Chapter Four: Prophet In His Own Land, part one
Early morning light streamed through the lace curtains of their bedroom window, creating a vibrant dance of color on the wall opposite their bed. Ann heard the familiar hungry cry of Michelle, which woke her to the realization that her bladder felt as though it was going to explode. She raced to the bathroom.
After relieving herself of the seemingly endless stream of bright yellow urine, Ann hurried upstairs to get Michelle before she woke the others. "Gee, I'm sore." Ann thought; awake enough to realize she was hurting, without being awake enough to remember the reason why. She picked up Michelle and immediately put her on her breast. Michelle immediately quieted as she suckled ravenously.
Carrying Michelle downstairs, Ann remembered why she was so sore. Stephen and her had one of their marathon lovemaking sessions. "Lovemaking, huh...more like the wild lustful frenzy of two teenagers in the back of a '57 Chevy." Ann reminisced, cherishing the memory of a moment that came too infrequently. It was rare when all the kids were asleep at the same time, and that both she and Stephen were wake and feeling feisty.
"Hi mommy" Paul said as he climbed up on the couch next to his mother. "Can I watch Jay Jay?"
Ann grabbed the remote, turned on the TV and then switched the channel to the local PBS Kids station. Unfortunately, Jay Jay the Jet Plane would not be on for ten more minutes. What was on now was Barney & Friends... (barf)
Paul was just as happy.
Michelle started to bite and pull at Ann's nipple; a painful sign that she was finished feeding. Ann pulled Michelle from her breast, and carried her upstairs to change her obviously full pee diaper. Denise passed her on the stairs, saying "Good morning, mommy" then proceeded to sit next to her brother on the couch. Ann changed Michelle, took her downstairs then laid her on her blanket, which had a collection of Michelle's favorite toys.
"Mommy, I'm hungry." Denise said.
Ann decided that bacon and eggs sounded good. "Besides, its Stephen's favorite." She thought "I know he is going to be preoccupied when he finally wakes up this morning."
Stephen woke up to the heavenly smell of bacon and fresh brewed coffee. He got up, went through the same ritual that Ann did...except standing...then proceeded past the living room and into the kitchen.
Stephen saw Ann with her back to him, making orange juice from concentrate. He snuck up behind her, threw his arms around her, and gave her a biting kiss on the neck.
"AAAHHH, DAMN IT, STEPHEN!!" Ann screamed. "YOU SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF ME!!"
At the word "DAMN", Denise came running into the kitchen, finger wagging, pointing at Ann and saying to her musically; "Mommy said the 'D' word. Mommy said the 'D' word" obviously oblivious to the fact that Ann also screamed "SHIT".
"Sorry chick, I shouldn't have said that word, but I couldn't help it. Daddy scared that word right out of me."
"Shame on you, daddy" Denise said folding her arms and marching back into the living room.
"You say damn and I get blamed for it." I teased. "I guess, at least for the time being, Paul and I are always going to lose, being out numbered, three to two."
"You mean six to two." Ann teased back. "Don't forget Fluffy, Scary and Ratigan."
Fluffy and Scary were our cats. Ratigan was an albino rat that Denise adopted from her second grade class, at the end of a project where they were responsible for the care of this rat...and avocado sprouts. Ratigan was named by the class; its name coming from the villainous character in the Disney movie The Great Mouse Detective, who just happened to be a large rat.
Denise's teacher saw that she cared about the rat very much and offered to let her take it home...Thanks a lot, Miss Brackenbury!!!
Denise was more directly responsible for the naming of both Fluffy and Scary. It was obvious how Fluffy's name came about. Fluffy was this huge, fat ball of fur, a Siamese long hair that does nothing except eat, sleep and cough up fur balls that look like wet turds.
Scary is short for Scared-dee Cat. This cat couldn't be anymore opposite Fluffy. Scary was a skinny, very shy, tiger shorthair that only came out from underneath the bed to eat and to crap. And if Fluffy was using the litter box, Scary would crap on the bathroom rug.
Needless to say, Fluffy, Scary and Ratigan were all females.
"Damn, I better get out of here, while the getting's good. I woke up much later than I intended." I kissed Ann on the check, and started to walk out. "Oh and thanks, my love. I know Sunday breakfast duty is supposed to be mine." As I continued out of the kitchen, Ann smiled and said "I'm not worried about it. NOW YOU OWE ME!!"
I hurriedly did the three Ss'... shit, showered and shaved. I made sure that I looked as presentable as I could from the neck up. When I went into the kitchen, Denise and Paul were just finishing their breakfast and hurried back to catch the last part of Jay Jay. Ann set her and my breakfast on the table; we sat down, held hands and said grace. After Amen, Denise added "Lord Jesus, please speak through Stephen today as he gives his homily. We ask this in your name. Amen.
Father Jeff asked me to preach at the 8:45 and 10:45 Masses the Sunday following my ordination. The 10:45 being our regular family Mass. I would leave here early. Ann would bring herself and the kids at 10:30.
I wolfed down my breakfast, quickly brushed my teeth, gave Ann a peck then went flying out the front door.
"Remember, I love you, Stephen."
"I know, dear. I love you too" Those three little words from Ann were like a cooling salve on a new burn. Soothing, comforting.
I pulled into St. Cecilia's parking lot as cars were starting to file out after the 7:00 Mass. After parking my truck, I walked into the church.
St. Cecilia's was a new modernly designed church that gave you a much brighter, more welcoming feel than the cathedral did. Its ceiling was arched, white in color, with beautiful maple colored beams which met twenty foot high walls that were white at the top two-thirds then paneled in maple the rest of the way down. The sanctuary was a half circle which was surrounded by half circles of maple, beige cushioned pews. There were the usual statues, Stations of the Cross, etc, but they were all in maple and looked very modern.
I walk into the sacristy.
I felt out of place, knowing that I would be putting on an alb and deacon's stole. I could feel the pangs of nervousness welling up inside me. Even though I had written my homily well in advance, and had taken plenty of time in preparing it, I was nervous about my delivery. I was afraid I would get up to the ambo and start talking as though I had a sock in my mouth.
"Well, hello Deacon Stephen." Father Jeff said as he walked into the sacristy. "You haven't started to vest yet? I expected you to be vested and ready to go an hour before Mass starts." He said this with a chuckle.
"Very funny, Father." I said sarcastically.
We both vested.
Joe put a chair in the sanctuary for me. Father Jeff, the altar servers and I proceeded to the back of the church. In the vestibule, which had an etched glass wall that separated it from the nave of the church, we greeted people for a minute or two, some congratulating me on my ordination, some saying "hello father". I started to correct them then realized how futile it was when one of them said "Oh sorry, Father Deacon."
We walked into the nave of the church. Father Jeff raised his hand to signal to the choir to start the entrance hymn. I grabbed the Book of the Gospels, raised it just above my head, and processed down the aisle of the church behind the altar servers. Father Jeff came up the rear... ...so to speak.
"Shit! Why did I just think that?" I whispered to myself, trying to hold back a laugh that, if ever started, would not end until tears flowed from my eyes and my sides began to ache. Somehow I must erase that thought... "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit... Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit..."
I finally reached the altar, placed the Book of the Gospel on it, stepped back, bowed with the rest of the procession then proceeded to kiss the altar with Father Jeff. It felt strange to kiss the cool smooth altar cloth that covered the hard, cold marble top. I felt as though I was kissing the resting place of a revered soul eternally resting inside a mausoleum.
Walking to the chairs, Father Jeff and I faced the crowd...
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"
"The grace and peace..."
The view of the assembly from the sanctuary made me feel self-conscious. I felt as though everyone I looked at was looking at me, and I could not escape their stares.
"And also with you"
"Good morning, dear friends. I'm sure most of you recognize Stephen Hatchell..."
"Don't be so sure, father." I thought to myself. "I don't recognize most of the people out there. I hardly ever came to this Mass."
"Stephen is now Deacon Stephen. He was ordained with 10 other men yesterday at the cathedral, and has been assigned by Bishop David to serve us here at St. Cecilia's. Let's give him a warm welcome."
As people began to clap, I felt a rush of blood move into my head. I'm sure my face was as red as a ripe beef steak tomato.
Mass continued...Penitential Rite, Gloria, Opening Prayer; a lector proclaimed the First Reading. The cantor sang the responsorial psalm then the lector returned for the Second Reading.
A lump collected in the back of my throat, along with an entire plantation's harvest of cotton on my tongue. The choir began to sing, "Hallelujah". I stood in front of Father Jeff...
"Reverend Father, may I have your blessing?"
"May the word of the Lord be on your mind and in your heart, so that you may worthily proclaim the Gospel, X in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
I solemnly walked to the altar, elevated the Book of the Gospels, then proceeded to the ambo and announced, "The Lord be with you."
"And also with you," rang back from the assembly, that gave me a momentary sense of power.
"A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to Luke."
"Glory to you, O Lord"
"In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea (and) saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!'
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: 'A voice of one crying out in the desert, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths."'
John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father." For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.'
