Let us keep our eyes fixed on
Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith. (Heb 12:2)
This verse from the Letter to the Hebrews has become one of my favorites, for it summarizes so concisely the purpose of our faith, that is, to look at Jesus, to learn from him, and to try to be more like him every day.
I was reminded of this truth again recently when I came across something Pope Francis said in one of his homilies at the end of the Christmas Season: “Jesus Christ manifested himself; we are invited to know him, to recognize him in our lives and in so many circumstances of life.” And, the Pope continues, we should ask ourselves the following questions: “Is Jesus Christ at the center of my life? And what is my relationship with Jesus Christ?”
Very good questions for us to consider, no?
But of course Francis isn’t the first Pope to talk about the centrality of Christ. Pope Benedict said, in truly memorable words: “There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him, and to speak of others of our friendship with him.”
Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus; getting to know him and centering him in our daily lives – that’s what our Catholic Faith is all about. Or, in other terms, it’s about embracing Jesus as our friend, and Jesus wants us to be his friend: “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything . . . You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper. (Jn 15:15-16)
There are many ways in which we develop and nurture our friendship with Christ: by our reception of the sacraments, by participating in the life of the Church, by keeping the Commandments, by serving other people, especially the poor and needy, and by imitating the example of the saints, first of all our Blessed Mother Mary. In all of these ways we are connected to Christ.
But, without a doubt, the foundation of our friendship with Christ is the practice of intense, personal prayer. After all, what kind of friends don’t converse with one another and share everything? And, simply put, that’s what prayer is.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta, when asked if there was a “secret” to her holiness said: “My secret is a very simple one: I pray. To pray to Christ is to love him.”
And then there’s the story about St. John Vianney who noticed a poor peasant coming to church every day to spend hours praying to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The future saint asked the man, “What do you say to Jesus during all that time you’re kneeling before him in the Holy Eucharist?” “Nothing,” the peasant replied. “I just look at him and he looks at me.”
People in love don’t always have to talk constantly, do they?
The story of the prayerful peasant reminds us of another insight, and that’s the power and beauty of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The rich devotional heritage of the Church, the Magisterium, and the lives of many saints bear witness to the fruitfulness of Eucharistic Adoration.
For example, Saint Alphonsus Liguori wrote: “Of all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the sacraments, the one dearest to God and the one most helpful to us.”
Pope Paul VI, even in the turbulent wake of the Second Vatican Council, encouraged the practice of Eucharistic prayer: “In the course of the day, the faithful should not omit visiting the Blessed Sacrament. Such visits are a sign of gratitude, an expression of love, and an acknowledgment of the Lord’s presence.”
And St. John Paul offered this affirmation: “The Eucharist is a priceless treasure: by not only celebrating it, but also by praying before it outside of Mass, we are enabled to make contact with the wellspring of grace.”
In short, praying before the Blessed Sacrament is an excellent way of nourishing our friendship with Christ.
That shouldn’t be surprising, though, for it’s only natural to look at the one to whom we’re speaking, isn’t it? It’s that same instinct, I think, that’s leading to a renewed appreciation of the celebration of the Mass ad orientem, that is, priest and people facing the Lord, instead of one another. Keep in mind, it is an approved liturgical option.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, and champion of ad orientem worship, in a recent interview explained the need for “conversion,” a turning-around, this way: “The best way to celebrate, for priests and faithful, is turned together in the same direction – toward the Lord who comes. It’s to turn together toward the apse, which symbolizes the East, where the cross of the risen Lord is enthroned. By this manner of celebrating, we experience even in our bodies, the primacy of God and adoration.”
The orientation of the priest while celebrating Holy Mass is a fruitful discussion, one that we might explore at some point in the future.
But far more important than our physical posture is the openness of our minds and hearts; to remember that our prayer is the foundation of our faith and the key to spiritual growth. It is in prayer, after all, that we “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.”