Saturday, October 11, 2008

Re-Learning the Keeping of Feast Days and Festivals

The German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper (1904-1997) might not seem strictly liturgical at first glance perhaps, but many of his works, particularly those upon leisure and festivity as viewed through a classical and Catholic conception, have a great deal to offer those interested in the liturgy. Historically as well, it is an interesting footnote that it was by means of a lecture by Romano Guardini on Goethe, Thomas Aquinas and the classical spirit that the plan of Pieper's first work, Reality and the Good (Die Wirklichkeit und das Gute) was born.

We have focused upon Pieper here before in the past and today I wished to turn our attention to a wonderful little book by Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. Now festivity is something which one can hopefully immediately understand as having some liturgical connection. After all, we refer to our special days and periods of the liturgical year as "feast" days; days of festival. Of course, what this might mean has arguably become lost in many places as, liturgically, these days often come and go without a great deal of difference in the solemnity and festive nature of the liturgy itself, let alone in society generally or in the domestic church that is one's home. Indeed, in many places, but for a time like Easter or Christmas when this sense is still retained on all of these levels -- though sometimes, as in the case of Christmas, prematurely -- it is almost as though it is too much bother, even for our parishes. On a cultural level, these times of festival and "holiday" (holy-day) have typically become secularized and distorted. One can of course think again upon Christmas which has become quite material, commercial and secular, and is prematurely celebrated (again, no doubt for commercial reasons, but then, when the real substance of the liturgical feast is lost, the gap must be filled). Another example would be St. Patrick's Day which, formerly a day of festive rejoicing by the Irish for the "apostle" to their people, has devolved into a general time of drunken behavior and disturbingly coloured ales -- and I, of course, refer not to the "black pint", but rather to the green one.

Pieper argues that the real nature of festivity is fundamentally tied to God and to contemplation. Celebrating a festival then is to become contemplative and directly confront the higher realities upon which the whole of human existence rests. Pieper argues that true festivity always involves the divine, for festivals don't arise from mere ideas, legislation or political decisions. For the Christian, just as for Plato, festivals are something divinely established, having their roots in the rituals of worship. In fact, Plato calls festivals a "holy time" and ties them to ritual worship -- a definition that was likewise accepted by Cicero and the ancient Romans as well. It is true that we might fix calendar days or the particular activities associated with these days -- so there is human invovlement on that level -- but, he argues, we cannot make or invent what is to be celebrated -- and if we try, it is bound to fail.

True festivals allow us to move beyond the present, liberating us through an awareness of a greater reality which in turn gives us a broader perspective upon the day to day. So it is that an inability to be festive signifies an imprisonment in the present, whereas in celebrating festivals in a truly festive way, we move beyond the barriers of this present life on Earth.

Ultimately, Pieper refers us to the liturgy of the Church, and particularly the Mass, which likewise moves us beyond what is immediately present and into deeper realities. Ritual (or liturgical) festivity is, Pieper argues, the greatest form of festivity, and as has been noted already, all truly festal times are rooted in the divine and in ritual praise.

This is a very brief and rudimentary synopsis of some of Pieper's arguments, no doubt not giving them the depth of focus they deserve, nor perhaps doing them justice, but the main point here is not to consider Pieper's specific argument as it is to consider Feast days within the cycle of the liturgical year.

What spurred on this consideration of feast days was an image sent to me some while ago coming from Malta. When I saw it, what immediately came to mind was that here seemed to be a Catholic people that had retained the fullest sense of keeping the Catholic festival in a way that not only permeated the churches in their festal decoration and in their liturgical solemnity, but which also flowed out from the churches and her liturgy into the streets themselves.

Consider this image of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Mosta, Malta:

The liturgical year of the Church establishes a pattern of feast days and festal times, and it seems to me that in many places -- particularly in North America and Northern Europe -- our ability to "keep the feast" has been eroded. Evidently, how we keep the Feast will depend on a variety of circumstances. Malta has the advantage of being one of the most Catholic countries in the world. Still, it seems to me that whether we are looking at the broader culture or whether we are looking at our parish culture, our Feast days should be acknowledged and celebrated more than just as a mark on the calendar, a mention in the opening prayer of the Mass, or even as the theme of a homily. These are all good things as well of course but we need to reach beyond intellectual and into to existential. These are the things that can permeate into a culture and into the one's life and the lives of one's children. It seems to me the place to start is within our liturgies, our parishes and our homes.

With regard to our liturgies and parishes, we should consider how we make the liturgies of feast days particularly punctuated by solemnity. For joyous feast days, it has been a tradition to decorate the church. Traditionally, one of the great exemplars of church decoration for feasts was found in the red wall hangings used for festal occasions.

(Feast of St. Mark, Venice, Italy)

This is obviously a very involved method that will not be feasible for every parish, but perhaps there are other ways. Certainly the tasteful and restrained use of proper flower arrangement in the church will be of help. Simpler forms of tasteful hangings may also be do-able and cost-feasible where a more ornate form of this is not yet possible -- though certainly it seems to be something worth striving towards.

Parish priests should consider at least using altar frontals on these festal days in the proper liturgical colours if they do not use them generally. If they do use them generally (which is to be preferred in my opinion), then consider investing in more solemn forms of them for the liturgical colours of red and gold -- which are the liturgical colours you will typically find will likely call for the distinction between a typical liturgical day and a particularly festal one.

Likewise, it was formerly more common to see more ornate forms of vestments for these days. Again, consider making that investment. Certainly it seems that the vestments of the priest and the altar (i.e. the frontal) are amongst the two most important priorities in reclaiming these festal aspects of our liturgical and ecclesial life if we understand the liturgy as being central to the observance of the feast.

In the same way, feast days are most certainly a pertinent time to invest the liturgy with the splendour of a polyphonic Mass setting, particularly in places where this is difficult to accomplish on a Sunday to Sunday basis. This too should be a priority.

One way to begin to bring feast days outside the literal walls of the parish and back into a more public milieu is to re-establish the Catholic tradition of outdoor parish processions. This will further punctuate the difference of the feast day from the everyday.

As for the home, families are the domestic church and these days would be particularly appropriate to mark in our homes as well, establishing family traditions around them. For example, on All Souls Day one could make a tradition of visiting the cemetery to pray for the deceased members of one's family or the deceased generally. On joyous festal days, one could have a particularly special family meal to mark the day, perhaps similar to what one is accustomed to doing at Christmas or Easter, with the various trimmings that make the event noticeably special. These things mark the day and further make an impression and are the material of memories that will be carried by children into their adult years and possibly passed on to their own children.

By doing all of these things in the home and the parish then, we not only begin to mark our feast days with greater festivity, we also put ourselves on the path to re-establishing a Catholic culture -- a culture that has arguably been eroded not only in many Western societies, but even in many Western parishes.

Let us re-learn how to keep our Catholic festival days.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: