Showing posts with label Mass. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mass. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Ember Days Offer a Sense of Focus Before Christmas



Keeping the Ember Days is an old tradition in the Catholic Church. The Ember Days are four sets of three days of fasting, abstinence from meat, and extra prayers, undertaken during different weeks of the year, known as Ember Weeks, scheduled as follows:
- Between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent
- Between the first and second Sundays of Lent
- Between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday
- During the week following the first Sunday after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is held on September 14.

The Ember Days were originally associated with agricultural festivals, and they appear to have developed as the Church sought to Christianize pre-Christian traditions when possible, so that as the people of Europe were converting to Christianity, they could still maintain some of their old customs, now filtered through the perspective of their new faith. As practiced by Christians, the Ember Days had three specific goals: 1) to give hanks to God for the gifts of nature, 2) to teach the faithful to use those gifts in moderation, and 3) to assist the needy. Traditionally, Ember Days have involved fasting and abstaining from meat on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week in question. Special Masses would also be said on these days. Additionally, the Church developed the custom of performing ordinations during Ember Weeks.

The Ember Days are no longer mandated in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Catholic Church. However, nothing prevents rank and file Catholics from observing the Ember Days as a private devotional practice. The Ember Days of Advent (which this year are December 19, 21, and 22) can be an especially good way of focusing on spiritual priorities just before the celebration of Christmas. Below are some suggestions for how you can observe the Ember Days of Advent:

Fast: Fasting has always been an integral part of Christian spirituality. Fasting helps us to gain a deeper sense of self-control and helps us to reorder our priorities. Fasting is also an essential weapon in spiritual warfare. Regrettably, since the Second Vatican Council, the Western part of the Catholic Church as effectively abandoned fasting as a discipline, leaving only two fast days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when Catholics are obliged to consume no more than one meal, supplemented by two small meals that add up to no more than one full meal, with no snacking outside of these three meals. You might choose to observe the Ember Days by applying these fasting rules to the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week during Advent. Or you might choose to do more. For example, you might choose to have only bread and water on one of the days. Alternatively, you could have bread and water only on Wednesday and Friday, while applying the less stringent rules on Saturday. Or, if you are experienced at fasting, you might engage in a stricter discipline on all three days.

Abstinence from Meat: If the fasting rules you apply to Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week would allow you to eat a meal with meat in it, take on an additional sacrifice by giving up meat as well. Treat this day as a Friday during Lent.

Prayer: Say some extra prayers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week. For example, say an extra Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet. Do some extra readings from the Scriptures. If possible, go to Mass on each of these days. Also, if possible, spend time in Adoration at least one of the three days. Go to Confession on the Saturday of Ember Week.

Thanksgiving: List at least five things you are grateful for on each of these three days.

Helping Those in Need: On each of the three days, do something to help those in need. Perhaps a member of your family needs some extra help. Perhaps one of your friends is struggling and could use some sort of assistance. Or help someone you don't know.

If you embrace the celebration of the Ember Days of Advent, and allow yourself to have this altered sense of focus, you can be sure that Christmas will be a much more spiritually fulfilling time, and you will receive an abundance of blessings.

Sources and further reading:

Fr. Alek Schrenk's Thread on the Ember Days

How observing the Ember Days can enhance your spiritual life

Wikipedia Entry on the Ember Days


Photo credit: Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Eulogy for My Father

My father died on January 2 of this year. Today would have been his 80th birthday. Below is the eulogy I wrote for the funeral back in January.

I will always remember my father for one amazing gift he gave me in the course of our time together. My dad was born in 1938 in a small Hungarian village called Tiszakürt. His name was Ábrahám Ferenc at the time. He lived through some tumultuous times. He witnessed factories exploding as the occupying Nazi soldiers were withdrawing from the country at the end of World War II, blowing up everything that could be of use to the Red Army then sweeping through Eastern Europe. He saw Hungary’s incorporation into the Communist bloc, as the hammer and sickle flag was raised by the Soviets, the new conquerors, throughout the country.

