Friday, April 2, 2010


Over the Easter weekend, I did something I have not done in years: I went to two Catholic masses -- at the church of my childhood. I wanted to get a sense of what ritual does for the worship experience. And when it comes to ritual, Catholics do it better on Easter weekend than any other group at any other time of the year. At least to my knowledge.

I went to the Good Friday mass and the Easter Vigil (on Saturday evening) at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Huge brick edifice, flying buttresses and towering stained glass windows, it is a monument to architecture designed to make you feel small and to know that god is BIG. There were probably a couple hundred people there. I figure the sanctuary was about a third filled.

God is dead. Jesus has been betrayed by his friends, turned over the the authorities and crucified. He gave his mother over to the care of one of his disciples, he died and was laid in a tomb and his friends have gone into mourning and hiding.

Catholics have it all over Unitarians when it comes to ritual and visual punch.

The 20-foot tall mural of the crucifixion behind the altar was draped in red fabric. The statues and other images of holy people were not draped as I have seen them in years past, but the visual of that huge red cloth was stark.

Good Friday mass is all about ritual. It is a beautiful thing to see.

It lasts longer than the regular 45-minute mass, but there is such pageantry and solemn ritual that I wanted to see it.

There were lots of readings it seems, including a reading of the passion from Mark. Different people up on the chancel read the different parts. The congregation stood for the duration of the reading. The priest urged us to put away our books and just listen as the passion is played out. It was powerful stuff.

The passion of Mark's gospel is known pretty much to all Christians. I don't know enough yet to say that it is plainer, clearer, simpler, more accessible or anything else, but it seems to be the version with which everyone is familiar.

We stood and listened and then we sat. Other things were going on, but I don't remember the details. After the passion was read, the two priests and two altar servers walked down the side aisle of the church into the back vestibule and emerged a minute later with tall candles lit and the younger of the priests carrying a 10-foot wooden cross. It was made of plain boards, a little thicker than one-bys, notched and fitted together, stained dark brown and varnished well. I could see a handle on the back of the top as the priest carried it to the front of the church.

It looked pretty heavy. I understood why the younger of the priests carried it. I could not imagine how the older priest might have fared if he had been required to perform that duty. He looked pretty frail.

Once the cross was at the front of the church and more hymns were sung, the altar boys held the cross sideways at the edge of the chancel and the congregation formed orderly lines to come up for the veneration. They moved smoothly to the front of the sanctuary and four at a time bent or genuflected and either touched or kissed the cross. Then they rose and circled around to the outside aisles and made their way back to their seats.

The ritual of what they were doing -- the act of kissing the cross that symbolized the sacrifice of their god on their behalf was stark and enormous. My heart swelled and ached at the thought. How great is the love of a person that he would sacrifice himself so that others could be saved. That is the entire premise of Christianity, as I understand things. It is a huge thing. My eyes welled up and I cried silent tears in the third to the back row on the left-hand side.

More hymns were sung, a brief sermon was offered, reminding people that the cross is a good symbol for how we live our lives - a vertical line represents a relationship between god and us, and a horizontal line represents our relationships with others around us - and then mass was over. The altar was stripped of all of the things that normally stay there. The cloth that drapes the altar was removed and folded. The communion chalices and those little gold plates and things that are used for that ritual were removed, the little golden vault where the communion bread is kept between mass was emptied and the door left hanging open. When the priests left the chancel, it was bare. God was dead. It was a time of humble mourning and wonder.


Saturday evening's Easter Vigil was packed. Late-arriving families had to split up and find separate seats. I slipped into a pew with an older lady. There was a young goth chick in the pew behind us. Later when a young family with three boisterous boys all under 6 years old settled in beside her, I invited her up to sit with the other lady and me. At first she refused politely, but then accepted with relief. The parents seemed relieved, too, as the boys were able to spread out some. The children sat on the kneelers and used the pew bench as their desk as they colored on papers that mom had brought. Poor guys. It was obvious that they had not been taught how to behave in church, and their parents grew more and more frustrated as they refused to settle down. I cannot imagine the energy it must take to manage that little horde of energy. Bless those parents for trying to bring the kids to church on Easter.

Anyway, the mass on Easter is perhaps the most dramatic theatrical production that there can be in a Catholic Mass, short of the Mass of Christian Burial. The sanctuary starts out in nearly complete darkness. Just a few emergency-type lights were on so people did not trip if they had to move. The priests (there were five at this mass) kindled a flame and lit a single candle, which then lit other candles. The flame was then passed to the congregation (we had been given skinny little tapers when we came into the church) down the center aisle, and the flickering light branched out from there until it filled every corner of the sanctuary. The retired lady got her light from the goth girl, and I got mine from the retired lady. The goth girl turned and lit the candle of the dad in the pew behind us, and he lit the candle his wife held.

