Thursday, May 13, 2010

Msgr. William J. Awalt on the Eucharist

I was reading about Judge Robert Bork's conversion to Catholicism, and he said:

After I wrote Slouching Toward Gomorrah the priest at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., Msgr. William Awalt, told me that my views on matters seemed to be very close to those of the Catholic views, which was true. Not being religious, the fact that our views corresponded wasn’t enough to bring me into the Church, so it took me a while before I was ready to enter. I had a number of conversations with Father C.J. McCloskey. He gave me some readings and he would drop by on his way home and we would talk for an hour to an hour and a half in my office. The one I liked best was Ronald Knox’s The Beliefs of Catholics. I’ve taught classes, but I didn’t feel like being taught a class. I wasn’t eager to be a student. Our time together was informative and highly informal.
The names Bork mentioned were familiar ones. I've heard only good things about both Fr. John McCloskey and the late Msgr. Ronald Knox: the former was Fr. Arne's predecessor at CIC, and the latter is one of my favorite authors. But I'd never heard of Msgr. William Awalt. So I googled him, and I've got to say he's a bit of a hidden treasure. It turns out, he retired from St. Anne's in 2000, after serving as pastor for thirty years. About five years ago, he wrote a thoughtful and thorough primer on the Mass and the Eucharist, and turned it into a blog called Corpus Christi.

You should definitely check the blog out. It's a great primer, and it's divided into 44 short sections, organized by topic. No need to be some great Catholic thinker to get it: it's a common-sensical explanation of what Catholics believe. Here are snippets from a few parts which I very much enjoyed.

On the Road to Emmaus:

You may want to turn to Luke 24:13-35 in your bibles. To protect myself, no Scripture scholar of whom I am aware would say that the story of the appearance of Christ to the two men on the road to Emmaus is a description of the Mass. However, if we look at it, we might get a better understanding of the order of the Mass. Taking a mild liberty with it, we see the following elements:

1. They were PROCESSING to their destination. [We are a pilgrim people.] (Entrance Rite)
2. Jesus comes and explains the SCRIPTURES to them. (Liturgy of the Word)
3. Then they came to the place where they were headed, and Jesus was moving on. The men asked Jesus to stay with them. Sharing a meal, we find the code word for the Eucharist, "THE BREAKING OF THE BREAD." Notice the words he used:

  • he TOOK BREAD and GAVE THANKS (Eucharist),
  • he BROKE IT, and
  • GAVE IT TO THEM (Communion). They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. What did they do afterwards?
  • They went out on their MISSION to spread the Word. They went to the apostles to announce that Jesus was risen. (Dismissal)
Solid exegesis right there: he quickly draws out the major Eucharistic themes and "clues," if you will. I tried to do the same thing here, and can safely say that it's harder than it seems.

Need to Know the Scriptures:

The Lord was infleshed in the Word of God long before he was in the womb of Mary. That is why the lector announces, "The Word of the Lord," after a reading. Following the Gospel, the people respond, "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ." If a newcomer were with you in church, he might ask, "To whom are you talking?" We believe that Christ speaks to us through the Scriptures.
The Meaning of Sacrifice:

When we talk about sacrifice, we usually mean giving up something. But, it means much more. It comes from two Latin words, "sacrum" and "facere," which means "to make (oneself) holy." Again, looking to the liturgical season of Lent, we do not give up things simply for the sake of giving them up. It means that in the achieving of OTHERNESS there is sometimes a bit of penance or pain connected with it. It is the ends or the goal which we often forget. As we remove the barnacles, we become something else. Thus, the sacrifice of the Mass does not merely mean killing or giving up something, it means that we are becoming more [different] than what we were.

