Friday, February 4, 2011

Candelmas: no grandstanding, no power plays

Here is an absolutely wonderful reflection on a liturgy for Candlemas by Chris Sarti writing for the Chant Cafe.

Last night I attended Candelmas. It was unseasonably cold here in Tucson, record matching in fact. I work in a predominantly Hispanic/Native American Parish. This is the first Catholic Church I have attended and/or worked in where there were no Christmas Trees in the church. The parishioners built a little booth, much like a booth for Sukkot and it was covered in palm branches. The baby Jesus was on a bale of straw which was centered in a bound straw wreath, perhaps 48 inches wide. The adornments on the wreath were clusters of red grapes and a spray of wheat radiating at the top of the wreath where from a distance it looked as though there were shafts of light emanating from the head of the baby. The crèche was still there this last Sunday.

When I entered the church last night the stable/booth had been transformed with large white columns complete with capitols, an altar with a resting place of honor much as a throne for the infant. It was empty. All the candelabra were lit upon the altar and every candle stand was in use. The church was almost limited to those who would stand. People lined the aisles holding their candles waiting patiently in the dark. Several women entered the church with small bundles of baby blankets, but there were no baby sounds to accompany the small forms. I was soon to discover that the small bundles, bundled as they would have done for their own small children, were images of the Christ Child lovingly held as though the image was the reality.

Father entered and walked the aisles with bucket and aspergillum and blessed all the images and candles. It was clear that people carried candles for loved ones either engaged in the battle here or those who have preceded us. It was quiet.

Finally, the moment to begin the Mass was upon us. A lone female contralto voice began to sing in Spanish in a melody that might very well have been Semitic in nature and tone. No one in the congregation knew the song but all of us were actively engaged in the moment of the entrance. First, two acolytes flanking the large processional cross entered. People genuflected and crossed themselves and then turned back to take in the next part of the procession.

A young girl of about 14 with exotic features entered dressed as the Virgin carrying the Child to be presented. Beside her walked Joseph carrying a cage with two white turtle doves. Behind Mary was Anna and behind Joseph was Simeon. There was no hurry and it was clear that people drank in the moment. Following those destined for the Temple, were the servers of that altar – all young boys, I might add, in their black cassocks and white surpluses. A young teen was the thurifer as the smoke filled the temple. Then Father walked slowly up the aisle.

Still, one lone female voice and a congregation enraptured by the sights and smells of the moment. The only light was on the altar in the sanctuary. Father incensed the makeshift temple, the image of the Christ Child, the altar and it was clear that God indeed dwelt with his people – the Shekhinah – the presence of God in the Holy of Holies was present. The Gospel of the Presentation was read in Spanish as Joseph held the Child above the crowd until time to transfer him to Simeon who fulfilled his part.

Young and old were transfixed. “En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amen” We were moving from the mystical to the familiar. “El Señor esté con vosotros.” “Y con tu espíritu.” “I confess… Señor ten piedad.” The faces of the faithful gathered this night were luminous in the soft candle light. I recognized that I had been here before, but the great hymn of deliverance was being sung. But this was a foreshadowing of the fullest meaning of the Incarnation – for it was meant for Jesus the Christ to come and to suffer and to die.

Back and forth between Spanish and English, it was like the seamless garment – none were lost due to language – and the Liturgy spoke her own vernacular - that of the human senses and imagination. The congregation knew the Santo, Acalamcion, Amen, Cordero de Dios and sang them with great reverence and devotion. The rest of the songs we did not know, but not knowing them freed us to participate in a deeper level, with all of our senses. Almost no one sat by idly checking their watches for the time – for we were witnesses in eternity.

Reading so many opinions regarding the use of language and what music should be used at Mass mingled in my thoughts about the experience of just being and being awed – not by glorious music or a mystical language, but by the presence of God in His Temple who had returned to dwell with His People forever.

I thought about how William Marht in his humble way explained the Introit and what the real participation of the people was – to see and experience the entrance. I thought about the debates about hymns that y’all can sing together, or Propers in English or in Latin and pros and cons of each. I thought about the discussions regarding the EF and OF. And much of that discussion fell away as I merely entered into the moment of transformation last night.

This is not to dismiss all the issues surrounding the elements at the service of the Liturgy, for as a people worship, so they believe, and as they believe so they live. What was very clear from last night’s experience was that there were no performers, no grandstanding, no power plays, but a sacred space with humble dedicated servants to serve their God and in the service of each other.

This causes me to not only mourn the loss, in a way of the poetry of the former translations (hopefully rectified by the upcoming translation) but also the loss of the sense of sacred and not secular time. In his homily, Father said that last night was the last night that we would look upon the youth of Jesus until next Christmas, but now was the transition to encounter the man Jesus, the adult Jesus who asks of us hard and difficult things. And so I think that it was almost like a gauntlet inviting all of us to leave behind the things of children and embrace the work of adult Christianity. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child….” (Cf. 1 Cor. 13)

Just as the Holy Father has expressed his desire that the OF and EF can mutually enrich each other, I think that the various expressions of the faith are also mutually enriching. In education we strive for total physical response with our students (TPR) – that is what our Liturgies should call forth from us. The Word of God is active – it is not passive as such nor can we be passive.