Christus Resurrexit! Alleluia! : The Smells and Bells of the Easter Triduum

If any of you went to any mass or service over this past weekend, you would have noticed that there were different aspects used during the liturgies, what many people have called the “smells and bells” of Catholicism.  Our minds were overloaded with sensory information throughout the days.  Starting with Holy Thursday, we see churches all over the world gradually stripped of their beauty; altars lay bare, tabernacles empty, candles and decorations gone, statues covered.  We smell the incense burning as the priest and servers process with the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose.  We hear…nothing.  Silence as the mass ends and those in the pews quietly and reflectively leave, contemplating the impending death of Christ due to the most brutal of executions known to man, the method of death where we get the word “excruciating” from.  As we wake on Good Friday to the light of day, suddenly the hunger sets into our bodies, physically as we fast and abstain from meat, and spiritually in a desire to receive Christ more fully into our hearts.  We reenter the churches, once again silent and reflective, as we meditate on the cross that holds God made Man, dying. After the Way of the Cross, the priest enters and lays prostrate in front of the altar, as if completely accepting the guilt of the crucifixion due to his and his parish’s sins, taking up their guilt and laying it before the dying God-man. Later, we show our devotion to the Cross of Christ as we reverence the Wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the World. All, from the old to those barely old enough to walk come forward and kiss, caress, and fearfully reverence the piece of wood that was at one time the sign of Roman power and authority over their subjects. We accept that it is due to our faults that this cross was the fate for our Lord, and yet we also look forward to the sign of hope that it has become to each of us today, a sign of forgiveness, of eternal mercy. Minimal music is used, mimicking the solemn, reverent gestures and mentalities used by those gathered. The Church, usually continuously celebrating the mass, does not have a mass on this day, as this is not a day for celebration but rather for mourning.  We leave with this sense of mourning in silence again, and thus begins the longest day of the year. As Christ lied in the tomb, so too does the Church lie in the silence of hopeful death, waiting on the promise that Jesus gave during his ministry, the promise of the third day.  So we sit in the dark, in the silence, in the calm after the storm.  We are in the tomb.

And then the stone is moved, and light begins to pour out onto the world.

It starts with a fire, blessed by the Priest at the Easter Vigil on Saturday Night.  After entering the darkened church before mass, we gather around the fire outside, that first crack in the tomb door.  The fire is blessed, the Easter Candle is lit, and from this candle, each individual’s candle is lit.  We, the Body of Christ, process into the darkened church with the light of Hope, the light of Joy, the light of Christ.  Originating from Christ and the joyful realization that He is risen, the light enters the wick on our candles and warms our hearts which have sat so empty, so cold, so sorrowful up until now.  We then hear the recounting of salvation history, from the very beginning of Creation all through the Old Testament and finally, with pomp and circumstance, with crashing of cymbals and the swell of the organ, the Gloria is sung again, not heard but once since Ash Wednesday.  During this time of praise, the lights are brought on completely in the church, the bells are rung, and we praise God for all that he has done for us throughout history and for all that He does for us today.  Soon after, another song is presented that has been silent throughout the world for almost two months:  ALLELUIA! We shout with joy the acclamation that shakes the foundations of the entire earth, that our moment in the tomb, our lives in sin and suffering and death have been conquered by the man whom we mourned only a few days earlier.  Incense, bells, and then one of the most beautiful scenes in the church today.  Men and women from around the world accepted into full communion with the Church through the sacraments.  Baptisms with holy water, white garments, baptismal candles; Confirmations with the perfume-oil mixture of Sacred Chrism.  With the graces that God pours forth on these men and women, the Church of Christ rejoices in her new daughters and sons, our new brothers and sisters.

And finally, as we did each day, we are able to taste the goodness of the Lord, experience his ultimate love for us, as we receive the Holy Eucharist, the body and blood, soul and divinity of God’s dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  We process up to feast on Love itself, God who makes himself present to us in such a miraculous way.

All of this is beautiful, but many people, including myself at times, have to wonder: why?  Why all the “smells and bells”?  Why can’t we have mass the same as any other Sunday?  What makes these few days so much more?

