Smile!

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My favorite moment of Picnic Sunday this past July came early in the day and in a rather unexpected circumstance. It wasn’t my half-hour stint in the dunk tank raising money for teacher salaries at our new twinning parish in Haiti, although that was a great cause and I’m still reminded of the experience by the numbness in my right hand from a twisted a nerve in my elbow resulting from in inopportune fall from the board. But I digress.

For several years during Masses of great importance — Christmas, Easter Vigil, Pentecost, for example – I would encounter servers, college students mainly, who would approach the altar with incense after the gifts had been prepared, and who would have such gravely stern looks on their faces. Having completed the incensing of the altar, I would hand the thurbile back to the server and say, “Smile Shawn, it’s Christmas,” or “Smile Todd, it’s Easter,” or “Smile Adam, it’s Epiphany.” They would invariably smile and go off to finish their task of incensing the assembly.

On Christmas morning of this past year, Riley and Elizabeth, two of the many excellent servers we have at our two parishes, were on duty. They were doing everything just as it should be done. I would have expected nothing less. The altar was prepared, they brought the wine and water to the altar right on cue. Riley had the bowl for washing my hands, just as he should have, but on his face was an expression that seemed totally contrary to the day we were celebrating. As I finished drying my hands and put the towel over his arm, I said, “Smile Riley, it’s Christmas!” And of course he did.

Jump ahead six months, it’s our combined parish Neighborhood Mass preceding the picnic. Elizabeth and Riley are doing a masterful job. They’ve put everything in place as they anticipated the arrival of the bread and wine at the altar. Elizabeth has given me the water and wine. Riley has the bowl of water for washing my hands. As I’m silently offering the prayer that accompanies this ritual and handing the towel back to Riley, he looks at me and says, with a big grin on his face, “Smile Fr. Tom, it’s Sunday!”

Well, how could I not. Indeed, how I could not laugh out loud.

What I loved about that moment was the spontaneity; that this young man had the confidence and assuredness to say what he said, a sense that it was OK to have a little fun with the pastor even in the midst of a sacred time. (Bishop Paul, by the way, used to use this time as he finished preparing the gifts to have conversations with us seminarians who were serving at major diocesan Masses: “So Tom, how are things in the seminary?” Who says we can’t talk in church.) I appreciated that Riley had remembered our fleeting exchange from that cold morning back in December and had been carrying it with him, or possibly remembered it just that morning, and had recognized the right occasion in which to turn the tables on Fr. Tom who was no doubt looking far too somber and serious for what was supposed to be a fun, joyful summer Sunday.

And I appreciated that Riley, whether he understood all of the liturgical significance of the Lord’s Day, realized that Sunday, any Sunday, is cause for celebration and a smile or two. So, come on, whoever is reading this – smile, it’s Sunday! TL

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