...The Gospel of the Lord."
"Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ."
I felt my heart race from a perception that I was somehow out of place...that I wasn't suppose to be here. I pulled homily notes from my pocket, which I fumbled to find underneath my alb.
I didn't need the notes. I had practiced my homily a thousand times, but the feel of them in my hands gave me a sense of security...alas probably false.
"This story of John the Baptist is full of imagery from the history of Israel. The wilderness setting reminds us of the Hebrews escape from Egypt, their penitential, purging journey and eventual entrance into the Promised Land.
"The image of John reminds us of Elijah, a simply dressed man, speaking on behalf of God.
"The food that John ate was the same food eaten by Samson, a strong man who fought against injustice and oppression.
"Luke used these images to tell his readers what John's mission was; to proclaim the Good News; to announce that God is here, not the ethereal God the Father of his Hebrew ancestors, but a corporal God; God the Son who will actually come here on earth. And in proclaiming his message, John challenges and rebukes those who have acted unjustly and oppressively in the name of God.
"Yet God has given us scripture to be used for all time; words that are not just historical, but also prophetic; words to be used, not just to be understood. So, what message are we suppose to gather, take ownership of and use from this reading?
"In the telling of this story, we are being called by God to build on the work done by Elijah, Samson and John. We are to profess the Good News of the Lord and speak out against injustice and oppression that exists in our neighborhoods, country and world today. How often do we share our faith with others? How often do we shy away when someone shares their faith with us? How often do we even take the time to understand what it is that the Magisterium tries to teach us about our faith today?
"We are obligated to investigate our faith more fully, and then to share that faith with others. We are lucky if we give God one hour a week. How often do we make God our central focus the other 167 hours?
"But sharing our faith is just one aspect of our obligation. Not only are we to share what we believe, but we're also obliged to act upon it. How often do we ignore the beggar in the street, because we see him as being unworthy to receive what it is we have? How often have we ignored the sick, the old, the orphaned?
"When we deny the poorest among us, we are denying Jesus himself.
"Let's all look at ourselves and ask the question "Am I being all that I can be for God?" Let's set aside one hour of TV a week to learn more about our faith, and once learned, let us promise to share that faith, to live that faith, to make that faith a part of us at our core..."
As I gave my homily, I could feel the fear that I had pent up inside of me being released as I opened my heart and mind; as I let myself go to be used as an instrument of God's will.
"...when God comes with his winnowing fan, let's be gathered by God with the rest of His wheat, not be left behind to burn with the chaff.
"May God bless you."
I walked to Father Jeff's side, he leaned over and whispered "Good job". It seemed somewhat perfunctory to me, and I wondered about the sincerity of his words.
Father Jeff and I along with two altar servers went to receive the offerings during the Presentation of the Gifts. It felt exciting to stand with Father at the altar. I was going to be as close as I could be as God, working through Father Jeff, would make himself known corporally to this world once more.
At the sacrificial table, I took the wine, poured a drop of holy water into it as I whispered the words...
"By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."
Using these words for the first time sent a tingling from the base of my neck to the crown of my head. The feeling reminded me of kundalini fire shooting through the seventh chakra, as described by my now Hindu mother. I became keenly aware of Jesus' sacrifice for us, as well as the gift we are given each time we receive communion.
Father Jeff was meticulous in exercising his grace-filled duties. The reverence that he showed during the Eucharistic Prayer heightened my awareness of the event of "DOING" Eucharist; an event of being in action with God in union with the Body of Christ; being thankful for what God does for us, and through us. Our communion with God is as much in our actions with Him, throughout the entire Mass, as they are in the reception of His Body and Blood.
After the elevation of each species, I bowed deeply as Father genuflected. I wanted to lay prostrate, feeling that I could not humble myself enough in front of the Lord. When Father's knee touched the ground, he lowered his head to the point where it touched his chest. He held that position long and reverently.
Everything during the Eucharistic Prayer was intensified. Although we all participate in the Mass, this was the first time I felt like more than just an observer. After the Lord's Prayer, I announced "Let us offer one another a sign of peace." I said "Peace be with you," to Father Jeff as I gave him a hug. I felt completely comfortable embracing my pastor, my brother cleric, my friend in Christ. I was no longer this homophobe who was afraid that my expression of love towards Father Jeff would be misconstrued by him, or by others, as something other than brotherly, something sexual in nature.
The remainder of Mass I was on cloud nine. Not only had I survived my first Mass as a deacon, but Mass had become more alive for me. Father Jeff gave us a final blessing and I sent forth the assembly. We kissed the altar then processed out of the church.