Saturday for lunch, I was able to go to eat with a brother seminarian from my parish, my associate pastor, and a transitional deacon from a neighboring town.  As the four of us waited for our food, the deacon received a call from home: some younger members of his family had put together an Easter play and wondered if the four of us would be interested in watching it that afternoon.  While the acting of the play was wonderful, it was the signs that were present in the play that struck us as most important.  As we walked up to the front entrance, the door had a hand-drawn sign stating:  ‘Easter Play Today: The True Meaning of Easter.  All are welcome’.  And at the end of the play, the young boy held up a sign with three simple words that summed up exactly the meaning of Easter, the reason that we celebrate, the reason that we pull out all of the stops at each and every mass this weekend.

He is risen.

Death has been destroyed.  Sin has been defeated.  The cries of fate have been silenced.  The darkness has been illuminated.

And so we celebrate, not only with our minds and voices, but with our entire bodies; we engage each and every one of the senses.  We rejoice at the smoky- sweet fragrance of incense burning upwards towards the heavens.  We feel the vibrations of the deep and glorious notes hit jubilantly from the pipes of an organ and we cannot help but shake with excitement.  We see the light of Christ spreading throughout the church in the form of candles as we see it spread to each of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We taste Love in the bread and wine that is no longer bread and wine but rather glorious Grace pouring out onto our tongues like the milk and honey promised to Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites.

And all of this because of three simple words that these children were so beautifully portraying, three words that we should be shouting to each and every person that we meet.

He is risen!

Alleluia!

Priesthood: Walking into the Abyss

ImageAbout three years ago, I was at our local library looking for a new book to read.  As I glanced at the shelf that contained the newest books at the library, my eye was drawn to the spine of a paperback book with the title written in bold: Fatherless.  The book, by Brian J. Gail, had a sticker on the bottom stating that it was Christian fiction, so I picked it up and read the description.  To my joy, I discovered that the book was a Catholic bestseller and contained this in its description:

 In these pages we meet flesh and blood characters-noble and flawed, driven and seeking each struggling to achieve the American Dream, but discovering instead a uniquely American nightmare.  How each confronts the reality of ethical and moral dilemmas-while struggling to balance faith, family, and career-goes to the very heart of the Catholic experience in America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

I was intrigued.  As a Catholic in today’s society, it can be daunting to stand for things such as traditional marriage, human dignity from conception to natural death, anti-birth control and the like when all of society towers over you with its powerful influence stating that these things are perfectly acceptable and should be commended in some instances.  I was hooked.  The book was spectacular and followed three Catholic families who are faced with the list of issues that I listed earlier as well as divorce, issues with children, alcoholism, infidelity, and such.  It also follows a fourth story, that of these families’ parish priest, a young priest who has struggles of his own in his task of leading his flock through these difficult times while balancing his own personal struggles and vices.  I discovered that this was the first book in a trilogy, so for Christmas I received the three books as a set.  Well, of course I was busy, so I have not gotten around to reading the last two until I recently picked up the second book, Motherless.  And within the first ten chapters, I was already blown away by an explanation of the priesthood that I had never heard before.

The priest, Fr. John Sweeney, is speaking with two 20 year old men who are discerning entering seminary.  They visit with him twice a month or so to talk about anything and everything about the faith.  In this particular instance, they are talking about the unfortunate abandonment of almost any strong faith life in the contemporary American and whether they can do anything about it.  Fr. Sweeney responds as such:

 

“We must shout our lungs hoarse and when our cries go unheeded, we must follow man into the abyss.  And when he turns to us, and he will, we must be there at the ready, to point the way to Jesus Christ, who alone is his hope and his destiny.”

 

We as humans are a fallen race.  Created in the image and likeness of God, created good, we turn our backs on this goodness, on our dignity, and fall into the abyss of slander, sloth, lust, greed, dishonesty, apathy, envy, hatred.  We seek for immediate gratification.  We long to be in complete power, to have total freedom from everyone and everything, and by seeking that freedom we enslave ourselves all the more to those things that tear us apart spiritually, emotionally, and socially.  As a parent, a teacher, a friend, or a priest, we can shout all we want into the darkness for our brother or sister to turn around, to see the error in their ways, to turn back towards Love, but many times these are met with deaf ears that hear only the allurement of the world they live in now.  We must not give in though.  Though it may look as if the battle is lost, we must continue to follow the person into their downfall, continually hoping and praying for a conversion.  Once they have hit the bottom, once they have nowhere to go, once they feel there is nobody to love them and that they could not possibly be loved anymore, they will look behind them and see you, standing there with loving eyes and arms pointing back to where everything started: Jesus Christ on the crucifix, displaying his perfect love for each and every one of us in every drop of blood that fell on the dusty ground- the grace and mercy of God quenching the thirst of the desert in our souls.  

God is love, and as a priest and as any Christian we are called to follow those lost sheep who have wandered from the flock so that we can be there when they turn around and point them back to God.  We are called to love, my brothers and sisters, and through this love we lead others to Divine Love.  

Turn around, sinner.

Feed my flock, Peter.

 

“Shepherd me, O God

beyond my wants 

beyond my fears

From death, into life!”

 

The Final Musings of a Music Director

Aside

I love music.

From a popular, upbeat song on the radio to a good country folk band on Spotify or the latest Taylor Swift CD on a long drive, I fill my head with a lot of music.  Growing up, Mom would always put in a CD with older songs (Queen was a favorite) or a CD for the season (“Disco Duck” on our Easter children’s CD) as we went about cleaning the house.  I grew up playing Mozart, Bach, and the like on the piano since second grade and moved on to trombone, tenor saxophone, and bass guitar in the band throughout junior high and high school.  I was involved in school musicals and finally was influenced to join the high school choir my sophomore year, of which I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of, as I developed a love of singing classically in a group.  My decision to join seminary, while an exciting one and a decision that I did not doubt, was also a difficult one because it meant that I would not be able to be a part of any band or choir on campus due to the large time commitment that both the music groups and the seminary demand.

I was thrilled, then, when I discovered that there was a small choir, traditionally known as the Schola Cantorum, whose main purpose was to enhance mass and other liturgical functions through music.  There was also the possibility of taking private voice lessons on campus.  It was through this that I was given the pleasure of learning under Mr. Nathan Medley, a professional countertenor who traveled around North America and Europe performing on top of his teaching career (for those interested, here is the link to his website: <http://nathan-medley.com/Nathan_Medley_Countertenor/HOME.html&gt; ).  I also began to learn organ, which I am now able to play every other weekend at the seminary for Sunday mass or for major feast days of the church.

Right before Christmas break of my freshman year, I was approached by the rector of the seminary and asked to lead the Schola in light of the current director taking a semester to study in Rome.  I was thrilled at first, but also quite nervous, because I had never led a group before and did not really know where to start.  We started out with fairly straightforward hymns with one hour practices a week, and while there were plenty of successes, there were times when I knew that songs had not turned out as well as I would have liked.  It was a learning curve for all of us, particularly for me.  I was among guys who enjoyed to sing, but most of them had not had the musical background that I had experienced.  There was more to learn than merely the notes; guys had to learn to listen to each other, read music, sing with dynamics, and such.  I can be a perfectionist when it comes to music, and there were many frustrating moments at the beginning because of my desire for perfection and the unfortunate reality that perfection can NEVER be reached in ANY musical group.

The Schola Cantorum of Bishop Simon Brute College Seminary, Christmas 2013

The Schola Cantorum of Bishop Simon Brute College Seminary, Christmas 2013

And yet, perfection is not what we were striving for.  As stated before, our job as a Schola was to enhance the liturgy that we were part of.  Once I was able to get a better grasp of this, the group began taking off.  As my sophomore year began, I was asked again to be in charge of music at the seminary, along with the other Hess of the seminary, Andrew.  It was wonderful having his experience, knowledge, and creativity to lead the group.  He also began to challenge me and the group to go outside of the songs in the hymnals and begin to look online for songs unfamiliar and yet beautiful.  This led us to the opportunity of singing a number of beautiful Phillip Stopford hymns (at the end of this post will be a number of links), a challenging O Holy Night (by far my favorite Christmas tune), and Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” which remains my favorite song sung while I was part of the Schola.  After debating for a number of weeks, the group decided to put together a homemade Christmas CD that was available for family and friends of the seminary as a Christmas gift.  For Easter, Corey, a seminarian from Owensboro, Kentucky, organized a brass quintet that would play with the organ and the schola to the hymn ‘At the Lamb’s High Feast.’

