In union with the catechumens preparing for baptism in the early Church of Rome, we stroll from the heart of the City under the long covered walkway that stretched from the great walls to the Ostian Basilica, the Roman Station church for Sexagesima Sunday, St. Paul’s outside-the-walls. Last week we went to St. Lawrence outside-the-walls, to visit the saint who was roasted on an iron grate. Today we go to visit the tomb of the Apostle to the Gentiles, beheaded for the Faith.
“Sign me up!”, I’m sure all the prospective converts were saying.
Arriving at St. Paul’s, in the immense space an antiphon of alarm rings out, “Arise! Why are You asleep, O Lord? Arise! Cast us not off forever! Why do You hide Your face, forgetting our oppression? Our bodies are pressed to the earth. Arise, O Lord, help us, and deliver us.”
Remember that our Mass formularies for pre-Lent and Lent go back to at least the time of St. Gregory the Great (+604), and certainly before. In this period the Lombards, and others before them, threatened Rome itself with sword and fire. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that for Sunday’s Epistle, from 1 Cor 11 & 12, we hear Paul’s on account of his many trials and sufferings in being a disciple of Christ while we stand, if only in spirit, by his tomb.
Even before the discipline of Lent began, with its instruction, fasting and scrutinies for the converts, all the believers were put on notice that Christian membership is going to cost us.
Let us go into this, you converts, or on with this, you seasoned Catholics, with eyes wide opened. It applied to them. It doesn’t apply less for us. Across borders, seas and centuries, we all remain in this together.
Together. If only there were a sacral liturgical language, as other religions have, that could reinforce the reality of such a unity. What if there were a stable language, not susceptible to ever changing interests, capable of great clarity while embracing diverse cultures and epochs? But I digress.
This is the liturgical and historical context of today’s Sexagesimal Gospel reading, from Luke 8:4-15, the Parable of the Sower (also Matthew 13 and Luke 4). Its parallel appearance in Matthew is with a cluster of parables which the Lord taught from a boat to people along the shore.
A parable, or mashal, will have a little twist. You know well Sunday’s parable. A sower sows seed in different terrains. Various forces, heat, birds, the terrain itself, exert their influence. Results vary.
Results vary. Here is our twist. In an agrarian culture of the ancient world, seed was hard to come by. You didn’t throw seed just anywhere. “Hey! I’ll throw some on these rocks!” No. You would make sure the seed had the best chance to germinate and grow. It could be that your family’s survival depended on it. Right away the Jewish listener in the time of Christ would have been pulled in to hear about what this seed sower was up to, so bountiful that he could scatter seed anywhere and everywhere.
Our Lord did not leave His disciples and listeners in doubt. He explained that the seed represented the word of God, the Greek “lógos theoú,” which is not only the Good News, but the very person of Christ Himself, the eternal Word. The sower, God the Father, lavishly offers the Son to everyone. However, as the old Latin philosophical adage goes, “what is received is received in the manner of the one receiving.” Some receive in good terrain and with vigilance against the birds (“spirits of the air,” the perennial enemy which is the world, the flesh and especially the Devil) the seeds root well and they happily bear much fruit. Others, however, with rocky hearts do not allow the seed to be sown. Others succumb to the Devil. Many, after doing well for a while, eventually fail because, though they were at first zealous, their Faith was shallow.
When explaining this parable, the ancient Father of the Church St. Ephrem the Syrian (+373), in his Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron (11.13), struck me with something about those seeds which fell along the path or road (Greek hódos) and was trodden underfoot. That’s the seed eventually gobbled up by the birds of the air, which Christ said are demons. Ephrem wrote:
Because this ground was tardy in receiving its seed, it became a public highway for all evil. Consequently, there was no place in its ground for the Teacher to penetrate into it like a laborer, break up its hardness and sow his seed there.
A “public highway for all evil.” Think internet. Think pornography. Think curiositas, the sin of constantly striving after the latest news, gossip, thing, wanting to be in the know, even working to know more and more about serious things, not for the goodness of truth but for the pride of knowing, knowledge that “puffeth up” (1 Cor 8:1). More on this in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica II-IIae, q.167.
Curiositas can be a threat in church during Holy Mass to authentic full, active and conscious participation. It hardens you, makes you unreceptive to what us good, true and beautiful.
