From my earliest days—from when I was small enough to sink my teeth into the back of a pew—I have known liturgy. From my first communion mother-of-pearl missal, through the St. Joseph daily missal with Latin on one side of the page, and even into my first responsorial psalms—then called Graduals, and newly set to music—I have lived liturgy.
My first actual responsorial, in a French chapel, was an appetizer for the just-then-meeting Vatican Council II, which added a whole new dimension to liturgy. The Charismatic Movement, a few years later, gave it even more sparkle.
How could I help but become a liturgical musician? For all these years, my Sundays have held sometimes even three masses, all of which I’ve relished as sources of divine life.
That life of God was called “grace” in my early years: sanctifying grace. I have never fully understood the catechism definition, but our teachers illustrated it with a milk bottle drawn in chalk on the blackboard. When you went to mass or received a sacrament, your bottle was white all the way to the top: full of grace. We went to mass because it was a source of grace.
Now I go to mass because it is my lifeline to God. It is literally a kind of portal through which I am united with God’s saving work through the centuries, and, most importantly, to Jesus’ actual institution of the Eucharist and redeeming death on the cross. In God’s word, the Holy Spirit speaks God’s word to me for today. In the Eucharist, I touch the Lord himself.
So, I was disappointed when my high school once-altar-server son announced, some years back, that he didn’t like liturgy. He’d had an experience going with a friend to a Pentecostal church where God seemed to be speaking directly to him through the preacher. He’d never experienced that in our Catholic liturgy. We had kids sneaking off to the Assembly of God youth nights; and, although parishioners sneered that those people were luring the kids with fun, I checked it out and found they were luring the kids with Jesus.
Later, in another parish, I found that our good Catholic school parents were actually attending the local mega-church. Why? I asked. Well, the music is livelier, the preaching is more dynamic, and they have child care, to say nothing of the fellowship. (And our liturgy was nothing to sneeze at, nor was the preaching. Huh!)
It is said that there is power in ritual. Liturgy has a staying power that spontaneous worship does not. I questioned this during my first years in the Charismatic Renewal, when I saw the power of God at work in a simple gathering of believers praying together. The gifts of the Spirit were manifested in a way I had never seen in organized worship, where they were hardly even acknowledged. With God so real and so near, did we need liturgy? Does God need liturgy?
Apparently not, since he is able to break through outside of the rubrics of the mass. But, God also breaks through in the liturgy. And God himself instructed Moses to establish rituals of worship that would go with them from the desert into the promised land and beyond. It was those age-old Jewish rituals that led to the mass, with the sense of their power to lead us back to experience the works of God.
If people realized that the mass is not just about them getting their communion or having a quiet place to pray, but about the God of the Universe coming to be on our altar-table when the priest extends his hands and asks him to be present, would they come expecting a divine encounter? If they knew this was like a time machine transporting us into the reality of the events we remember, would they come intrigued? If they knew God was speaking to them in the words of the readings, the prayers, and even in the music, would they perk up their ears to hear what He is telling them? How could they not?
Ritual for the sake of ritual can be a bore; but liturgy, done in faith, gives life because it is a prism capturing the life of God for us to experience. It ties us into the life of God that has sustained our ancestors and will continue to enliven those who come after us.
We need to let this secret be known.