The cardinal points of our lives all have their rituals. There are the sacramental milestones: baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, ordination. All are celebrated in church with ritual signs: water, bread, wine, oil, rings and hands. There are flowers, candles and music. After church, there is a party, and gifts. Sickness and death bring anointing, get-well and sympathy cards, flowers, sometimes a wake, usually a luncheon. Birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, and housewarmings are all celebrated with a meal together, and gifts are given. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter all bring a family dinner. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Veterans’ Day are sometimes observed with a parade, fireworks, perhaps a visit to the cemetery, and a picnic.
We sometimes talk about our individual, day-to-day rituals, like making breakfast, going shopping or doing the laundry, but real ritual implies community, and therefore it is shaped by our culture. We assume that a table with a tablecloth, candles and flowers means, without anybody saying anything, that there will be a special meal, or if there is music somewhere, that people are getting together. These are signs common to both culture and church. There are even parades: the ministers enter the sanctuary in procession. The casket is brought to the church in procession. Brides process to the altar with their attendants. Gifts are brought forward in procession. The community processes to the altar to receive Communion. They process with palms to commemorate the Passion, and they carry the Blessed Sacrament in procession after Holy Thursday Mass and on Corpus Christi.
We learn the meaning of ritual by doing it, but ritual should be transparent and self-evident. Explaining it is like explaining a joke or a rhyme: it gets destroyed in the process. Why, for example, does a bride come down the aisle? Why do people hold hands at the “Our Father”? What is the meaning of the “unity candle”? Rituals are signs which have some transcendent meaning, a window through which we can see something eternal. Since ritual has a cultural element, it may lose meaning as the culture changes. If families no longer get together around the dinner table, perhaps we are losing the symbolism of a shared meal. It is possible that the use of incense is a ritual that has lost its meaning in contemporary culture. On the other hand, what does it mean at a rock concert when the audience holds lighters and cell phones high as they sing along with the most profane lyrics, which they know by heart?
If rituals are performed carelessly, they may lose their meaning. I suspect many modern eyes cannot see any connection between the ritual of the sacraments and eternal truth or salvation history. They appear to be empty, neurotic actions, and people will not want to participate in anything resembling neurosis. The American bishops’ document, Sing to the Lord, states: “Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations can foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken it.” Over the last 40 years, we have had pains growing into our revised rituals and we have often stumbled over our symbols, making fools of ourselves while trying to figure out what is required of us as we make the ritual our own.
Why then do we come together as church, and what is supposed to happen in church? We are all temples of the Holy Spirit; Jesus lives in us, and we can place ourselves in God’s presence. We can each read Scripture and meditate on it. But there is Jesus’ legacy: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there am I in their midst.” There is an aspect of Christian life – a mystery, if you will – which can only be experienced in community. Perhaps we can take a clue from large gatherings like the aforementioned rock concerts, sports events, movies, performances of plays and musicals, and convention gatherings of a thousand or more people. Those who attend these events are there by choice; they are of one mind with a single purpose. By focusing on a single action, by cheering together, singing together, dancing together, laughing and crying together (what, you don’t cry at movies?), boundaries collapse and a crowd of individuals becomes one body. We imagine this is what happened when Ezra the scribe (in Nehemiah 8) read from the book of the Law from morning till noon, and “all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the Law.” So Ezra tells them, “Rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.” “Then all the people went to eat and drink, to distribute portions, and to celebrate with great joy, for they understood the words that had been expounded to them.”
I believe this scene illustrates what Jesus was describing when he said that “authentic worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23) Genuine worship, grounded in sincerity and honesty, connects us to the Holy Spirit and to the universe of eternal truth. It reaches into the core of our being and lifts us out of kronos, clock time, and into kairos, the teachable moment, the eternal Now. So, as Pilate once cynically asked: “What is truth?” (John 18:38) This raises a thorny, fundamental issue: what do we believe? Do we find truth in “Time to Say Goodbye,” but figure that scripture is “nice,” inspiring, but that Jesus lived in a dream world that has nothing to do with our 21st-century lives? This question impinges on many issues, from why people don’t sing in church to the disaffectation and absence of young people. If music is to bring us to “worship in Spirit and in truth,” it has to “sound and echo in our soul” and reach to the roots of our personal truth. It must be an utterly honest expression of what we bring to God. Whatever we sing has to be good music: that is, the words have to be poetry and the tune must make musical sense and fit the words like a glove. Just because the words rhyme does not make them poetry. Unfortunately, there is plenty of filler material in our hymnals which is no better than Hallmark verse. That’s the nature of the hymnal business. I won’t impugn the writers’ sincerity, but their writing is full of pious clichés. We have to be very careful of our “God-talk.” No one wants to sing anything they don’t believe. Singing something is a sign that you believe it. Thus, music used in the service of worship must be honest and genuine. If a hymn is worth singing, you should know more about what you believe and why you believe it after you sing it than before.
