Sunday Scriptures

True Dignity of Participation

by Father James Rodriguez

I AM SOMEWHAT embarrassed to admit it, but one morning, when I was a seminarian, I fell asleep at Mass. Having been in school most of my life, I had grown used to being ‘part of the audience,’ which, at the time, meant passively sitting there and enduring lectures.

To my regret, I also mastered the delicate art of looking awake, casually nodding once in a while to give the appearance that I was listening and agreeing. At this particular Mass, the priest, a very gifted preacher, happened to spot my closed eyes and random nodding, and said, “It looks like I’ve spoken too long,” to which I responded drowsily with another agreeing nod.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who has ever fallen asleep at Mass, so if you, dear reader, are guilty of the same sin, please read the rest of this meditation carefully. The reason I fell asleep, apart from staying up late the night before, was that, honestly, I felt like a spectator. I knew facts about our faith and about God. I knew and made all the responses, very much appearing to participate consciously (most times) at Mass, but something crucial was missing: my heart.

All too often, we approach Mass the way we approach television. It doesn’t matter when we get there, what we wear, where we sit or what we do while “the show goes on.” We can chew gum, talk, send text messages, answer phone calls (this really drives priests crazy) and even doze off. Some people blame the Church for being “boring” and “out of touch,” but if we are honest with ourselves, like I had to be that shameful morning, we realize that maybe we’re not as invested as we think we are.

In today’s first reading from the prophet Nehemiah, we hear something that sounds a lot like the reading of the Gospel and the preaching at Mass. The priest shows the people the reading and they stand, acclaiming the Lord. He reads the Word, then interprets it, “so that all could understand what was read” (Neh. 8:5). Unlike me that morning at the seminary, these listeners actually listened. They did not have an active role, so to speak, but their participation put my Mass attendance to shame.

The Word of God challenged and convicted them, and they wept because of it. When was the last time the Word of God made you cry? Ezra’s preaching comforted them and helped prepare them for the new liturgy, in which this very Word, their “Spirit and life,” would take flesh, having freed them from the sins over which presently they cried and lamented.

Message of Freedom

St. Paul takes up this new message of freedom and preaches, like Ezra, words that console even as they challenge us. He reminds us of the true dignity of participation, which is so much deeper than simply saying the right words or making the right gestures.

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, the man who would later become Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “the real ‘action’ in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God himself” (p. 176).

These words remind us that our words and gestures are natural expressions of an interior disposition that comes first. We turn toward Christ, of Whom we are members. Even though I felt like a heel at Mass that morning, I learned that I am still a part of the Body, and my commitment matters.

In today’s Gospel, St. Luke sets the stage of our hearts for the drama of the Word Incarnate. Our Blessed Lord, returning to “Nazareth, where he had grown up” and where everyone knew Him, reads a prophecy of Isaiah, what inspired “ministers of the Word have handed down to us” (Lk.1:2). The Messiah looks out at His people, inheritors of the promise of salvation, and preaches the words their ancestors died waiting to hear: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21).

We hear the Word often. Sometimes it is preached well, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes distractions come, and we do not listen. Sometimes we may even fall asleep. Now is the time to wake up. Now is the time for us, poor as we are, to receive His ‘glad tidings;’ captive as we are, to accept the liberty He proclaims. We can be blind sometimes, yet He wants to give us sight even more than we want to receive it. We can receive it each Sunday at Mass, as one Body, united in prayer before a word is even uttered or a note of music played, and we can begin to see the liturgy for what it really is: God’s initiative, to which we respond and in which we, by our very presence, participate.

Readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Nehemiah 8: 2-4a, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19: 8, 9, 10, 15

1 Corinthians 12: 12-30 or 1 Corinthians 12: 12-14, 27

Luke 1: 1-4; 4: 14-21

Father James Rodriguez, parochial vicar at Most Precious Blood, Long Island City, was ordained to the priesthood in 2008.