Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dom Alcuin Reid on Praying the Christmas Liturgy

[The following article appeared in this week's print edition of The Catholic Herald and is reprinted here with permission]

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Praying the Christmas Liturgy

by Dom Alcuin Reid

“I’ve also got to ‘get Mass in’.” Amid the pressure of everything else we have to do this Christmas - from shopping to travelling and welcoming family and friends - getting to Mass can itself become yet another burden. Perhaps there isn’t much we can do about that. Christmas is Christmas and it does seem to involve enormous effort. It’s a relief for most of us when we can finally sit down to enjoy the turkey.

Our Christmas meals and other celebrations are usually meticulously prepared so that everything goes as it should. Our participation in the Sacred Liturgy of this feast should be carefully prepared also: “getting Mass in” amid dozens of other chores, with one eye on the watch and a mind wandering through the kitchen, the cellar or elsewhere, isn’t really good enough. No. Our approach to our liturgical worship should be worthy of what it in fact is, as well as of the feast itself. We should give it our all - as no doubt later we shall give ourselves completely to other festivities. To be simply bodily present at Mass is one thing. To pray the liturgy is quite another. And it is when I pray the liturgy that my mind and heart is most open to the privileged encounter with Almighty God that the Sacred Liturgy in fact is. It is then that the Christ Child can most easily reach out and touch me.

There are three “keys” to this, which apply not only to Christmas: preparation, participation and pondering.

We can’t sit down to eat a meal that has not been prepared, nor can we realistically expect to pray well if we have not prepared to do so. The Church gives us the season of Advent in which to prepare for Christmas, a season full of expectation and of hope for what is to come. The Advent liturgy cries out that we should be ready for the coming of the Lord, both at Christmas and at the end of time.

Perhaps the most practical way to ensure our readiness, which will enable us to pray the Christmas liturgy as well as possible, is to ensure that we have celebrated the Sacrament of Penance beforehand. Making a good individual Confession is a basic prerequisite for welcoming Christ. If for some reason we don’t believe that is possible, at least a thorough examination of conscience is in order.

Closer to Christmas, we do have to make practical arrangements in order to be present at Mass. When? Where? The latter can be a challenge if we are travelling or staying with family or friends. The former, also, can present difficulties if we must organise the family or have house guests. But they are not insurmountable obstacles. The times of Masses in places away from home can be found easily enough, and a certain amount of prioritisation at home will help those in the house to see that time is being devoted to Him who gave us Christmas in the first place. Perhaps, given the feast, we will decide to attend a more solemn celebration of the Mass in our parish, or one at a different time, than we might ordinarily. Perhaps we will make the effort to join the bishop at the cathedral in the celebration there.

The Mass of Midnight, with its peculiar timing, carries with it something of the “nightliness” of the feast - where a star appears and a new babe, the Saviour, is born – and is something we should all experience. The so-called “Christmas family Mass” that is often celebrated on Christmas-Eve (in fact, it is the vigil Mass for Christmas, watching and waiting for Christmas to come) has somewhat eclipsed this in a type of accommodation to what it is thought easiest for families with younger children. But every Mass is a celebration of the family of the Church, in which children take their part, and no more so than at Christmas: we do a disservice to children and young people by infantilising the liturgy. What could be more powerful, even something of a treat for children, for a family to take its place amid the parish family in the church at midnight on this day each year, to “taste” the silence of this night and glimpse for themselves the first light shed by the star over Bethlehem? And how many of us appreciate that there are traditionally three Masses of Christmas: midnight, dawn and later, during the day, each with their own beautiful prayers and readings?

When we have sorted out the when and where, we need some immediate preparation. With the introduction of newly translated liturgical texts, many will be hearing the texts of the Christmas liturgy in accurate translation for the first time. Reading over those particular to the feast will help (the opening prayer/collect, the readings, the preface for Christmas, etc). In a sense this is pre-tasting something of the feast we are to celebrate later. If the words we will hear are already familiar, our hearing of them in the liturgy can more easily become prayer. Having a missal with the liturgical texts available at home is an indispensable tool here, and children who are gradually initiated into its riches are more able to participate in the Church’s liturgy.

Thus prepared, we need to arrive in good time to participate in the liturgical celebration. Giving ourselves at least some time in the church beforehand affords us the opportunity to recall our preparation, but also to form our intentions for the Mass. For whom or for what intention am I praying at this Christmas Mass? Loved ones who are far away may be very much in my heart, as may those who are no longer living this life. But, in Christ, in the celebration of the Mass, I can reach out and touch them in prayer, which is, after all, love applied through the eyes of God.

I may wish to ask the Christ Child, whose sacrificed and resurrected Body and Blood I shall receive in Holy Communion, to give me the strength I need to follow Him more closely, or to discern His will in a particular aspect of my life. I may be able to thank Him for His blessings and graces in my life and in that of those close to me. If I prepare my intentions in this way before Mass by the time the Entrance chant is begun I shall already be praying the Christmas liturgy.

