Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Tale of Two Masses

It's been a long while since I posted to this blog, but the marked difference in two services I attended this Holy Week motivated me to write.

On Thursday I went to the Maundy Thursday evening Mass at my traditional chapel. I got there early, but even with that the pews were packed, there was seating in all the aisles, and still people stood in the back. Little children and babies accompanied parents, even though there was no chance of being out before 9pm - yet other than an infant crying here and there, all the children were well-behaved.

The parishioners were dressed as for an evening out - suit and tie, women in nice dresses or suits, everyone on their best behavior. The statues on the altars were draped in purple, and the atmosphere in the sanctuary was quiet, solemn, and serious.

The Mass and washing of the feet, followed by a processional through the neighborhood as the reserved host was moved from the main altar tabernacle to a side altar, the music - everything was beautiful, serious, reverent, and done with care. We left the service feeling that we had been part of something special - and I know it's probably my imagination, but when the host was carried from the church, I felt the loss in a visceral way. That feeling of "fullness," of presence, was gone. This has always struck me when I enter the chapel - that there is a sense that you're not alone, that something fills the very air around you.

Move on to Easter vigil, which I attended at my sister's church. It's actually a very beautiful church; the statues, painting, woodwork - everything is lovely and elegant. Nothing could be further from the truth about the service itself.

Other than lilies on the altars, there was no sign that this was the Easter, Lenten, or penitential season. The statues were undraped, there were flowers on the altar. People arrived dressed in everything from jeans and parkas to capris and tight shirts to suits and dresses. Attendance was sparse, and few children under about 15 were visible.

Honestly, the beginning of the service was rather nice, if a tad pagan-needfire-esque. (If you have never seen this ritual, it's the modern notion of how our ancestors would sweep the hearth clean and light a new fire on the new year - supposedly Halloween. Participants make a ceremony out of re-lighting the fire.) The "assembly" followed the priests out to the yard where the pascal candle was marked and lit, and then they processed back into the darkened church. Each person had a small taper, which was lit, hand to hand, starting with the pascal candle. The priest gave a short speech - well, ok, he "chanted" it, but in modern English (if you can imagine singing a phrase like "this minister likes the idea of all these candles in the dark" without laughing). Eventually the lights came on, and for the next hour we were tortured with alternating "readings' conducted by a woman who really should not have tried (she simply could not imbue the readings with any meaning, and read in a kind of sing-song that became more annoying with each reading) - and who, after each reading, SAT on the steps to the pulpit, her sneakered feet peaking out and visible to all - and the execrable guitar-accompanied drippy songs, belted out at us by a couple of greying sandalistas in the choir loft.

After the seventh reading, I leaned over and asked my sister, "Is it ever going to stop? Did we do something bad and get sent to purgatory?"

The priest sang every word he said, including the consecration. I don't know if this invalidated it, but it sure seemed wrong.

After the whole spectacle was over, the priests thanked the choir for all their hard work; everybody clapped. The main priests thanked the assistant priests; everybody clapped. An assistant priest thanked the main priest and said, "Not every priest can sing like our own (so and so)." Everybody clapped, and some hooted and whistled.

We left.

Our conversation on the way home was not about Easter. It was not about how lovely the service was. It wasn't about Jesus, or our faith, or even mundane topics. It was about how horrible, horrifying, irreverent, silly, and self-serving the service had been. How very "not Catholic."

But of course, I reminded my family, anyone under 40 will have never known anything else - for them, this is the Faith.

It breaks my heart.