My gratitude at arriving home after a difficult trip abroad meant that my guard was down. So happy was I to be back in the bosom of my family that I consented to attend Palm Sunday Mass at a parish whose liturgical committee sometimes indulges in the painfully “creative” modernization of standard liturgies.
I do not wish to be unjust by suggesting that this liturgy committee despises its parishioners, but each time I encounter one of its “improvements” to liturgies that mostly worked rather well until about 1979, it seems to me this committee must believe its community to be lacking in taste, education, discernment, and basic human intelligence. That is the only reasonable explanation I can find for their dedication to dumbed-down, Romper Room-ish “entertainments” meant to evangelize.
This past Sunday—Palm Sunday—the assembly was invited to put down their missalettes. The priest celebrant was escorted from the sanctuary and into a pew, and members of the liturgy committee entered with bare feet and grave expressions to “act out” for us the Gospel “message” which dispensed with Luke’s narrative for a kind of scripted amalgam of all four Gospels.
It struck me as odd that the same people who say they wish to “build up the community of the People of God,” and who often decry what they see as “limitations” to the role of the laity, completely omitted any interaction between themselves and the people in the pews. The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday is the only one inviting lay participation, yet none was permitted. That seems a terrible mistake and a loss.
Without our collective calls for Barabbas, for the Crucifixion of Christ, and for Jesus to save himself, we lost an opportunity to be appalled by ourselves. We were denied a chance to once more glean some sound theological, spiritual, and personal insights into how often we choose what is worst, rather than best, for us; the assist that we give to the destruction of the Body of Christ when we advance the brokenness of the world; the lazy service we give to our cynicism.
Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to feel very good about ourselves as beloved children of God, but it seems to me that on this Sunday entering into Holy Week, we ought to be allowed to acknowledge what miserable bastards we all can be, and feel a little lousy about it, at least for the length of a liturgy.
Finally, I missed the priest’s participation in the narrative. I know Catholic punditry is currently all of a doo-dah in comparing the simpler papal trappings of Pope Francis to the richer threads worn by his predecessors, but there has always been poignancy in the sight of a priest uttering the words of Christ, particularly in his anguish and debasement, while wearing noble vestments. It has always seemed a perfect juxtaposition of Christ in his Kingship, and his Glory, and Christ in his full humanity—both present before us, equally valid and meaningful to our temporal lives and our eternal.
The priest’s participation in the Gospel narrative is therefore a rare moment of wholeness, and I am still not sure why no cleric was permitted a place in the playlet. For that matter, why did the pastor allow the parish to be so poorly served? I’m all for pastoral cooperation, but does he not have a responsibility to ensure that our liturgies are reverent and instructive before they are entertaining?
Because I know I can be relatively knee-jerk in my negativity when it comes to experimental liturgies, I discreetly looked around during the performance, curious as to the reactions of others. Perhaps I was wrong, and the throng was enthralled by these innovations?
Well, no. Others were looking around, too; some were checking their watches. The man next to me, halfway through the enactment, picked up the missalette and began reading the Gospel to himself, and that brought home to me a final consideration: In attempting to “improve” the liturgy by turning it into a passive entertainment, the well-meaning committee had brought us into disunity with the rest of the Church.
There was the universal Church—clergy and laity involved together: reading, speaking, praying, perhaps weeping its way through the terrible story of betrayal, loss, and injustice as written by Luke; strong medicine, indeed, for the life of faith—and here we were being served something bland and pasteurized for ease of digestion, with nothing at all required of us, but our attention, which was not being held.
Every life is lived in a chaos of hurt, hope, plans, failures, fleeting joys, and confused humiliations; our Gospel narratives, our liturgy, and our theology exist to help us walk through it all with a sense of surety; a knowledge that something greater than ourselves helps to transcend and transform. They ought not be trifled with, for the sake—or the plain conceit—of material “newness,” particularly not as we enter a week of profound prayer and penance, one that resolves itself into a promise that all things are made anew in Christ, even without our over-busy meddling.