Celebrations – those joyous affairs that offer a welcome distraction from the drudgery of everyday life; a time when the weight of worldly concerns takes a backseat to festivity and lightheartedness; a venue in which happiness is allowed to prevail, even if only for a moment, buoying the spirits of those who but surrender to the energy of the occasion.
We have New Year’s Eve celebrations, graduation celebrations, World Series, World Cup and winter solstice celebrations. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, acquisitions and achievements, and the list goes on and on.
The makings of a good celebration are actually rather simple - a good group of people, with a good common purpose, together in a good place determined to feel good, and it usually adds up to a good time!
Yes, human beings sure do like to celebrate, in fact, on some level it seems that we have a real need to celebrate, and this brings me to the Paschal Feast more frequently called Holy Mass.
How often we speak of “celebrating” the Lord’s Resurrection, and it is right that we do, but it seems to me that a great many Catholics are largely unaware of just how much our liturgical celebrations, in their very essence, differ from the secular affairs previously mentioned.
Modern day Catholics who have been conditioned by the liturgical atmosphere of the last 40 years often seem to approach the Eucharistic celebration at Holy Mass with a mindset that comes unnervingly close to “celebration-as-merrymaking.” No small number, not surprisingly, seem to imagine that the gateway to “active participation” is largely a function of one’s willingness to “get into the spirit” of the event.
If one but joins others in taking on the proper attitude; e.g., simply letting go of inhibitions, singing with abandon, offering the responses with intonations of emotion (sometimes even accentuating them with exaggerated gestures just for good measure), etc., surely one will then know what it means to “celebrate” the Day of the Lord in the liturgy. Or so the thinking goes.
The logic here is not entirely flawed in that it hints at the absolute necessity of developing the proper interior disposition in order to engage in fruitful participation (albeit incorrectly framed in terms of emotion). The breakdown, however, occurs when one considers to what the faithful are called to surrender in the celebration of Holy Mass.
Are we called to simply give in to good feelings, or could it be that perhaps we are called to subordinate ourselves (body, mind, intellect, will and senses) to something more?
If the former, then it is the heady responsibility of some in the local community (like pastors, liturgists and music directors who are in touch with the tastes and customs of its people) to craft a liturgy that ever invites the emotional surrender of its participants, much in the way that a party planner uses activity and song to create an atmosphere of festivity in service to invited guests. From there it falls
to the individual to either make it work (or at the very least to “make the most of it”) or not. Sound familiar?
If, on the other hand, it is correct to say that we are called to give ourselves over to something more at Holy Mass, (and it most certainly is!) then we need to ask what that “something more” is. The answer, of course, is the transcendent presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In truth, I’ve never met a Catholic who exclusively takes the “good feelings” approach to the liturgy, but I’ve met throngs of Catholics who put an unsettling amount of stock in the idea, wherein the Mass is treated not entirely unlike the celebration of a political victory with the candidate present. Ultimately, Christ is treated as the esteemed Guest of honor at what is essentially the community’s “celebration.”
At the heart of the matter is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Mass truly is, but it occurs to me that it would help a great deal simply to address the definition of the word “celebration” as it applies to the sacred liturgy.
The Latin root for the English “celebrate” suggests the verbs “perform, honor and glorify,” but also the nouns (fittingly enough) “large gathering or assembly.” That said one actually need look no further than the first two entries in Webster’s Dictionary for a suitable definition:
1. To perform (a sacrament or solemn ceremony) publicly and with appropriate rites
2. To honor (as a holiday) especially by solemn ceremonies or by refraining from ordinary business
Yet, how many Catholics today when asked what it means to “celebrate” the sacred liturgy could give even this basic definition without supplanting “solemn” (i.e., sacred, in accord with religious tradition, awe-inspiring) with the “feel good” concepts more proper to secular pastimes? I would venture to say
far too few.
Pope John Paul II addressed this topic when writing of the joy that should accompany participation in the Eucharistic celebration in the Apostolic Letter "Dies Domini" (Day of the Lord) in 1998 saying:
“This joy should never be confused with shallow feelings of satisfaction and pleasure, which inebriate the senses and emotions for a brief moment, but then leave the heart unfulfilled and perhaps even embittered. In the Christian view, joy is much more enduring and consoling; as the saints attest, it can hold firm even in the dark night of suffering. It is, in a certain sense, a ‘virtue’ to be nurtured.”
Now, that’s not to say that the joy that results from entering into the Divine presence and action in the sacred liturgy is so “other worldly” as to be beyond the properly human. In truth, since it is only in Christ who is both God and man that we so participate in the liturgy, the experience of joy that derives from Holy Mass is also truly human.
“Yet there is no conflict whatever between Christian joy and true human joys, which in fact are exalted and find their ultimate foundation precisely in the joy of the glorified Christ, the perfect image and revelation of man as God intended,” the Holy Father continued. (ibid.)
The authentic joyfulness that should be evident in our liturgical celebrations is not generated by humans; rather it is divinely given to humans as gift. This point, however, seems lost on many of us.
For instance, when less-than-sacred music – chosen as it so often is for its ability to “inebriate the senses and emotions” with those “shallow feelings of satisfaction and pleasure” that Pope John Paul II warned about – is coupled with contrived notions of what “active participation” means, we have all the makings of a community’s feeble attempt to manufacture a “joyful celebration” while forgoing what Christ is freely offering.
Consider, as a prime example, the following excerpt (modified only to the extent necessary to avoid identifying specific individuals as the situation described certainly isn’t confined to one liturgy in one place) taken from a diocesan newspaper detailing the bishop’s visit to one of his parishes:
“The parish shared their talents throughout the Mass and made a connection with the bishop. There was incense wafting through the air as the drummers and the liturgical dancers set the tone for the celebration right from the start.”
When the brain trust of a given parish thinks it’s a good idea to break out the drums and the liturgical dancers at Holy Mass in order to “connect” with the chief custodian of the sacred liturgy in the diocese, not only is it an indication that we have lost our way, it’s a pretty sure sign that we have no blessed clue that we’ve run the ship aground!
The article continues, “The liturgy was beautiful,” the pastor said. “It creates good liturgy and good worship when the members of the parish come together to use their gifts.”
While the success or failure of a community praise and worship service might hinge entirely upon the collective efforts and gifts of the members and the degree to which they get into the spirit of the event, such is not true of the sacred liturgy.
One of the missing ingredients it seems to me is the sense of mystery that necessarily accompanies the Eucharistic celebration when one is aware that the liturgy on earth is nothing less than an action of Christ and a foretaste of the liturgy of Heaven itself!
“Believers [who are called] to reflect upon the course of history in the light of Christ, also [are invited] to rediscover with new intensity the meaning of Sunday: its ‘mystery’, its celebration, its significance for Christian and human life,” Pope John Paul II writes (Dies Domini).
“This makes Sunday the day on which the Church, showing forth more clearly her identity as ‘Bride’, anticipates in some sense the eschatological reality of the heavenly Jerusalem,” the Holy Father continued. “Gathering her children into the Eucharistic assembly and teaching them to wait for the ‘divine Bridegroom’, she engages in a kind of ‘exercise of desire’, receiving a foretaste of the joy of the new heavens and new earth, when the holy city, the new Jerusalem, will come down from God, ‘prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’“ (ibid).
Now this is what it means to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection through our participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio has been a columnist for Catholic News Agency since April 2009. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com