Day of the Lord

Author: Manlio Sodi, S.D.B.


Manlio Sodi, S.D.B., Dean of Theology, Pontifical Salesian University


Sunday 'a special day of faith'

On 31 May 1998, with the Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, John Paul II wished to revive in the Church a definite commitment to keeping Sunday holy. We need to reflect on this major document, which should continue to influence religious education about our holy day—the day of the Lord.

There are two paragraphs in Novo Millennio ineunte that deal with the Sunday Eucharist, numbers 35 and 36. These are in part III, when the Church is invited to "start afresh from Christ".

"The larger and more demanding challenge of normal pastoral activity" (n. 29) is directed towards becoming holy, shown to be the true "urgent pastoral task" (n. 30), indeed the "foundation of pastoral planning" (n. 31). It is more significant than ever that such a key document, while it calls attention to pastoral programming, defines the true objective. It states that the "training in holiness" needs "personal paths", "adapted to people's needs" (n. 31); as well as starting "in contemplation and prayer" (n. 15); "education in prayer"—the "art of prayer"! (n. 32)—presented as "a key-point of all pastoral planning" (n. 34).

At the summit and centre of life in the third millennium, Novo Millennio ineunte places the Eucharist, defined by n. 368 of the Introduction to the Missal as "the sacrament of sacraments". The Apostolic Letter selects elements to highlight that can contribute to better participation in the celebration of the memorial of the Passover of the Lord.

I want to add what belongs to the listening to and proclaiming of the Word (cf. nn. 39-40) since it too is closely connected with the rest of nn. 35-36 on the Sunday Eucharist.

The 'way of celebrating': challenge and guarantee

Since in the Christian community "there has been great development in the way ... [it] celebrates the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist" (n. 35), Novo Millennio ineunte calls attention to the role of Sunday. It is on the special day, that we freely dedicate to the Lord, recalling the Resurrection that "the Church will continue to show to every generation the true fulcrum of history" (n. 35).

To direct the work of formation and liturgical planning for this "day" is to direct those working in the parish to a liturgical celebration that demands careful preparation. Sharing in the Eucharist "should really be the heart of Sunday for every baptized person. It is a fundamental duty, to be fulfilled not just in order to observe a precept but as something felt as essential to a truly informed and consistent Christian life" (n. 36).

The Apostolic Letter Dies Domini explained the points of lived faith that allow us to understand Sunday as the day of the Trinity, of the assembly, of the person, and as the original feast revealing the sense of time for man to be with God. If one helps people recover a sense of the richness of the Day of the Lord, one can help them realize that Sunday is a weekly convocation which, over the millennia, remains a memorial of the Resurrection and a symbol of man's resting in the Lord.

However, when Novo Millennio ineunte introduces the topic of the Sunday Eucharist, it affirms a fact, and offers a challenge and a guarantee: "therefore ... our principal attention must be given to the liturgy" and especially in the "way ... the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist [are celebrated]" (n. 35). The affirmation is a challenge and a guarantee, when it is accompanied by the classic conciliar quotation about the Eucharist as summit and source of the Church's life (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10).

The challenge lies in the fact that, since the liturgical action is the sacramental place that allows for uniting the reality of daily life with the God of Life, then our major thrust must be to see that the complex symbolic language of the liturgy is understood and becomes our own. This has consequences at the level of action that cannot be ignored, if we don't want to lose the importance of the day of the Lord.

Consequently, the guarantee of Christian life enlightened by the Word of Life is offered and supported by sharing in those holy signs that make up the Eucharist. It is the real living meeting with the God of Life—in his mysteries—which offers the believer the support he needs to face life's challenges. We must ask ourselves: what should be done so that the Sunday Eucharist "may offer" the response to these expectations?

The 7 Commandments for 'the heart of Sunday'

The fact is that the experience of the Christian mystery passes through a rite. In the rite what is read and carried out in a language of faith has its roots in a Word proclaimed, so that it can become part of the believer's life.

