Why We Do That - January edition

01/01/2023  |  Why do we do that?

Why is January 1st a holy day of obligation?

From the earliest days of the Church, January 1st has been set aside as a feast day, but we haven’t always agreed on what we’re celebrating.  For all major feasts, the Church celebrates the “octave” – the eight days or full week after the holy day itself.  January 1st completes the octave of Christmas, and was initially celebrated for this reason alone.

During the 4th century, the role of Mary in process of salvation was hotly debated.  At the Council of Ephesus (AD 431), the title Theotokos, or “Bearer of God” was agreed upon, which both affirms Mary’s unique dignity among women, while distinguishing that she herself is not divine.  To proclaim this theological truth, the Church created a special feast day for Mary, Mother of God on January 1st.  By the 7th century, however, other Marian feasts, especially the Annunciation (March 25th) and the Assumption (August 15th), surpassed the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God in popularity, and gradually the feast day fell out of favor.

Meanwhile, the Eastern churches celebrated the Circumcision of the Lord on January 1st, since in Hebrew custom, Jesus would have been circumcised on the eighth day after his birth.  By the 13th century, this feast became integrated into the Roman Church, and was celebrated in most parts of Church.  Many of you are old enough to remember when we celebrated the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1st, and the feast for Mary, Mother of God on October 11th.  In 1974, as part of the reforms of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI restored the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, to its original date, in keeping with Lumen Gentium’s emphasis on the unique role of Mary in the history of salvation and in our Church, giving the celebration pride of place and elevating it to the status of Solemnity.

Most importantly, regardless of the title of the feast day, the Church has always had the instinct that it was right and just to start the new year with the celebration of Mass.  Just as we pray at the beginning of meals or the beginning of a journey, this Solemnity allows us to pray together as a Church at the beginning of a new year for peace and blessings in the twelve months to come.

What is a crucifix?  How is it different than a cross?  Why do Catholics usually prefer crucifixes?

Most simply, a crucifix is a cross that has the body of Jesus depicted on it.  Both the cross as symbol and the crucifix have their origins in the 4th century.  Prior to the Edict of Milan in AD 313, Christianity was illegal, and Christians had to use a variety of secret symbols or letters to communicate with one another, because to openly wear or carry a cross or image of Jesus was to invite arrest or even execution.

Once Christianity became legal, however, there was a great push to use the cross itself as a symbol of faith.  But how should it be shown?  The empty cross is a sign of the resurrection – that Christ has risen, and death has no power over him.  However, for Roman citizens back in the day, the empty cross was still a reminder of torture and suffering inflicted by the state – by itself, it was as grizzly as a hangman’s noose or a guillotine might be for us today.  So to distinguish the cross of Christ, the crucifix was created, which depicts Jesus, fully human and fully divine, suffering on the cross.  The crucifix symbolizes not only the sacrifice of Christ, but also his true incarnate presence among us.  It shows Jesus at his most vulnerable, human moment – his body and blood, given up for us.

This is why Catholics almost always have a crucifix present at Mass and in churches.  In the Mass, we celebrate the true presence of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist.  The crucifix stands as a stark, visual reminder of the Paschal mystery that we take into our very selves.  The crucifix thus symbolizes the incarnational, sacramental nature of our faith, which in part is what distinguishes Catholicism from the majority of protestant denominations.

Why do we only pray half of the prayers when we are in a group – like the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross?

Communal prayer is one of the hallmarks of the Catholic Church.  We don’t just pray as individuals, we consciously elect to gather together for prayer.  And we not only gather together on Sunday for the celebration of the Eucharist, but many people gather together to pray the Rosary, or the Divine Mercy chaplet, or the Stations of the Cross.

There is an art to communal prayer.  In order to pray together effectively, one must have a shared text, a shared rhythm, and most importantly, shared intention.  The traditional prayers of the Church, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be, provide a shared text.  These are often used in communal prayer since most Catholics can recite these by heart.

Antiphonal prayer – the call and response pattern – helps create the shared rhythm of prayer.  For instance, if left to our own devices, some of us would pray the Rosary at the speed of light, while others would proceed at a somber pace.  Using the antiphonal format, with a leader intoning half the prayers, and the group reciting the other half, keeps people together in tempo, allowing for greater unity among the congregation.

This union of hearts and minds is essential to communal prayer.  When we gather together on such occasions, whether reciting the Rosary before the funeral of a loved one, or the Legion of Mary praying on behalf of the Church, or the community remembering the Stations of the Cross during Lent, we come together for the purpose of supporting each other in faith, hope, and love.  The antiphonal format has been used for almost two thousand years to help this unity amongst believers.

What is a scapular?  Why do people wear them?

The scapular, which derives its name from scapulae, the Latin word for “shoulders,” was originally a long, rectangular apron which hung from the shoulders (rather than being tied at the waste).  This garment had the practical function of protecting the monks’ habits from the dirt and grime of their daily work, but over time became a visual symbol of their devotion and piety. 