But my dad did not succumb to the lure of Communism. Instead he turned to his Catholic faith for guidance and direction, and he became active in the Church. As he grew older, his spiritual director persuaded him to join monastic life, and he became a Franciscan, although he did not feel a specific calling to this life. After several years with a monastic community, he discerned that the time had come for him to leave. He met my mom at the university, they got married, and they settled down in Budapest, the beautiful capital of Hungary. Three children were born of their union, my two sisters, Kati and Margit, and myself.

During the early years of my childhood, my dad worked as a journalist. But because he refused to join the Communist Party, his career was sabotaged, and, once again, he set off in a new direction with his life. He started a private business selling auto parts. The Communist ban on private property was just then beginning to thaw, but still my dad took a huge risk by starting a business of his own.

One day, in 1986, two weeks before Christmas, when I was thirteen, my dad and I planned to spend a weekend at the vacation home my family owned near Lake Balaton in Hungary. He picked me up after school on Friday, and as we were driving through the country, he told me some truly unexpected news. He said that he had gotten in political trouble with the Communist government, and he had to flee the country at once. He asked me to go with him, but he said we couldn’t tell anyone because then the government might find out, and his passport would be taken away. I said yes. The next day we left Hungary, and I wouldn’t return for fourteen years.

We went to Austria, where we were accepted into the elaborate refugee system the country maintained. We applied to receive asylum in the United States, and eight months later, we arrived in Seattle. At this time, my dad changed his name to Frank Abraham, and once again he started a new chapter of his life. As we moved into our first apartment, in Kirkland, he said, “If a year ago someone had told me that next year I would be painting my apartment in America, I would not have believed him.” But here we were.

He soon got a job here at St. Anthony Parish, and we moved to Renton, into a small rental house on Burnett Avenue, where we were to live for the better part of a decade. He started out as the custodian here at the parish, and in time he became the facilities director. He also took on the role of the St. Anthony IT guru, and he built and maintained the parish computer network, which, I understand, has been named after him in his honor. Our living room, in those days, would often be full of computer parts as he was building the latest machine for the parish.

In time, however, my dad was ready for yet another direction. He decided to start a new business, this time a private accounting firm. His marriage to my mom having been annulled, he also decided to seek a new partner. He met Melinda through an online dating site. He went to see her in China, and soon they were married. At this time, he changed his name to David Abraham.

His accounting business flourished over the years, keeping him constantly busy with work. But then, less than a year ago, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While he sought treatment for the symptoms, he did not fight the underlying illness. He made peace with his imminent passing. He worked on setting his affairs in order, and he prepared for the end – or, we should say, for the ultimate new direction that his life would take. The same faith that brought him help in those dark days of Communism now empowered him to face death without fear.

In his final days, I would sit by his bedside and pray the Rosary for him quietly. When he still could, he would join me for parts of the prayer, just like we had often recited the Rosary together when I was younger, and we still shared a home. My dad always had a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary. As death approached, he took great comfort in knowing that he would soon see our Blessed Mother. In his final weeks, we would sometimes talk about the state of the world and the future of humanity. I told him my view, and he strongly agreed, that God has sent the Virgin Mary as his special instrument of healing for our broken world today. He agreed with my belief that the Rosary, Our Lady’s specially chosen prayer, is the key to overcoming the innumerable problems besetting humanity today.

In these final weeks, I also introduced my dad to a special Marian devotion, the Seven Sorrows Rosary, which is a prayerful reflection on the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, who, given her special connection to Christ, participated in a unique way in the suffering of her Divine Son. My dad instantly connected with this devotion, taking comfort, as I do, in knowing that our Holy Mother, who suffered more than any other human, other than the human nature of Christ, always knows the depth of our pain and anguish and always hastens to help us in our hour of sorrow, whenever we call upon her. As the end approached, my dad was very weak, but still he managed to get for me a beautifully crafted Seven Sorrows Rosary, which consists of a unique arrangement of beads, as his Christmas present, his last gift to me.

