Re-connecting to the Lord (re: incense, chant, & Latin)

In just a couple of days we will leave Ordinary Time, as briefly as we were in it!, and enter into the season of Lent in preparation for the season of Easter.

One of the things that marks the changing of the seasons are the changes of how we celebrate the Mass. While it is still the Mass in it’s substance, some of the elements are changed or omitted – the ‘alleluia’ just before the Gospel is replaced with a more subdued acclamation. Similarly, the Gloria is omitted throughout the season as we take on a more quiet and reflective tenor or tone to our prayer and worship.

There are three other elements that we are adding into the liturgies in our parishes, and I’d like to speak about them because they often bring with them frustration, consternation, or simply confusion. Why are we adding these in, what do they mean, what purpose do they serve?

These three things are: incense, chant, and Latin.

While I would discourage you from taking your understanding of the faith from Hollywood, I think you’ll find that if there is ever a scene involving the Catholic Church (funeral, wedding, whatnot), there will always be copious amounts of incense, someone will be chanting something at some point, and Latin will inevitably be included. The director may get everything wrong about what we believe, but these are clear signs to the viewer that this is a Catholic moment.

Now we’re more accustomed to these things, but even we might not know what they are all about, so I’d like to spend some time on them today.

To start, I’d like to start with the word ‘religion’, which can help us understand the purpose of these elements and all the elements of the Mass. I have to go back to Latin, so bear with me. The word ‘religion’ comes from two Latin words re and ligare. Ligare means ‘to connect’, which you might recognize as the foundation of the word ‘ligament’, which holds the members of our body together. So religion means to re-connect.

And what are we re-connecting? Well, we are re-connecting with ourselves and we are re-connecting with God. I don’t think it takes much for us to recognize the divisions that exist in our lives – within our communities, our families, and most especially with the world. There is brokenness all around us. Some of those divisions are ideological, some simple distance, some by choice, some by accident. We see this in Scriptures today in the division of those who are healthy (and presumed holy) and those who are ill (and presumed sinful).

We also need to re-connect, as one Body, with God. We need not go into much detail, but a faithful examination of conscience will quickly reveal how we are separated, divided, from God.

May I take this opportunity to also point out that one of the additions to our life of prayer are extra opportunities in Lent for confession. And if you haven’t been for a while, the invitation is open: come to confession.

So here we are, at Mass, as part of the Catholic religion, looking to re-connect with each other and God. What do incense, Latin, and chant have to do with that? They’re clearly not necessary for faithful prayer: I’m confident that very few, if any, use incense to pray in private, nor Latin, and probably not chant for the most part either.

But why does the Church put emphasize on these things?

Well, let’s start with incense – not the least because I am biased: I love incense! I think it’s the coolest thing in the world and in fact, I just purchased a sampler pack that we’ll be trying out at my parishes.

Incense comes from our practice in the Scriptures. If you read the book of Revelations, if you get past the trials & tribulations, you get to the vision of John the Evangelist’s vision of heaven. God the Father is sitting on his throne, surrounded by the multitude of saints dressed in white.

Saints are simply people like you and I who have been purified by the Blood of the Lamb and are at last in heaven. They’ve lived our life, suffered through sorrows like ours, and have died our death before receiving the eternal life they enjoy. St. John sees them before God, praising Him without end and interceding on our behalf. And he envisions those prayers being lifted up on incense before the glory of God.

If we look in the Old Testament, we see incense being used as well. And there especially we see an element of purification. As we smoke meat to cook it – or as in olden days smoke was thought to bring healing to sick persons – so we use incense to bless, to sanctify places, objects, and people. This is why incense is often perfumed, so that we both our sense of sight and smell are engaged.

So now to chant. What is that all about? Well, chant is just the spoken word put to music – but not just any words! We wouldn’t just enter into conversation and chant that at someone, possible though that may be. We would probably lose conversation partners at an amazing rate.

That said, we put to chant words, prayers, that we want to elevate, that we want to emphasize as having a holy character and purpose. We are essentially saying ‘this is an important thing’, as with the antiphons, the prayers of the Mass, the dialogue between the priest and the people. We’re not talking normally in these moments, we’re doing something extra-ordinary and so we elevate it by formalizing it in this special singing that is chant.

Finally, there is the use of Latin, and I know that this one is at times controversial – not least because most peoples around the world don’t speak Latin in any kind of day-to-day conversation. And yet, the Church has chosen Latin as Her official language, as the language of Catholics. This doesn’t mean you have to learn Latin wholesale, but it is the language that is meant to unify us in prayer.

There’s a practical aspect too, right? In our communities here in Lewis county we have at least two language-speaking communities at any given time – Spanish and English – to say nothing of other languages that may be spoken by others present. The result is that while language can be a source of pride, but also a source of division – not because we are against each other, but because we don’t have one common, worldwide language.

So, the Church responded by settling on one common language so that at for our prayer we can speak with one voice, a language for our faith. We may not have an extensive of grammar or vocabulary, but we know what the prayers mean. Take the Sanctus, offered before the Preface and Eucharistic Prayer. We know that ‘Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus’ means ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’.

Neat fact: Jesus probably spoke at least a little Latin because that was one of the languages of the time. He was Jewish, so He certainly spoke Hebrew. The culture of the time most likely spoke Aramaic, and the civil government spoken Latin – which most citizens would have had some reasonable grasp of in order to interact in secular society. We don’t use Latin solely for that reason, but it is neat to think that we have that connection.

Latin has endured throughout the years specifically it is a dead language, which admittedly sounds awful. I’m reminded of a ditty that someone taught me in seminary: “Latin is a dead language, as dead as it can be; it killed off all the Latins, and now it’s killing me.”

But what that means is that it is stable – the meaning of words is no longer evolving. I suspect we’ve all had words that meant one thing in one decade and have since changed to mean another now, sometimes even an opposing meaning. But Latin doesn’t have that pitfall and so the Church uses it as our common language of faith.

So why are these three things worth bringing up? If nothing else, it’s worth acknowledging that these particular elements often bring consternation, misunderstanding, or are simply difficult to integrate into our regular practice of prayer. We might even think ‘I want to do what the Church tells me, but this is hard!’. And that alone is worthy of attention – no one should feel as if they must shoulder that difficulty alone, without support.

So, we delve into these elements to see how they all serve a purpose – they assist in the function of religion, of re-connecting our diverse membership to each other, and us to the Lord. And the hope of the Church is that these common elements will bring us together. This is why we do the same thing at every Mass, following the command of Christ: “Do this in memory of Me”.

What held the disciples together? At first, it was Christ Himself, present bodily to them. And now, after His death, resurrection, and ascension, He has left us this memorial of His sacrifice – which is also His very Self, His Body & Blood offered in the Eucharistic celebration.

We have this common practice, this common action, that re-connects individuals, and individuals with Christ.

In a couple of days we will enter into Lent, and the liturgy will look different – we know this, having gone through this each year. And I very much want to encourage you: even if you struggle with the various elements, these or others, look at what the Church intends in our worship.

And what is it that She wants for us? The same thing that Christ wants for the leper. And while the leper who is divided from the community due to his visible infirmity, our divisions are not always so obvious. While the leper calls out ‘unclean, unclean!’, we have no practice of calling out our infirmities or divisions – just imagine what that’d look like! ‘I’m struggling with anger!’ or ‘I’m battling with lust’ or ‘I’ve fallen into despair’. No, we don’t do that.

But that is what Mass is for, that is what Christ and His Church wants for us: the unity of the Body of Christ and the unification with the Body to Christ.

As we enter into this season, may we ask the Lord to heal us, to cure us, to unite us. That He may to use these elements, even ones that are alien, foreign or uncomfortable for our benefit. That they might serve us to achieve that re-connection, that we might one day be saints too, joining those gathered before the throne of God, to intercede for those yet separated from the Lord, that we may even now participate in that unending, eternal praise of Christ.

[February 20, 2018 – additional references]

For anyone who is interested in learning about the liturgy, the documents below are invaluable resources. After all of the Masses I preached this homily, these were mentioned and included in the pastor’s notes – I’m sorry I didn’t initially include them in my post here online. They’re not especially long (20-30 pages) and do not require a theological background to read & understand. They’re both both for teaching and reflection and I highly recommend them:

Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) – the first document of Vatican II and a defining teaching on what the liturgy means for the Church

Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy) – the music document commission after Vatican II to follow up on Sacrosanctum Concilium, specifically addressing how to implement its directions in the area of liturgical music

General Instruction of the Roman Missal – this contains the directions of the ‘how’ to offer the Mass. It addresses almost every ordinary celebration of the Mass (pontifical Mass, for example, are not addressed here) and is a wonderful reference for the ‘how’ of the Mass.

I would highlight #24 of the General Instruction, which binds a priests – who have made a public promise of obedience to the Church and its laws – to follow the rubrics of the Mass: “The priest must remember that he is the servant of the sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery” (1066 and onwards) – The section covers all of the sacraments and then some, so it may be wise to pick where your focus will be, but the opening paragraphs are especially useful in laying out our understanding of what liturgical prayer is and means.

1×04 – The Warriors of Kyoshi

I feel bad for Sokka. Despite his bravery against Zuko’s threats to his village, and despite his often clear-eyed grasp of the obvious problems that no one else seems to take seriously, he seems to get the short end of the stick in every episode.

With that said, I was grateful to see Sokka get a little more serious treatment in this episode. Admittedly, it is preceded by a well-earned comeuppance (though delivered in overstated characterization by the writer(s)), but it was nice to see Sokka get to exercise restraint, respect, and even show some competence for once. Constant comic relief does not make for a well-rounded character.

Of course, all of this goes on in the midst of Aang’s continuing campaign to distract himself from the reality of who he is meant to be. His detour to Kyoshi island, ostensibly to ride elephant koi for fun, goes awry. This is first due to an unexpected attack by an unagi (basically a giant eel that shoots water – and has an uncanny resemblance to Spirited Away’s Kohaku, an influence to which the makers of this show readily admit) and thereafter, capture by the warriors of Kyoshi – who are all women.

Sokka’s interactions with the warriors eventually brings him first into conflict and later into a relationship of mutual respect with Suki, their leader. Aang, on the other hand, uses his status as Avatar (proven by his use of airbending) to amuse the crowds who follow him wherever he goes, looking to get a little closer to the latest Avatar – it turns out that the island of Kyoshi is named after a previous incarnation.

All of this attention means that words spreads and finally reaches Zuko, who had been thrown from the scent due to Aang’s unpredictable tourist-like travelling. As with the Southern Water Tribe, he arrives and threatens the locals unless Aang surrenders. This time, Aang simply leaves, knowing that Zuko will abandon any attack to pursue him. His use of the unagi to put out the fires from the attack is a neat, though it seems a waste to introduce both the elephant koi and the unagi to such a short end.

Of these first four episodes, this is definitely the weakest yet. Though it introduces the warriors of Kyoshi, the overall storyline is basically in limbo. Admittedly, the warriors are just too interesting to be a one-off and I look forward to seeing how they enter the storyline in the future. The budding romance between Suki & Sokka seems a bit rushed even for a 20-minute show, but is balanced by the antagonism they have to overcome, and the development of Sokka’s otherwise weak fighting skills. I must admit, Sokka’s non-apology apology (“I’m sorry if I insulted you earlier”) made me grind my teeth. I doubt there will ever be any follow-up, but man is that not the way to genuinely say ‘I’m sorry’.

A quick note to acknowledge ‘foaming mouth guy’ – the character that goes into hysterics before foaming at the mouth and collapsing when Aang reveals himself as the Avatar by airbending. Apparently he has quite a following among fans, evidenced by the wiki entry that he has online.

1×03 – The Southern Air Temple

‘The Southern Air Temple’ breaks open the world and stories of Avatar in immensely satisfying – though incomplete – ways. We begin with Aang and company, revisiting nearly immediately Aang’s avoidance of reality – both his destiny and the ramifications of the passing of a hundred years.

Meanwhile, Zuko faces off against Command Zhao, whose dialogue reveals that Zuko is the disgraced son of the Fire Lord, banished for an unnamed offense. Similarly, he mockingly addresses Zuko’s uncle as ‘General’ Iroh, a great hero of the nation – though he clearly has no regard for either prince or uncle. Iroh’s calm acceptance of the blatant disrespect stands in stark contrast to Zuko’s barely contained fury.

Zhao takes over Zuko’s mission, citing his failure to hold the Avatar, and taunts Zuko into rashly challenging him to some sort of duel called ‘Agni Kai’. After Zhao accepts smugly and leaves, Iroh worriedly reminds Zuko of what happened last time he dueled a master, leaving us with more questions than when we started. Is this what happened to Zuko’s face?

Meanwhile, Aang is losing himself in the joy of being back at the Southern Air Temple, empty though it is. Katara & Sokka are notably subdued in contrast, both intuiting that the temple is empty because the Fire Nation overran it years ago – this is confirmed when Katara finds a Fire Nation helm, though she quickly hides the evidence to spare Aang’s feelings. This can’t last, and a feeling of nervous anticipation shadows Aang’s fond recollections of his mentor, the loveable and wise Monk Gyatso.

Things reach a head for both storylines as Aang enters the temple itself and Zuko faces off against Zhao. Zuko initially falls against Zhao’s confident attacks, overwhelmed by their power and unsure of his ability. Iroh’s encouragement and reminder of his ability helps bring him back and he turns the tables, ultimately standing ready to deliver the finishing blow to Zhao. He instead fire the shot deliberately wide, allowing Zhao to live with the shame of his defeat.

We aren’t surprised when Zhao mocks this mercy as weakness, nor when he moves to attack Zuko from behind. But it is Iroh’s intervention that stands out, and is surpassed not only in his rebuke of Zhao, but his statement of faith in Zuko: “Even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.” The moment of camaraderie between these two as they walk away together is understated but affecting.

Aang has his own crisis of faith when the reality of what has happened at the Southern Air Temple can no longer be avoided. After chasing a lemur that entered the temple (mysteriously filled with statues of every previous Avatar incarnation), he finds the remains of his beloved mentor Gyatso surrounded by the remains of Fire Nation soldiers. Distraught, he enters the Avatar state, wreaking havok all around him as he glows almost insensate with sorrow and rage. At the same time, all of the statues and every Avatar temple around the world begins glowing too.

It is only Katara’s statement of faith and sharing of her own pain in the loss of her mother that brings Aang back from the brink. Sokka, too, expresses his commitment, as Aang finally accepts that he really is the last airbender. They set off together with Momo, the earlier mentioned lemur, to their next destination.

More pieces of the puzzle are laid out for us in this episode. Aang’s angst (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) is on full display, and I can’t help but think that this isn’t the end of his avoidance issues of his destiny and of his loss. It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds. Similarly, I wonder if we’ll hear more about Katara & Sokka’s loss of their mother – and where is their father? What became of him & the warriors who journeyed to the Earth Kingdom?

We also got a few extra facts about how the Avatar cycle works: air, water, earth, fire. That the last Avatar was a Fire bender and that the Fire Nation is currently the source of the world’s woes makes for an interesting potential story point. And the life of the airbenders just seems neat – along with their lock design! I very much enjoyed seeing how that sort of made sense, while also being ridiculous and fanciful.

0x00 – Thoughts about Avatar: The Last Airbender

Why Avatar: The Last Airbender? In short, because it’s a series I appreciate, and it happens to be fairly popular to boot. There are several virtues that are particularly noteworthy, but foremost it is a visually beautiful show. The creators not only take pride in the artistic quality of the show, but they love the world that they’re creating and invite us to do the same vicariously through the characters.

And the characters clearly appreciate what they have, as when Aang rides his ball of air while cheering with glee as he finds creative paths around obstacles, the beauty of the elements being moved through bending, or simply the attention to detail of characters, costumes, animals, and vegetation. Especially in the light moments of pure delight – riding penguins, the joy of flight, or the use of mystical powers for cheeky fun.

The music is also remarkable for its attention to style and pairing with the changing themes of an episode, the various characters, and of course, the different states of the Avatar himself. It’s a shame that Nickelodeon hasn’t released the soundtrack to this series: it would make for great listening even outside the context of the show.

There are some caveats, and the most obvious one is the Eastern mysticism that undergirds the show. While not explicitly religious, it’s not hard to see how the show takes many of its cues from Tibetan Buddhism and lamas, particularly the Dalai Lama. Eastern influence also informs Avatar’s understanding of life force or chi. This comes up in conversations about ‘bending’ or about the body, usually with various explanations of how both have something to do with working with one’s life force or the forces in the world.

We can licitly appreciate and enjoy things with elements contrary to our own faith, provided that we are not confused about what it and isn’t true, and that what we are watching is not objectively immoral (as would be the case with, say, pornography). I would encourage any parent to watch this show with their child(ren) and discuss these (and other) potentially confusing elements with them. Why don’t we believe in reincarnation? What do we believe about the body, soul, and spirit?

The real value of a show, however, isn’t in what it does poorly or in the trappings that surround the story – it is in the world-building, character development, and lessons learned along the way. This show has that in spades, and I look forward to reflecting on them. I’m not a professional reviewer, nor an experienced commentator (beyond expressing my own opinion), and I hope that my amateur efforts don’t put you off from the content. I’m fairly confident that you won’t regret giving this show a chance – I certainly don’t!

1×02 – The Avatar Returns

The second episode of this first season – or ‘Book 1’, as the series prefers – continues immediately from where we left off previously. We see both Sokka and Zuko more clearly in their roles, and how woefully under-prepared they are for the position they find themselves in. Sokka in the responsibility that lays on his shoulders, Zuko in the power he wields – neither ready for what they hold. And boy are both of them over-zealous in how they handle their problems! Sokka in his nearly immediate exiling of Aang for his mistaken triggering of the flare on the Fire Nation ship, Zuko in his heavy-handed tactics to intimidate a tribe of women and children.

The image of Sokka silhouetted against the approaching Fire Nation ship is striking – here is a kid who can’t win, knows that he is powerless to defend those in his charge, but dang if he isn’t going to stand in front of them until the end. Of course we know that this won’t work, but I couldn’t help but smile with him when his boomerang lands a lucky blow against Zuko – who otherwise has the upper hand in every possible way.

Despite his exile, Aang returns to defend the village (was there any doubt he would?), and we’re confronted with another child who is in over his head. “You’re just a child!” says Zuko, to which Aang retorts “Well, you’re just a teenager!”. Yup. Aang’s approach – to surrender in exchange for the village’s safety – is the logical, if inevitable conclusion to the confrontation. Equally inevitable is the pursuit by Katara & Sokka, amusingly punctuated by the proof that Appa is indeed a flying bison – along with Aang’s easy escape.

A couple of light moments I especially enjoyed were right in the midst of the escape. Sokka’s triple prodding of Zuko, knocking him off the ship, was a nice reversal after Zuko did the same to him as he tried to defend his village. Similarly, I chuckled at Katara’s pragmatic acceptance of her limits: If you can only fire freezing water backwards, face away from your enemies! Problem solved – at least for this round.

It’s notable that Aang, too, is a boy with more going on than he knows how to handle. Though he escapes the guards with ease and defeats Zuko handily, if less confidently, the entire encounter reveals the truth behind his previous hesitancy: he doesn’t want to be the Avatar. As he recovers from going into the Avatar State during his escape, his response to Katara’s confusion is telling: “Why didn’t you tell us you were the Avatar? Because…. I never wanted to be.”

Our heroes set off to get Aang the training he needs – albeit with a several detours for ‘serious business’ at Aang’s request. Given the revelation of Aang’s reluctance, it’s not hard to guess that perhaps these detours are deliberate distractions – the question is, how do you force someone to be the Avatar?

(It’s worth noting that this episode’s opening sequence is the one that we’ll see for the rest of the series – and that all but one of the benders we see depicting each tribe will eventually be revealed as a major character. The pilot episode had a longer opening and omitted any visual of Aang, presumably to allow us to meet him for the first time inside the show. Also, in the first episode I wondered at Katara’s ‘ruthless Fire Benders’ remark in the opening sequence – no longer present in this shortened version – will this bear true if/when we learn about the Fire Nation, or is this the bias of an opposing tribe?)

1×01 – The Boy in the Iceberg

The pilot of Avatar: The Last Airbender stands up well as an establishing episode. I’ve watched this series several times now and I’m still impressed at how the show puts its best foot forward right from the beginning.

This is evident first in the opening sequence. Nowadays it seems that television shows eschew narrated opening sequences, but this wasn’t the case before the turn of the century. However, most of the time this was a mark against the show, not a statement in its favor. Notable exceptions were the Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation series (a trend that ended with TNG, I believe) – though I may be biased due to my affection for Trek.

What I love about this shows introduction sequence is that it isn’t just a filler for credits; it introduces you to the world you’re entering, the major factions, the historical backdrop, and a brief montage of the main characters. The only other animated introduction that has impressed me with its ability to do this so well is the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist series.

Also notable from the introduction is the art style of this series. Although Nickelodeon takes its artistic cues from Japanese anime, this is clearly American animation. Additionally, it’s interesting to see the styles of familiar famous anime – notably Hayao Miyazaki – combined with digital animation. On one hand, I find the digital insertions to be a bit jarring. The movement from the drawn map of the world to the digitally placed ships of the Fire Nation shows the stark difference of a softly drawn world and the hard lines of computer rendering. However, the animators seem to have only rarely used digital animation and to good effect overall.

Alright, to the episode. The episode introduces us to our main characters by establishing dual plotlines. We’re first introduced to Katara & Sokka, out fishing for their village. Right off the bat, you’re reminded that this show is geared towards kids as we are thrust into a typical brother/sister teasing, joking, whining, pseudo-fighting scene. But what sets this otherwise mundane drama apart is the undertone of tension (and perhaps even tragedy) in the reality that these two are responsible for their tribe in a largely troubled world.

I really appreciate the alternating plots between character pairs. Katara & Sokka are contrasted with Uncle Iroh and Prince(?!) Zuko. It’s quickly apparent that despite the differing cultures and settings, they’re complementary sets. Katara is to Sokka as Iroh is to Zuko. Both Sokka and Zuko are young men thrust into responsibility before they have the experience to handle it. Katara and Iroh are the calming, mature influences that temper them and provide a reflective counterpoint to the rashness of the boys they accompany, though not without faults of their own.

Having established the four main characters, we’re introduced to Aang and Appa (his flying bison, though the descriptor has yet to be proven!) towards the end of the episode. Though we the audience know that we’re meeting the titular character, his discoverers (Katara & Sokka) are yet ignorant. The beacon of light alerts Zuko and by extension, Iroh, to his awakening. After Aang’s introduction to the village, he and Katara accidentally set off a trap in a derelict Fire Nation ship, giving Zuko the location of Aang and the Southern Water Tribe’s village – and sets the stage for the conflict between our paired protagonists and antagonists.

Throughout all of this, we are introduced to a number of themes that are especially promising: Aang’s guilty evasion of questions about the Avatar, how he and Appa came to be encased in ice, the question of Aang being the ‘last’ airbender and the significance of that to others and for him, Zuko’s status (honor-bound?) and why he has been searching (and for so long, apparently) for the Avatar, Zuko’s constant state of anger, and Katara & Sakko’s backstory as to how they came to be in charge of their village.

It’s a strong start to the series, with foreshadowing for everyone involved. If the series can make good on these threads, we’re in for a fun ride.

Avatar: The Last Airbender guide

Book 1: Water

01 – The Boy in the Iceberg: While out fishing, Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe make a discovery that may bring hope to a world torn by war and division.

02 – The Avatar Returns: After the flare sent from the derelict Fire Nation ship, the Southern Water Tribe must prepare for the possibility that not only they, but the newly discovered Avatar might be revealed.

03 – The Southern Air Temple: Aang takes Katara and Sokka to the Southern Air Temple, where he was trained in airbending. Meanwhile, Zuko must face off with another who is interested in the search for the Avatar.

04 – The Warriors of Kyoshi: Warrior women rule an island founded by a previous incarnation of the Avatar – but how will they regard the new (and reluctant) Avatar?