But the central "rite", the Eucharist, "the heart of Sunday" (n. 36), offers a complex set of elements that have to be taught and learned. NovoMillennio ineunte indicatesa few of them; especially, when it suggests programming, proclaiming and listening to the Word of God. Listing ways of guiding the celebration—that will serve that "great commitment" of the Sunday Eucharist (n. 35)—we can point out a few major items to be taken care of with that "renewed pastoral courage" which John Paul II himself refers to (n. 37).

Educating to celebrate challenges the priestwho presides over an assembly, and those who participate in it. For everyone there remains the mission of participating in the Mystery of the Death and Resurrection: it is the final goal! And the goal helps to identify paths that simplify our contact with the God of Life through the symbols and language used in the celebration. It would help to synthesize these ideas so we can respond to the invitation to "set about drawing up an effective post-Jubilee pastoral plan" (n. 15), with "pastoral initiatives adapted to the circumstances of each community" (n. 29).

1. Lead the celebration with skill —The role of leader of song or of prayer cannot be improvised. To fulfil the role one must be skilled in order to give soul to the ritual. This is the reason for which the liturgy proposes a guide for the liturgy. Leading chants and readings cannot be entrusted to just anyone. Leading chants, reading or commentary that is mistaken in its ways, forms, and contents can risk setting a tone that contradicts the goal of the celebration. On the contrary, a leadership that is careful contributes to achieving the spiritual experience that lets the mystery of salvation shine through on the face of whoever praises and invokeshim.

The objective is always "the primacy of the interior life and of holiness": when all this is not respected, "is it any wonder that pastoral plans come to nothing and leave us with a disheartening sense of frustration?"(n. 38).

2. Listening devoutly — "Eversince the Second Vatican Council underlined the pre-eminent role ofthe Word of God in the life of the Church, great progress has certainly been made in devout listening to Sacred Scripture. Scripture has its rightfulplace of honour in the public prayer of the Church" (n. 39). The observation refers to "renewed listening to the Word of God" (ibid.);but even more to the importance of full participation in the Liturgy of the Word in the Sunday Eucharist.

Here in fact we fulfil the first and authentic "Iectio divina,which draws from the biblical text the living word which questions, directs and shapes our lives" (ibid.);here the believer lives his first and ongoing experience of prayer with the psalms (= the role of the Responsorial Psalm!); here the interweaving of the two Testaments can take place. And all is done to enlighten and sustain that "communion which is daily nourished at the table of the Eucharistic Bread and the Word of Life" (n. 58).

3. Enhance the symbolism — Lights, colours, smells interact in the celebration making use of all the senses of the believer, while considering the "particular values of each people" (n. 40).

The lights, colours and smells underline messages. Just consider the role of the light that filters into the sacred space and renders the place welcoming.

The beautiful perfume of incense, finally, can signifytwo realities: a prayer rising that is pleasing to the Father, and the sign of veneration to the body of the faithful, the living temple of the Spirit of the Lord. The flowers, the lights, the incense, the vestments: all this is also liturgy; and here too, as in all the other areas indicated, the "need for inculturation" must be thought over (n. 40), a need that comes from the proclamation of the Gospel.

4. Sing with joy —In the celebration, singing is a "sign of the joy of the heart" as n. 39 of theIntroduction to theMissal reminds us. If it is easy to say this, it is not easy to note how much singing has to accompany the liturgy and be of the high quality that the liturgy merits.

To sing the faith means to emphasize ritual moments with a musical language, and checking that what is sung is at the service of the liturgy and not of the music.Usually, it is not the type of music that is a problem; it is the text that quite often is not related to the Word of God or to the mystery celebrated! Composersshould return to preparing texts that have their content in the richness of the Scriptures. After all, the experience of more than a millennium of "Gregorian" chant is rather significant for proving thatmusic and text can be put together to underline the text in a beautiful way.

