This week at St. Anonymous the Ambiguous, there was a priest I hadn’t seen before.
He was a younger priest who struck me as sincere, earnest, and orthodox, so I was favorably disposed to him.
I was also grateful that he wasn’t the emotionally insecure, narcissistic priest who sometimes fills in and makes himself the center of attention by pacing up and down the aisle and into the transepts, sometimes going as far back as fourteen rows down the main aisle, so that he’s standing behind most of the congregation (and directly behind many of them) as he yells his scoldy, overwrought sermons into the wireless mic.
That guy drives me nuts.
So I was really glad it wasn’t him, and that automatically made me like the new guy.
This didn’t stop there from being some distractions, though.
Early in his homily, the new priest said the following (quoting from memory):
The heart of the gospel is the Sermon on the Mount
And the heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the Beatitudes
And the Beatitudes show us the heart of God.
I get what the priest was trying to do here. He wanted to say that the Beatitudes show us the heart of God.
But this is a case of less is more, because he should have just said that.
By introducing the statement the way he did, it popped me right out of the sermon, causing me to become distracted as I tried to figure out what he meant.
The heart of the gospel is the Sermon on the Mount? Really? Not Jesus? Not his death and resurrection? Not God’s love for man? Not something like that?
Also, the Sermon on the Mount is in Matthew 5-7, so it’s right near the front of Matthew’s Gospel, not at its heart.
And the Beatitudes are right at the beginning of Matthew 5, so they aren’t “geographically” at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, either.
One wouldn’t even want to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the heart of Jesus’ ethical teachings, because that would be the first and second great commandments, which aren’t discussed until Matthew 22.
So I was distracted by trying to figure out what kind of “heart” language the priest was using when the priest finally got where he was going: The Beatitudes show us the heart of God.
Homilists take note: Getting rhetorically fancy like this can severely distract your audience, so apply the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Simple, Sir).
A little later in the homily, the priest started to explain the term ex cathedra. (I’m not sure why.)
He explained (correctly) that it means “from the chair,” the chair being a symbol of a pope’s or bishop’s authority.
He explained (incorrectly) that the pope sits in a special chair when he proclaims a dogma.
At least, that’s what I thought I heard him say.
I may have missed a verb tense, and he may have said that the pope used to sit in a special chair when proclaiming a dogma.
But I have no evidence that that’s true, either. As far as I’m aware, the use of the phrase ex cathedra in connection with dogmas didn’t come about until the Middle Ages, when the term cathedra had already begun to be used metaphorically for a bishop’s magisterium or teaching authority.
I certainly can’t think of any dogmas that were ever proclaimed by a pope while sitting in his cathedra.
In reality, popes proclaim dogmas via special documents.
Since I’m not really sure what this had to do with the Beatitudes (the subject of the Gospel reading), I’m inclined to say this is another case of less is more. Omitting the digression about the meaning of ex cathedra would have let him make his point more clearly.
Becoming a Christian
Toward the end of the homily, the priest said something along the lines of:
When we become a Christian, we lose all fear.
When we become a Christian, we gain great confidence (or maybe he said “perfect love”).
Bang! Again I’m popped right out of the sermon.
The distraction in this case is that all of the baptized already are Christians, and it’s plain that they don’t lose all fear.
So I’m off thinking about 1 John 4:18, where John says:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.
But John is talking about being perfected in love–something that happens later in the Christian life, if it happens in this life at all, not when we first become Christians.
This forced me to wonder, “What is the priest is going for?” Does he realize he may cause scrupulosity among some who are present if they infer from their fears that they aren’t truly Christians yet? Doesn’t he realizes that he’s in a building full of people who were baptized as babies and therefore have no memory of a time when they were not Christians? Why is he saying something that would (at best) apply only to adult converts?
I could only conclude that he was trying to employ some kind of rhetorical flourish by stating things in hyperbolically absolute terms.
So once again, his rhetoric was getting in the way of his message.
So once again, less is more.
The End of Christmas
At the end of Mass, during the announcements, the priest said that we’re coming up on Candlemas, “which is the end of the Christmas season,” that it “comes back for a day” and then goes away.
This is false. According to the Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:
Christmas Time runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after 6 January.
That means the Christmas season ends no later than January 13, which is weeks before Candlemas occurs on February 2.
It isn’t clear to me whether the priest thought that the Christmas season literally ends on Candlemas or whether he thought it “kinda-sorta” ends on Candlemas, since that day commemorates events in the Infancy Narratives.
If the former, he was simply wrong and does not know the details of the liturgical calendar.
If the latter, he knowingly misled the congregation, who is not familiar enough with the details of the liturgical calendar to be able to detect the “kinda-sorta” aspect of what he was saying.
Either way, people in the congregation will end up thinking that the Christmas season literally ends on Candlemas, and that’s false.
I have some sympathy here. I’ve been in situations where I’m pressed in public to give an answer I’m not 100% sure of, and I’ve made mistakes. (I’ve afterwards made scrupulous efforts to check myself and to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.)
However, this was not a situation where he was being pressed. It was a situation where he was volunteering something.
Bottom line: If you aren’t sure of a claim, don’t make it.
Less is more.
If nothing else, it helps avoid distractions and makes your message clearer.