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Friday, March 17, 2017

Calendrical Clutter: Demystifying the Liturgical Calendar

Having just celebrated in our parish the Solemnity of St. Patrick, and with the Solemnity of St. Joseph (usually March 19) transferred to Monday, it seemed like a topic to explore would be some of the curiosities of the Liturgical Calendar itself.
  Much like the historical development and use of veils, I don’t expect this to be a real page-turner, but it may shed some light on some of the peculiarities that we take full advantage of throughout the year. 
Since the reform of the General Roman Calendar in 1969, a great deal has changed. (In point of fact, I could write a whole book on the changes and adjustments to the Calendar at other times in the 20th century, but for our purposes here I have chosen to limit the discussion to the calendar of the New Order of Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969.)  Whenever we use the phrase “General Roman Calendar” we refer to the annual arrangement of liturgical seasons and the observances of Saints’ “feast days” in any given year.  The General Roman Calendar provides the basic guideline for which Mass (whether that of a proper Saint, a votive Mass, a ferial day, etc.) is said on each day of the year.
To start, we look at the overall structure of the calendar.  It is divided according to liturgical seasons (Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time I, Lent [and the Paschal Triduum], Easter, and Ordinary Time II).  These seasons begin and end based upon the placement of Christmas and Easter within the calendar year, the former always occurring on December 25, and the latter based on the ancient Jewish lunar calendar which calculates Passover as the Sabbath following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (Easter Sunday occurring the day after the Passover Sabbath).  These two great Solemnities of Our Lord form the two hinges upon which the entire season calendar is based.  This is why the First Sunday of Advent shifts from the third to the fourth weekend of November, and why Lent can begin as early as the beginning of February and as late as the second week of March!
In addition to the particular seasons that the Church observes, there are “feasts” that we celebrate on specific days of the calendar year, usually pertaining to Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph and the other Saints inscribed on the Roman Calendar.  These feasts (and I use the term in the generic sense—I’ll explain why in a moment) are ranked into three basic categories: Solemnities, Feasts (see?), and Memorials, the latter category being divided into obligatory and optional.  All of this is laid out in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal’s Table of Precedence for Days of the Year. 
Eventually we will dive into the distinctions that are made with each of these ranks of feasts (again, used in the generic sense).  But, since it pertains directly to this weekend, I want to say a word about the highest rank, Solemnities.  Solemnities are the highest-ranking days of observance in the liturgical year, and there exists within that category a ranking in order to ensure that when two would-be solemnities occur on the same day (e.g., a Sunday of Lent and a Solemnity of a Saint), one knows which day is to be observed. 
Solemnities are, like all feasts, of intrinsic value to the Church because they require us to pause, take a break from our labors, and enter more deeply into the mysteries of the life of Christ, recognizing the contribution of the particular event or person to the building up of the Kingdom of God.  For example, March 19 is always the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church.  On this day, we cease all Lenten fasting and rejoice in the life of St. Joseph, the “silent partner” of the Holy Family, who cared for Our Lord and His Mother, loving the former as his own son, and the latter as St. Paul instructed in his Letter to the Corinthians: “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.”
Yet, this year, the Solemnity of St. Joseph is transferred to Monday, March 20, because the Sundays of Lent, according to the Table of Precedence, “outrank” the Solemnity of St. Joseph and displace it.  This is because the Sundays of Lent and Advent, Christmas and Easter, and Solemnities of Our Lord always and everywhere take precedence over every other liturgical observance, because they pertain directly to the mysteries of the Life of Christ and have an intrinsic value to the worship of God in the Sacred Liturgy that is unparalleled.
This past Friday saw our observance of another Solemnity, that of St. Patrick.  You see, while St. Patrick’s Day in the General Roman Calendar is merely a Memorial, the Titular Patron of a Place or a Parish Church is given the rank of a Solemnity. So, for us in St. Patrick’s parish, by universal liturgical law, we were exempt from all Lenten fasting in order to celebrate our particular parish Solemnity.  And so this entire weekend (Saturday excepted) is, for us, a time of feasting and celebration.

