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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Liturgy and the mess of incarnation

Think of the incarnation, and we tend to think of the world as summoned by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet of the 19th century whose immortal paean to divine presence reads like a Chardinian sequel to the “original” Psalm 8:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
 And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
   Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
  And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


For a few years, I've kept the following, which a friend wrote on an internet mailing list to which I belong. It so struck me that I asked him if I could reproduce it in part with a few comments of my own, and he graciously permitted me to do so. The words, as I quote them, are his; any conclusions I draw from them are my own, so please don’t blame him for my oblique thinking. 


In some ways, I see this attraction to the Tridentine (rite) as a rejection of the messiness of incarnation. The idea that we're celebrating the Mass that Jesus said, untouched by 2000 years of history. The idea that "the Mass is the same, no matter where you go" avoids dealing with the particular culture and history and quirkiness of whatever physical place one happens to be. We all face God together, so that we can turn our backs on the world, forgetting that we are at Mass precisely so that we can go out and proclaim the Kingdom to that very specific, messy, incarnate world. This longing for "the Transcendent" is for me a rejection of the fact that when God desired to have his people experience his love in the most powerful way possible, he sent a particular (God)man, to be born in a particular place, of a specific woman, at a particular time, who spoke a particular language, all of which had all the messiness of particularity that goes with history and culture. Human beings simply do not exist apart from that history and culture, and it is a delusion that we can escape that worldly groundedness in our prayer. As long as I can fix my gaze on the wonder of the Transcendent God, I don't have to pay attention to the person sitting in the pew next to me, in whom Christ dwells, and whom Christ calls me to love.
The fact of the Incarnation means that when we go to Mass, we do have to deal with this particular presider (bad preaching and all), this particular lector, that cantor who drives me crazy, the six kids in the pew in front of me, the obnoxious usher, etc. etc., and try to encounter Christ in and through them. And if I can't (or won't) do that at Mass, how in God's name will I be able to do it out in the (all too messy, incarnate) world?


As you can tell from the context, the catalyst for this self-proclaimed “rant” was the expansion of permission for use of the Tridentine mass in Catholic churches. For some of us, this brings up the whole argument about whether the vernacular liturgy of Vatican II allows for enough of a sense of “mystery” and “transcendence,” or if it’s just a way of entertaining ourselves, and at best experiencing God in some immediate and personal way. As I’ve said before, the argument is a red herring—the incarnation, if we take it seriously, has erased the difference between the “vertical” (transcendent) and the “horizontal” (immanent) in the universe for the Christian. God decided, not we, that we should dwell together in the plane of immanence, and the transcendent is to be experienced there, in this world, as it is and as it might be. It’s that immanence and transcendence are aspects of a single reality, and transcendence is experienced not as escape or flight but as depth.

But what caught me about his words was the emphasis on particularity, and how he generously and empathetically articulates the earthiness, the nuts-and-bolts, the “mess” of the incarnational reality. It is in this world, where change takes time and people generally learn slowly and sometimes apparently not at all, that God has taken flesh. In the somewhat overused Scriptural example, it is the divine Peter  Principle in action—of all the possible leaders in human history to lead the enterprise of churchbuilding in the first century, Jesus seems to have picked the most unqualified and clueless, cowardly, ambitious and fickle one in Simon Peter. And Peter was really just one in a long line of last-borns and losers who are part of the string of human collaborators in the story of God.

And if that wasn’t enough, my friend insists that God continues to become flesh in losers and lowlifes to the present day, presumably including even me and my exaggerated opinion of myself, along with all the folks whose insouciance I lament and who drive me nuts Sunday after Sunday. It is in this world, in these people, the God is become flesh. That just about ought to stop me in my tracks, and make me think a little bit, right?

But doesn’t that bring up the other perennial question among us liturgy junkies and artists—if the world of the incarnation is such a mess and populated with such common folks anyway, then what’s the use of doing things beautifully? Why work so hard if it’s for a God who would become flesh in that guy, who’s such an omadhaun he won’t even notice? I think there are two answers to those questions—one is about the music, and one is about what “beautiful” means. I do my best with the music and the liturgy not for God’s sake, but for people’s sake. It would be rude to do otherwise. Doing liturgy well is an awesome responsibility, because the gospel itself is wrapped up in there, and the presence of Jesus, and it’s passed on from person to person so that the world can be changed. It’s doing that, changing the world, that is true worship. By doing my best with music to express the depths of the mystery that we make up together, not by our own choice but because we have been chosen, I can help people with less of a facility for music experience the mystery and express their own faith. In the matter of what is beautiful, once I’m rid of the Sisyphan task of rolling art up the hill from humanity to divinity, of trying to do something “worthy” of God, as though God had not poured self out completely into humanity, then I can see that transcendent beauty is horizontal, that it is for humanity. Beauty is the paschal mystery in sound and color and movement—life poured out that others might have it in greater abundance. It's no longer about building a graven sonic image or a Tower of Babel-ing choral works to please heaven, but of discovering the voice of God right here in the room with us, urging us to break out, to love our enemies, and to stop imagining we can hoard the life we are given for so short a time.

So, my wise internet friend, thank you for reminding me of all that stuff again with your stunning “rant.” Mind you, it doesn’t make it one bit easier to be a part of liturgy with others who seem to have no desire to be faithful or truthful with it, but it might help me work my way through the waves of resentment and depression that inevitably follow those experiences. I have a feeling your parishioners are in good hands, and you in theirs.

One more poem might help us come full circle in this little reflection on incarnation and worship, this lovely poem which might be familiar to you already, by W. S. Merwin. It resounds with me with some of the same overtones as Hopkins and Keith’s “rant.” As we say “thank you” in the Eucharist and in all our prayer and worship, we don’t leave this plane of existence, but dive into its murky beauty to discover the One who binds it together string by string, quark by quark, chromosome by chromosome, closer than our breathing, deeper than our heartbeat.

Thanks
by W. S. Merwin

Listen 
with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you 

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich 
and of all who will never change we go on saying thank you thank you 

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster 
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is