5. Preside with dignity —Thelevel of the participation of the congregation depends a great deal on the way the priest celebrates. If there are problems in the liturgy, thereason must also be sought in the responsibility of the priest who presides. Such a skill cannot be improvised nor does it derive from the study of theology: this is one aspect; but there are others that can be summed up in having to learn the laws of communication. Someone stated—with a grain of truth—that to be a good celebrant of the Eucharist, it is necessary to know how to direct a film or a play! The priest has to want to communicate a prayer, a mystery, the unseen.

Personal preparation for celebrating the liturgy entails a great deal of humility. It is not that we are not called to celebrate ourselves; the priest is to be the instrument through which the congregation has an experience of God through his aspect, attitude, sense of prayer and adoration. In this regard, we need to go again to the valuable mandate of n. 93 of the Introduction to the Missal: when a priest "celebrates the Eucharist, he must serve God and the people with dignity and humility, and in his way of behaving and of pronouncing the divine words, he must make the faithful feel the living presence of Christ". On this point too we must continue to examine [ourselves] on the reception given to the Council" (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 57).

6. Pray with faith – the aim of every kind of liturgical formation and preparation is to make sure that the believer can have a dialogue with God. Every form of prayer, and especially the Eucharist, aims at this. Once the objective of interior participation has been achieved, everything has been achieved. The emphasis becomes a major goal for the person who leads the music or reads the Word of God or introduces the rites during the Mass.

The one who chooses the music has to ponder one question: does this piece of music help people to pray in this liturgy? If the fact that a congregation has come together for an experience of faith is at the centre of attention, then choices will follow the prayers and readings and allow the mystery to stand out. For this area the priest has to formulate a programme as Novo Millennio ineunte recalls. Starting from the logic of the liturgical year, one has to ask, what will we emphasize for the faith needs of our parish community? With what strategies can we answer their needs?

7. Preach with simplicity— The experience of Jesus Christ is always a longed-for moment during the week; it can be recalled in the days following Sunday if the time of the homily is used suitably, with the "ardour of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost" (n. 40).

Contents and methods form part of those skills that are not automatically acquired with the imposition of hands at the moment of ordination! Method (= organization of the ideas to be communicated), content (= synthesisof the message of the readings and of the celebration as a whole, and therefore not just Gospel!), form (= colloquial, but dignified style), time if you exceed 8 to 9 minutes, all the rest is of the Devil!), verify (= know how to go over afterward, this kindof review improves the way you communicate): these are the essential elements to consider in carrying out our service to the Word, to the mystery we celebrate, to the congregation; a service to which the Novo Millennio ineunte especially dedicates nn. 40-41.

At the conquest of our 'own identity'

These reflections call for "a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up. A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart's contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us" (n. 43). In this regard, liturgical spirituality is not something that is superimposed on other spiritualities; on the contrary, it is the source of every type of spirituality because only in liturgical action can the believer experience the presence and action of the Spirit who acts through the sacramental prayer of blessing of the elements (epiclesis). The matter of spirituality—and consequently of mysticaltheology (frommystery proclaimed, celebrated and experienced!)—thus becomes connatural with liturgical action.

"Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of 'doing for the sake of doing'. We must resist this temptation by trying 'to be' before trying 'to do'" (n. 15). The dialectics between being and doing find their most harmonious and immediate coming together where the journey of life continuously begins anew from the Mystery. Mystery that, having begun with the Incarnation—"the pulsating heart of time" (n. 5)—continues and is fulfilled in time through the signs of the new and definitive Covenant: where one meets "a Person" (n. 29). It is in the life-giving meeting with Jesus Christ that the believer, in the Church, open to "a future of hope" (n. 59), continues the mysterium lunae the mystery of the Church as moon reflecting the light of Christ in the world (n. 54) where he continues to be "the light of the world" (Mt 5,14).

(Orig. Ital. in O.R. 13 June 2001 n. 10)  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 September 2001, page 14

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