Link Between the Testaments:

We use the Old Testament because it is linked to the New Testament and makes it clearer to understand. There are all sorts of parallels. For example, the mention of clouds in the Scriptures are not weather reports. What is meant is the presence of God. A cloud is described in the episode of the Transfiguration of Jesus. A cloud leads the Jews across the desert. Another example would be the trumpet. It is a sign of God's voice speaking. He will have our attention, it pierces us. Still another feature that runs through both the Old and the New Testaments is the matter of ascending a mountain. Moses went up a mountain to get the ten commandments at Sinai. Jesus climbs a mountain and offers his followers the beatitudes. The mountain expresses the meaning that God is in a higher, different life than where we ordinarily exist. Between the two readings at Mass there is a responsorial psalm. It is a repetitious prayer. This is not necessarily bad. Like breathing, it is a good thing to do over and over again. The preference in the liturgy is that it be sung. Outside of the Mass, during the civil rights days, many Christians sang the refrain, "We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day." Our repeating it gave the words greater emphasis and meaning. Continuing on, the Gospel is distinguished from the other readings. We stand to show our respect to the life of Jesus.
I thought the Civil Rights-era example did a great job in demonstrating the difference between "repetition" and "vain repetition." I liked this section enough I quoted the whole thing.

Two Presences in the Eucharist:

Returning to the subject of presences in the Eucharist, there are two I want to emphasize. First, Jesus is present as a PERSON. Second, the Eucharist is the ACTUALIZATION of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Years ago, there used to be a television show called, You Are There, which after a puff of smoke put you in a place like Alexandria with ancient Greeks walking around. By "actualization," I mean there is here. Christ is present in his very self and in his actions.

The above is one of the hardest-to-grasp elements of Eucharistic theology, actualization. The closest parallels I can come up with are from science fiction: things like portals to other dimensions. The Eucharist is sort of like that.

Msgr. Awalt addresses a similar point in Present Through His Action:
Calvary is made present to us. Sometimes we speak of the Mass as the UNBLOODY sacrifice. It is a poor choice of words. What it tries to convey is that Jesus could only suffer and die once. He is now beyond time and space. Calvary is made here so that we can be there. It makes it possible for us to apply to ourselves what Christ did on Calvary. We need to become holy, that OTHERNESS which participates in God. Consequently, we come back to the source and summit of every grace, the Crucifixion of Christ.

There's plenty more where that came from. Unfortunately, this blog seems to have been all but lost online. Msgr's profile has some 7 viewings, and the blog doesn't seem to have fared much better. There's all of one comment (an appreciative Catholic blogger named Joe H., who, incidentally, is not me). It's a true shame. If you're looking to understand more about the Eucharist (and Catholic or non-Catholic, there's always room for that), you could certainly do worse than to start here.

3 comments:

  1. Researching the sequence for Corpus Christi I cam across Msgr Awalt's blog but couldn't post a comment. I will ask you what I was going to ask him.

    Jesus speaks of gentiles as "dogs". In what sense is the term meant in the sequence?

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  2. It's a clever back and forth between Him and an obviously intelligent and bold Gentile woman. As priest explained it in a homily as best read tongue-in-cheek.

    Christ is aware from before all time that the New Covenant is one of Grace, open for all who believe, not just those born into the right family or ethnic group. He poses this to her precisely so she'll respond as she does, showing that the Gentiles, who've been kicked around by many under the Old Covenant, still have the strong faith which the Old Covenant strove to establish (while many of the covenant people were lacking in the faith themselves).

    Strangely enough, I was just thinking about this passage on Wednesday, because the priest who leads my prayer group mentioned that Jesus shows Himself to have a sense of humor at various points in the NT. So I think it's a loving, clever back-and-forth between God and one of His creatures.

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  3. Whoops! I read your question again, and realized I'd answered it totally incorrectly. I thought you were asking about Mark 7:24-30, because you mentioned Gentiles. You're asking about the Corpus Christi sequence, the Lauda Sion.

    The verse you're referring to (I think) is:

    Hail! Bread of the Angels, broken,
    for us pilgrims food, and token
    of the promise by Christ spoken,
    children's meat, to dogs denied!


    That's taken from Matthew 7:6, where the phrase "pearls before swine" originates. It just means don't profane something sacred. In the context of the Eucharist, to consume It in a state of mortal sin is blasphemously wicked, because the Eucharist is Christ Himself. 1 Corinthians 11:29 says it's damnable to take the Eucharist without first discerning the Body and Blood. It's the very Bread come down from Heaven, Christ, so to take Him lightly and unseriously is madness.

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