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Terrance KleinMay 04, 2022
(Josh Applegate/Unsplash)

A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52 Revelation 7:9, 14b-17 John 10:27-30

Before the Reformation, even the Catholic Church did not have a uniformly celebrated liturgy. Here, for example, is a fascinating variant in the medieval rite of marriage. It is the exchange of rings, described in Nicholas Orme’s intriguing and user-friendly Going to Church in Medieval England (2021).

The priest blessed the ring, if it had not already been blessed. He sprinkled holy water on the ring, and put it into the groom’s left hand. The groom was instructed to hold it with the first three fingers of his right hand, and he then took the right hand of the bride, where the ring would be placed. The bride’s hand was changed to the left in 1549. The groom used the ring to touch the bride’s thumb while he said (according to the Sarum manual), or said repeating the words of the priest (in York), the invocation of the Trinity in Latin. Beginning In nominee Patris, he touched her thumb, with et Filii, her forefinger, with et Spiritus Sancti her middle finger, and with Amen her ring finger, at which point he put the ring on that finger. The ring finger—the fourth finger—was known as the medicus in Latin or “leech-finger” in English, because there was believed to be a vein running from it to the heart. The bridegroom then followed the priest by saying, in York

 

With this ring I thee wed, and with this gold and silver I thee honour, and with this gift I thee endow.

The Sarum rite added to the words “gold and silver” “and with my body I thee worship and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

At my last wedding, the best man did not even take the rings out of the jeweler’s box before handing them to me. So I’m not advocating a change, only musing about a medieval rite that profoundly integrated what we consider the worldly—gold and silver, and indeed the body itself—with the spiritual. A moment when the outside world was drawn into the church by means of ritual.

Our American bishops are concerned, and rightly so, that we no longer understand the meaning of the Eucharist. We think of it as a ritual designed to impart a message, content that could step free from the service and be communicated in other ways. If the Eucharist were an instruction, evangelical worship would be quite on target. The music and the preaching should entertain, motivate and be as contemporary as possible.

Our American bishops are concerned, and rightly so, that we no longer understand the meaning of the Eucharist.

But the Eucharist is not pedagogy, and it has no substitute because it is Christ’s own gift of self. Whether a community generates a well-sung and aptly preached Eucharist or not, Christ gives himself, just as he did when Father Emil Kapaun celebrated Mass on the top of an army jeep in Korea.

Young advocates of the Tridentine liturgy like to believe that it was always celebrated with great beauty and dignity. Older Catholics know that this is not true. It could be perfunctory in performance, and it often was. Believers were convinced that Christ was present no matter how he was celebrated. Oddly, some traditionalists also employ a rather un-Catholic way of reasoning about the Mass, claiming that the old liturgy had more content because it had more words.

Whatever our predilections, the church did not fashion the Eucharist as one among many offerings she might make to the spiritually hungry. She did not create the Eucharist; the church was created by the Eucharist. The church came into being when Christ gave himself to us in communal mystery. We believe that, while the liturgy lasts, heaven and earth are wed. One might say the Eucharist—all the sacraments—are veins running back to the very heart of God.

What happened to our understanding of liturgy? The heaven-half of the wedding disappeared. We forgot the meaning of the resurrection, and in its place, we substituted older, pre-Christian understandings of the afterlife.

At my last funeral, next to the grave where we had gathered, was another one, recently covered. A beer can had been placed on its mound. What a failure of the Christian imagination! Christians now choose to bury their dead as their pre-Christian ancestors once did. Packing up playing cards and favorite liquors for the voyage.

Believers were convinced that Christ was present no matter how he was celebrated.

The ancients did that because they had not heard of the resurrection. We do it because we have forgotten its meaning. Compared to previous generations, our relative comfort leaves us picturing heaven as nothing more than a country club continuation of this life. We consign our loved ones there, hoping that they enjoy themselves.

Christ gave us the essential insight into heaven. It is not a place to be consigned. It is a person, stepping fully, absolutely into our existence.

“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish” (Jn 10:27-38).

Scholars no longer think that the early church’s liturgy was modeled after the description of heaven found in the Book of Revelation. Just the opposite. St. John could find no better image of heaven than the sacramental presence of Christ, one already experienced in community.

For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them (7:15).

There it is. Whatever heaven is, it is being with Christ. A person, and those who belong to him, become our shelter, our dwelling place.

It is hard to imagine that most wedded couples in medieval England could produce a gold or silver ring with which to wed. The talk of endowing the beloved with gifts was mostly whimsical. Life was short and harsh. Yet the love and abundance they professed was like the liturgy itself. Something that came and went in ceaseless cycles, yet always guaranteed by their belief in the resurrected Christ, in the presence he had created among them in the sacraments of the Church.

“With my body I thee worship.” What a union of flesh and spirit! Of earth and heaven! Was the spouse being addressed, or was the couple, so newly created in the Eucharist, speaking as one to the savior?

More: Scripture

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