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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Diversity as true orthodoxy

The daily mass readings for today set off these thoughts inside me. As I have mentioned in talking about my recent book, the weekday readings of Lent are a sort of catechism for the elect, a diary of the Lenten retreat that is leading them to the baptismal water and the meal of Jesus. For us, too, whoever can be present, the Lenten weekday readings are a compendium of the faith, the sum of which we call the paschal mystery, and we too are led to accept anew the faith that is God’s gift, and submit to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who is bringing the reign of God among us.

So we have two familiar passages, one from Deuteronomy in which the divine law is praised for its wisdom and clarity, and held up as proof of God’s nearness to Israel. The passage ends with an injunction to keep the law well, and to teach it to our children. Then, in a brief Gospel pericope from the Sermon on the Mount, we have Matthew’s Jesus speak the familiar words that he has come not to abolish the Torah and the prophets, but to bring them to completion. There is also an injunction in the gospel to teach the law well. We generally understand this to mean that it is the heart of the Mosaic law that Jesus intends to preserve, which he states explicitly elsewhere–”Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and wealth, and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of neighbor, in Matthew, is spelled out in parable in chapter 25, in Luke, it takes the form of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This all made me recall the morning a few years ago when a parishioner, a really good guy who is very active in many aspects of parish life and who was involved with a small group of men influenced by au courant liturgical legalism, told me good-naturedly that he now feels there hasn’t been “an orthodox Catholic liturgy at St. Anne’s for the last eighteen years,” a time period roughly corresponding to the tenure of our previous pastor. It was the word “orthodox” that wouldn’t go away.

Never mind, first of all, that in that time we’d had several associate pastors who have been very conscientious in the way the exercise their priestly ministry at St. Anne. You already know, if you’ve read my blog for any time at all, that our liturgical practice has been all over the boards due to loosey-goosey presiding styles, ranging from fairly by-the-book to largely improvised presider parts within a structure that approximates Roman liturgy. So I had some sympathy with his point of view, even as I have kept the role of liturgy director (one that I may suggest my pastor just drop from my job description, since there seems to be no point in “directing” anything when the main actors don’t use the script.)

“Orthodox” means “right (i.e., correct, whole, integral) worship.” This parishioner’s issue du jour was the reading of the scrutiny gospels by a group of lay persons, but which includes the deacon (or priest, when there is no deacon.) This is against the letter of the law, which in this case is the General Instruction. Other liturgical law, however, allows for someone other than a deacon or priest to read the gospel when a large number of children are present (the Directory for Masses with Children) and the General Instruction itself makes an exception for the reading of the Passion, ostensibly because it makes a very lengthy passage easier to listen to when not read by a single reader. Against this background, with the greater good in mind that it is better that more people engaged with God’s word than to keep the letter of the law, we made a decision that we will continue to do the reading chorally as we’ve done for the last dozen or so years. So the question becomes, what does this have to do with orthodoxy, who gets to says what’s orthodox, and what criteria do we apply?

For me, it can be stated by quoting a few scriptural passages. Jesus certainly is in favor of the law, but only insofar as it furthers the values of the reign of God, which can be characterized as “the fullness of life for all.” Jesus says to the Pharisees, the good guys, the keepers of the Mosaic law and generally his philosophical allies, “Go and learn the meaning of this phrase: ‘It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.’” Jesus quotes this passage from the prophets (Hos. 6:6) not once but twice in Matthew, at  9:13 and 12:7. It echoes major passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Amos that have become the heart of the church’s counterculture in every age, trying to right the bark of Peter when it threatens to capsize under the weight of its own legalism:

  1. What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. -- Isaiah 1:11-17

  2. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you." -- Jer. 7:22-23

  3. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. -- Hosea 6:6

  4. I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. -- Amos 5:21-24

  5. "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? -- Micah 6:1-4, 6-8

No one is advocating for the overthrow of ritual law, certainly not me nor any of the many, many people I know who have given their lives to the service of God and people as liturgists and pastoral musicians. We know the value of repeated behavior, we know that ritual embodies the equality of God’s reign when all submit to it equally. But we also know that rite is action, it is prayer of a specific people in time and place, and it is that whether or not it follows the letter of the law. Orthodoxy, it seems to me, is not proven by the perfect legalism of rite, but in the action of believers when the rite is over. And one cannot be shaped by word and gesture if one is not engaged by that word and gesture in the doing of the ritual.

