I proclaim the Gospel during Mass holding on to the lectionary for dear life. My right thumb presses tightly along the lower corner of the page while my left hand glides along the sentences yet to be read. I caress the written words because I understand my life depends on how I interpret those words which I yank out of my throat. After twenty-five years of Gospel proclamation, through translations changes and varied lectionaries, I ponder the yellowing marks on the corners of the pages left by my greasy prints.
My soiled fingers also leave the pages of my Liturgy of the Hours book brittle with shades of yellow decay. They tell the tale that I have been faithful to the same book since the fall of 1976. Those same marks tell the story that I am more faithful to Morning Prayer than to Evening Prayer. I pray more often at the beginning of the week rather than at the end. The dirty-yellow marks on the edges of the thin pages reveal the direction of my past faithfulness. They also reveal my end-of-the-week infidelity.
With little detective work even the sacramentary traces my path of prayer. Those same greasy-yellow marks creep onto even the newest books. Our parish sacramentary, however, tells a tale of years of true-to-life prayer because the cover is being held together by white masking tape. Inevitable wine spills mark the red and black texts with a few bread crumbs hiding in the folds of the pages. Many prayers have come from the written rubrics from this book evoking responses from the faithful listeners in the pews.
Now that I have some years of experience leading communities in prayer, I realize that a liturgical spirituality may be revealed in the ordinary, tangible articles of how we pray in any community. The commonplace artifacts of liturgy speak honestly and boldly, beyond the script set out for me in graduate school or the seminary, more profound than liturgical workshops and much more interesting than discussions on prayer being “liturgically correct.”
I form liturgical ministers by teaching them to act with this same sense of intentionality. I instruct them to caress the sacred texts with fidelity and love. Lectors hold on to the lectionary because they understand now after years of proclaiming the holy Word to our needy assembly, that we all need God. The readers grasp the edges of the sacred book because on some days many of us forget that God loves us. They learn that the written words in a book become something more than a history lesson. The lectors become instruments of God’s intentional love for all His people.
These readers in our worship may also get lost in the swirl of life’s indignities. When lectors lose hope, they proclaim the Word anyway. They hold tight to the holy words even on days when they do not believe they can manage life or believe in something more than themselves. They grasp the lectionary tightly because they never know how much other people need to hear the Word of freedom and healing.
My heart aches for the elderly woman grasping the written text with arthritic fingers because she remains so tired of caring for her husband with Parkinson’s disease. She cannot lift him out of bed and she barely has the strength to lift the holy book up to her fading eye sight. On those days she proclaims the Word in the hope that someday she may believe in God’s love again.
One day Bonnie stormed into the sacristy before Mass disheveled and frantic. Her puffy eye lids told me she had been crying and not sleeping. She screamed out at me that she could not take her daughter’s drinking anymore. She threw off her coat and complained that she was tired of always rescuing her daughter after late night drinking binges. Bonnie could not handle her verbal abuse and the effects on the family. Quickly before Mass started, I tried to suggest that her entire family needed help. I could not calm her. I forgot that Bonnie was scheduled to be the first lector for the Eucharist. Bonnie walked up to the ambo after the opening prayer, held on to the lectionary with both hands and proclaimed from Isaiah, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”
On that day, Bonnie left her finger prints on the Scriptures and most of her worry as well. The Scriptures in turn marked her soul. These moments reveal to me that God’s presence in the Eucharist is real and sustaining. Her proclamation of the Word also showed me that seeds of faith are nurtured and brought to fruition by God alone. Our role is simply to be present to life honestly, lovingly and understanding that we cannot force faith on anyone. On that day I grasped the Gospel book with intentional gratitude, leaving on its white pages the prints of my pride and deep concern for Bonnie and her family.
Our extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers also carry with them this ministry of intentionality. They hold the Cup of Salvation with a firm grasp that understands their fragile place in life. Even on days when life erodes their self-esteem and purpose they stand on the holy ground of our worshipping community as if they owned the place. The ministers stand solidly on the earth, breathing deeply, and realizing God is using them for His purpose. The noticeable prints on the communion cups tell me the story of our minister’s grasp for dear life, especially on the days when they do not believe in God’s presence within their pain.