In the evenings, when I would say goodnight to him, I would always tell him, “Remember, the Queen of Heaven is waiting for you.” On his last night, I kept vigil by his bedside, praying the Rosary, all 20 decades, followed by the Seven Sorrows Rosary. Just after I finished reciting my prayers, he passed on from this life. I am confident that the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of Peace, did come to meet him to take him to our Lord.

Many have told me what a great blessing it was for my dad and for me to be able to share this time in his final hours. Many have said what a great gift I gave to him by spending so much time praying for him during his last night on earth. But I feel that I received the greater gift from him. True, throughout his life, my dad made many mistakes. He often frustrated me, or upset me, or even hurt me, sometimes deeply, sometimes in ways that were hard for me to forgive. But despite his many flaws and shortcomings, he gave me one excellent, extraordinary gift, for which I will be forever grateful. He fostered within me a love of Our Lady, our Immaculate Mother. In his final hour, I was able to share with him the fruit of his gift by praying for him fervently to the all-holy Queen of Peace.

I am confident that my dad is now feasting with Our Lady at the heavenly banquet of Christ, so beautifully described in the Book of Revelation, together with my sister Margit, who preceded him in the transition to eternal life, and with his brother Sándor, and their parents, and their many loved ones who had gone before them. One day we will join them there, resting and rejoicing with them in unending bliss, unending peace, unending and absolute contentment.

When the cancer came for my dad, his body succumbed rapidly. But I believe, as the Church does, that the death of our body is not the end of our story. Not only does our soul live on for all eternity, but just as Christ rose from the dead, and our Blessed Mother was assumed body and soul into Heaven, so also we will be made whole, our body and soul reunited in the resurrection of the dead. In the words of Job, proclaimed in our first reading, and so beautifully put to music by Handel in his magnificent work, the Messiah, which my dad dearly loved:

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God.
(Job 19:25-26)


Monday, April 9, 2018

The Most Counter-Cultural Thing in the World - A First-timer Reflects on the Latin Mass


I am a cradle Catholic, and I have attended the Novus Ordo liturgy all my life. Being a lay ecclesial minister by profession, and having worked full-time in the Catholic Church for over 18 years, I have taught many classes on Catholic history and theology. The question of the traditional Latin Mass has often come up, and while I have been able to talk about the Latin Mass on an intellectual level, I had not actually had the experience of being at one - that is to say, until this past Saturday.

For the first time in my life, at long last, I actually attended a Latin Mass, held under the auspices of a traditionalist parish in full Communion with Rome, using the 1962 Missal promulgated by Pope St. John XXIII for their liturgies. The community has no church building of their own, so they rent use of the worship space from a suitable Novus Ordo parish in the greater Seattle area.

I have spent the last few days reflecting on the many thoughts stirred up within me by the experience of the liturgy. The first thing I want to note is my approach to the Latin Mass. In discussions of the traditional liturgy, Catholics often speak of the Latin Mass with a dismissive and derisive attitude, sometimes going so far as to assert quite categorically that the Latin Mass was harmful to the life of the Church. But I cannot agree with such a perspective. The Latin Mass, in its various developmental phases, was the central liturgy of Western Catholicism for most of Catholic history.

The Latin Mass was inextricably at the center of the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural life of Catholics for the better part of two millennia. It was the Mass of the saints and martyrs, who lived the Catholic faith to its fullest; of the mystics and thinkers, whose writings and reflections helped to shape our articulation of the faith; of the popes and bishops, who directed the life of the Church and gave formal definition to the articles of our faith; of the multitudes of nuns and monks, who gave their lives throughout the centuries to serve the poor, the sick, all those in need; of the myriad artists who shaped the Catholic experience through paintings, sculptures, mosaics, buildings, stories, and compositions; of the Catholic kings, queens, statesmen, and political movers and shakers who helped create and maintain a Catholic society in their lands.

