of every baptised person. Put simply, when we live in harmony with this deepest desire, we feel better about ourselves and about life. That is a pretty good reward!
The words we use might carry heavy and uninspiring baggage for us. This is not a problem of the word itself, nor with the truth that the big word conveys. Sometimes a little self-therapy, seeking to discover the heart of the meaning, leads us to a more lively and robust adherence (there’s another of those words).A word itself is but a window. We can hide the window by drawing the curtains, or we can keep away from the window and pretend it is not there. But the best thing about a well chosen and carefully positioned window is discovered when we look through the window to appreciate the view.
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