(This is the tenth and last in the series, Bread and Concrete: Where Liturgy and Ministry Meet. I hope you have enjoyed this year-long series in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine. I want to thank Ada Simpson for publishing this work)
The really big book: The Book of the Gospels
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Col 3
The large red and gold gospel book sits straight up on the altar before Mass. When people enter our small chapel the lights are dim. A single light shines down above the altar highlighting the place and purpose of the book. The connection to the holy gospel and the altar of sacrifice is obvious in the simple white light. As the Mass time approaches and the full lights are turned on the upright gospel book becomes a centerpiece of the liturgy.
As the gospel acclamation is sung in our simple space, I normally gasp for air. I become anxious about my role to proclaim the gospel. In my heart, I commend the needs of our community to God as we seek to be in communion with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. This moment for me is a time to let go of my ego, my own misfortunes and sin as a preacher. I simply ask for the grace to read from the large red book that is the center of our spiritual lives. In this moment I find the deep connections that people long for, even though I may not be able to articulate them on my lips. During this time of drawing our attention to the book, I walk to the altar both with deep hesitation and the compelling belief that my ministry as a preacher is given to me in the absolute poverty of our community.
As I reverence the altar with a bow, I slowly lift up the gospel book with profound love and the inner prayer of my soul so that the community may view this ancient gift. This gesture is not lost on me realizing that later in the same hour I will be standing in that same position holding a simple cup of wine that will become the Blood of Christ. I will hold up before the assembly the small plate of bread that will become the Body of Christ. So in this moment, the written words bound in the red and gold book will become the Word of Christ when I open the pages and proclaim in my voice the stories of salvation in the dying and rising of Christ Jesus.
I approach the small, blond wooden ambo unselfconscious of my actions. If I actually thought for a moment of this immense responsibility, I would not be able to speak or act. I would not be able to have the strength to even put the book down on the stand and open the pages of the ancient text for the designated Sunday. Instead, I commend my voice and actions to God and simply process in love feeling intensely that I need to hear the stories that will also set me free. I need in the worst way to feel part of the mission of the Word that will penetrate the hardness of all of our hearts.
I slowly lower the big book to the ambo under the light that shines now on this place of Christ’s revelation. I adjust the microphone to fit my height and place there even though I know my own voice is what carries the true message. My body has known this routine, this procedure for more than thirty years. My body holds the memory of what to do and my actions become second nature. I do not have to think about how to set up the physical space to ready myself to proclaim the Word. My eyes rest on the congregation. I pause to see every person assembled. I try to fill in the silence after the sung gospel acclamation with purpose. My silence seems to draw people’s attention to the book under this new light. My heart is ready when they are to hear our place again in the grand story.
I clear my throat. Sometimes my voice seems to be an unworthy place for such a story to be told. Sometimes sinus infections and colds cloud the proclamation. Sometimes my voice seems dehydrated from not taking proper care of myself. Sometimes people can hear the fear in my voice when I am not prepared to be standing under the spotlight. I know that my voice will have to do because this is the human instrument that the community has in order to receive the grace in the hidden, written words of love. My voice is the instrument that can potentially bear the grace that can set people free. My voice becomes like the wings of eagles taking the words to peoples’ ears and hearts where people may be transformed from doubt or sin or anxiousness. My voice finds the way beyond the fragility of my own body so that people may find the Word’s fulfillment in their hearing.
I concentrate on the written story by using my left hand to follow each sentence of the page, to keep my place in the text. My eyes straddle the text and the concentration of people’s eyes looking into my direction. My fingers caress the smooth page so that I may remember my duty with meaning and purpose. My entire body remembers my place there, my ministry to bring good news to believers. I desperately want to feel my place at the pulpit at every Eucharist so that I will always remember the meaning of my vocation as a preacher.
After I read the gospel, I lift up the big, red book and proclaim again to the assembly what they have just heard, “The Gospel of the Lord.” Before I set the book down again on the ambo, I kiss the pages with not only my lips but also my intentions for this community wrapped in poverty, illness and disease. The words becoming flesh are holy and alive. I remember the kiss of the altar at the beginning of Mass. My lips will speak the praise of God as I preach the connection of our earthly lives to the promise of new life that has just come out of my mouth. I grasp the book for dear life. I hold on and I dare not let go. I put down the book rather relieved; the grace is released from the cage of the pages one more time. Now it is up to God to do the work and my role, as preacher is to point us all into that direction.
I walk down two steps of the dark wooden sanctuary to the grey concrete floor where the people have been standing attentively listening to the story of Jesus. I am now on their level with the purpose of opening up the scriptures so they may deepen their faith and that God may heal their wounds. I am grateful we are now all on the same level, the place of common grace.
