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Archive for the ‘Liturgy’ Category

The way the Sunday readings strike me often depends on what else I’m thinking about, and this week is no different. After spending some time Saturday reading around the blogosphere on the Motu Proprio, Paul’s letter to the Galatians made me think not of the circumcision controversy of his day, but of the liturgical issues of our own.  To paraphrase, does it matter whether the Mass is celebrated in Latin or in English as long as it’s celebrated well, prayerfully and faithfully? I’ve said in com boxes elsewhere, the Mass can be well or poorly celebrated in any language with any rubrics. The TLM isn’t magic. Nor are all progressives in favor of clown masses or pagan rituals.

I have nothing against Latin. I’ve belonged to several parishes that incorporate Latin and Greek on a seasonal basis. I love the Latin hymns and Gregorian chants. But as I listened to the opening prayer, I realized that I would miss so much of the English translation. I would hate having to follow along in a missal to get the translation. Yet, I can appreciate that for some, the awe and mystery of the TLM carries great weight. I’m glad that Pope Benedict is encouraging a peaceful coexistence. Because too often issues like this divide those who should be focused on our common belief. Paul spent most of his ministry fighting this problem in his communities.

Ann Landers and Dear Abby frequently used the acronym MYOB or “mind your own business.” As good as that advice is, perhaps it’s better if we recall that as Christians we are to be minding God’s business. In the Gospel,  Jesus reminds his followers to keep their focus where it belongs. It seems easier sometimes to complain about those who do things we don’t agree with, or those who we believe are wrong. Like the disciples rejoicing that the demons were subject to their words, we have a tendency to dance in triumph on the graves of our enemies. When we do that, we lose our center.

Isaiah speaks to the exiles of their return to Jerusalem and the temple, encouraging them in their rejoicing, but always reminding them that the Lord is the source of their prosperity. We need to remember that through all the changes the church has undergone in the millennia since Jesus and his disciples walked this earth, it’s still God’s church and his harvest is as abundant as ever. What are we doing to gather in that harvest for a spiritually hungry world?

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Sometimes when we put everything we have into anticipating a great event—planning, preparing, hoping, dreaming—the event itself can sometimes seem almost anticlimactic, as though it couldn’t live up to the hype. Brides and grooms have said this of their wedding days, when after months and months of planning every perfect detail, they have little recollection of the day itself. Easter can be a little bit like this, especially if we celebrate the great feasts of the Triduum, the three days before Easter. Holy Thursday with its commemoration of the Last Supper, Good Friday’s account of Jesus finest hour, reigning from the cross, and the Easter Vigil, recounting all of salvation history, culminating in Jesus’ great gift.

We know in our minds that we are celebrating the greatest single event in God’s covenant with his people, the triumph over death itself. But somehow we can’t wrap our understanding and emotions around something so intense, so unique, so utterly beyond our human experience. Ironically, this letdown is almost built into the Easter readings. At the heart of the Easter story is the empty tomb. The stories of the appearances will come later, unfolding the mystery of the resurrection. But the first message to the apostles is that the tomb is empty.

Somewhere in the darkness of our Easter Vigil, we must confront the empty tomb individually in fear and trembling. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb in the early hours of the morning. John and Peter go together to the tomb but each enters separately. We must do likewise. But our belief that the Christ has risen will draw us together once again into an experience of community, an experience of Church. Our response to our individual conversion is to gather with those who can share that experience and then together go out to tell our story of the Christ.

Throughout the Gospels, the apostles appear in shifting groups or more often as individuals, following Jesus and relying on his leadership to hold them together and settle their disputes. It is only the fear of the crucifixion and then confrontation of the empty tomb that gathers them together into a single group, relying on each other for protection, reassurance and support. The empty tomb compels them to rely on their faith in the stories Jesus told of the resurrection, stories they may not have heard or understood because of their individual preoccupation with success and advancement. Now they must rediscover his presence by retelling those stories and centering on him rather than on themselves. Alone none of them is able to fully comprehend the experience; together they discover new insights in a shared belief. From Easter to Pentecost, they are most often referred to as the Eleven, a sign that their identity is as a cohesive group rather than a collection of individuals. Any personal experience of the Risen Lord is marked by the command or the impulse to “go and tell the others.” Our vision of church today and into the future can take its form and character from this early community.

