To say that I was apprehensive when I attended my first Mass would be something of an understatement. I had read all the books I could find on Catholicism. I had no access to EWTN, so I couldn’t check out the Mass from the safety of an armchair in my living room. I had no Catholic friends who could enlighten or accompany me. I finally just had to GO and see for myself. One Sunday morning I dropped the kids off at their Baptist Sunday school, and I drove over to the nearest Catholic parish, with furrowed brow. All my life I had heard about liberal Catholic priests pooh-poohing orthodox doctrines like the Resurrection and the Second Coming. I really didn’t want to be there when the earth split open in a convulsion of divine retribution and swallowed up the heathen. I sat in the seat nearest the exit.
Mass was wonderful. I have many good memories of that Sunday morning: the abundance of Scripture read to us, the homily in which Father insisted that OF COURSE the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was a miracle, the lingering scent of aftershave on my left hand after the singing of the Lord’s Prayer (thank you, Catholic sir, whoever you were!).
One memory really stands out, though – the memory of standing UP. We had prayed the Penitential Rite, we had heard the Old Testament reading, we had sung the Psalm, and listened to a reading from a New Testament epistle. And then we STOOD UP, and we began to sing:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Your words, O Lord, are Spirit and life. You have the words of everlasting life!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Obviously, this was a Big Moment. What were we getting so excited about? What was the occasion?
A reading from the Holy Gospel.
It sent shivers down my spine. We had been treated to two Old Testament readings and one New Testament reading. Both had been very reverent, and I appreciated the silence which followed each as an opportunity to reflect. Already we had heard more Scripture read to us than they were reading that morning at the Baptist church where my kids were waiting for me. But now, the congregation STOOD UP, because Jesus Himself was going to tell us something. The priest commenced reading from the Gospel according to John.
The childlike response to this reading affected me deeply. We stood up, because this was important. This was our Lord speaking His words to us! We greeted His Gospel with alleluias of joy! We listened, and when His words had been spoken we answered Him: Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ!
As a Protestant, I was floored. On any given Sunday throughout my life, I had been regaled with sermons from the Old Testament, sermons teaching us the importance of Old Testament “types” and the New Testament “antitypes” – fascinating stuff. I had been treated to sermons on passages from the New Testament, from the book of Romans, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Thessalonians – basically the letters of St. Paul. We didn’t really hear much from the letters of Sts. Peter, John, James or Jude. Not that I had never heard any New Testament passage preached outside the epistles of St. Paul – Sunday evening and Wednesday evening were basically dominated by St. John’s Revelation. But, the Gospels? I can’t say never, but I can certainly say seldom. Paul was for us the Big Sunday Morning Cheese. Upon his theology (or our understanding of it) we loved to dwell. Jesus’ teachings were of course treasured at the churches I attended. We read the Easter story at sunrise services every Easter. We read the story of the Nativity, not on Christmas Day because we were never asked to spend Christmas Day in the presence of the Lord, but we did read it in the days leading up to Christmas. And we taught faithfully every parable Jesus told, every incident in His life – to our children in Sunday School. We all shared the foundation of knowledge from the Gospels; it was the “milk” that we grew up on. But now we were grown, we were adults, and we no longer partook of the milk of Jesus’ teachings – it was the meat of Pauline theology for us! The Gospels were for evangelization purposes – heavy on the John 3:16 – but the epistles of Paul were our spiritual food and drink.
And I was actually lucky in that I never experienced the full brunt of this Protestant tendency at the churches I attended. Full-blown Calvinist theology leans very heavily on Paul, to the point that one Methodist blogger made this suggestion:
If you have been “preaching” from the book of Romans for more than 3 months (let alone several years) then I would, on behalf of your poor congregation, like to introduce you to the rest of the canon. We call it “The Bible.” There are many books in it. Arminians believe in the inspiration of all of Scripture, not only the Epistle to the Romans. I would especially like to draw your attention to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We Arminians calls these, “Gospels.” Check them out.
And I was lucky in another respect – I never attended a church that was seriously dispensational in its theology. When I was teaching in Taiwan I celebrated one birthday with SIX birthday cakes – each class that day had brought a cake (I sensed an effort to distract me from my lesson plan…). I was overwhelmed by the kindness of my students, and I quoted to them the verse from Matthew:
Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.
That evening I was telling another one of the teachers, the wife of a Baptist pastor, about how I had told the students that God, knowing that I might feel lonely so far from home on my birthday, had showered down 6 cakes on me that day. Her response was a dismissive, “Well, you know, that verse is not for us.”
Huh? Not for us?
No, she explained. Jesus made that promise to the people living in that dispensation. We Christians, however, live in the dispensation of grace, so the words of Jesus are not for us.
The words of Jesus are not for us?!
The lady and her husband were seriously into Dispensationalism, an upstart theological system dividing the Bible into 7 dispensations (according to C.I. Scofield, an “interesting” character whose Bible study notes popularized this view). The dispensation under which Jesus lived was the Law, so His words “don’t apply to Christians.”
My kids, when I went to pick them up after Mass, had been learning about the mark of the beast in the book of Revelation at the Baptist Sunday school where I had parked them for the morning. My daughter was deeply disturbed by what she had heard about the horrors of the Tribulation. I had been afraid to take them with me to Mass for fear of what they might hear there. It dawned on me that they would have had a much more wholesome experience with me hearing the Gospel at Mass….
That Sunday morning was the beginning of a paradigm shift for me as I was introduced to a belief system that focused first and foremost on the four Gospels, on the teachings of Christ, and did not relegate them to a footnote on the epistle to the Romans, or teach that they were to be disregarded because they were for another dispensation. These are the words of Jesus – He is speaking to me, not to another! The Alleluia of the Gospel proclamation that day became the alleluia of my heart, an alleluia that sings ever louder in our hearts today.
On the memorial of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini
Deo omnis gloria!