I usually begin the homily standing in the center aisle of the congregation. I pause, glance down to the concrete floor. I then look into peoples’ eyes. This silence draws people together. This simple mechanism of allowing the space for people to hear has become quite effective. I sense my deep responsibility on the concrete floor because we are all together. There is no turning back; I have to bring the good news to them in ways in which they will connect. This means I always need to be on the same ground as they are, acknowledging my poverty, being in need of God, love and communion.
People come to Mass in order to listen to these holy words of God. They arrive having listened to other words from other books. College students enter our community learning from books of the business world or the private matters of psychology. They sit in our pews as scientists or engineers or students who want to make a difference by reading volumes of American literature or volumes about global injustice. They want to find their true voices and their authentic gifts here among people praying in poverty.
Some people pray here after paging through magazines of pornography. The text message archives of Saturday night tell certain stories of infidelity and longing. Other people sort through the pages of files from tax attorneys and divorce lawyers. Volumes of paperwork become a daily source of making a living or applying for an identification card for someone who is homeless. Many words and books, papers and files that fill our lives during the course of the week. We try to make sense out of the Word of God on Sunday morning.
Other people have been reading the “Big Book” from Alcoholics Anonymous during the week. They have been trying to absorb the message to admit a higher power greater than them selves. They struggle to live beyond the blindness of denial. They try to do the deeds of recovery, the actions required to live one sober day at a time. They long for a way out of the lies that have brought them to this point. People want to make sense out of their patterns of suffering and their addicted pasts. They gather here in our chapel on Sunday searching for new words and insights, hopes and inspirations from a book that is even bigger than the “Big Book” from AA.
On Wednesday evenings, a group of women gather to ponder the message of the “Big Book.” They gather from wealthy suburbs and from the women’s shelter a block away. Some of the women gather because they are trying to remain Catholic on their road to sobriety while others are hardly aware that the community that maintains the space and welcomes them in is one of faith and service. I do not know firsthand what happens in this meeting for women only. However, I am aware of the horrific physical, emotional and sexual abuse so many women have been through to get to this point of recovery. These women model in secret for me how to turn from words of putdowns, torture, prostitution and abuse to finding new words of holiness in a circle of shared stories and not drinking alcohol. I bring these women to mind when I read the words of hope for us all on Sunday mornings.
We are all formed and challenged by the gospel book that has floated in procession from the altar to the ambo. I begin the homily sorting through the words that people have spoken to me during the week and the call to find our purpose in Christ Jesus. As I take a deep breath, I begin to preach.
I believe now more than ever that gospel stories become communion. The stories are the real presence of Christ Jesus when vocalized, proclaimed, listened to and taken to heart. These stories shed a new light on our own life stories. Our stories connect in the common story of Christ’s resurrection. Communion becomes a life of sharing, of unity and of common hope. Communion is unity with the Risen Savior and our home in the Kingdom of God. This unity begins by how we love and support all who are lost, forgotten and marginalized and being vulnerable enough to share our own life stories.
Most people are looking for a different way to interpret their life journey. My years of experience teach me that many people do not like themselves. They hold within them the uncertainty of their commitments and guilt about past actions or roads not taken. If the Roman Catholic Church could do only one thing in our lives, I pray to God that we could heal the reasons why so many people hate themselves. This would be real evangelization; this would be real faith and freedom for people no matter where they live in our society. This uncertainty opens us to the reality that grace is now, and available today to change our lives and the paths we take in the future. This is a key in my ministry as a preacher. My experiences among people in poverty teach me that Jesus writes secretly in the sand for us all, forgiving past accusations, and he calls us beyond our lives of sin and doubt.
Preaching connects people’s stories to the miracles of Jesus’ healing and the call to faithful discipleship. Preaching in the aisles of our community is simply an invitation to such a life of love. However, I cannot change people or heal their abuse or give them a new fidelity in relationships. I cannot provide housing for people living outside when I preach. I cannot redirect their negative self-talk about their drug abuse. I cannot move them from their infidelity in marriage and I cannot teach them to pray. I can only offer the invitation that God is working in ways we least expect.
On our concrete floor, I learn a deeper spirituality of preaching. Preaching among people in poverty must convey honesty and integrity. There is no pretending or pious language that will satisfy the soul of an addict or unburden the life of someone surviving generational poverty. I must know people’s stories and struggles and I must receive the love God has for me. My words as a preacher will be flimsy, empty and worthless without this communion of people and love.