Holy Church over the centuries has fallen ever deeper in love with the mysterious encounter with God in sacred liturgical worship. Deft allegorical interpretations have been creatively assigned to even the smallest objects and gestures of Holy Mass. Knowing about the awesome depth and abundance of these reflections, one might become too wrapped up in curiositas concerning details (to the loss of studiositas – longing to know for the sake of the big picture, as it were). Too much of a good thing is, after all, too much.
For example, one might become so captivated by the fact that the book stand with the Missal is transferred from one side of the altar to the other (and whether the altar boy did a good job or not) thus symbolizing that the Good News was first preached to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, that the content of what is read from the Missal is lost in the buzz of curiositas. (Never mind that it was preached to both simultaneously, but that’s how the story goes.)
For example, one might get so caught up in one stern interpretation of the priest carefully wiping extraneous droplets of wine or water from the inside of the chalice before raising it in the offertory to God, thus symbolically ejecting from the sacred mysteries those people who are unworthy to be there, that they forget to examine their own consciences about approaching the altar. Pulled astray by the details, they forget consciously to unite their own petitions to those of the priest as the offerings are presented for mystical transformation. Father turns and says, “Be distracted by details, brethren, while I offer my sacrifice and, well, maybe yours, to God, the Almighty Father.” Right? Isn’t that how it goes?
We mustn’t be too hard on these fascinating details. They are like the beautiful facets of gemstones in a magnificent tiara glittering with alluring light, taking in illumination and distributing it to countless dazzled minds. After all, we are human beings. We take things in through our senses and, by seeing outward beauty, come to love the inner truth.
Outward beauty and fascinating details matter and there is nothing wrong with them. In the arc of life, isn’t it the case that a young man could first be captivated by an unknown young woman’s beauty, urging him to want to meet her? Through those first attachments, even if at the beginning are a little shallow or even carnal, he will eventually, if all goes well, long with sacrificial love to give himself for her body and soul to the last beat of his heart. So too, the beautiful details of the Mass, the loveliness of vestments, movement, music, those alluring and fascinating externals, draw the lover into total self-gift to the true actor in our sacred liturgical worship, Christ the High Priest.
A Catholic in love with the Mass. That’s good terrain for the seed.
How do we keep from being bad terrain for the sower?
Turning to the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find:
2707 – Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower.
Spending some daily time in quiet, with Scripture, with the texts of Holy Mass, with your conscience, listening before speaking will prepare your terrain.
“But Father! But Father!”, you might enjoin, “I’m living life and it’s really taking up all my time, what with work and kids and those ‘beautiful details’ of life like mowing the lawn and fixing the shower head… again. I don’t have the time. I’m not a nun! I’m not a monk!”
Because repeated things help, repetita iuvant, here are some tips which I have offered in the past, for a basic structure of preparation which won’t be too oppressive.
Look up and review the texts for the Mass of the upcoming Sunday or Feast ahead of time, say from Thursday or Friday onward. Then, from Sunday evening for a few days, say through Wednesday, review what you heard at Sunday Mass. That is already a huge step towards the sort of participation, the sort of terrain, we need at Mass.
When you can, even for just a few minutes, also use your Bible. When an antiphon for Mass catches your attention or puzzles you, look it up and read the larger context. Maybe there is something going on around that particular verse which makes a difference. The same goes for the two readings from Scripture during Mass: context matters. If something hooks you, allow yourself to be hooked.
You don’t have to recreate the lever and the wheel every time. Use another source, like a commentary or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A quick search in the indices of the CCC brought me paragraph 2707 which referred to this Sunday’s Gospel and pried open the point of meditation with which I now harass you.
Finally, clear your heart and mind with a good sacramental reboot by examining your conscience and going to confession. After all, sin makes us stupid. Please go smart to Mass. Look smart outwardly, be smart inwardly.
We are all called to the “work of God,” the opus Dei, which has its most perfect expression in liturgical worship of God.
Bl. Idelfonso Schuster (+1954) wrote,
In a work of such importance, on which our eternal happiness depends, no preparation can be too great, and each one of us should resolve at the foot of the altar to make use… of every means to ensure our final salvation.
This is what we signed up for, friends. This is also what will get us through whatever life and the Enemy throw at us.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz