17 July 2016
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
For over a century now, since Saint Pius X in 1903, the Church has been trying to foster “conscious and active participation” in the Mass. When Pope Pius XII looked out into the pews in the mid-1950s, he characterized the people sitting there as “dumb and silent spectators.” And he wasn’t being uncharitable; by “dumb” he meant that people weren’t focused at all on what was happening. Today we would say they were “disengaged.”
But with the Second Vatican Council in 1963, the push for “fully conscious and active participation” in the Mass was ramped up even more. And many people took that idea and ran with it. And so today, if we ask what the ideal parish and worship should look like, we’ll often hear words like: “engaging,” “exciting,” “joyful,” “vibrant,” and “alive.”
And this goes for everything: worship and music, social justice, the parish office, hospitality, the buildings, religious education, community life, and so on. The ideal parish today is a “vibrant” parish—literally, a parish that “vibrates” with the activity of God, and is vibrant to the point of being “a guiding light” in the world. Of course, that reflects the missionary nature of the Church; we’re not meant to sit still; we’re meant to be on the move and busy with the Lord’s work.
And so, it’s strange that Jesus commended Mary for “just sitting there,” while Martha was chastised for her “buzyness.” I mean, she wasn’t busy doing nothing; she was busy trying to be a good housekeeper, a good hostess for her guest. She was going over and above the usual to be a truly hospitable and welcoming person. But all she got for her efforts was a lecture, while Mary got the praise.
I remember several years ago I went to the Chrism Mass up at the cathedral (that’s the Mass where the bishop blessings the Holy Oils for the next year). And it’s a unique Mass because people from all over the diocese come to it. But that particular year was the first time they’d started to say the Rosary together before Mass. The problem was that, up until that year, people had been encouraged to visit before Mass, and to reconnect with people from other parts of the diocese.
And so there was something of a “showdown” in the cathedral that day. Half the people were praying the rosary, and the other half were trying to socialize. And I’d hear people around me say things like: “Look at them trying to pray the Rosary;” or “This is a time for community, not a time for the Rosary.” And it was a rather uncomfortable time there before Mass. Maybe that’s how it was at Martha and Mary’s house.
Martha was getting all upset because Mary decided it was more important to just sit there, instead of being busy with hospitality and welcoming. To be busy welcoming, or to just sit there—that was the question in the cathedral, and also at Martha and Mary’s home. To be “vibrant” or to “just sit there”—that is the question in parish life, and in the Mass.
But, as I said, the ideal parish and its worship are often described as: “engaging,” “exciting,” “joyful,” “vibrant,” and “alive.” So, really there doesn’t seem to be much of a question. No sitting around, just “sitting there.”
About a year and a half ago I did an informal study of all the parish mission statements in the diocese. And every parish—100% of them—sees apostolic work and ministry as part of their mission. Every parish hears Jesus’ call to “go, make disciples of all nations.” Every parish is interested in being hospitable and welcoming, sharing the gospel, and inviting others to be part of the Catholic faith.
But of that 100%, a full 80% see that as their only mission—according to their mission statements. In other words, what characterizes the Catholic parish today is the buzyness of Martha; the “vibrancy” of doing the Lord’s work in the parish and out in the world, getting people “engaged” with the life of the parish and the work of God.
And so, while there may not be much of a question in our minds of whether to be “vibrant” or to “just sit there” as a parish, maybe Jesus is saying that there should be the question.
“Martha, Martha . . . you have literally worked yourself into an uproar, over many things. But Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” Jesus loves Martha. And he even appreciates the work she does. But it’s the intensity and the wide scope of her activity that makes him concerned. Martha isn’t neurotic; she’s just overly busy—she’s overly busy about too many things. In all her efforts to be welcoming and hospitable, she neglects to welcome . . . the guest. Of course, that’s where Mary succeeded.
If we want to be hospitable and welcoming, then spend time with the guest. Welcome the guest—and not on our terms, but on their terms. Welcome the guest as he or she is, and as he or she desires to be welcomed. And that goes for God as well. If we want to welcome God into our lives, then we have to spend time with him; simply and on his terms.
In the story of Abraham and Sarah today, God comes to them in the form of three angels/men. And, while Abraham has to do a few tasks (get some food made, and prepare a place to eat), his focus is on his guest. He isn’t concerned with trying to put his best dinnerware out, or getting dressed up; he doesn’t even have a fancy place to eat—they just eat under a tree. He’s only concerned with getting the food there so that he can spend time with his guest. And that’s all his guest wants—to spend time with Abraham (and Sarah, too).
And that’s what God wants of us, too. We build churches, we build communities of faith, and we welcome God to come and dwell among us. We take God “under our roof” as our guest. But when that happens, our life revolves around the guest. And I imagine most of us know that. When we have somebody over to the house, we don’t just ignore them. No, we change our patterns and our habits to accommodate the guest.
Well, when Jesus comes into our home, into our hearts and minds, into our parish, our life revolves around him. That’s the price and the joy of opening our doors to the Lord. And Mary knew that joy. As soon as Jesus walked in the door, there she was at his feet. That’s how Jesus wanted to be welcomed. Of course, Martha was being hospitable and welcoming, but it was on her terms, not on Jesus’. And so, she never really welcomed him; she was too busy telling Jesus how he was going to be welcomed. He was going to be welcomed with a sumptuous feast and the finest Martha had to offer. But that’s not what Jesus wanted; he just wanted her.
And so, while there may not be much of a question in our minds of whether to be “vibrant” or to “just sit there” as a parish, maybe Jesus is saying that there should be the question. Because, of course, “just sitting there” isn’t “just sitting there;” it’s sitting at the feet of Jesus and welcoming him into our lives.
For over a century now, the Church has tried to nurture “conscious and active participation” in Mass (which should spill over into our lives). When I look out and see the congregation, I see people looking at me; I see people sitting and standing, kneeling; giving the Sign of Peace, singing, saying Amen and Our Father. I see all that.
But are you “consciously and actively participating” in the Mass? I don’t know. I can’t tell by looking at you; because that kind of “participation” isn’t necessarily energetic, vibrant and busy. What we participate in here is an intimate sharing; the kind there is between Jesus and Mary. Among other things, we participate in a mutual welcoming: God welcomes us to hear him speak and to taste his Body and Blood; and we welcome him by simply saying yes to that.
And so, are you welcoming the Lord “under your roof?” Are you participating in what happens at Mass? I don’t know. But if we’re not, we’re in a good position to start. We’re already sitting here at the feet of God. All that’s left is to say: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” That’s the best welcome we can give to our guest: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”