I was invited by a very, dear friend to attend Sunday Mass at her church, the diocesan Cathedral. I’d been in it before, some time ago. Upon entering the nave, I was surprised for I hadn’t remembered its simplicity. The seat of the diocese from which the Bishop administers to local area churches, usually instills awe and if not fear, then certainly timidity. Rather than gazing upon impressive architectural details, I noticed the people sitting quietly in pews, others walking down the central aisle looking for seats. When my eyes came to rest upon the front where Mass would be celebrated, I was perplexed by its lack of ornamentation. The altar was empty; 3 wooden chairs sat to the right. To the left stood the podium, partially blocking another wooden chair. And across the back, imposing in size, was a white marble sculpture of Jesus on the Cross, the Blessed Virgin standing beneath and to his left, eyes gazing upon His face, and St. John standing on the right. Cradling Jesus’ feet was a woman, perhaps Mary Magdalene.
In contrast to the starkness below, the dome over the altar displayed colorful paintings. The lone, central figure was God, left hand extended holding the world with a cross on top. The figures to His left and right may have been of a risen Virgin and St. John, but I’m not certain for I only glimpsed them momentarily. Having seated ourselves, I continued to look around for other tell-tale signs of grandeur befitting the Bishop’s Church. They only seemed apparent beyond the pillars that flanked either side of the nave. Structural details such as cornices, sculptures and stained glass windows enhanced the otherwise, unassuming house of worship. Use of soft pastels in hues of blues, peaches and beiges both in paint colors and floor tiles, imparted an air of serenity.
Awash in calm, I observed those around me. Smiles lighting up faces as friends recognized one another. Young sons kept separate by a mom, as the family of 4 made their way into a pew. A middle-aged, silver haired couple, husband with his arm lovingly draped about his wife, fingers massaging her shoulder. Two 30-ish year old women with ebony, straight, shoulder-length hair, dressed similarly in print skirts and simple black tops, quietly stepped into a pew a couple of rows ahead. One turned her head looking over her right shoulder, a smile lifting the corners of her lovely face. Was she part-Asian, part-Caucasian, or part-Hispanic, part-Caucasian? It was difficult to tell, but she was pretty nonetheless. The single element which disrupted the contemplative surroundings was the couple seated directly in front of us. Blonde hair in a short pony-tail, the woman, dressed in short jean skirt topped with a white, slightly off-the-shoulder blouse, cinched at the waist by a beige, elastic belt, spoke in non-stop whispers to her male companion. I found myself repeatedly focusing my attention elsewhere, trying to assimilate the peacefulness that enveloped me. It wasn’t difficult.
For me the “jewel in the crown” is always the person celebrating the Mass, and I wasn’t disappointed. Different from youthful, 38 year old, 6’4″ tall, dark and handsome Father Bryan, the pastor of my church, Father Edward Steiner, the Cathedral’s rector, was nearer my age, 5’10”, bespectacled, pleasantly rotund, with silvery-blonde hair, mischievous eyes and a ready smile. When he began his homily his voice, not booming like Father Bryan’s, but soothing and comfortable, invited me to rest my back against the bench, to sit-a-spell. With a lilting, southern drawl, Father Steiner spoke of humility, the Gospel’s lesson.
I’m certain I’ve heard this particular Gospel many times over many years. Perhaps maturity gained with age and a lifetime of experiences, coupled with Father’s engaging demeanor kept me hostage throughout his homily. Drawing our attention to the calendar, he reminded us that there were only so many days left until Christmas. The congregation joined in his chuckles. Continuing on, Father said that most of us give obligatory gifts, among these are those to teachers, secretaries. Not intending to dissuade us from gift-giving, he encouraged that we do it for more substantive reasons than obligation. He then explained the cultural premise of the Gospel reading.
According to Jewish practice whoever was positioned directly across from the host while dining, was held in the highest esteem. The remaining positions were then distributed with consideration for the host’s regard toward those invited, the least favored being seated at his feet. Mediterranean practice had diners lying on their sides, dipping torn pieces of bread into serving dishes shared by all. Western practice is less stringent, with the hostess assigning, or not assigning, seats at the table. If in the latter case, a person seats himself across from the hostess and is asked to move, then that guest is humbled. Where if a guest is moved from a lesser position to the most prominent seat, then that person is rewarded for her humility.
Rather than inviting guests to dine based upon a sense of obligation for their having first invited us, Father Steiner suggests we invite those who are unable to return the favor. By bringing the humble (“low in status” according to Webster) to our table we are advancing their honor, and our own. In giving gifts, we should do so not with the expectation of receiving, we should give because we want to honor those to whom we give, knowing that they are unable to give in kind. We honor them, and we honor ourselves.
Among Jews, striving for honor was a constant. But it seemed to be a subsequence of humility. When Mary told Jesus that a wedding reception was running low on its supply of wine, she intended that he do something. Knowing that he would help to preserve the groom’s honor, Mary was advancing her own Son’s honor. Without fanfare and with only a handful bearing witness, Jesus performed a miracle to keep the wine plentiful. This act, done with humility, brought honor to Himself while maintaining the honor of His host.
After Mass I thanked Father for his sermon. The same warmth that emanated during the eucharistic celebration continued to flow from him as we chatted. When my friend and I took our leave, allowing others patiently waiting to speak with Father, I hugged him in Aloha. Comfortable in returning the gesture, Father elevated a humble follower to share his proximity to God, thus honoring me and in the process, advancing His honor as well.
I meant it when I told Father Steiner that my experience with southern hospitality is that it is akin to Hawaiian Aloha. Both have their faults for sure, but they have their blessings as well. Rather than use a broad stroke to define a culture, I prefer to use a fine brush to detail their compassionate and positive qualities. Focusing upon the humbler side of human nature advances its honor, and the honor of all mankind, and ultimately, God’s.
hugs for a humble southerner, Father Steiner…hugmamma.