One could imagine the word of Jesus' disappearance from the tomb spreading in just such a way on the morning of the third day. Mary Magdalene, along with two other women, had gone to the tomb to check on Jesus' body. They were concerned that he might not have received a proper burial, with the required anointing of oil and herbs. If he had not, they came prepared to do that. Jesus' male disciples were all in shock and hiding. None had come to visit the tomb of their lord. The women came and found the stone rolled back and the body gone. They were greeted by two beings who radiated brilliant light and who told them that Jesus was not there, but had risen and was gone.

Understand what that news must have sounded like to anyone in that age. He rose from the dead and left?! That's craziness! It makes no sense. That simply does not happen. Terrified and confused, they fled the tomb. Later one of the disciples visited and found the tomb open and empty and he, too, fled, fearing that someone had desecrated the body of Jesus.

Now I could go on here about my thoughts regarding the church and women and how it was that women were the only ones concerned enough to show up and make sure Jesus had a decent burial, or that later in the story, Jesus first appeared to women, before he spoke to any of his disciples, and how lame and stupid it is for the church to force women into a subservient role within the church. I could go on about that for a very long time, but this is not the place. My words today are to explore the ritual, what it does and what kind of difference it makes. I am trying to get a feel for what it must have been like to experience the events detailed in the bible stories. Those feelings of wonder and fear are what made the faith work in its early days, and the rituals were built to recreate as much of that wonderment and fear as possible.

We blew out our candles as we were instructed to do after a hymn and a reading, and the mass continued on. Readings and hymns and stand for this and sit for that and kneel for this other thing. It was not the cardio workout that the Good Friday mass was (up and down, kneeling to standing a dozen times in five or six minutes) but it kept the people engaged and involved.

There seemed to be an air of joy among the priests celebrating the mass, but from my vantage point in the left rear of the church, it seemed that most of the people - there had to be six or seven hundred there - seemed bored. I remembered that many people just show up for Easter and Christmas, that this ritual was more of an obligation to be fulfilled, a kind of minimum payment on the credit card account of salvation. They looked bored and tired and eager to be gone into the night.

As part of the mass, several adults were welcomed into the church. Two were baptised and several made their confirmation vows and then all received communion for the first time as members of the Holy Catholic Church. The two who were baptised (water on their heads only, not full body immersion) received white robes to go over their clothes and were instructed to keep themselves clean and pure until they were to present themselves before god when they died. I don't remember hearing that part of the ritual before, but I found it striking. My baptismal robe currently adorns a baby doll perched on the bed in the guest room at my aunt's house. If Jesus expects me to wear that thing in the afterlife, it's gong to need some alterations. I've grown a bit since I last wore it at 8 months old.

But I digress.

My aunt was up front with the people who had just joined the church. She's in charge of making sure they do all the required stuff - from the classes to knowing all the things they need to know, to helping them stand where they are supposed to for a ritual that is enormously important to them and makes them very nervous. Her gentle guidance gets many a nervous initiate through the ceremony with a minimum of embarrassing gaffes.

Eventually, it was over. The mass and all its rituals and ceremonies took a full two hours, and people poured out into the warm night air, marveling at how spring seems to have indeed come early. They headed home to put children to bed and to prepare baskets with plastic grass and chocolate eggs.

I lingered in the sanctuary for a while. I walked up the center aisle to get a feel for it. It is a big space in there, like I said, designed to make people feel small. The mural at the back of the altar was still draped in red cloth (it had been since Palm Sunday, I learned) but there was a banner on it with a picture of a lamb and a sunrise, indicating that the Lamb of God had risen. I greeted some people I knew and meandered over to the parish hall where refreshments were being served at a reception for the new members.


On Easter Sunday, I worshipped with the Unitarian Universalists at the church three blocks away from the Catholic one. I'll describe that experience in my next post, and offer some thoughts on ritual and song in church. But right now I need to get to work.

Stay tuned.


Middle Aged Woman said...

I respect the ritual as a form of meditation. Rote movements are used to free the mind for closeness to God or the Universe or whatever is doing the calling. Nobody does ritual like the Catholic church, and another step up is the Greek Orthodox church. But much of theirs is in Greek, so not as engaging. One branch of Catholics, no longer affiliated with Rome (and hey, that's a good thing these days, no?) still does the mass in Latin, which is even more magical.

I have long loved a series of books by Katherine Kurtz called the Deryni series. It's medieval fantasy, wherein the Deryni among the humans have magical powers. The priests that are Deryni recognize that church ritual and magic ritual have the same roots.

Now I sound like a goofball, but if you are into fantasy, I'd recommend her stuff because of Kurtz's view of the ritual.
The Bishop's Heir is a wonderful first part of a trilogy that I have read a dozen times.

padi said...

where did you go? hope you're ok and just up to some interesting church-related stuff.