The Divine Liturgy, Part Thirteen: Why are we here?.

Gal. 2:16-20; Mark 8:34b-38..

The Sunday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Our Venerable Father Eumenius the Wonderworker, Bishop of Gortyna.

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11:43 AM 9/18/2011 — During these weeks of summer we’ve been talking about the Divine Liturgy; and, even though we’ve only been able to penetrate a little more than half of the service, the summer is now over and we have to move on. You may recall that I chose to do this because I had misgivings about how we, as a parish, were celebrating the Liturgy, and on a number of counts, some of which I’ve shared with you and some I haven’t.
     One of the areas of concern I shared with you was about singing. I also spoke to you about physical posturing, bowing and making the sign of the cross and so forth. I then gave over twelve Sundays to explaining some aspects of the history of the Divine Liturgy, not because I had a naive hope of actually being able to cover such a topic is so short a time, but simply to give you a flavor for the fact that what we do in church is not just a matter of slavishly adhering to arbitrary traditions. The early Christians did things a certain way because it meant something to them. Sometimes, what it originally meant to them was forgotten, as we learned from our friend St. Germanus of Constantinople; but they conditioned themselves to cling to those traditions anyway. Why? Because they loved our Lord; and those traditions kept them close to Him by keeping alive the things that He had taught to his Apostles, who passed them down to succeeding generations. There are a lot of easier ways to celebrate the Eucharist and receive Holy Communion, but not many as ancient and as close in time to Christ and his Apostles.
     It raises an important question, and one with which we might bring our summer preaching on the Divine Liturgy to a conclusion. Why is it so important to preserve this Byzantine Tradition with which we worship? Right now, within walking distance of where you are now sitting, there are four Catholic Churches. Each one has more Masses scheduled at more convenient times then I am able to offer for you here. So, why are we still here? Is it a cultural thing? That can’t be right, because we’re not all of the same cultural or ethnic background, are we? Is it a family thing? Is it because this is the church you were raised in? Your father went here, your mother went here, you were baptized here, so here is where you go? That can’t be the reason either, because there are too many people in our parish for whom that is simply not true.
     One of the things that shocked me when I first came into the Ruthenian Church from the Latin Church was the great disconnect between the older people whose membership in the Church was culturally based, and the younger people of varying nationalities who had come into our Church, many of whom were, in fact, from other Catholic traditions. My first assignment in a Byzantine Church was with an old priest in a parish in New Jersey. It was an inner-city parish in a racially mixed neighborhood; and whenever people would show up in church on Sunday who were obviously not of Eastern European decent, he would say, “What are they doing here? They’re not our people?”
     Who exactly are “our people”? I guess it depends on who you ask. Go back fifteen hundred years and ask St. Germanus who “our people” are, and he probably would have given you the same answer that the Apostles themselves would have given: “our people” are those who believe in Christ. And many of them seek out and latch onto the Eastern Church, even though it may not be their heritage, because they find there an expression of Christianity which speaks to them in a special and very personal way. Assuming that all the various forms of practicing the Catholic religion are equal, there is something about our tradition that draws people beyond just finding a convenient Mass that fulfills an obligation to go to church on Sunday.
     So, when people who have no cultural connection to Carpathia or Sub-Carpathia or Hungry or Galicia or any of the other places where “our people” are said to have come from, find our churches and latch onto them, and make a conscious decision to worship with us when it would be so much easier for them to go to any number of other Catholic churches and have their pick of Mass times, there has to be a compelling reason. The whole point of the twelve little homilies I gave you on the Divine Liturgy is my way of trying to clue you in on what a part of that reason may be.
     Last week we celebrated the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a solemn Holy Day in our Byzantine Tradition. It celebrates the finding of the true Cross of our Lord in Jerusalem by Ss. Constantine and Helen, and their bringing it to Rome. Now, why would anyone travel to Jerusalem and dig around in the dirt to find a thousand year old piece of wood? Because that piece of wood held the body of our Lord, and finding it was a way of keeping the Lord close to their hearts. They didn’t have to go and look for it, just as you don’t have to come here to attend a Divine Liturgy that’s a lot longer and far more complicated than ten other Catholic Masses within a mile of this place, or perhaps a lot closer to where you live, where you could fulfill your obligation. If you are here, it is because you, too, have found something here in our tradition that, by God’s grace alone, brings you closer to our Lord. I sincerely hope that, in my own small way, I have done something this summer to help nurture that for you.
     Today’s Gospel, which is a follow-up to the feast of the Holy Cross, contains our Lord’s mandate to take up our cross and follow him. Celebrating the Divine Liturgy each week isn’t supposed to be a cross; but we all know it often can be, especially since many of us are traveling some distance to be here. My hope is that we will continue to understand what a great gift the Lord has given us in our tradition, that we will deepen our love and devotion for it, and pass it on to our children.

Father Michael Venditti