How to Behave in Church (Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Fr. Mikael Schink S.J.
Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (2023-02-05)
St. Eugenia Catholic Church
Luke 2:22–40

+ Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

One of the names of today’s feast is the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Forty days after the birth of God, she went to Jerusalem to fulfil the law of purification and to present the child Jesus in the temple. Let us therefore meditate on these mysteries of the life our Lord and the life of the Virgin Mary so as to understand their spiritual meaning.

According to the law of Moses (Lev. 12:2ff), a woman after childbirth remained in a state of uncleanness for a certain time. During this time, she was not to appear in public or have contact with anything consecrated to God. The duration of this time was forty days after the birth of a son and eighty days after the birth of a daughter. After this term, she was to present an offering in the temple in Jerusalem. Those who had the means were required to bring a year-old lamb, a young pigeon, and a turtledove, whereas those who were poor should bring only a pigeon and a turtledove, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering. When the animals had been sacrificed to God by the priest, the woman was cleansed from her impurity and considered ritually clean.

As Saint Bernhard of Clairvaux observes, the Virgin Mary was under no obligation to fulfil this law as she had conceived the child not in a natural but in a miraculous way by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet in the eyes of the world, which had no knowledge of the miraculous conception, she was still under the obligation of the law. We therefore see that by submitting to the law as other ordinary mothers and thus concealing her purity, she manifests her humility, which made her desire not to be regarded as in any way privileged and extraordinary.

If we compare the situation of Saint Mary to our own when we appear in church, which was prefigured by the temple, we quickly realize that our condition is quite different: we are not spotless as the virgin but burdened with sin, some with grievous sins and others merely with venial sins. Saint John Chrysostom therefore says that ‘the church is that admirable institution for the healing of the sick, not for the maladies of the body, but for those of the soul’. In a similar vein, Pope Francis has spoken of the church as a ‘field hospital’ and the confessional as ‘the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better’. In the Sacrament of Penance, we receive forgiveness for all of our sins, no matter how grievous and numerous they may be, together with the remission of eternal punishment. If we attend holy Mass devoutly and attentively, we receive forgiveness for our venial sins. But we can also receive forgiveness for venial sins and indulgences by devout prayers and other spiritual practices such as the use of holy water.

We should therefore take the Holy Virgin as our example and make an earnest effort to attend holy Mass and receive our Lord in holy Communion devoutly. We should take some time before and after Mass to thank our Lord for his love and mercy. And we should also reserve some time every day, for instance in an examination of conscience in the evening, to pray to our Lord in a spirit of contrition and penance and ask him for forgiveness for our sins and imperfections.

Yet there are many who prefer to be elsewhere than in church. Many would have time to hear Mass not only on Sundays but also during the week, perhaps even daily. Yet many neglect to go to Mass even on Sundays and on holy days of obligation. Let us therefore consider the Virgin Mary: We who are in need of God’s forgiveness should cultivate an inner love and affection for holy Mass and prayer in front of the Sacred Sacrament. If she who was not required to be cleansed in the temple, as she was free from all sin, still goes to the temple and does what is required according to the law, how much more should not we humble ourselves and gladly go to church and make use of the sacraments of confession and holy Communion.

But when we go to holy Mass, we must also think of how we behave in church, not merely exteriorly but especially interiorly. Instead of praying devoutly during Mass, many fall prey to curiosity and all sorts of distractions, for instance focusing on the priest, the choir, the altar servers, or other people in the church. When we go to holy Mass, we should rather be completely focused on God. This is the reason why we have introduced celebration ad orientem once a month here in St. Eugenia, so that the priest during the most Holy sacrifice of the Mass should not be distracted by looking at the congregation, and the congregation should not be distracted by what the priest is doing but rather be able to focus fully on the adoration of the suffering Christ, who for our sakes becomes truly present in the sacrifice of the Altar. holy Mass is not a social gathering; we do not celebrate ourselves as a community gathered together – rather, we go to church to give God the worship that is his due. We submit to him and profess our faith, that he is our creator and ultimate end and the only one who can save us from our sins and imperfections.

We may also consider not only the rite itself but the holiness of the place in which the holy sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated. It is for instance customary to cross oneself with holy water upon entering the church and genuflect before the real presence of our Lord in the tabernacle. We bow our head when we pass the altar and observe a sacred silence while inside the church, only saying that which is absolutely necessary, as the church is not a place for idle talk or gossip but for the veneration of our Lord. Men remove their hats and women may cover their hair out of reverence for the Lord. The lives of the saints give us many examples of the reverence they had for the sanctity of the church. Thus, Saint Emmelia of Caesarea, the mother of Basil the Great, Macrina the Virgin, and Gregory of Nyssa was so full of reverence in church that she would never turn her back to the altar.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us therefore take the humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary as our example. Humility is an essential component of what is called ‘latria’ the proper worship reserved for God alone, which consists in the manifestation of our subjection to him as our creator and ultimate end. We humble ourselves before God by reverence and praise. In this way, we manifest that everything in our lives should be ordered to him as our ultimate end. As sinners, we often do not manage to order everything to him, and so we approach God with a spirit of contrition and penance, always trusting in his loving mercy and forgiveness. Let us in this way turn to the Lord and ask him for the grace to praise and revere him even more, so that we are well prepared when we will one day meet him at the end our lives. +Amen.


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