Friday, October 29, 2010

Where is our focus?

Last week the parish where I usually attend Mass moved their tabernacle from the sanctuary’s side onto the altar directly behind the altar table.  This complied with the bishop’s directive regarding tabernacle placement.  My understanding is the bishop wants the tabernacle on the altar because it houses the Body of Christ and everyone should focus on the presence of Christ.  Perhaps he thinks visual focus begets mental focus begets spiritual focus.

This change caused me to observe and reflect upon the presence of Christ during Mass.  The church teaches that during Mass Christ is present in the Eucharist (consecrated bread and wine), the clergy, the Word and the people. 

Christ’s presence in the people seems to receive little visual focus if the altar defines that.  Only select lay people stand on the altar, mostly remaining to the sides until their role requires movement into the center.  People approach but do not go on the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ at Communion.  As people receive the Body of Christ, in addition to becoming living tabernacles, they become what they receive, the Body of Christ.  Most do this without ever being on the altar.

If visual focus begets mental focus begets spiritual focus, then as the faithful proceed from Mass, should they least remember Christ’s presence in themselves and their fellow human?  Borrowing from a 7-Up slogan referring to caffeine, does the limited visual focus during Mass engender an attitude about Christ’s presence in people of, “Never had it; never will.”?  If so, suddenly the parking lot road rally after Mass would make sense as would the gossip that some engage in before reaching the church’s exit.

Christ’s presence in the Word receives limited visual attention during Mass.  Parishes that display the Bible during the liturgy tend to do so near the pulpit, again on the altar’s side.  Many only visually display the Word immediately before and after the gospel reading.

However, the Word is proclaimed at least three or four times throughout Mass: during the first and second readings, the gospel and the responsorial psalm.  Many liturgical prayers also emanate from scripture.  Thus, though the Word doesn’t occupy visual prominence, it does maintain audible prominence.  Hopefully lack of visual focus on scripture doesn’t deter mental or spiritual focus on it.

Throughout Mass, the priest seems a persistent visual focal point.  Several times during Mass the priest blocks my view of the tabernacle now that it’s behind the altar table.  This occurs when the priest kisses the altar table, during the Presentation of the Gifts, Preparation of the Altar, Prayer over the Gifts, Eucharistic Prayer, and the Sanctus.  Indeed, until the bread and wine are consecrated, the priest blocks visibility of the tabernacle every time he stands behind the altar table.  In some churches, the priest blocks the tabernacle through most of Mass because his chair is in front of the tabernacle.  Since the priest stands before the tabernacle, does this imply that I should focus more on him than on the Eucharist?

If visual focus begets mental focus begets spiritual focus, am I supposed to emerge from Mass primarily focused on Christ’s presence in the priest?  If that’s the case, priest groupies who never question, challenge or expect accountability from clergy suddenly make sense as do some clergy who expect to be treated like a regal messiah. 

Keep in mind that The Messiah was questioned, scorned, persecuted and rejected versus treated like royalty, and he rebuked those who felt he should evade suffering.  Jesus himself received regal gifts from the three Magi, non-believers who saw more profundity in his simplicity than many believers did.  He received regal anointing only from an audacious woman, mocked and scorned by religious leaders who felt her sins were more offensive to God than theirs.  He only received regal ornamentation during his trial and that was as a mockery. 

The Eucharist itself is quite plain and simple, reminiscent of Jesus born into poverty wrapped in swaddling clothes, living in poverty, dying in poverty stripped of all garments.  The Eucharist itself is consecrated bread and wine.

The Eucharist itself is also rarely visible.  It is visible when elevated at the consecration and during communion.  Sometimes, when a parish uses glass ciboria and chalices, people can see the sacrament more. However, mostly the Eucharist is hidden from view stored in ornate tabernacles, ciboria and chalices made of precious metal.

The Eucharist is not the tabernacle, chalice or ciborium that holds it.  That would be like saying an oyster shell is the same as the pearl it contains.  I’ve never found myself thinking, “If I stare at this oyster shell I’ll appreciate the pearl inside a lot more; as a matter of fact I should make the oyster shell really ornate so I better appreciate the pearl.”.  I would think if an oyster shell got too fancy, a person actually might be inclined to lose sight of the precious gem inside.

If Jesus could give us the Eucharist stripped of every worldly adornment, why do we adorn Eucharistic vessels now?  If visual focus on the Eucharist is important, why don’t we get to see the actual Eucharist more versus receptacles containing it?  Why would the priest block people’s view of the tabernacle? Since people are living tabernacles, why are they a lesser focus than inanimate tabernacles that hold the Eucharist? 

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