“Rerouting…” Week 4: Emergency Vehicle Entrance

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – February 12, 2023

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 17-37

Do you know where you are right now?

Do you know where you are right now? Do you know what’s happening? And why?

We know that we’re required to attend Mass on Sunday—but why? What’s God’s agenda? Why is it such big deal? Can’t we just find God by listening to the radio in our car (as some have suggested) or in the mountains? Why Mass? And why not any church? Why not shop around town for the best preacher, or the best music, or the best children’s program, or the best donuts? We all know people that have walked away from the Mass to another church for reasons like that. And it breaks my heart when this happens. Because all of a sudden people begin missing out on what is the single greatest miracle, the single most amazing event in the universe—and I mean that literally. But why? What’s happening? Where are we right now?

Next week we dive into the story. And so as we finish these four “introductory” weeks, we want to take some time to understand a little better what is really going on at the Mass.

Saving Private Ryan

A few weeks ago I was sitting on a transatlantic flight to Israel. And (I don’t know if you know this) but it takes more than fifteen minutes to cross “the pond.” And during that time I had the chance to watch a movie which, as it turns out, was one of the most incredible images for what is going on at the Mass. And that movie is Saving Private Ryan. Now, I’m about to spoil it…but to be fair, it was released in ’98, so you did have twenty-five years to watch it.

For those of you who have never seen it, Saving Private Ryan is a movie loosely based on a true story about a man and his three brothers who are all fighting in World War II. It’s 1944, and D-Day has just happened. As the movie gets going, we discover that the three brothers of this man have all been killed in action; and their mother has received a letter about each one. And when the war department learns of this, they send off a rag-tag group of soldiers to find the one remaining brother (who, along with his company, is currently lost behind enemy lines). This group is sent to find Private James Ryan—so as to save him, to rescue him, to bring him home.

Spoiler alert! They find him. And save him. But only after several men in the group of soldiers have been killed, all in their attempts to rescue this one man. And even when they find him, they are soon caught in the middle of a fire-fight. And in the closing scene of the movie, we see the captain of this small group of soldiers—a man by the name of John H. Miller—dying on a bridge from wounds sustained in battle. Now, over the course of this two-hour movie, we’ve come to know this man; he is a really good man, a man of integrity and honor. And we’ve gotten to see all that he has done and gone through and suffered so as to rescue this Private Ryan. And here in the closing scene, he’s been wounded in battle, and is dying.

And as he’s dying, he grabs Ryan, pulls him close, and says, “James, earn this.” Ryan can’t hear him in the midst of the battle. And so he says again, “Earn it.”

And then the movie fades to a scene, decades later. And Ryan is now an old man at the cemetery in Normandy, at a grave…the grave of a friend. A friend who had laid down his life so that he might live. A friend that had made it possible for him to have his wife and children and grandchildren there with him.

And we discover that the whole movie had been a FLASHBACK, something that took place in his memory, in his mind—just by him standing there. For those of you that have see the movie, the movie actually begins with the old Private Ryan in the cemetery with his wife and children and grandchildren. And he walks into the cemetery, headed for a particular grave. But at the time we don’t know WHO’s grave it is, or WHY he’s heading there. But by the time we get to the end of the movie, we understand. Ryan isn’t standing there bored, detached, wondering when he can leave. He is standing there at the grave of his friend, the one who rescued him, the one who died so that he might live.

And as he’s standing there he says this: “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I’ve tried to live my life the best that I could.” In other words: “I have never forgotten. I have never taken for granted what you did for me. I have always remembered your sacrifice. And I have tried to live my life in a response to that sacrifice with integrity and with honor.”

Why is this such a powerful scene? Why does it stir something up within us? Why does it make grown men cry? Well, it’s because we see in real life what the response to a man who laid down his life for another looks like. It’s just the raw emotion of, “You saved my life!” If something like that happened to us, it would change our life. We would want to lead lives worthy of that sacrifice, lives of integrity, honor. We would recognize that our life, our real life, came at a cost.