Just as a wedding day is followed by years of marriage, the day-to-day life of learning to live and love in a committed relationship, so Easter Sunday stretches first to the Easter Octave, then throughout the fifty days of the Easter season and into each expression of the paschal mystery in our weekly Eucharists and in our lives.

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I went to the Tenebrae service at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral last night. This has become my personal tradition for entering into the Triduum. I first experienced it back in the late 1980s at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, where it was sung after the Mass on the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.

The centerpiece of the service is the chanting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in this case in English, but each verse introduced by its proper Hebrew letter. These three sections were interspersed by congregational psalms (Pss 80, 69, 22, 4) classical motets (Poulenc, Victoria, Casals, Bruckner), the Bach passion chorale and scripture readings from Hebrews, Romans, the Gospels of Mark and John. The other piece I wait for each year is an exquisite performance of Allegri’s Miserere, complete with traditional countertenor.

What struck me this year is that this is a very theological reflection on the upcoming passion. Rooted in the prophets, in the world’s need for salvation, it offer some of the finest scriptural reflections on the fulfillment of the messianic promise. Even the reading from Mark is the gathering at Caesarea Philipi, when Jesus asks that question we each must answer: “Who do you say that I am?” The commemoration of Jesus’ last hours lies ahead; this service reminds me why that commemoration is important.

On a much more primal level, it’s an incredibly stirring ritual. Quiet, solemn, stripped to basics in many ways: a simple procession, music, scripture, candlelight. As the fifteen candles are quietly extinguished one at a time after each psalm or reading, the focus deepens. With the single candle burning in a completely dark cathedral, I find myself aware at a very deep level of the most basic struggle between the darkness of chaos and the light of Christ. The moment of being plunged into complete darkness (for the space of an Our Father) makes me realize like nothing else I’ve ever experienced what the darkness would be like without the Light that came into the world for our salvation.

Masterful ritual, indeed. This is not overheated, even maudlin emotional reflecting on a tragic death. This is the very core of our faith experience. As John puts it so well, “The light came into the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

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Perhaps you’ve seen these Nationwide Insurance commercials: the partying college student is suddenly a balding man with a mortgage; the baby in a car seat is a teenager by the next intersection, the father pushing a toddler on a swing is suddenly knocked down by the swing now occupied by a hefty adolescent. Their slogan is, “Life comes at you fast.”

This might be a good slogan for the Palm Sunday liturgy. We begin the liturgy with the Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The citizens welcome him with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David.” It seems to be his finest hour, the popular recognition of who he is as the long-awaited Messiah. But we know from elsewhere in the Gospels that a popular idea of the messiah was rarely the role that Jesus was destined to fill. All too soon the fickle crowds will be turned by some of their leaders to condemn this very person they greet so enthusiastically. The disciples’ heads must have been spinning at the sudden reversal of fortune.

Our own liturgy moves quickly from the procession with palms into the reading of the Passion. One campus parish tried to separate these two different moods by a solemn reading of the passion at the end of Mass, a foreshadowing of and entrance into the events of Holy Week. While it had a dramatic effect, it misses the fact that in this holiest of weeks, we are not spectators at a dramatic recreation of the final week of Jesus’ life. Too often we get cast in the role of the crowd, extras playing bit parts in an epic movie. But we are in fact participating in a most solemn commemoration of the paschal mystery—the death and resurrection of our Lord.

Reflecting on this movement from triumph to tragedy to the ultimate triumph during Holy Week can help us understand the way the paschal mystery manifests itself in our own lives. As members of the body of Christ, we, too, experience the death and resurrection that Jesus did. We all have experiences of life coming at us fast and leaving us gasping for breath and searching for meaning. We find it not in the financial security of a life insurance policy but in the spiritual awareness that everything in our lives—the heights of joy and triumph, the depths of suffering and death—is united with the life of Christ.

St. Luke gives us many memorable scenes unique to his account of the Passion. Only from Luke do we hear the story of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, men who knew that they deserved the punishment they received, and who knew, too, that this man between them did not. In the depths of his despair, the one we know as Dismas, the good thief, asks Jesus, “Remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” Jesus promises him, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke also tells us that Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We might find comfort in these words when we find ourselves acting out of anger or frustration and hurting those we love.

Jesus’ last words in Luke’s passion are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” These words are perhaps our best response to our sense that life comes at us way too fast at times. Our lives are in God’s hands. Knowing this in the depths of our beings gives us all the assurance we need.

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