Thursday, November 16, 2006

RCIA: Week Four

Our congregation exploded this week! I'm not sure what happened, but Tom and I weren't quite sure if we were in the right spot when we met the RCIA group in our reserved seating area -- since we didn't see the usual sign and since we still get easily confused navigating the church. Someone in the RCIA group said they've been seeing a lot of license plates from the area surround Father Bernie's previous parish, and I know one parishioner had several family members in attendance for her birthday, so that may have been part of it. Regardless, it was nice to see a crowded church. But on with the show...

We began our dismissal session with the usual discussion of how we were feeling in Mass and our comfort levels, and I'm left with one question: what is the big mystery of Mass? Why is it regarded as this confusing jumble of movement and ramblings almost indecipherable to a non-Catholic observer? I understand a non-Catholic probably isn't going to know all of the prayers or understand why certain things are done (and I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of Catholics in the same boat), but is it really that discomforting to simply follow along? How difficult is it to stand when others stand, sit when others sit, kneel when others kneel, and simply bow your head and listen during prayers when you don't know what to say? The only thing I can think of that might be a bit stress-inducing during Mass is wondering what you should do during the Sacrament if you've never been told, and even that dilemma can be solved by simply asking someone. So, it's easy to wonder why we have the same discussion every week. Are we supposed to be rehashing every little "a-ha" moment we have, telling our entire class we're just indescribably proud of ourselves of for not having to look at the missal to know the proper response the Gospel reading or that we have the Apostle's Creed memorized when we're not even present for that yet? Maybe we are. Most of us have been attending Mass for awhile (from me, who attended my sixth Mass on Sunday, to an RCIA candidate/catechumen who has been attending for 30 years), but most of us will still probably notice something new or begin to understand something new every week -- particularly as we continue to study our faith -- and maybe we're supposed to share those little "inside secrets" with others.

After our hospitality break, Deacon Dave joined us to begin our tutorial on the structure of Mass. For the most part, he guided us through the missal, which is something Melissa had already gone through with me during our first Mass together. I think it was helpful to those who weren't completely familiar with Mass or who hadn't been shown the missal before, but to be honest, I zoned out a little and found myself perusing the parts I've never used the missal to follow. Until then, I really hadn't realized there were several options to choose from for different prayers and such.

When Deacon Dave excused himself for the 11am Mass, we began our discussion of our Old Testament and Gospel readings.

As he arrived at the entrance of the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her, "Please bring me a cupful of water to drink." She left to get it, and called out after her, "Please bring along a bit of bread." "As the Lord, your God, lives," she answered, "I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die." "Do not be afraid," Elijah said to her. "Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says, 'The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.'" She left and did as Elijah had said. She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the Lord had foretold through Elijah. -- 1 Kings 17:10-16

In the days of the Old Testament, it was the custom of hospitality to grant the request of any stranger requesting food or drink, and in this passage, the prophet Elijah makes such a demand on a woman who is struggling against famine. At least one of the mothers in our group seemed to struggle with the concept of choosing "a custom over my child's welfare," but in doing so, I believe she missed the point. So, what is the point of the passage? When we break down the exchange between the widow and Elijah, it becomes clear. First, Elijah asks the woman for drink, and the woman obliges without objection. But when Elijah asks for food, the woman does object. In fact, she all but refuses by appealing to Elijah's sympathy, telling him if she feeds him, she will, essentially, be killing herself and her child. It is not until after Elijah promises her by the authority of God that, if she obliges him, neither she nor her son will starve, that she chooses to feed Elijah before feeding her son. She did not choose the fulfillment of her customary obligation over the welfare of her child. She chose to step forward in faith and trust God would provide as Elijah had promised as a reward for her sacrifice.

In the course of his teaching he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation." He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, "Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood." -- Mark 12:38-44

Two things are happening in this passage. First, we are made aware of scribes, that is, men with a certain amount of religious authority, who have made a habit of collecting fees from widows in exchange for their promise to present the widows' prayers for them since the custom of the day prohibited women from doing so themselves (and widow-women would not have a husband available to do it for them). Whether the scribes actually presented the prayers or simply made a show of pretending to do so is unclear (and rather irrelevant except in debates of the severity of the scribes' sins). With the collected fees, the scribes would often arrive at the public treasury -- the depository for offerings to the temple -- and make a great show of presenting the offerings. Along with them, the wealthy people would often make great shows of depositing great sums of money into the treasury containers which were designed to make great amounts of noise with each coin thrown into them (paper money did not exist). Jesus, in his teaching, observes the contrast between these scribes and wealthy contributors and a widow woman who arrives to contribute only a few cents, an amount that would barely make a sound or seem to make a difference at all when compared with the other offerings. He tells us the scribes and the wealthy contributed only from their surplus while the woman gave "all she had, her whole livelihood."

To be clear, there are many, many, many passages within the Bible which must analyzed rather than taken literally. While there was some dispute regarding this particular point, I -- much like with our Old Testament reading -- do not believe the passage is encouraging us to sacrifice our own well-being in order to give. I do not believe the widow gave literally everything she had and resigned herself to death; instead, I believe she kept enough to survive but gave everything else. While the scribes and wealthy gave much, they gave what was not originally theirs or what could be given without affecting their lives. No sacrifice was involved. The widow, on the other hand, sacrificed her pride by publicly contributing so little (monetarily) but truly sacrificed in order to give that small amount. To her, the offering probably meant she was left with barely enough to survive. The lesson is clear. Our offerings to God and our actions of faith are not judged by monetary worth or public acclaim. They are judged, instead, by the sacrifices we make to stand in faith and to contribute to God's work. That which is sacrificed in the name of God is more valuable than that which is given without consequence.

This week, I will think upon the scribes and the widow as I choose how much I can afford to give of my money, time, and talent. I will decide what is necessary to keep in order to maintain my well-being and the well-being of my loved ones and to secure my future. I will choose how much I can sacrifice in the coming year, and in the end, I pray I will be more like the widow than the wealthy.


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