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.