Liturgical Moments

Every church member has more and less satisfactory experiences in worship. I complained to my friend Ken about disappointing services in my home parish, so he challenged me to describe what I would consider ideal. My Episcopal parish celebrates the Mass every Sunday, so the question evokes a liturgical imagination different from what we find where the sermon is the main event.

The form of the Eucharist is set in Christ’s Institution of the Sacrament (Matt. 26:26–28 and parallels). Its physical movement, breaking the bread, pouring and drinking the wine, would be recognizable anywhere in the world; a communicant would not need to know the language to follow and participate. Far from being rigid and constricting, the structure of the service frees worshipers from a preacher’s words or emotions. Absolutely any feeling, possibly different for each person present, could arise to be blessed.

In the Turkish Outback

Imagine the Mass in the hinterlands of Turkey, Cappadocia, ancient Christian land, where churches are hollowed out of volcanic cones of tufa. The walls are nearly bare of ornament. The service is intoned on one or few notes, interrupted by long silences. The celebrant is an old monk. The language is unrecognizable. One follows the service by the choreography only, with few snatches of vocabulary. The congregation is only a handful, vaguely threatening. Some of them smell bad. They stand to listen and kneel on the hard stone floor to pray. There are ruinous frescoes on the walls, of which we can barely guess the subjects. There would be no books, no announcements, and no opening welcome to the congregants; only the Kyrie addressed to God.

Maundy Thursday, Firenze

It was Maundy Thursday 1994 in Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo, of Florence. Twelve old monks, not very clean, impersonated the apostles for the foot washing ritual. Some needed help mounting the platform to the chancel, which is inside a marble wall about five feet height. Each of the monks had a brass bell about ten inches high, on a handle about a foot long. Where we Anglicans might hear a little “tink tink” during the service, they shook those bells loud enough to frighten the devil, which is exactly what they are for.

As the service proceeded, a noisy crowd was outside, pushing hard against a door. At a very solemn moment it gave way and they broke in. Among the crowd was a man with a video camera, standing on his toes and craning his neck to see over the chancel wall. This could have been very annoying, but what I witnessed was a blessing. His emotions were transparent, like those of a three-year-old, so eager was he to see something holy. The line between sacrilege and prayer became very thin.

Easter, Firenze

This is the day of days. The celebration starts on the stroke of midnight with a massive peal from Giotto’s campanile. This is repeated all day, from every church. The principal service in the Duomo was at 11:00 a.m., by which time there were thousands present. Arriving more than an hour early, we got a pew about the tenth row, surrounded by standees, and became virtual standees ourselves.

The west doors opened to drums and trumpets and a corps in medieval dress carrying banners and halberds. Through the doors we could see the famous carretino, elaborately gilded and painted, pulled into the piazza by white oxen. This cart is loaded with fireworks. A wire is rigged to it from a column set up in the crossing.

The procession included the archbishop, blessing the crowd as he went. At the Gloria a papier-maché dove with a rocket in its belly traveled with frightful noise down the wire to the cart, set it alight, and returned. The cart by this time was exploding with cascades, roman candles, and flash-bombs. The dove turned around and came back. We worshipers stood on the pews and yelled, full-throated. Meanwhile, the choir sang. We saw their mouths move, but it was not important whether we heard, because the music was addressed to God, who hears everything.

Many parts of the Mass are in Latin, not Italian as I would have expected. The scripture lessons were done in English (first reading), French (second reading), and Italian (the Gospel). The homily was in Italian. At the conclusion, between prayers of thanks and the dismissal, greetings are read to visitors, in Italian, English, German, French, Polish, Hebrew, Chinese, Spanish, and one or two more. Each expresses welcome to the people of the various nations, in the name of the city of Florence. Our American ideas about diversity seem banal.

New York Underground

One Sunday in Manhattan, returning downtown after Mass at St. John the Divine, there was a busker in the subway singing “Ave Maria” and playing on an electric keyboard. Tears sprang to the eyes. There was more light here in the underground than had seemed the case in the cathedral uptown. It had been adorned, if that is the word, for Lent. In a gallery off the north aisle were mounted photographs of corpses crudely basted together after autopsy. Undoubtedly they were meant to evoke the passage from the Ash Wednesday service: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (BCP 265) But those words follow immediately on a prayer in which we acknowledge the gift of everlasting life. As a preachment of Gospel, the hymn in the underground was the better work of art.

Christmas, the Greyhound Station, Los Angeles

At Christmas, 1964, it being vacation from school, I rode the Greyhound bus from Big Pine to Los Angeles, arriving downtown well after dark. The weather was cold and the station was full of ragged people, most of them sitting on the floor leaning against the wall, trying to keep warm. As usual, there was Musak coming from somewhere; seasonal pop songs and carols. Before long, “Silent Night” came on. The men hearing it (they were all men) hummed along softly, each thinking he would not be heard, possibly not even realizing they were singing. The whole place filled up with a soft choir of voices; scores of lonesome longing people. Perfect.

Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles

Once we attended Mass at Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles, the founding church of the city and the biggest Catholic congregation in Southern California. There are five Masses every Sunday, standing room only, all in Spanish. Most of the people here were probably born in Mexico or have parents who were. Every Sunday there is a whole street scene outside: foods, drinks, games and toys for the kids.

A family of three generations by the center aisle includes a girl about two year old. Of all the hundreds of people he passes, the priest interrupts the procession to greet this girl with a blessing. The momentary impression is rather that he acknowledges a blessing from her. Her grandma holds her up, hugs her, kisses her, passes her around for the others to touch. She is about as content a human being as could be imagined. How tough a job it must be for this family with few resources in a strange country. Yet a parent would give much for what this child enjoys. The Peace among these people is a true benediction.

Like our Episcopal parish at home, this church serves a specific class, nationality, and color of people: working class, Mexican, and brown. Yet somehow it is not the same thing as our parish being one class, one nationality, and one color. Why does one seem so wonderful and the other not?

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