(This is my monthly column called, “Bridgework” from the November issue of Ministry and Liturgy Magazine.)
The determined word
Several years ago, I attended Mass in a very active parish. The parish excelled in music and leadership among the parishioners. I found myself sitting behind a lovely, elderly woman sitting next to her caregiver. The older woman wearing a hat from another generation was fixed on her prayer book. She was engrossed in her book because she suffered hearing loss and her eyesight was very faint. She wanted to find her place not only within the book but also within the church in which she obviously felt very comfortable.
The spirited woman sang the opening hymn only after her caregiver found the correct page for her. The elderly parishioner struggled to hear the prayers and the first scripture reading for the Mass. She started to get agitated when the musicians sang a different psalm than what was designated for the Sunday. She wanted to see the text within her book of prayers. When the second lector approached the ambo and started reading a different scripture text than what was printed in her ritual book, she threw the book at the caregiver and yelled, “I can’t hear the bible!”
As I reflect on the gospels in the initial few weeks of Ordinary Time, I go back to the woman sitting in front of me during that Sunday Mass. I realize that often the Word of God becomes flimsy within our assemblies. The lector may proclaim the scriptures with intention and clarity but the sound of one falling kneeler or the cry of one sick infant or one sneeze from an elderly man derails the Word of God for people in several pews. The sound of salvation seldom makes it to the rear of the church. A priest whose native language is not the language of most people sitting within the pews cuts these inspired words of our history short in our generation. Most people just cannot understand the proclaimed Word of God and yet the Word is determined to find our hearts. So many people are visual learners who struggle to hear words from the ambo let alone trying to make them real prayer. Many people who are hearing impaired or visually impaired cannot understand what is going on praying just ten pews from the sanctuary.
Jesus in the gospel comes to Nazareth and enters the temple. He unrolls the scroll and proclaims the liberating message to those who can hear. He proclaims in his spirited voice glad tidings to the poor. He proclaims in his own voice liberty to captives and sight to the blind. Jesus reads that the oppressed are free.
We need to go back to Jesus’ message after rolling up the scroll, “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” We need to go back to how we form our lectors and how accessible the scriptures are in our generation given our carpeted churches, cheap sound systems and acoustical tiles on the ceilings of the church. The elderly parishioner sitting in front of me challenged my notion of this passage of scripture when I realized how people with disabilities desire God. After all, she is exactly the person Jesus was speaking about in offering glad tidings to people in need.
In these first few weeks in Ordinary Time, the gospels are arranged in order to establish the authority of Jesus after his baptism. Jesus’ role is to offer people the Kingdom of God. The Word of God is literally being made flesh within our own poverty, loss and imprisonment even in our culture, time and place. We proclaim good news to people in poverty from our ambos but unfortunately so many people in poverty cannot physically hear this good news. People know that Jesus’ words are to set us free, everyone but the actual people in prison, in the bonds of bad marriages or in the confines of old age.
As liturgists and musicians, we cannot control the Word of God. We do not keep healing hidden for only certain people. People are depending on this grace, on this liberation of our bodies, our wounds and our imprisonments. These words must be opened up by our lectors and lived in hope among people who take the Word of God seriously. We all receive God’s liberating Word in different ways no matter how we pray at Mass.
In these gospels, people were amazed at the words that came from the mouth of Jesus. They wondered where he received such wisdom. Jesus’ words led his disciples on to the shallow waters of the lake where he asked them to cast their nets into deeper water. These words remain in our hearts so that we may learn a greater and far deeper trust in God.
These are the words that are waiting for our lives, to set our hearts free and to show us how to live in faith. These are the strong words given to us in our crowded and noisy churches on Sunday mornings. We act on these words that get a chance to settle within our souls whether we read them on a page with our failing eyesight or hear them with our subtle hearing loss.