Holiday Mass, Cartagena

People have strong feelings about forms of worship. When I first joined the Episcopal Church, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was still new. It elicited both joy and complaint. We still accommodate different tastes with Rites I and II at different hours.

This is not the place to rehearse all that, but let me venture a remark about holiday services. Undoubtedly people here and elsewhere look forward to candle light Christmas Eve service, greens and candles lining the center aisle, our favorite carols, children lying in their parents’ arms. It is lovely to pour out freshly shriven into the dark night, all smiles.

On the other hand, I recall the time I served the chalice at the Christmas morning Eucharist. There were eight or nine people present. If I remember correctly, they were all male, none with family members, and all unfamiliar to me. I thought: These are the one’s who belong here; the ones who can’t not come at the crucial hour. They are not carrying out a cultural tradition; they are bowing to receive God—or rather, to be received by God.

A few years ago my father wrote about a Christmas Mass he attended in Cartagena, Colombia. He was disappointed because to him the celebrant seemed listless. But there might be something extraordinary about a Mass said absolutely plain, especially on a festival day. American religious expectations, with emphasis on the emotions, are the eccentric ones. Faith is not an emotion. Neither are the other forms of love, as we learn after adolescence. It is something to have emotions about; emotions of every kind. The stronger religious emotions are, the more careful one must be of them.

Imagine a saintly priest, especially at Christmas, deliberately remaining reserved at the humiliation of God, the beginning his journey death. Demonstrative worship risks coercion of the congregants’ feelings. If any one takes precedence a Mass, more might be lost than gained. There may be times to prescribe feelings for the faithful, but very few.

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