By the 12th century, many lay people began to gather into prayer groups called “confraternities,” which often had priests or monks as their spiritual leaders.  To emulate their leader, but to do so in a practical way, members of these confraternities began wearing devotional scapulars, which were essentially miniature versions of the monastic scapulars, that could be worn by lay people as they went about their ordinary lives.  The image or words on the scapular would remind people of their spiritual commitment to their confraternity and to the life of faith.

Modern scapulars are usually two rectangles of cloth with a sacred image or scripture, held together by a band of the same color.  One piece rests on your chest and the other rests on your back.  Scapulars are meant to be worn continuously (with exceptions for swimming, bathing, etc.).  They are meant to be both a reminder to the wearer of their devotion to their spiritual life, and a divine protection against the evil spirit and the lure of sin.

There are many different devotions tied to various scapulars, and each has its own particular history, spirituality, and prayer traditions.  Regardless of the particulars of each tradition, however, all scapulars are examples of the incarnate nature of the Catholic faith: because we are bodily creatures, tangible objects that we wear, carry, and pray with can take on spiritual power because we as individuals and as a Church invest them with symbolic meaning.  If you acquire a scapular or are given one as a gift, please do not hesitate to ask one of our priests or deacons to bless it for you.

Why does Eucharistic Prayer II say “like the dewfall?”  Why do some priests omit it?

This phrase comes in the context of the epiclesis, which is the part of the Eucharistic Prayer which calls down the Holy Spirit to initiate the process of transubstantiation – that is, transforming the simple gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  The line in the revised Missal reads as follows:  “You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness.  Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”  Here, the word dewfall is a translation for the Latin rore, which means “dew” or “light rainfall.” 

The intended image is that of manna from the book of Exodus.  “In the morning, there was a later of dew all about the camp, and when the dew evaporated, like hoarfrost, fine flakes [of manna] were on the ground” (Ex 16:14).  The Gospel of John invokes this image when Jesus declares that “I am the living bread come down from heaven” (Jn 6:51).  The idea is, just as dew appears mysteriously in the dry desert, so too does the Spirit come mysteriously in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

However, the translation of rore from Latin leads to some problems in English.  “Dew” is a homophone – it sounds like “do” or “doo” or “due,” all of which have different meanings.  To avoid confusion, the new translation uses dewfall, instead.  But the word dewfall, in a technical sense, refers to a time of day, or a process of condensation, rather than dew itself.  Moreover, scientifically speaking, dew doesn’t “fall,” it condenses.  Either way, it isn’t an accurate translation either.  It is likely for these reasons that the 1974 English translation of the Roman Missal omitted the phrase about dew.  In fact, the Spanish translation of the same phrase, recently approved by the US Bishop’s Conference, also leaves out the word “dew” or “dewfall.”

Some priests choose to omit this phrase from the Eucharistic Prayer because of the problems noted above.  Some may also omit it because, for almost four decades, the prayer didn’t include it, and they are mostly praying the words from memory, rather than necessarily reading the words off the page.  Either way, however, the omission of the phrase does not affect the validity of the mass.  The Eucharistic Prayer is not a magic spell which is either incanted correctly or incorrectly.  It is the prayer of the priest, the people and the Church; and God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit respond in love and sacrament to the intent of the people of gathered together in their name.

Why does everyone have to come all the way forward for communion?  Why don’t we have Eucharistic Ministers halfway back in the church like we used to?

Many Catholics in virtually every liturgical context prefer to sit in the back of the church.  People have many reasons for doing so.  Some are devotional: it can be a sign of humility, or sometimes people sit near an image or statue to which they are particularly devoted.  Sometimes its practical – people who have mobility issues, or who want to avoid the direct air conditioning, or think it’s too loud in front or simply arrive late to Mass.

Regardless of the reasons, however, the priests realized that when we had Eucharistic Ministers halfway back in the church, that it was possible to come to Mass, receive communion, and depart without ever approaching the table of the Lord.  This became especially evident in the months after the Covid shutdown, when Mass attendance was down significantly.

After discussion with the staff and the liturgy committee, the clergy elected to keep all of the Eucharistic Ministers in the front of the church, so that all congregants could come to the Table of the Lord, and to have a greater sense of being a part of the whole community. 

As I observe congregants coming forward in line, I see many of them prayerfully gazing up at the crucifix over the alter, or taking in the beauty of the large stain glass windows flooded with light.  The communion procession thus becomes a way to see both the church and the Church – that is the aesthetic wonder of our worship space as well as the people gathered to worship there.

We hope that you share some of this experience of community and reverence as you come forward to receive communion.  Please note that if you have limited mobility, you can let an usher know, and a Eucharistic Minister can come to you wherever you are seated in the church.