Q. I have been an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion for many years. Sometimes I find my ministry becoming just one more thing to do, and I wish I could prepare better for my ministry. Any thoughts?
A. I was seated comfortably in the celebrant’s chair as the elderly sister at the convent infirmary eucharistic celebration took up the book and began to read. Soon her mistake was evident, at least to me: She was reading the first lesson for Year I (Judges 6:11-24) instead of that for Year II (Ezekiel 28:1-10). I didn’t have the heart to stop her (and besides, I was not going to preach on the first lesson anyway).
Thus, we got to hear the story of Gideon’s commissioning by the angel of the Lord instead of the Lord’s verbal barrage against the prince of Tyre. It was just as well, for this serendipitous mistake (or providence) gave me an insight into liturgical ministry — the Lord waits while we prepare ourselves for service to God and God’s people.
In the narrative from the book of Judges, Gideon encounters the apparently incognito “angel of the Lord” (really the biblical writer’s way of designating the Lord). The angel has some surprising news for Gideon: he is to be an instrument of deliverance for his people, who are sorely oppressed by the Midianites.
Gideon realizes that this won’t be easy, and so he protests his insignificance and incompetence for such a task. But to really decide the matter, Gideon seeks a sign of his election by God and a proof of God’s favor in this undertaking. And he begins how any good Israelite would: with an act of worship. Gideon believes that the Lord’s acceptance or rejection of a sacrifice will make clear to him what he must do. So Gideon politely asks his companion to wait while he gets everything ready. And the angel politely answers, “I will await your return.”
That reply sends Gideon off to hustle and bustle like those who serve up burgers and fries at fast-food restaurants. He hurries to get his offering ready: a kid from the flock and about a bushel (!) of flour shaped into unleavened cakes, and some broth to go with it. A large take-out order!
The angel of the Lord is still waiting when Gideon returns. The angel directs Gideon to lay the meat and unleavened cakes on a rock, and to pour out the broth. When Gideon has carefully done so, the angel touches the offering with the tip of his staff. Presto! Fire consumes Gideon’s sacrifice and takes it up to heaven, and the angel vanishes, too.
Only now does Gideon realize that his companion was none other than the “angel of the Lord” (remember, this means the Lord). Terror grips Gideon, for he and other Israelites believed that no one was able to survive a face-to-face encounter with the very holiness of God. But the Lord calms Gideon’s fears and assures him that he will not die. Gideon again responds with an act of worship. He builds an altar to the Lord and calls it “YHWH-shalom.” “Yes, the Lord truly is peace,” Gideon must have thought as he remembered his offering and the altar which now memorialized it.
The scriptural narrative does not tell us how Gideon felt while he was preparing his offering. Perhaps he said to himself: “I must make everything just right. … It’s for the Lord!”
Gideon is one in spirit with liturgical ministers who work hard to offer God the best of their talents — the best welcoming, reading, presiding, assisting, preaching, music-making. All we do within the liturgy is for the Lord and the Lord’s people. The liturgy places us in the best of company — the holy angels and saints, our co-worshipers — and so our conduct within the liturgy should be the best.
And, like Gideon, we discover that much depends on our hard work and generous offering, for our words and gestures reveal the Lord’s presence in the worshiping assembly.
Neither does the scriptural narrative tell us how the angel of the Lord felt about waiting for Gideon to prepare his offering. But the Lord knows that we mortals usually need a little time to accomplish almost everything we do, and lots of time for the really important things. So the angel of the Lord must have waited patiently for Gideon to prepare and return with his offering.
The Lord awaits the offering of liturgical ministers, too. The Lord waits while they prepare to offer themselves and their talents as spiritual worship pleasing to God within the liturgy. The Lord waits for all of us to complete our preparation for worship, both our remote preparation (like putting on our Sunday best) and our immediate preparation (like praying before the liturgy begins).
The Lord waits for us to get our cakes baked and our meat prepared — our offerings of welcoming, making music, presiding, assisting, reading the Scripture lessons, chanting the responsorial psalm, preaching the homily, ministering Communion, participating fully in the liturgy.
The Lord waits for us to get our music selected, our leaflets printed, our readings practiced, our bread baked and our wine poured out, our worship spaces prepared, our songs rehearsed, our instruments tuned, our assemblies gathered, ourselves ready for service. The Lord waits while we prepare the externals of worship (people, places and things) in the hope that thereby we will be prepared internally for worship.
The Lord helps you to prepare a spiritual sacrifice of devotion and lay it down first of all in your own heart. It is there that you must first make your offering to God; it is there that you must first build an altar to the Lord if the one in church truly is to receive your offering in union with Christ’s.
Our hearts must truly bear the sacred name, “Yahweh-shalom,” “The Lord is peace,” if we are to embody the peace of the Lord in our worship and share it with others. If your heart is thus prepared, you have the Lord’s promise that your hands and voice also will be ready for service to God and God’s people.
The Lord patiently awaits our carefully prepared yet often less-than-perfect offerings. The Lord graciously touches our offerings of material goods and human talent with a staff during the liturgy and transforms them into something grand, a sacrifice that rises up to heaven.
Truly, the Lord must enkindle our greater and lesser gifts with the Spirit’s flame if they are to be acceptable in God’s sight. The Lord must touch our preparation for liturgical ministry if we are to find the right words to say, prayers to pray, notes to play, and art to display within the assembly. But the Lord doesn’t mind waiting while we prepare ourselves and our gifts.
We are one
Preparation itself is sacred, for it serves to deepen devotion and reverence. It reminds us that we are one in calling and spirit with worshipers in all times and places: in the ancient house churches of downtown Corinth and Ephesus; in the ancient basilicas of Rome and Constantinople; in the great cathedrals and monastic churches of medieval Europe; in the log chapels of colonial America; in the adobe mission churches of the Spanish Southwest; in the new churches of Africa and Asia; in the ethnic churches of urban neighborhoods and rural areas; in the space where your parish family is truly “at home” as it worships together.
Here the Lord touches the offerings of the assembly and the ministry of those who serve it, transforming them by the flames of divine love into an acceptable sacrifice.