Jane holds the goblet, the miracle of Christ’s real presence, in her hands with great intention because she is allergic to alcohol. Even though she does not receive the Eucharist from that vessel, she holds on tightly to the fact that she must offer the cup of freedom to other people. She stands intentionally on this place of level ground where all people are equally treated. Jane looks into the eyes of each person who approaches her and invests her prayer in people she knows by name. Jane prays especially for people who remain bashful or timid or feel unworthy to look at her in the eyes. She prays through her addiction and into the hearts of strangers who need God in ways that are beyond her imagining. Jane prays at the sight of every lipstick mark on the purificator and every fingerprint left on the sacred cup. She realizes she holds the source of love to many who feel they do not belong in the church, those who cannot forgive themselves and for those who wait to believe again someday. She waits for the day when we are all in communion with one another.
Our ritual books reveal the marks of many other profound moments of prayer. There are a few pages dusted with black marks from my thumb from Ash Wednesday after dabbing burned palms on people’s faces. I leave the dark splotches on the pages because they remind me of the fragile lives behind the greasy foreheads that long for change. These people let go of previous conclusions about sin, division and heartache. Those black-grey ashes under my nails remind me that I will join the club of heaven with all past believers when my body becomes dust.
Every week in our urban parish we celebrate the Anointing of the Sick after the noon Eucharist because so many people long for courage. I pray for healing as I ponder the oil spots left on my chasuble or the sacred oil spills on the maroon carpet in the chapel. In those greasy sights I still see my friends who suffer from mental illness or are recovering from strokes and congestive heart failure. I pray focusing on the crusty oil dried on the glass container that stores the oil during the week. The container waits again for our friends who line up in a row so to be touched with sacred oil blessed by the Bishop. I celebrate every week wearing garments spotted from past encounters of this loving sacrament and touching the foreheads in their need of Christ today.
Even the pages from the ritual book of the Rite of Funerals are warped from blessed water. The crinkly pages from the opening of the funeral mass remind me of all the times I sprinkled baptismal water on the caskets of loved ones and strangers. The texts of this ritual book are blurred from the drops of water and tears that have flooded the opening rituals of bringing dead bodies through the church doors for the last time The pages connect me to people’s lives and the hope I will be sprinkled with new life when my body enters the church door for the last time. These old, worn, faded pages celebrate for me so many lives and teach me again to let go of everything I want to cling to that is not God.
I observe the pen-marked pages of the ritual book from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults which remind me of all the new followers of Christ. I celebrate my twenty-five years of starting ritual fires in parking lots and on street corners. I remember these years of blessing fresh water in bowls and fonts. I pray again in memory of drenching people with this holy water and ruining their hairstyles. The dark marks on the pages remind me of the sacred chrism which connects all believers from around the world. I wait for the day when our connection to human community gives way to the true unity in our places in heaven. In God’s Kingdom we will not have to worry about our hairstyles or regret our roles in the community or fret about the correct rubrics of our worship.
I believe we must ponder the finite, ordinary aspects of our prayer to find the God of infinite love and mercy. Every aspect of the liturgy must lead us into two directions, first to people’s hearts and then ultimately to the unbelievable mystery of God. Our community worship must shed light on the here-and-now and our future with God. If people or God are missing then our prayer becomes disengaged and meaningless.
As I look back over my years of ministry, I see that the ordinary and even the trite aspects of our common worship help make our prayer honest. This is one of the first fruits of living an intentional life, being honest with God. I see His mercy in the sweat stained purple stole hanging over the chair in the confessional. I understand courage pondering the tattered edges of our chapel’s carpeting. The fringe reminds me of my friends who pray in wheelchairs that get caught along the frayed corners.
When I am transferred from this parish I will leave behind the stains, tears, and smeared pages of all our ritual books. The books will outlive my stay and they will remind others that we all prayed here with gusto and grace. I am not sure the second grader stepping on the kitchen stool to read the Scriptures at Mass will notice yet the greasy marks on the pages. The confirmation student may not even be aware of the oil spilled on the ritual book. On First Communion day the children may not be aware that the adults are holding on to the chalices for dear life. They will in time, when God settles into their lives, find grace in the ordinary, connecting their real lives to fingerprints on the chalices and the smeared, yellowing pages of the lectionary.