The Mass: More Than a Flashback

But as moving as those scenes and those movies are, what is happening here at this Mass is more moving, more dramatic, more powerful—and it has the potential to be life-changing, if only we had eyes to see what’s really going on. Why? Because Saving Private Ryan is a flashback; just standing by the grave, everything comes to mind: thoughts, feelings, everything. But the Mass is not a flashback! It’s much more powerful than that. But sadly, tragically, heartbreakingly, to our shame—most Catholics don’t know that. Mass is just the “Catholic version” of what every other church does: sing some churchy songs, say some churchy things, read some Bible readings, listen to someone talk about Jesus, crackers and wine—and then I can go. Heartbreaking.

Every time we come to Mass, we hear these words: “Do this in memory of me.” That is such a lame translation. The language being used means something more like, “When you do this, the action that you are recalling is actually happening now, in your midst.” Why do I say that? Because Jesus’ actions flow right out of the Old Testament, from the Passover. Passover gives the pattern for what Jesus does at the laster supper, the night before he dies.

So in the Old Testament there is something at the very center, at the very heart of the story. And the center is an EVENT. And everything builds up to it, or is looking back at it. The event is a dramatic RESCUE—rescue from slavery. The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for 430 years. But suddenly God did something. He rescued them from slavery, drew them out of this place of bondage.

And this event has a MEAL connected with it. And this meal has instructions for it, given by God through a man. And the instructions are very precise. And throughout the rest of the story (and even today, our Jewish brothers and sisters) when they celebrate this meal, they believe that the event becomes present once again. Exodus describes it saying, “This day shall be for you a MEMORIAL day” (Ex 12:14). A passage in the Psalms says, “The Lord has established a memorial for himself” (Ps. 111:4). And the Greek word used there for “memorial” is ANAMNESIS. That word doesn’t just mean “remembering,” or “calling to mind,” but “making present,” it is present here now. This is extraordinary! God established this memorial (not them). Why? So that they could constantly relive and partake in this rescue.

What about the New Testament? The New Testament also has a center: everything is leading up to it, or looking back at it. And this center is also an EVENT. The event is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (what is also called the “Paschal Mystery”). This too is a dramatic RESCUE. But rescue from the slavery of Sin, Death, Satan, and Hell—and everything that goes along with them. 

And this event also has a MEAL connected with it. And God gives the instructions for this meal too. Except, not just through a man, but through the God-Man, through Jesus. And in the course of those instructions, on the night before he dies, as he is celebrating the Passover with his disciples, Jesus takes bread and takes wine and says, “Do this in MEMORY of me.” Want to guess what the Greek word for memory is there? ANAMNESIS. So what is Jesus saying? When this meal is celebrated, the event is not just remembered or recalled, but it is made present. The event, the Paschal Mystery is made present. As the Christian movement begins, this is what they celebrate every first day of the week, every Sunday—this is the MASS … this is extraordinary! It’s not just a meal, but in the context of the meal we become contemporaries of the event. We relive and partake in this event, this rescue.

Where are we right now?

Like I said: tragically, to our own shame, most Catholics do now know anything about what I just said. We have never learned, or we have just never really grasped this profound truth that at Mass we are at the cross, we are at Calvary. Here, today, in just a few moments, we will become contemporaries of the cross of Jesus Christ. The same sacrifice that Jesus offered that day on calvary is being offered here on this altar—today. It is made present, here, today.

But think back to that scene from Saving Private Ryan, as Ryan is walking though the cemetery. Ryan is overwhelmed! He falls down in tears at the grave of his friend, of this man who died for him. It’s like he’s saying, “This is the man who died for me. I owe everything to this man. I am alive because of this man. I have never forgotten what you did for me,” he says. “I have never taken it for granted.” That’s Ryan’s attitude. But what about his family? His wife, and kids, and grandkids? They’re just casually walking through, taking pictures. They don’t get it. They don’t have the same connection. They’re not overwhelmed at all

In this scene, Ryan is a great image of how some of us walk into the church. Some of us walk in and our eyes are fixed on the crucifix. We knee down and genuflect not because that’s the cost of admission to go into your pew (have you ever done that? genuflect at a movie theater or something? real embarrassing). But no, some people walk in and kneel, drop to their knees. Why? Because this is the one who rescued me, “He saved my life.”

