Saturday, April 22, 2023

Cor ad Cor Loquitur: Homily for the third Sunday of Easter 2023

Stained glass window from St Dominic's in Washington DC,

My dear brothers and sisters,

I would like to begin this homily by drawing your attention to the verse used to acclaim the Gospel today:

Lord Jesus, open the Scriptures to us; make our hearts burn while you speak to us.

This verse for the Gospel acclamation draws our attention to the words shared between the two disciples of Christ at Emmaus after he had disappeared from their sight:

Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?

This was the first thing that I cottoned on to when I read the lectionary in preparation for this homily. And then, when I read the lectionary for today again, other things started jumping out at me. Take, for example, the words from the psalm of David referred to in the first reading today, which is incidentally also the responsorial psalm we sang today:

You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.

Or a little earlier in the same psalm:

Therefore my heart has been glad and my tongue has exulted; my flesh, too, will dwell in hope,

We are presented with the image of a heart on fire when we read, or hear, the scripture; that is to say a heart full of joy, a heart so full of joy that we cannot but help to sing of our love. This heart on fire is a good indicator, and clearly one with noble antecedents, of when Christ is speaking to us. But is any of this happening to us today or any other day when we hear or read the scriptures?

Allow me to delay the response to this question while I undertake a very short detour. We must remember that Christ, Christ Himself, comes to meet us at various times in the liturgy of the Mass. He comes to us first in the congregation gathered in the name of Christ. Remember His words, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt 18:20). He is present in the altar, which is why the priest, and deacon reverence the altar by kissing it, and Christ returns this kiss. But this is not all, prior to the consecration of the bread and wine, He is present in His Word, the scripture that is proclaimed in the liturgy of the Word. This is to say, when we are at Mass, almost from the very get go, Jesus is walking with us on this road to Emmaus.

But, I ask the question once again, if Jesus is, in fact, already so vitally present in the Mass, why is it that our hearts are not on fire? Why is it that so many of us are listless, distracted, and bored?

It should come as no surprise that many of us find the Sunday Mass too long, some find it boring and can’t wait for it to end. Some of us don’t think it a problem if they arrive after the readings and the gospel. They still consider it a valid mass if they can get the liturgy of the Eucharist. Others have so much riding on the homily. For these people, a homily can make, or break, the mass.

But the homily is not the key part of the Mass, nor is the choir, as wonderful as they may be, and in our case, they often are!  No, the key part of the Mass is the encounter with Christ, the sacrifice who will make us right with God. And if our hearts do not burn with passion when we come together in His name, when we hear His Word, then something is wrong with our faith practice, and we need to fix it.

But fear not. There is a remedy for a cold, stony, heart.

The remedy begins from identifying the problem. To my mind, if our hearts are not burning, it is because we are not doing something that the disciples of Christ would have done, which is to know the scriptures intimately, and secondly engage in pious practices.

The first, and I believe, essential, pious practice is to ensure that our hearing the lectionary readings for the day at Mass is not the first time we have encountered it. The rector of the seminary I study at, Canon Philip Gillespie, once said to us in class, that if the Sunday mass is the only contact people have with the faith, then it is obvious that they are going to feel bored.  Therefore, read the lectionary before you land up for Mass. Having read it the first time, listening to it read the second time, things will, I promise you, strike you that you didn’t notice before.

And, as I indicated through Lent, Christ is all over the scripture, the Old and, of course, the New Testament. Getting to know it better will allow us to get to know the man we should all be in love with. Know the scripture intimately, and the various prayers that constitute the Mass will come alive for us.

There are a variety of prayers that constitute the Mass, seasonal in nature that keep changing. The Collect, the prayer over the offerings, the preface to the Eucharistic prayer, the post-communion prayer. Each of these prayers is so beautiful. Often left unsaid in the course of the Mass, and for no good reason I might add, are the various antiphons that are a part of the Mass, the entrance antiphon, the communion antiphon. Read all of these prayers, and the Mass jumps up alive! I realised how beautiful they were when I used to serve the Mass at the Igreja de São Nicolau in Lisbon and I would flip the pages of the missal as a part of my duties as an altar-server. As I did so I would mentally read alongside the priest, and my word, did my relationship to the Mass change!

And so, another thing we can do, to makes sure our hearts burn, is to read these various parts of the Missal, once again prior to Mass. I do not recommend reading them during Mass, that is, following the Mass with a missal, because it can be distracting. Having read these prayers once, we realise the depth that the Mass offers us, and I assure you, your hearts will begin to burn as He speaks with you through His bride the Church, who is our Mother.

On this point, let me commend to you the sermons of the ongoing novena to the patron of our parish St. Thomas the Apostle. The director of the Diocesan Centre for Liturgy, Fr. Afonso Mendonça, is doing a wonderful job of unpacking the constitutive elements of the Mass. Come to the novena mass, which begins a little after 6, or just come for the sermon, and I promise that you will go back richer.

Finally, one last set of pious practices. The Oratorian saint, John Henry Newman, adopted as his motto the phrase cor ad cor loquitur – heart speaks to heart. Our hearts must burn when we speak with the Sacred Heart of Jesus that burns with love for us. We have to, however, cultivate, not just our head, but also our hearts. And, my dear brothers and sisters, Christ Himself commented – through his disciples on the road to Emmaus – “How slow of heart” we are. This is to say, merely reading the bible, or the lectionary, is not sufficient. There is every danger in this method of developing a solely conceptual understanding of the faith. As I never tire of repeating, in the words of the late Pope Benedict XVI, being a Christian is not about a lofty concept or ethical choice, but above all, an encounter with a person. And so, we must cultivate not just our head, but our hearts as well.

This cultivation can happen in various ways. Like I suggested through Lent, spend long periods of time contemplating Christ on the cross. Repeat ejaculatory prayers continuously. For example, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or, “We praise, and we bless you O Christ, for by Your Cross You have redeemed the world.” Repeat it long and often enough and Jesus becomes for you a real person, not simply a concept. Second, do things that will remind you that He is actively present in the Blessed Sacrament. If physically able, genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, don’t simply bend your neck. And finally, when receiving communion, receive it not in your hand, which – before I am accosted outside the sacristy after Mass – let me rush to add is an acceptable way of receiving but open to so much abuse, receive it not in your hand but try to receive it on your tongue, and ideally whilst kneeling. Do this and watch your heart turn into a torch on fire for Our Lord Jesus Christ as you say to each other:

Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?

(This homily was prepared to be preached at the church of St. Thomas the Apostle, the parish of Aldona on 23 April 2023.)

(I dedicate this homily to my friend and fellow seminarian José Maria Rebello de Andrade who confessed to me how the fact that his heart burned while he read the documents of the Vatican Council II was a sign that it had been moved by the Spirit.)


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