Monday, December 27, 2004

Two Christmas masses

It was interesting reading Ryan's account of attendance at a Roman Catholic mass on Christmas eve. Unlike Ryan, I no longer experience any temptation to actually partake of the bread and the wine felt by Catholic believers to be "sanctified". Perhaps I'll say more at another time about how I understand Jesus' words at his last supper, and about "sacraments" generally. Suffice it to say that I attend mass largely to share the experience with my Catholic wife, Janet, and our Catholic son, Nicholas. Nevertheless I often find the hymns, prayers, readings, and the priest's homilies to be edifying and insightful.

This year I went to two Christmas masses. The first one was midnight mass, which I went to with Nicholas. Since Janet didn't want to stay up that late, I went to another mass with her around 10 hours later.

Normally a mass is anything but "unprogrammed". Everything that happens is not only planned in advance, but is largely in accordance with a very detailed liturgy. However, some surprising things did happen at both of these masses and they put me in mind of unprogrammed Friends Meeting.

The midnight mass was at St. Domenic's in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The service was to begin with a "blessing of the manger". The church building had a fairly elaborate model of the stable where Christ was born, with figures representing Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the wise men, some of the animals, etc. In the center was a manger that was supposed to contain a doll representing the Christ child. Just as the ceremony was to begin, however, the priest was seen to confer hurriedly with an altar boy, who then walked briskly out of the sanctuary. "We have to wait for the arrival of Christ", said the priest, "we forgot to place Him in the manger." After awhile, the altar boy returned with a doll and placed it in the m anger. The service then proceeded. But in the interim, what were we doing? We were waiting in silence for Christ to appear! How much more Quaker can you get?

The 10 a.m. mass was at a different church: St Andrew's in Bay Ridge Brooklyn. I have the impression that the priest there is a humane,liberal and progressive kind of guy and perhaps a bit of an iconoclast. The lay members of the parish also seem to be unusually active as compared to the few other Roman Catholic parishes I have experienced. The choir, the liturgical ministers, the deacons, etc. all seem to participate very actively in the liturgy, and - one senses - even in the governance of the parish.

During this particular mass, however, the priest did something (whether spontaneously or with premeditation I don't know) that the congregation and deacon did not seem to expect. He left the sanctuary and went with the Sunday school teachers and students to speak with the children, turning the adult service over to the Deacon. Of course, he came back in time to consecrate the elements and preside over the eucharist itself, but the deacon, people, and choir had to get through the homily, the readings, and the hymns without him.

The deacon though he was able to speak extemporaneously for a couple of minutes, was apparently then at a loss for anything further to say, so he asked members of the congregation to speak about what Christmas meant to them - - and they did. So here we were in a Catholic Church with members standing up to give "messages" that were definitely unprogrammed. The choir, too, came up with an extra hymn that hadn't been on the bulletin in order to fill in some time until the priest returned.

What exactly was going on, I don't know. Still, I believe that surprise is good in any kind of worship. The less is planned by man (or woman), the more room there is for the spontaneous moving of the Holy Spirit.


Blogger déraison said...

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8:50 PM, December 27, 2004  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Thank'ee for thy Christmas post.
I had the great joy to worship this past First Day at Fallsington. It is a small wonderful meeting house built in the eighteenth century, around 1760 if memory serves. It was very nice for me, as I often over the past twenty some years, spent Christmas season at mass with Genie. Having grown up Quaker, I always felt a stranger in a church, though welcomed, and present to what was going on. I would feel uneasy at the thought that fellows who spent so much of their being in worship of Jesus would have become so devoted to, what seemed to me to be pagan practice. For me the importance, the real flesh and blood belief placed on the abstractions for that totality of God, seemed to me to define paganism. Yet, I must say, I was touched when one year, Genie and I were asked to portray Mary and Joseph in a procession common in Hispanic Catholic communities, where we would go from door to door around the neighborhood, and knock and ask to be admitted, and be turned away. The lesson in the procession was very vivid and the sense of community was great.
But, Fallsington, dear little Fallsington. Genie and I had portrayed a Quaker couple there, for Fallsington day, a year and a half ago, to show a Quaker wedding for visitors to the meeting house. The fellowship and warmth this past First Day was such a welcome coming home, as it always is, to worship among Friends anywhere in the world.
Blessed new year to all

5:29 AM, December 28, 2004  

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