God’s agenda, why Mass is such a big deal, why it is the foundational element of our life—God is trying to win over your heart. How? By clever arguments or force or something? No. By demonstrating his love for you. He is willing to do anything and everything to win your love. Not to win your butt in a pew on Sunday for an hour, no. To win your heart, your love, your affection. He does to everything, even to the point of laying down his life for you. This is what overwhelmed our patron, St. Paul. Paul was so overwhelmed by this that he gave his entire life to Christ in faith. Not just an hour a week—everything. And he wrote, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul’s response to all that God had done for him? To surrender his entire life to him.

But how many of us walk into the church more like Ryan’s kids and grandkids? We don’t experience that. We don’t see ourselves as having been rescued. We know it’s important to others, but we don’t get it, we don’t feel it. And to be honest, we don’t really think we owe our lives to Jesus. We don’t have the visceral reaction Ryan has to Miller’s grave, or Paul to Christ. We just show up, because we’re Catholic, and that’s what we do.

This is what I mean when I say our butt may be in the pew—but we are a million miles away. We may be here and understand the words being said and know the responses—but have no idea what’s going on. And if that’s you, that’s ok. This is the reason we’re doing “Rerouting…”

How do we respond?

This week’s roadsigns is “Emergency Vehicle Entrance.” Jesus is the emergency vehicle. He has come on the scene to rescue us. “Through him, with him, and in him” we pray. But to rescue us from what? Why do we need rescued? Well, that’s the story we’re going to dive into starting next week.

Our challenge is to enter into it. This, the Mass—this is a place of encounter like no other. This moment, this entire Mass, every Mass is an encounter with Jesus Christ like no other. I’ve said it many times, I said it last week: in Scripture, in this our story, your story, my story—in Scripture people’s lives aren’t changed because they started making better ethical or moral choices, they weren’t changed because they finally learned enough theology. They were changed because they encountered this Jesus from Nazareth. They had a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.

Where are we? We are face-to-face with love, with mercy. This is no empty ritual. This has the power to change everything for you. Why? Because it is the cross. And the cross changes everything. More than we can possible imagine.

And so today I want to invite you to do something. Right after Communion—and even for those of you that cannot, for some reason, receive Communion—right after you receive Communion—instead of looking around, watching everyone else receive Communion, wondering how long it’s going to take me to “do the dishes”—today, after receiving Communion, when you return to your pew: close your eyes, and pray. Pray. Beg. Ask Christ to help you to see and to experience the Cross like never before. Ask Jesus to give you a new experience of his love, his tenderness, his affection, his preference for you. Open your heart to whatever this encounter with Jesus may bring. “Help me experience calvary as if I am standing there with Mary. Help me to experience your death as dying for me.”

It is from that experience that everything flows. Think back to that scene with Miller and Ryan on the bridge. What were Miller’s last words to Ryan? “Earn this. Earn it.” And what does Ryan say at the end of the movie, there at his grave? “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I’ve tried to live my life the best that I could. …I hope that, at least in your eyes, I earned what all of you have done for me.” Today from the cross, Jesus isn’t saying, “Earn this.” You can’t earn it! And Ryan didn’t really “earn” what he received—it already happened. 

What did Miller mean? What did Ryan mean? What is Jesus saying to us from the cross today? “Respond to his. Live a life worthy of the sacrifice he made for you so that you might live.” Jesus is saying to us today, “Respond to this. Respond to this with your whole life.” And as you go forth, tell others that what happened to you can happen to them too.

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