One of the great critiques of my life by the insight of another person was my ex-wife’s telling me, probably 25 years ago, that I was “in love with love,” and not really a loving person. That really stuck with me, and looking back over my life, I can see the truth of it. And you know what? It’s the biggest problem that human beings have, in general, in all kinds of ways. In fact, it might be a pseudonym for idolatry, religious hypocrisy, and explain the void of integrity that allows generally good, intelligent, and proactively generous people to come up with lame-isms like, “it depends on what ‘is’ is.” We love the ideal and the idea of love, but we’re unable to actually give it, so we pay lip service to it (I do, I should say) in our songs, poetry, and rhapsodic prose. We long for agape but are only capable of eros. Similarly, some people, who knows, maybe most of us, let our church ritual actually substitute for gospel life. Catholics have been criticized forever for the practice, for instance, of letting prayers substitute for penance in the eponymous sacrament. The appearance is that, if one “goes to confession,” one can do, and keep doing, anything, and “get away with it.” Of course, we know that is not true, that sacraments are outward signs of inward realities. If the inward reality is not there, the sacrament doesn’t “work,” though the most significant aspect of the inward reality, God’s faithful, abiding presence, is always there. We tend to think that our participation, by which we generally just mean “showing up,” at Sunday mass is enough, that it fulfills any religious duty we might have. We have, in short, lost the connection between sacraments, which are symbols or signs of life in the world, and that life itself!

How does this connect with the “orthodoxy” of the liturgy at St. Anne or anywhere else? First of all, liturgy worships a specific God, the abba of Jesus, through a specific person, Christ, in their Holy Spirit. That God has a shaky relationship with ritual, and Jesus, whom we worship as the Son of God, makes that apparent in the gospel. This does not negate the value of rite, but it does relativize it. “Rend your hearts, not your garments” we were told by Joel on Ash Wednesday. “Show me the money,” God says, it’s not about what you do in the temple as much as it’s about what you do outside, the other 167 hours of the week. I always tell choirs and parishes in my concerts and workshops and evenings of reflection—the answer to the question about how good your music or worship is cannot be found in the participation on Sunday, or the beauty of your worship, or the volume of your singing. It can only be discovered in the streets, food pantries, retirement centers, and prisons of your community, state, and nation.

Life in Caesar's world is hard. Since the chaos of 9/11, a whole new generation of people has wakened to the kind of barely subconscious panic we elders experienced in the Cold War. We grasp at all kinds of things to hold us steady in a world that seems to want to spin out of control. One of the things people gravitate toward, sad to say, is fascism. It’s clearly evident in government, and it’s nearly as evident in church life. Maybe, we seem to think, if things in Church will just stay the same, if we all line up and do exactly what we’re supposed to do, some order will return to the universe. About this I can only say, right instinct, wrong god. Our God, whose outward sign is the diversity of creative handiwork, whom we know as a community of three-in-one, is not well served by rigid uniformity. God’s very nature, as well as we can understand it, reveals that unity is diverse, not uniform.

So I just submit that “orthodoxy” is diverse because God is diverse, and God made people diverse as well, in God's image. Our sacramental life is a visible sign of the invisible reality of this God, and of Jesus whom God sent, and their Spirit, and not the sign of some other monolithic god who must be fed specific rites and praises to appease his jealous godhead. Our God, apparently, does like a good shared meal, so we gather to eat a meal that God gives us, but then we go out of the building not so much to keep eating as to feed other people. As goofy as liturgy can be at my parish, what I keep seeing with clarity is that there is a lot of feeding going on, stretching from Ela and Franklin Streets in Barrington to service projects from Carpentersville to Cicero to Hyde Park, to Appalachia, New Orleans, Uganda, the Congo, and India.

Without saying that things couldn’t always be better, and that we might have fuller participation from more people, I’d say that that the liturgy is doing what liturgy is supposed to do, which is to reveal the richly diverse mercy of God made concrete in Christians, ordinary people. In that sense, the only sense that matters, our liturgy is absolutely, resolutely, orthodox.