Friday, July 15, 2016

Rest and the Liturgy: A Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 Homily for the
Sixteenth Sunday of the Year
Cycle C

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
July 17, 2016 

This past Thursday I spent the entire morning and the better part of the afternoon running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I got up very early to offer Mass and say my prayers, but then I was off like lightening…cleaning and packing like a mad man, making phone calls, tying up all kinds of loose ends in the parish before I leave, etc. But by 2:00 in the afternoon, the heat and humidity was finally getting to me, and I decided that it was time for a quick break. So I poured myself a big glass of iced tea, put on my headphones with my Gregorian chant station playing on Pandora, and sat in a big comfy chair outside the rectory on the patio. I was only going to stay out there long enough to have a drink, but the sun was so warm, the music so soothing, the tea so refreshing, that within minutes I was asleep. Despite the fact that I had a million things running through my head, and despite the fact that I still had so much to do, I was powerless at this moment. The beauty and comfort of a warm summer day enslaved me and lulled me into rest against my will. I woke up after about 20 minutes or so and found myself completely at peace. No more restless energy and no more anxiousness…I felt as though the only moment in my life that mattered was the present one. And so I decided to sit for a bit longer and to simply bask in the ordinary beauty of a perfect County day. There was a mourning dove in the area cooing away, the laughter of children off in the distance, the smell of fresh cut grass, the buzzing of bees around Father Labrie’s little flower garden…so many good things, so many simple things, so many things that I would have missed if I didn’t take the opportunity to rest.

For people like me, rest is so often just a necessary evil. We sleep and rest as little as possible, usually only so that we have the energy to do the real work of life. We like being busy…we like doing things…we like getting things done. We’re a lot like Martha in our Gospel today; we seem to thrive on stress – even though it can be a burden on us – because stress produces tangible results. When we work, work, work, we get a feeling of great satisfaction because we accomplish much, and this gives us a sense of worth and value. It’s not as if this were a bad thing – a good work ethic, a desire and drive to be active, is a necessary part of our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. But our Lord asks us today to reflect on the importance of what He calls “the better part” of our physical, emotional, and spiritual health: a lack of activity, a good rest.

We have to admit that, in reading Scripture, we see that work cannot constitute the fullness of our purpose on earth or even, more importantly, our relationship with God. We don’t work for the sake of working more…we work precisely so that we can eventually work less. That’s why our Lord tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28.) And this is why we say of the dead, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.” As evening draws near every day, and as the evening of our life draws near, we are reminded that eventually our work and activity must cease so that God’s work and activity in us can begin. The beautiful, but hidden work of God’s grace in our souls is so often hindered because we won’t stop long enough for Him to replenish us. Just as too much or inordinate physical work can become a burden to our bodies, too much or inordinate spiritual work can become deadly to our souls. Until we learn to regularly and often quiet the unrest and activity of our souls and allow ourselves to rest and be passive in the presence of God, there will be little holiness us.

People come to me often asking how they might begin to attain this passivity of spirit, this rest in the Lord, in a more genuine and authentic way. In our loud and flashy world, it’s difficult to calm our souls down long enough for the Lord to work in us. There are steps we can take, like cultivating silence, unplugging devices, trimming down our calendars, etc., but there is one supreme way in which we can learn, like Mary, to rest happily at the feet of the Lord…and that is by, paradoxically, actively entering into the Mystery of the Sacred Liturgy in a radically passive way.

Our Lord designated one day of the week for complete rest…the Sabbath. Prior to His death and resurrection, the Sabbath finished the week…but now it begins the week. We come to church on the day of rest to enter into what should be the most restful experience of our week: the liturgy. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia – which itself is derived from two words: laos, “the people”, and ergas, “a work.” Some scholars have mistranslated the word liturgy to mean, “the work of the people,” but this is not at all true to the historical use of the word or to its current theological use. In the ancient Greek world, leitourgialiturgy, was used as a word to describe an act of public service. A senator was engaged in leitourgia when going about his daily duties; a wealthy benefactor was engaged in leitourgia when constructing a temple or public building. Leitourgialiturgy is work that is done for the sake of the people. Thus the Church quickly adopted the word liturgy to describe its worship in order to emphasize that what happens at the altar is solely and completely the work of Christ Himself…a work offered to the Father on our behalf. At every Mass, Christ is the One Who is acting. He is like our “senator”, our “benefactor”…the One Who is working, the One Who is celebrating, the One Who is offering Himself – and us – to the Father as a perfect Sacrifice that brings life and redemption to the world. The Mystery of the Liturgy, then, is the Mystery of God’s work for us in, with, and through Jesus Christ. And the key to more actively participating in the Sacred Liturgy is not becoming more involved, or doing more things, or singing more loudly, or shaking more hands, or distributing Communion, or reading, or altar serving, or taking the collection, but rather – paradoxically and mysteriously – to becoming more and more passive. Our primary and really our only worth-while work in the sacred liturgy is to pour ourselves out onto the altar with Christ, to sacrifice all that we have, to make of ourselves nothing so that Christ can raise us to everything. The Liturgy, with all of its smells and bells and sounds and candles and vestments, is designed to take the burden off our minds so that we can let go and get lost in it. The beauty of the liturgy is designed to make us, in a sense, powerless…just as I was powerless as I slipped off to sleep in the warm summer sun, the liturgy helps to strip from us all the power and control we so desperately love so that we can be lulled into God’s rest.

As I slept ever-so-peacefully in the garden chair this past Thursday, there was something being accomplished in me with which I had nothing to do. All I had to do was put myself in the chair and nature did the rest. The same thing is true with God in our spiritual lives. Work and pray hard, certainly, but then come to Mass, plop yourself down in the pew, and allow the beauty of God’s liturgy – His work done for you – to take you captive. Empty all your distractions, worries, presuppositions, concerns, etc. onto the altar of sacrifice, and then slip off into the rest that Christ promises. When you awake, you will be at peace, and like Mary, it will not be taken from you.

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