Church activities do not always equal time spent with Christ.
Of course, we would not have a Church today if it were not for the generous time and talents of ministers. The gifts of time and talents, when brought to individual parishes, are often the metaphorical backbones of what keeps a parish functioning each and every day. I have always found great joy in participating in multiple ministries, from reading from the lectionary to singing in the choir to spending four years as an altar server during my younger days.
But at what point do ministries – or even attending Mass – stop being your gifts and simple obligations to Christ, and start being equal items on you to-do list? The answer to that rhetorical question is simple: they should not.
However, easier said than done.
On Mother’s Day this year, I attended both the 11 a.m. Mass and the 12:15 p.m. Mass that my parish offers every Sunday. I had obligations to both sing in the choir and to lector, leaving one Mass in our main Church to drive to the other at our parish hall. My mind was already out the door as the Blessed Sacrament was about to be passed out to the 11 a.m. congregation. I completely missed the memo that there would not be choir practice the following Thursday, in observance of the Feast of the Ascension.
The more remarkable part of my missing the memo is that I never put two and two together later on in the week. My parents refer to me as the Church Nazi, regularly checking in during my college years to make sure they went to Mass and reminding them of Holy Days of Obligation. But between family gatherings for Mother’s Day, going to work, and an upcoming visit from my cousin, I found that even the Church Nazi could have a mind slip.
I left my cousin in the midst of his visit to attend weekly choir practice, 7:30 p.m. on Thursday evening, because choir practice was the next item on my agenda. The full parking lot at the Church was the first thing to tip me off – did we gain about 50 new members overnight? Wishful thinking. I saw a fellow choir member walking into the Church and I yelled to her, asking if we had practice, when she gently reminded me that it was indeed Ascension Thursday.
My mind raced into Murphy’s Law mode – the first thing I thought of was the big cup of Starbucks sitting next to me in my car’s cup holder. I had been enjoying it for the past five minutes and was thereby excluded from receiving the Eucharist. The next thought was my attire – I sighed at my jeans, t-shirt and sneakers as I thought of all of the other twenty-somethings who came to Mass in casual clothing. I had been so fast to judge them for their apparent disrespect in the past, and now I was joining their ranks. Finally, I thought of calling my parents, who were long gone to sit Shiva for a Jewish friend. My fellow choir member stood at the foot of the Church stairs, motioning with her hand, and I realized that I had no choice but to go inside.
My thought process quickly changed from Murphy’s Law to “How could I forget? and “How could I be so unprepared?” Another friend from choir quickly joined me, and we sat together in the back. My late entrance, in my mind, only added to my embarrassment.
The Mass started for me like any other Mass, but I realized that it would differ from the norm even before we reached the Liturgy of the Word. Christ speaks so much of humility being a pillar of the faith, and there have been fewer humbling experiences for me than to be sitting in the back in clothes that I was too holier than thou to wear to Mass before.
Once I had calmed down – and stopped worrying about who would notice that I was not receiving the Eucharist – I was able to listen to our pastor’s sermon. To my surprise, we were not in for a listening sermon, but rather, for a participatory sermon. Our pastor led the congregation through a Rosary meditation experience that he wrote himself. We closed our eyes and were led to a clearing, only to be met with the physical presence of Christ in between each Hail Mary. All I had to do was concentrate – and allow myself to be humbled.
It had been a long time since I felt so close to Christ – during weekly Mass, I am so focused on getting the notes right, coaching other choir members, my mind replaying the readings in my head with a critical ear – that I do not pay attention and grow close to Christ during the Mass in the way that is intended. I am reminded of the hymn “Christ Beside Me” – as our pastor guided us to imagine Christ and Our Lady’s physical presence, Christ wiped my mind of obligations and brought me to the moment. Christ on my left hand, Christ on my right.
And when it was time to watch everyone line up to receive the Eucharist … He was still there, and I was still present. A Holy Day of Obligation well spent – bringing me back to the true obligation of the Holy Day: growing closer to Christ.