All of my advanced degrees, studies and poring through theological textbooks mean nothing if I do not find my words from the Gospel book and the real life texts of people’s concerns. My life here as a preacher must convey that I, too, find my true life deep among the pages of scriptures and that I am willing to change my old ways.
The words that I use come from the heart-wrenching stories of people that touch my life. They teach me to turn to God because I do not know where else to go with their pain. The tragedies of sin, loss, failure and disease increase my silent fidelity so that my words will not be fake or trite when I preach in the center aisle.
I preach to give voice to hidden experiences that people think set them apart in failure or condemnation. My teachers here show me the dark and hidden life of how depression changes people’s perspectives on every aspect of life. These teachers show me what it means to go from doctor to doctor trying to discover a balance of medications that will give some stability to daily life. I hear the struggles of patients when so many healthcare professionals do not have the answers that will heal their conditions either.
I preach to offer such communion when we continue to judge people and set people apart. People with mental and physical disabilities are still blamed for their diseases by so many other people even after so many generations have past since the time of Jesus. People even in our generation are looking for a place to belong and to be relieved of negative judgments and bullying. So often people gather in our pews because the words they experience in daily life keep them from faith, from relying on the fact that the Word of God is flesh for them. So many people who experience abuse believe the abuse is their fault. The same is true for people living with depression or other forms of mental illness. They absorb into their weakened bodies and exhausted minds the blame others put on them. Affirmation, forgiveness and new life are really possible for all people today, for all who listen to the words from the really big book on the ambo.
People come to our parish community searching for physical safety during the week in our hospitality center. This physical safety is very important. People want to belong, to get food and clothing, haircuts and shoes. However, what I realize as I stand on the concrete floor in our worship space is that people are sitting in front of me also searching for emotional safety. People want to be safe for an hour, to pray, to think and to be together. This counters their lives on the violent streets, in shelters or other violent places of bad marriages or being diagnosed with long-term disease. The words from the really big book also convey a place of emotional safety as they are proclaimed during the Eucharist.
One of the more important aspects of preaching among people in poverty is that I too, must rely on the Holy Spirit. I preach in church as other people live daily life, trying to find daily bread, shelter and friends. I seldom know the words that I will use to connect the experience of people in front of me with the words of scripture. I rely on the working of the Spirit as I see people’s expressions and look in to their eyes even at a distance. I am given what I need.
This is certainly not how I was taught to preach from reading many books and articles. This preparation for preaching the Word of God was not how I was taught from the professors of homiletics who lectured me in the classroom. However, here on the concrete floor of our worship space where people pray in raw need, a new reliance on God floods my soul. My words are given to me as I experience the profound reliance on faith from people sitting in the pews. This moment of insight changes my life as a preacher and shows me how to rely more profoundly on God’s grace that floods our chapel after the gospel proclamation.
My homily preparation comes from sitting quietly with the stories from the gospel book as well as listening to the stories of people who struggle to find what they need in life. This is where communion occurs, where insight finds a home in the center aisle and where the scriptures become sacred and forgiving, where the Holy Spirit stirs up consolation and hope for people.
I am keenly aware that the Word of God is pure nourishment and absolute miracle. There are days when I grow weary about any new form of evangelization or reform of the liturgy itself. I admit that new forms sometimes get in the way of grace. We sometimes think as Church leaders that new forms will do the work that we do not want to do for other people. The Word of God from this big book stands on its own. I do not have to push it or pull it or soften it or counter it to make grace appear. This grace from the Word revitalizes no matter what I do or the ministry we offer as a Church.
I remember Holy Thursday morning a few years ago. I was reflecting with a friend that all seemed lost on that particular day. A young man from our community called and was totally trashed from drugs again. His youthful body cannot hold up to drugs, booze, sex addiction and AIDS. Under all the addictions, he wants God more than anything. I keep his desire within in my own heart. He needs something even greater than the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I wish leaders of the Church could know this addicted man because they would realize that the gospels work in their own time. Our leaders would be a lot more patient with forms and formulas of evangelization or liturgy or religious education or the future of priesthood if they knew more people like him. They would come to know that the really big book, the ancient gospels, take time and patience, that reform is not always easy or instant or clean and tidy.
On that Holy Thursday my friend was crawling out of his skin. However, he teaches the rest of us in parishes all over the country that we really need God to emerge from the depths of the Word, not just once but over and over again in our lives. I really need communion and consolation from the Word and so does my sick friend. On some Holy Thursdays, I know deep within my spirit that all the tools I need to evangelize the lost come from my friendship with people who are completed loaded and even fear dying during the Triduum. The rest of us will be on our knees in prayer during the night on Holy Thursday and into morning daylight.