Father Clarence Rivers used to say, “Liturgy is either entertaining, or boring.” He was using the root sense of “entertain,” from the French entretien, a conversation, something “held between.” Perhaps “engaging” might have been a better word, but the meaning is clear: worship in Spirit and truth means involvement. Worship involves a dialog between God and people, between ministers and faithful, listening and responding, what Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14) describes as “full, conscious and active participation”– probably a steep demand for 8:00 Mass. The concept of entertainment requires a closer look. Everything we do in church is “per-formed,” formed by and through us. The Word of God lives because it is proclaimed, not silently read. Music must be sung. Rituals are acted out. The sacraments are given and received. Because of the classic arrangement of sacred space, with the major players up front and the “audience” as spectators, the unconscious model of church, for people of all generations, is that of entertainment. The role of the ministers and musicians is to perform; we will chuckle when appropriate, applaud on occasion and put our money in the basket.
This point of view calls for re-penting, a total change of mind, an opening of eyes and ears and heart, so that we realize that we get out of church only what we put into it. We cannot be ministered to unless we minister. What goes around, comes around. You will take from church only as much as you put into it. Liturgy, leitourgos, the “people’s work,” is hard work. It requires active listening and responding. What were the words of the psalm antiphon? If I listen to the cantor sing the first verse of an unfamiliar hymn, am I ready to come in on the second verse? At church, we cannot buy our ticket at the door and then settle back into our seats. There has been a “paradigm shift” from the church of 50 years ago. Folks of a certain age learned to worship in a context where nearly all the singing was done by the choir, except for a repertoire of some two dozen English and Latin hymns which could be sung at low Mass, benediction or novenas.
The entertainment model of church becomes pernicious when those celebrating weddings and funerals want popular music as part of their celebration. Sometimes they envision nearly all of the music being “performed” as well, either as vocal solos or instrumentally, and the music which is integral to the liturgy is given only an after-thought. They expect a popular song to sustain them when the going gets tough instead of the eternal word of God. Friends and family have been summoned to lend witness and support at this milestone, and they are tossed a bit part in the celebration. Again, the question: what do we really believe? Is the chosen scripture simply pretty words, the ritual only an act, the ultimate truth to be found in “our song” or the deceased’s favorite tune?
It might seem nonsensical to ask if entertainers and rock groups believe what they sing. But if they don’t perform the music with their whole heart, mind, soul and body, they won’t be able to “sell” the song, whether the song is “New York, New York” or “Seasons of Love.” If we can sing along with the top 40, but can’t sing the “Holy, Holy” or a hymn, what does that say about where we think the ultimate truth lies? Consider, for a moment, a birthday party. It would make no sense at all to gather around a lighted cake and recite “Happy birthday to you.” Nor do people recite “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It is ironic to recite in church Psalm 71: “I will sing of your salvation,” or for a lector to exhort us to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 98). The Gloria, in its structure and expression, is a great hymn of praise, yet for most of the year it is recited. The rubrics tell us to skip the “Alleluia” unless it is sung. If our actions are to match our words, certain things cry out to be sung.
Perhaps something about worship takes us back to a formative time in our faith, memories of first holy communion and novenas, of hymns sung to the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother and a cathedral full of people singing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” These hymns may resonate deeply, express our faith, and be part of our spiritual truth. But can the contemporary community worship in Spirit and in truth with 19th-century language? Can people today honestly sing about lisping children, soothing those wracked on beds of pain, and the Heart of Jesus burning with fervent love for men? It is only human to prefer what is familiar and comfortable. “No one,” says Jesus according to Luke 5:39, “having drunk old wine, wants the new. They like the old wine better.” Some of these hymns were sung every month, and the music of the 80s was sung every week, in season and out of season, whether or not it carried the message of Scripture for that day. The latter repertoire is now the nucleus of what is sung at funerals, whether or not the words actually have anything to do with death and resurrection. “Be Not Afraid” is a song for one setting out on a journey, but once one has made the journey of death, there are no more barren deserts to cross, no more speaking in foreign lands, standing before the powers of hell (hopefully!) or bearing the insult of wicked tongues. “Here I Am, Lord,” referring to the call of the young Samuel, is a hymn about listening for the voice of God. To interpret that voice as the call of death is a stretch. The reason these songs are chosen for funerals, besides their popularity, is their emotional content. Not only are the words charged with emotion; they were learned during a time of spiritual excitement, and they carry memories of those times.