As is the case, there is an ending to every endeavor.  After a year and a half, the torch of music director was passed on to two other members of our seminary community, and I was put in charge of organizing special events and overseeing a number of other jobs. It has been a thrilling time for me, and I cannot thank the gentlemen who worked with me enough.  They have been so selfless of their time and talent, and it is because of them that I have enjoyed working with the music as much as I have.  I look forward to working with many of these same people as we return next year to be a part of the Schola and other musical functions of the seminary.

As we began every practice for the Schola, so I end this post by asking for the intercession of the patron of musicians, St. Cecilia:

Saint Cecilia, heroic martyr who stayed faithful to Jesus your divine bridegroom, give us faith to rise above our persecutors and to see in them the image of our Lord. We know that you were a musician and we are told that you heard angels sing. Inspire musicians to gladden the hearts of people by filling the air with God’s gift of music and reminding them of the Divine Musician Who created all beauty. Amen.

–The following is the youtube channel of Dominic Rankin, who recorded many of the songs that we sang during my time in the Schola.

https://www.youtube.com/user/DMNCRNKN

Marathon Prayer Intentions

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     Over this semester, five of my brother seminarians and I as well as Fr. Joe, our vice rector here at the seminary, have been preparing for a half marathon.  Well, tomorrow morning is the big day! To be honest, its quite intimidating right now, even though I have complete faith in the training that I have accomplished up until this point.  It will be a joyful relief to cross that finish line tomorrow!

     The seven  of us from here at Bishop Simon Brute will be running with T-Shirts that promote vocations to the priesthood, religious life, married life, and a chaste single life.  There is a group of over 250 people from the Indianapolis area that will be running for this same intention.  However, for me, I have a number of other intentions that I will focus on in addition to this.

     Three or four weeks ago was our 12 mile training run, which is the longest distance before the marathon itself.  I ran by myself that day, and I was not expecting to be able to run the entire time.  As I ran the first mile, though, I came up with an idea: I would offer up the pain, particularly towards the end of the run, for the repose of my grandpa’s soul, who passed away in July of last year <https://ahess2012.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/john-hess/&gt;.  I have done this ever since, and tomorrow, I add other family members who have died: Steven Hess, Michael Hess, and Mary Neace.

     Finally, this past Wednesday, we were given the tragic news that the 19 year old brother of one of the seminarians here from Indianapolis died in a drowning accident.  It has been a difficult shock not only for his family but also for our family here at Brute.  It hurts to think of the suffering of any of our brothers here; no matter how much we can get on each other’s last nerves, living so closely together creates a love and brotherhood that is beyond what I expected coming into this place two years ago.  However, we take consolation and hope in the fact that we live for a merciful God, and we pray in faith and hope that he takes mercy on this young man’s soul, that he may come in full union with Christ and the Beatific Vision.  Therefore, my final prayer intention for this half marathon is for Thomas Herring and the repose of his soul.

     For all of you reading this, I understand that most if not all of you will not be running a half marathon or doing anything physically challenging.  I do offer you a challenge: find some mundane task in your ordinary life (washing dishes, the stress of running behind, the nagging and complaints of our family, whatever you may think of) and offer that one moment in prayer, whether it be for my intentions, your own intentions, or for all of humanity.  It may be a very short time, but God is not asking for hours upon hours of prayer in a church.  Granted, this would be wonderful, but it is almost completely impossible.  Rather, He calls us to pray and reach out to him in all that we do, in our ordinary lives. You don’t have to go out of your way to pray; it just takes the thought and the willingness to open to the graces available through openness to Him.

