Unusual Liturgy, Unusual Media, Unusual Holy Week – UPDATED

My piece over at First Things this week, recounts the unusual, and ultimately rather empty-feeling Palm Sunday liturgy I experienced last weekend:

It struck me as odd that the same people who say they wish to “build up the community of the People of God,” and who often decry what they see as “limitations” to the role of the laity, completely omitted any interaction between themselves and the people in the pews. The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday is the only one inviting lay participation, yet none was permitted. That seems a terrible mistake and a loss.

Without our collective calls for Barabbas, for the Crucifixion of Christ, and for Jesus to save himself, we lost an opportunity to be appalled by ourselves. We were denied a chance to once more glean some sound theological, spiritual, and personal insights into how often we choose what is worst, rather than best, for us; the assist that we give to the destruction of the Body of Christ when we advance the brokenness of the world; the lazy service we give to our cynicism.

Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to feel very good about ourselves as beloved children of God, but it seems to me that on this Sunday entering into Holy Week, we ought to be allowed to acknowledge what miserable bastards we all can be, and feel a little lousy about it, at least for the length of a liturgy.

You can read the whole thing, here. I found it disappointing. Aside from the fact that the exercise seemed rather Evangelical/Protestant to me (in both its passivity and the fact that it omitted the Last Supper, and thus our understanding of the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood) I had my head all ready for one sort of liturgy — a profoundly moving one that pricks the conscience and even costs us something, in terms of endurance — and found myself subjected to something entirely different.

This changed liturgy didn’t work for me (nor for my family member who attends that parish) but different is not always bad — sometimes it’s refreshing, other times it helps to deepen understanding or broaden perspective. The upcoming Way of the Cross described here by Deacon Greg is a case in point. Overseen by the Maronite Patriach (at the request of Benedict) and written by young Lebanese Christians, the text is gorgeous and surprising, and it will hit a widely unifying note at the Colosseum, this Friday.

Something else different: normally in these weeks leading up to Holy Week, the press would be offering us juicy opportunities to doubt the gospel. These are usually the weeks reserved for questions about whether or not Jesus existed at all; if he had a wife and so forth. This year, thanks to Benedict’s surprising resignation, the conclave and Pope Francis’ rock-star ascendancy, the press has had its hands full; there has been no opportunity to push back forcefully against the Rome-based images of drama, gasp-inspiring beauty, palpable joy and — dare I say it — rock-like continuance, that have been rolling out before our eyes these past weeks while the whole secular world is being roiled by political redefinition and uncertainty on issues of economy, war, elitism. Here in America we are almost ready to deconstruct a fundamental social understanding common to every culture for thousands of years, because of a conceit that we have become so much more enlightened, in the last fifty.

Msgr. Charles Pope looks at all of that uncertainty in light of Christ’s words and finds something unusual in their eerie relevance:

Yes, said the Lord to those ancient women, in effect, “You think this is bad? The days are actually coming when things will be so bad and so dark that people will celebrate NOT having children, will celebrate barrenness.”

But the Lord does not stop there. He goes on to describe quite well the culture of death so literally lived out in our times: people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’

One may argue that this is just a Jewish way of speaking that indicates despair. Perhaps. But we live it out quite literally in our times, for it is the refrain of the culture of death. And what is the culture of death? It is the mentality that increasingly sees the death or non-existence of human beings as the “solution” to problems. In our times there has arisen a group of radicals who see human beings as a hindrance to their ecological goals, and they seek population reductions and even dream of a pristine earth without humanity. They peddle History Channel programs such as “Life after People” as a kind of fantasy of their vision and advocate contraceptive and abortive policies that see mankind as the problem that must be eliminated. In effect they cry to the mountains “fall on us” and dream of a world that is “post-human.” They even peddle disaster movies as though they were longing for it all.

You may say, I exaggerate. Fine. But would you ever dream we would be were we are today in fifty short years of social engineering, and anti-life policies?

It feels like the most unusual Holy Week in my memory, a week of things happening very fast, and fragmenting along increasingly unpredictable lines; so little may be counted on at the moment, not even the sillier aspects of the season.

And yet, as I look around and scan the headlines, it’s the news coming out of Rome — specifically from the small area patrolled by Swiss Guards who take a knee in salute during a moment of Adoration — that is heartening and reassuring to me. Amid all that is ever-new in Francis (and in the tantalizing possibilities of Christian reunification given serious momentum by Benedict, and of great interest to his successor) there resides within that church in Rome a reality ever-ancient and of-a-piece.

I spoke a little too soon:
just in time for Holy Week this garbage on Broadway

Young Inmates Eager for Holy Thursday Mass with Francis. Many are Muslim.
Polling on the Mass

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Pingback: Unusual Liturgy, Unusual Media, Unusual Holy Week - CATHOLIC FEAST - Sync your Soul

  • Mandy P.

    Just read your piece on the mass you were at Sunday. Yikes! I can see why it was disappointing. At our parish mass this Sunday we did the entire reading- which was nice because they usually do the condensed one- and the homily consisted of a very, very short meditation by Father who basically told us we were the ones who deserved to be tortured and crucified be auseof our sins and that Jesus took our place out of love. The he sat down and let us think on that for about five minutes before the liturgy continued. It was very humbling. And probably the best Palm Sunday mass I’ve been to.

  • http://www.noodlingonit.com Kris, in New England

    I was given the great honor of being “The Voice” in the Passion Reading at the Palm Sunday Vigil Mass on Saturday evening. It was – beyond humbling. Standing in front of the congregation, saying the words of betrayal from Peter, the entreaties from Pilate and finally the pleading from the criminal. The entire reading always hits me where I live, so to speak, and I can’t imagine not having it. Being an active part of the Passion Reading as the crowd is a generous reminder of our own fallibility, our own sinfulness and that we are saved thru the magnificent sacrifice of one man. Perhaps there will be enough feedback to the parish that the Liturgy Committee will leave things alone next year.

  • TerryC

    I am so very bless to have a pastor who is very diligent in his adherence to the norms. We have seen the re-introduction of many traditional practices which had fallen out of use since he has been here. These include the shrouding of the icons during lent, rose vestments not just on Gaudete Sunday, but also on Laetare Sunday, and more frequent occasions of Marian practices. We got the full reading on Palm Sunday, and it was very humbling to have to voice in word what I too often reflect in action. Father’s clear pronouncement of the Lord’s words were a beneficial reminder that when he stands at the altar he stands there not in his own person but as Christ, carrying out the sacrament with the power of the Holy Spirit. That should be meaningful enough for anybody.
    We already know he will be leaving us next year and I for one will miss him.

  • http://marycatelli.livejournal.com/ Mary

    It could also be read, “Blessed are the women who do not have to worry about their children as well as themselves in these trying times.”

    After all, Jesus observed:

    “When you see the desolating abomination spoken of through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, h a person on the housetop must not go down to get things out of his house, a person in the field must not return to get his cloak. Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days.

  • http://www.thecatholicbeat@gmail.com Gail Finke

    I cannot put into words how discouraged I am today, for a great many reasons (personal as well as political and social). Msgr. Pope’s words hit home.

  • Patti Day

    Mandy, Everytime I hear or read something that discourges me, and there’s plenty out there, I try to counteract it with something uplifting. Your comment, for this one who was unable to attend Mass this past Sunday, provided what I needed.

  • Mary

    What took place at your parish was more than disappointing. No one has the right to change the liturgy. How can the the Liturgy Committee be permitted to do this? I had to hold my head when I read your account of what took place. Where is the Pastor when all of this is going on? It sounds like people need to be holding the Pastor accountable for what took place.

  • votermom

    We attended the youth mass in our Parish on Palm Sunday, which does the full reading. The narrator was one of the youths (a teen) and she was almost in tears by the end of the reading. It’s such a moving experience.

  • Pingback: Look at how daring we are in Holy Week!

  • Subsistent

    Admittedly, the dumbed-down liturgy Mrs. Scalia describes was quite inappropriate. But if a five- to seven-year old child is subjected to pressure by peers, parents, or fellow-worshippers to role-play in saying aloud, “Crucify Him!”, that too would be quite inappropriate, IMO.

  • Peggy m

    I’d like to make you feel better with my Palm Sunday story. I recently moved back into the parish of my childhood. At the time, it was nationally notorious (we were in the news! In Time magazine! On TV!) because of the bizarre liturgy inflicted on us. I remember the priest literally dressed as a clown, driving to the altar in his VW bug. That was Easter. He arrived on a forklift once, but I do not remember why. You can google “Father Thomas Quinlan” of the Diocese of Richmond, VA for more.

    on Sunday, we read the Passion story as we were supposed to do. The musicians—organ, violin, cello—played Albinoni’s Adagio in G, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. The choir was sublime. The parish is large and active in the community, the church building has many beautiful art touches, and the priests are warm, intelligent, and orthodox. If this parish could recover and thrive, so can any other.

  • KML

    It was such a visceral experience given all that is going on in our world to reflect on the crowd in the reading this week. When the truth is turned over to the mob for definition, it is possible to laud it one week and be literally calling for its death the next.

  • Subsistent

    On the contrary: Jimmy Akin’s post dated March 23, in the Nat. Cath. Register, cites Pope Benedict’s opinion (in his book *Jesus of Nazareth*, vol. 2) that it was NOT the same crowd which lauded our Lord, then turned around and called for His death.