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Monday, September 23, 2013

Worthy to stand (sit, wander about) in your presence and serve you...


With Pope Francis's blessed personal aggiornamento, opening the windows of the church by the force
of his own faith and personality to a more deeply love-driven dynamism, will come the inevitable chorus of voices calling for the lynching of all law and order as the enemy of real Christian discipleship. I'm certain of it; it's a pendulum swing as old as Christianity itself. The visionary apostle preaches the Way as freedom from the law, and those who feel oppressed by law rally around that sermon, empowered by the gospel, ready to throw law out the window. 

The love of the liturgy is the liturgist’s bane. There is a kind of standing joke among ourselves that once you’ve started seriously studying ritual, you can never really go back again, and you can forget about actually praying. It is a joke, but what makes it funny is that there is some truth to it. Liturgy is essentially conservative. Its nature is to pass on tradition. Christianity's tradition, however, is transformation of the past by the vision of an alternative present and future: the reign of God. Fr. Richard Fragomeni, a professor of liturgy at Chicago Theological Union, once called Catholic liturgy "anti-ritual ritual" for this reason. It is an oxymoron, a paradox, to use ritual, an essential conservative activity, to foment the peaceful revolution that is the reign of God. And yet, that is exactly what it does, in spite of our best attempts to minimalize it, bowdlerize it, spiritualize it, turn it into entertainment, and ignore. Filled with the Spirit of Jesus and empowered by the word of God, it effects what it signifies.

I am as big a hedonist as anyone I know. I don’t believe for a second that God wants us to be suffering for a moment more than we have to, and we only have to when it’s our time to do so in life, and those times come for everyone. It’s our duty to relieve suffering, especially for those who have no one to advocate for them. I firmly believe that.

On the other hand, I cannot fathom why priests will say things like this at mass, during the Eucharistic Prayer: “Please kneel or be seated, however you are comfortable.” When I first heard this, I ran to my office to thumb through my handy Pocket Guide to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, a work of fiction upon which I rely heavily in my parish work, along with my now out-of-print Liturgy for Dummies. Imagine my amazement to discover that there is no reference at all in the GIRM, either in the 1967 or 2000 version, to the comfort of the assembly. There are various times for various postures of sitting, standing, walking, and kneeling; sometimes there are options given, the occasional bow or genuflection, but not a word about being comfortable. How did this word creep into the clerical vocabulary in the context of the Mass?

Well, I think I know that, for instance at weddings and funerals, some nice guys just don’t want to tell people to kneel knowing that there are some congregationalists and maybe even a marginal agnostic who just have trouble with the whole kneeling thing. Um, fellas, let them deal with it. They’re grown-ups, or if they're not, they have parents. We don’t have to control how other people act at mass. Even Catholics have two choices. In the United States, the general posture during the Eucharistic Prayer is kneeling. That’s what almost everyone does, so let them do it. But the practice in the US is the exception in the Catholic world, where the general discipline, the one used in Rome and which finds its rubrical origins in the GIRM itself, in both the old and new versions, is to stand during the Eucharistic prayer (hence, perhaps, the gratitude once expressed there that we can “stand in your presence and serve you.”) So, if you don’t want to alienate Catholics or grumpy atheists, just have people stand. Standing is a gesture of respect, even in the US culture. No one needs to sit for their comfort, and if they do, they can choose to do that. That’s called "being an adult." Theologians call it "free will."

But for some reason that is unknowable to the ritual heart, we have been told to sit for the Eucharistic prayer, or even to sit for a longer gospel, so that we’d be more comfortable. You know, comfortable, the way that “taking up your cross” makes you feel, or turning away from sin. 

I have confronted (gently, of course, and respectfully) the perps on occasion when this happened, and guess what? They kept doing it. Why? Because the priest thought that people couldn't pay attention that long and keep standing, and he didn’t want to “lose them” for the homily. Here's what the General Instruction says. You decide: “When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his own word, proclaims the Gospel. (29)”  We read in GIRM 60, “The reading of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy itself teaches that great reverence is to be shown to it by setting it off from the other readings with special marks of honor: whether the minister appointed to proclaim it prepares himself by a blessing or prayer; or the faithful, standing as they listen to it being read, through their acclamations acknowledge and confess Christ present and speaking to them; or the very marks of reverence are given to the Book of the Gospels.” (emphasis mine)

Do you think there is a person in that church who hasn’t spent 30 minutes to an hour in line at Six Flags or Disney World to sit for a two-minute ride, and they can’t stand up for the gospel to be proclaimed on Sunday, having sat for probably 8 minutes before, and again for the next 15 minutes or so after, with a brief stand-up again for the creed and intercessions? See, I think that if someone is so uncomfortable standing for three or four minutes to hear the gospel, they can just decide to sit down.  

Some members of the community, members of my choir included, are completely perplexed by this bit of palliative ritual improvisation, and when I told them the story, that not only had this decision been made for the sake of “comfort,” but that we had requested it be discontinued and been dismissed for it, they were incredulous. Why? Because they are adults, and they can stand, most of them, for a few minutes without having even a minor problem with their health or attention span, and if they did, they would just sit down, and they wouldn’t need to be told to do so, and no one would think they were less reverent than anyone else.

I don’t know how it got to be such a chore just to do the ritual. Let the rite teach us what it means, let’s not make up something that it means, and change the ritual to fit our ideas. Let’s take full advantage of all the options available to us, and be creative within the boundaries set by church. But let’s not confuse hospitality with comfort. Our invitation is not to a cruise, but to a journey that is on foot. There will be time to sit down, but that time is (usually) not when the gospel is proclaimed, and Christ himself is speaking to his people, or offering us, and the whole universe along with us, as a living sacrifice of love to Abba in the Eucharistic prayer. That's got to be as worth standing for as a ride on Space Mountain, doesn't it?