Sunday, March 09, 2008

Random Thoughts for Passiontide

Today is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. In the traditional calendar, this is the beginning of "Passiontide." In the churches, the crosses and statuary are covered with purple veils. This is in remembrance of the Gospel account read on this day (John 8: 46-59). The Jewish leaders finally corner Christ in the Temple, and confront Him as to His authority. "Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am."

I AM WHO AM. It was the name told to Moses. "Tell them that He Who Is sent you." You and I do not exist under our own power. Only the Creator does. To put it another way, we may exist now, but not yesterday, today, AND forever. The one whom Thomas Aquinas referred to as "the Unmade Maker" exists on his own power. It is only HE who absolutely... IS.

Throughout history, and in most if not all cultures, to address someone by their name implies a familiarity with them. That we are not entitled to this, say, with our parents, is the reason we generally refer to them as "Mom" or "Dad," and not by their first names. To give someone their name, implies authority over them, as when Christ renamed Simone Bar-Jona as "Peter," and when I gave my son the name shared by both his grandfathers, that of "Paul." This is why radical feminists who insist on addressing God as "Mother" are so audacious, as God has made it clear that He is addressed as "Father," and that His Son already has an earthly Mother.

The Tetragrammaton "YHWH" was popularly rendered by English-speaking Christians in centuries past as "Jehovah," and in the 1970s as "Yahweh." But to this day, Orthodox Jews do not speak the name of God, and will only dare to render it as "G-d." (The more prudent of English bible translations will spell it out as "LORD" in all capital letters. That is why you will sometimes see that word in either upper and lower case, or in all caps, depending on whether it literally means "Lord" or "God.") The only time it was ever spoken, was on the one day of the year when the High Priest entered the Temple, stood behind the veil of the tabernacle, and while alone before the Ark of the Covenant, uttered the Name of God -- by himself, and just once. Suffice it to say, then, that by referring to Himself as "I AM," Our Lord was essentially committing blasphemy. So when the Pharisees took up stones to administer the prescribed penalty, Christ hid Himself in the Temple. That is why crosses and statuary are veiled on this day. Later, the image of the Crucified will be unveiled on Good Friday, and the remaining images will be uncovered for the Easter Vigil.

In a recent essay for, Steve Skojec describes his journey to the Traditional Mass:

My discovery of the Traditional Latin Mass... was a slow but logical process rooted in a lifelong desire for a liturgy that was sensible, sacramental, and enhanced by the trappings of orthodoxy... During our engagement and the early years of marriage, my wife and I were drawn to a parish that celebrated the novus ordo in a more traditional way, employing the use of Latin, incense, ad orientem, polyphony, and chant. Our wedding Mass was celebrated in this manner as well... We eventually moved back to Northern Virginia in 2006 and began attending Mass at St Mary, Mother of God, in downtown Washington DC. As our adorable infants grew older and louder, however, I spent less and less time with my missal in prayer and more time in the narthex of the Church in some sort of parent-child version of a cage match... For many young parents who have discovered tradition, this is where the love affair breaks down.

He goes on to express his frustration with taking his young children to Mass, driving a considerable distance so that they end up fidgeting and misbehaving amidst the devout. This can be disconcerting to the surrounding worshippers...

I grew up as the oldest of three, with a fourth added later. While still a wee lad, my Dad would take me to Sunday Mass by himself, and Mom would stay home with my brother and sister. (Whether she went by herself at a later time, I really don't know.) If I was a good boy at Mass, Dad would take me on the grand tour of all the statues and Stations of the Cross. At three years of age, I never got tired of this. I think children can be taught that this is something worthy of their attention. It may take awhile, but a child's missal with interesting pictures is a more constructive diversion than a favorite toy. The altar servers with whom I work are just as typically boys as any other, with interests in sports and hobbies and the like. But when it's before, during, and after Mass, they are completely "in character." This doesn't happen overnight.

My son Paul was raised as a Byzantine Catholic. His mother and I wanted to spare him from the iconoclasm which prevailed in the Western church at the time, and which still hangs on for dear life today. While the Roman Rite is traditionally a dry, somber experience, with emphasis on choreographic and theological precision, the Byzantine Rite is splendrous and embellished, with the priest and people chanting alternatively throughout. The priest comes out from behind the iconostasis at various times, either for a procession, or the reading of the Gospel, or to incense the people. During "The Great Fast," as Lent is known in the East, we would attend Presanctified Liturgy on Friday nights. Essentially it's like penitential vespers with communion. When people prostrate during the Prayer of St Ephraim, they don't just kneel, they hit the ground flat. During most of it, the priest and acolytes are outside the sanctuary, facing the iconostasis. At the end, they would sing three times: "Having suffered the passion for us, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us," prostrating after each rendition. Paul would get up and go to the front of church standing alongside them. It was adorable.

As a result of the experience, Paul always had something to keep his attention. He was also a big hit on Talent Night when he was older, but that's another story. Let's get back to talking about me...

I used to attend St Mary’s in Washington DC, and I served there for nearly a decade. It is a beautiful church, one that has been spared the iconoclasm that has befallen others. (Thankfully, they were too poor during the 70s to participate in the charade.) But at least every other Sunday morning -- haven’t been there in a while, but this is what I remember -- they opt for the Low Mass. Now, people there generally do not join in the responses to the extent permitted in the 1962 Missal, and most wouldn’t have it any other way. But the result is that any spirited behavior by young children is all the more obvious, in a great hall of a thousand people where you otherwise hear nary a peep.

One of the advantages of St John the Beloved in McLean, is that they have a crying room. True, the Mass doesn't start until noon, but if people are traveling for an hour to attend a Traditional Mass, we've got just the place. And although it employs the “theater-in-the-round” design, subsequent alterations and ad hoc adaptations manage to keep the damage to a minimum.

Hopefully, you can be patient enough while the master of ceremonies stumbles all over himself in the sanctuary.

[PHOTO: St Stephen's Church, Sacramento, California. Courtesy of Father John Zuhlsdorf. Used without permission or shame.]

1 comment:

Steve said...


Thanks for your comments on my article.

I've actually been to St. John the Beloved (I introduced myself to you a couple months ago, you may recall) but the timing is tough, and the distance is tougher. We're now in South Manassas, close to Woodbridge. DC is still our most direct route and the best time for us.

I've been a fan of Fr. McAfee for years. His was the Latin novus ordo I spoke of in my piece, and it was St. Catherine of Siena where we were married.

I'm gratified that so many parishes are offering the classical liturgy; I only wish that I could have it closer to home and earlier in the day.

My dream is that some day the FSSP will come into the Arlington diocese and rescue us with a full-on parish, but until such a time, we'll just have to continue making the slog.