     

     My dearest Jesus, as I embark on this challenge, I offer up all of the struggles, the pain, the annoyances, and the time to You.  I ask that through us, You may make known the holiness of our individual vocations and the discernment it takes to discover them.  I also ask through the intercession of your blessed mother, Mary, Queen of the Saints, and Saints Phillip and James, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow, for the repose of the souls of my family – John Hess, Michael, Steven, and Mary – as well as that of Thomas Herring.  May we all go about doing everything with the intent of bringing about your greater glory.  Amen.  

 

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: 
such a way as gives us breath, 
such a truth as ends all strife, 
such a life as killeth death.

 

 

The Manger and the Nails

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      For Lent, a group of seminarians began once a week to practice a prayer devotion known as Lectio Divina.  This method of prayer is one that focuses on deep reflection over a passage from the bible, from a song, a work of art, or other religious works; discovering what God is trying to tell us through it; and prayer over the reading or work.  Being Lent, my expectations were that the verses chosen would be ones that focused on the suffering of Christ.  So I was surprised to find that the first reading was from the second chapter in the Gospel of Luke, which is part of the Nativity story: 

8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”[a]

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”16 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; 18 and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

     After reading through these verses for a time, I began to realize that certain parts were sticking out to me.  “Be not afraid.”  “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God.”  “But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  While reflecting and praying over these, I continued to be bombarded by a song stuck in my head from the seminary Schola practice that had concluded recently, a beautiful rendition of “Ah, Holy Jesus.”  I continued to envision myself in the shepherds’ shoes as they approached the manger carrying the infant with this song as the soundtrack for the scene, and the power of the scene hit me: even as these shepherds give glory to Christ, they condemn him through their sins.

                                                  Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
                                                  That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
                                                  By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
                                                  O most afflicted.

     You see, these men at this time are full of admiration and love for Christ.  How would they have reacted to the crucifixion of this child that they had been told of by angels? Would they have doubted what the angels had told them, that this was the Messiah, the savior who had been foretold of in scripture? And when he rose again, what joy they must have felt, only to have that joy dashed to pieces again when they learned that the reason this man, whom they had known as a baby, had died in such a gruesome, painful, and inhumane way because of their sinful ways, ways that they knew were wrong but they did anyway?  The reason that this beautiful child was given to the world, was incarnated for us, was only because of his eventual death for our own sins as the sacrificial lamb.  If I were to be in their shoes, my shame and guilt would be almost unbearable.  Although I don’t have to be in their shoes.  My own shoes hold the feet of a sinner, one who takes pleasure in hammering nails into God himself.  What consolation is there for us?  In the eyes of the world, in the eyes of God, one who is at fault in the death of another is seen as the lowest of criminals.

                                                      Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
                                                      Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
                                                      ’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
                                                      I crucified Thee.

     And yet, even though this Lenten viewpoint of the Nativity story can cast a shadow of gloom and sorrow over our hearts, the Advent virtue of hope rings loud and clear through the message of the angels earlier in the passage.   “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”  Though we are guilty, we have no need to be afraid because we know that God is all-merciful.  We are called to reexamine our lives so as to discover what is keeping us from fully adoring Christ as we should.  We are in need of the sacraments, particularly that of Confession, so as to receive the graces that will continue to guide us away from sin and towards eventual union with God.  We strive through these graces to live lives that will promote holiness in ourselves and those around us.  

     Our sins do not keep us from adoring you, Lord Jesus.  They are a call to ever love you more and more so as to overcome our human condition.  Realizing that I am a sinner, I come to you in adoration, placing my sins in front of you like the wise men later would place their own gifts in front of you, like the boy would give his five loaves and two fish for you to feed the 5,000, like the woman would give expensive oil in an alabaster jar to annoint you with.  I ask that these sins be not a barrier from adoring you, but rather an invitation to conversion and much-needed grace that will carry me closer to You, for without Your grace, I can do nothing.  

                                              Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
                                              I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
                                              Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
                                              Not my deserving.