Full, active participation in the liturgy obviously requires that I am physically participating in the liturgical rite, standing, kneeling, singing as best I can, responding, listening etc. It may be also that I have a particular liturgical ministry. All of these activities are important. But of themselves they are not prayer: they serve (they minister) prayer. It is possible to be responding and singing and so on, or to be a very busy and utterly competent liturgical minister, and still be more focused on the turkey roasting in the oven than I am on God.

What I need above all is connection, interior connection. Often the liturgy can appear very cerebral, too wordy, like a series of texts that we have to remember or comprehend. There are words in the liturgy and their meaning is important, certainly, and I can gain much from familiarity with them. But the liturgy is not a text or a discourse. It is not a seminar. It is first and foremost an act, a ritual act, an act of worship, in which the riches of our Catholic tradition - words, sounds, gestures, objects, persons, etc - are deployed in ways that have developed over the centuries in making present Christ’s saving action in our midst, today. And it is to this saving action I need to be connected in mind and heart. I need to be caught up with, almost lost in, this action which is being renewed within my very grasp. That connection is actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy. That is praying the liturgy. That is liturgical prayer.

If I can make this connection at Mass, or at least be conscious of its necessity, I will find that the rite (which, it cannot be said often enough, is much more than simply words) has the ability to place me face to face with Christ in the most sublime manner possible in this life.
And if I thus understand liturgical participation I will also find that the need that some feel to try to follow and comprehend every word of every prayer or chant will disappear, and that I will be freed to savour the beauty the Church places before me in her liturgy, to ponder the insight God may have given me through a particular prayer, a reading, the homily, or simply to enjoy being close to the presence of God manifest through the sacred rites of the Church’s ritual worship.

To take but one example, from the newly and beautifully translated first preface of the Nativity of the Lord, which sings: “ the mystery of the Word made flesh a new light of [God’s] glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that, as we recognise in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.” If something of the meaning of this beautiful prayer, sung in the Church’s worship at Christmas for over a thousand years, can touch and inform our hearts and minds this year, our attendance at Christmas Mass will have become true participation in the action of the liturgy; it will have become prayer. If this is so, and we become “caught up through [Christ] in love of things invisible”, our many mundane daily tasks as well as our Christmas frenzy, will be transformed.

For the liturgy provides springboards, as it were. Liturgical music can (and should) uplift my soul in its meditation on and mediation of the meaning of the feast, and perhaps a phrase of the entrance chant, the response to the psalm, the text of the Alleluia verse, together with the beauty of its melody and the love and care put into its singing, will give my soul wings, even briefly, amid the busy-ness of Christmas. The reverence and care shown by the sacred and other ministers will speak to me of the reality of worship more eloquently than words, and even being present as part of the liturgical assembly itself can underline the fact that, regardless of our earthly circumstances, as a member of the Church we are never alone.

After time spent with a loved one, family member or close friend, we often come away with an internal warmth that sustains us when we are apart. We find ourselves thinking back to our time with them, remembering their words, their gestures, the joys and even the sorrows and sufferings shared.

So too with the Sacred Liturgy. The encounter with Christ that the liturgy is should, like embers in our hearts, warm us when we are out in the “spiritual cold”. If we have been struck by something in particular, such as the preface mentioned above, its glow can itself keep our faith and love from the chill. But even if nothing in particular has touched me on this or that occasion, the practice of looking back at the liturgy, with the help of a missal or Mass booklet, can open my eyes to something that may have escaped me when I was at Mass.

This pondering over the liturgical celebration, digesting it a little more slowly as it were, itself leads to prayer. For when my heart and mind discover meaning or are filled with insight, this connection – perhaps made days afterwards – is the same as that for which we should be striving in the liturgy itself. It is just as much liturgical prayer.

The Church ponders the mystery of Christmas in the Octave of Christmas - the eight festal days which commence on Christmas day - which continue to meditate on the mystery of the Nativity. And she continues to do so through to the feasts of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord. Christmas is far more than December 25, and there are many sublime readings and chants on which we can feast spiritually.

It needs to be said that the Sacred Liturgy is more than the Mass. We may be doing very well just to get to Mass, but in many places there are celebrations of the Divine Office (Lauds, Vespers, Matins, etc) which also resonate the glory of the Incarnate God. If we are fortunate to be near such a place this Christmas, why not partake of some of them? The celebration of first vespers of Christmas at Westminster Cathedral each year is splendid; many other churches and religious communities keep alive this largely undiscovered treasure of our liturgical tradition. Its riches await us. Many cultures also have particular liturgical blessings and other traditions associated with Christmas, and there is even a special form of grace before meals with which to greet the turkey. Why not feast on the liturgy as well?

But whatever we are able to do, let our preparation and our participation ensure that it becomes prayer. And may our pondering of the mysteries which are celebrated this Christmas nourish us spiritually amid our many other activities.

Dom Alcuin Reid is a monk of the Monastère Saint-Benoît at La Garde-Freinet in the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France. His forthcoming work, Praying the Sacred Liturgy, will be published in 2012

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