We could not repudiate the Latin Mass as something harmful without also repudiating the spiritual, theological, ecclesial, and cultural legacy given to us by the millions of Catholics whose lives the Latin Mass nourished, sustained, enriched, and vivified. I will therefore proceed with the assumption that the Latin Mass is a good and profitable thing, and I will seek to find the good in it, however alien the experience may seem at first to someone reared entirely in the Novus Ordo system of liturgy.

I tend to think that the key to understanding the difference between the Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo is to consider the focus of each liturgy. The focus of the Novus Ordo is the celebration of the Eucharistic meal; whereas the focus of the Latin Mass is our mystical participation in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Both liturgies have both elements, but the overarching focus is different.

In the Novus Ordo, the faithful are gathered at, and sometimes around, the altar table in order to take part in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread and the sharing of the Eucharistic cup, doing so in remembrance of Christ. The priest presides at the Eucharistic meal, serving, among other functions, as the host of the community. As the host, he naturally faces towards the people, and he naturally speaks words to which the people respond.

As the people come forward to receive Communion, the sense of the shared scared meal is maintained through communal singing. Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ offers each person spiritual nourishment, healing, and strength, and at the same time each person’s participation in Communion helps to build up the whole of the community. The act of Communion is also a sign of shared faith and shared ecclesial identity.

The scriptures are proclaimed and expounded upon in order to give context to the communal celebration of the sacred meal and to help the faithful to live out their baptismal vocation in the world after the worshiping assembly disperses. The music is, for the most part, sung together, to reinforce the sense of community.

The the text of the Novus Ordo describes the sacred meal shared by the faithful as a sacrifice. In fact, we might say that it is precisely the sacrifice of Christ that enables the faithful to be the people of God gathered around the Eucharistic table for our Eucharistic meal. The Fraction Rite, when the consecrated host is broken and the broken host is held up for the people to see, reminds us that, just as Christ was broken for us, we must also be broken for one another in sacrifice.

However, having said the above, the Novus Ordo liturgy is not primarily focused on the idea of sacrifice either in its language or in its liturgical actions. By contract, the Latin Mass revolves around the concept of the Mass as a mystical participation in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The priest, anointed in a special way for this special role, parts a mystical veil and transports us, we might say, trans-historically (my word), to the foot of the Cross. In the Latin Mass, the faithful are not gathered around a table for a sacred meal; they are in a posture of worship beneath the cross. They are looking up at Christ being crucified.

The focus of the priest is not to preside at a meal, but to offer the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, united in a mystical way, across time, with the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Thus, the priest’s attention is not primarily directed to the faithful present. He does not stand facing toward the people, because his focus is on the sacrifice being offered on the altar. He does not, for the most part, speak to the people, but addresses most of his words to God, sometimes in a voice inaudible to the congregation.

Since the focus of the Latin Mass is participation in the sacrifice of the Cross, the demeanor of the liturgy is, of necessity, going to be very different from that of a celebratory sacred meal. The motto of the Latin Mass might be, “If it doesn’t belong at the foot of the cross, it doesn’t belong at Mass.” Would we play lively guitar music at the foot of the Cross? Would we tell jokes at the foot of the Cross? Would we chit-chat and socialize at the foot of the Cross?

But, one might ask, what is it that the people are allowed to do? The chief objection leveled at the Latin Mass is that the faithful are merely spectators, who see and hear very little of the actions and words of the priest, and therefore cannot participate in the ritual fully. Instead, many people in the congregation might be quietly reciting the Rosary during the Mass. The Second Vatican Council famously called for the full, active, and conscious participation of the faithful at each liturgy. How could the faithful possibly be so engaged in the context of the traditional Latin Mass?

My answer is that the understanding of full, active, and conscious participation in vogue today is, in my opinion, far too limited. The popular assumption prevalent today is that the complete participation in the Mass called for by Vatican II requires speaking certain words, dialoging with the priest, and singing along with the cantor or choir, as well as seeing and hearing everything that is happening during the liturgy.

But from my perspective, there is another way to participate just as deeply and just as meaningfully. The faithful can participate in the Mass fully, actively, and consciously by uniting themselves internally, spiritually with the sacrifice being offered. The faithful are not mere spectators. They are at the foot of the Cross, worshiping Christ Crucified.

For the faithful, the Latin Mass is an invitation into a contemplation of all that the crucifixion entails – our salvation, our forgiveness, our spiritual healing, our cleansing in the Blood of the Lamb - a sacrifice of propitiation offered to God, through which the world is reconciled to its Creator. We are also invited into reflecting on what the Cross entails for each of us in our lives - the purifying nature of our own suffering, the profound value of accepting suffering for one another, the transformative efficacy of choosing forms of suffering to offer for one another.

Nor would praying the Rosary distract us from such reflections, since the Rosary is an extended meditation on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and, therefore, the Rosary helps us enter more deeply into the contemplation of the mystery of the Cross. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that, for the properly disposed participant, far from being a distraction, the Rosary can form a symbiotic relationship with the Latin Mass.

After our contemplation of and spiritual union with the sacrifice of Christ, we then receive the fruit of that sacrifice, the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. We become physically united with the Lamb of God offered in sacrifice on our behalf. The spiritual and ecclesial benefits of receiving Communion are vast and numerous – but one of the key blessings we are given is the strength to embrace our own cross in our own lives and to carry our cross from day to day, in union with Christ.

By focusing on the sacrifice of Christ and by transporting us to the foot of the Cross, the Latin Mass upholds and proclaims the spiritual value of suffering. As such, the Latin Mass is the single most counter-cultural thing in the world today. Our secular world, which seeks to eradicate all memory of Christianity from our culture, hates nothing more than the Cross. On the one hand, modern technology has helped us do away with much preventable suffering, which is commendable. But our culture pushes us to go much further than that. The chief message of the secular world is that we should never suffer. We must always medicate or self-medicate, we must drown out all pain, anguish, or even inconvenience and boredom, with entertainment, possessions, ephemeral pleasures. In the face of such cultural messages, the most radical thing we can do is to do as Christ commanded and willingly – fully, actively, and consciously – take up our cross. The Latin Mass guides us into exactly that.

Of course, one might object, that the image I present here of the faithful's sublime participation in the Latin Mass is overly idealistic, and that historically many people did not reach such levels of engagement with the mystery of the traditional liturgy. Maybe so. But by the same token, my description of the Novus Ordo celebration above is truly idealized and is a far cry from how most Novus Ordo liturgies are celebrated in the day-to-day life of the Church.

I myself have, as mentioned above, attended Novus Ordo liturgies all my life. I have experienced Novus Ordo Masses on four continents, in over a dozen countries, in many different languages, using a wide range of liturgical styles. The quality of those liturgical celebrations also spanned a wide spectrum. Ironically, the chief complaint I hear from participants in the Novus Ordo, which seeks so hard to engage the participants, is boredom. I must confess that I too have often been bored at Novus Ordo Masses, until I would receive Communion, when a profound peace would wash over me, and the boredom of the prior hour would be worth it. But I have also had many experiences of profound, transcendent, uplifting beauty. As I write this reflection, the Triduum liturgies celebrated at my Novus Ordo parish during Holy Week are still fresh in my mind. They were not just the best Triduum I have experienced, but quite possibly the best Novus Ordo liturgies I have ever participated in.

Whatever happens to the future of Catholic liturgy, there is much beauty in the Novus Ordo that I would be loath to part with completely. At the same time, I believe that the Latin Mass has much to offer to us as a Church and to our society. Whatever liturgical developments are to unfold in the Catholic Church in the future, I believe that one change should without question be made to the Novus Ordo - the recapturing of the centrality of the sacrifice of the Cross for our worship. The Catholic Mass, I believe, as did most Catholics for most of Church history, should focus first and foremost on Christ Crucified. From our embrace of the Cross, individually and collectively, flows healing - the healing of our souls, the healing of our Church, and the healing of our deeply diseased society.