I hope to be able to go back and to look at some of the other idiosyncrasies regarding the Roman Calendar, but this was probably enough to start us off with.  Stay tuned for more, as we look at a topic that directly affects our worship of God, bringing to it order, and allowing us to make the very most of all that Holy Mother Church offers us in her Liturgy.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Forbidden Word: Why the A-word is a Lenten Taboo

Imagine, if you will, a group of seminarians, gathered for prayer the evening after Ash Wednesday.  With Lenten penances in full swing, the band of young men chooses a hymn to begin their prayer with.  They begin to sing:  “All creatures of our God and king, Lift up your voices, let them ring…” As they approach the end of the second line, voices trail off, and looks of fear and embarrassment cross their faces as the chorus, filled with the seasonally-forbidden A-word (rhymes with Shmalleluia) approaches.  The voices peter out, everyone looks around guiltily, and the process of choosing a new hymn commences.
Eventually it dawned on this group of seminarians that the phrase "For-bid-den Word" has the same number of syllables as the A-word, and it thus permitted the singing of virtually any song!  Try it!
Recently I was approached by a colleague—a Lutheran pastor in Texas—who posed the following question:  Why are we forbidden to say the A-word during Lent, when the Gospel Acclamation “Praise to you” which is used effectively means the same thing?  The liturgical geek in me immediately went to work to find the answer because, off the top of my head, I didn’t know.  Upon reflection, the question is very well-put and I needed to satisfy my own curiosity.
Up until the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great, Alleluia was only ever sung at Easter and during the 40-day period following the Feast.  From the earliest days of the Church, then, Alleluia was always associated with a profound sense of joy.  As the centuries passed, the word began to creep into the rest of the liturgical year.  In fact, for several centuries in and around Rome, Alleluia was always proclaimed at funerals (a practice that was forbidden from at least the reforms of the Council of Trent until 1969).  However, that practice fell into disuse as more distinctions developed between the different liturgical seasons.  The Church began to observe a clearer separation between days of joyful feasting and days of sobriety and mourning.  These more somber liturgical days (those of Lent, those on which Requiem Masses were celebrated, etc.) saw the omission of the word Alleluia.
During penitential seasons, the Alleluia became replaced with a chant known as the Gradual and Tract, which were actually more ancient, being used prior to the Gospel before the widespread use of the Alleluia outside of Easter.  The reform of the liturgy in 1969, however, did not readopt the very ancient practice of the Gradual and Tract (at least from the 3rd century), but replacing it with a linguistic equivalent of the meaning of the word alleluia: “Laus tibi, Christe, rex aeternae gloriae” (Praise to you, Christ, king of eternal glory), which was borrowed from the ancient Divine Office.
The absence of the word alleluia is notable in Lent, as it should remind us that this is a time in which we do not express our Christian joy in the same way as we do throughout the rest of the year.  This season, while joyful because it orients us to the joy of Easter in a more perfect manner, is one built around the principles of sobriety and penance. It is not so much that we outrightly reject the Paschal joy of Alleluia, but rather defer it to its original and most ancient place: the great celebration of Easter, when it comes forth with Christ from the tomb in full force!
For those of you not overly-sensitive to the mention of the A-word during Lent, the following video is one of my favorite scenes from the ingenious Rowan Atkinson (aka, Mr. Bean), in which the Forbidden Word is all he actually knows of a rather popular hymn!  I laugh every time!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Liturgical Musings: Pulling Back the Veil 6

This last installment in our series on the history, usage, and im- portance of veils within our Catholic tradition focuses on anissue that has recently come back into vogue, namely the issue of women cov- ering their heads in the Church. Prior to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, it was re- quired that women wear a head cover- ing whilst in the Church building (yes, even after the reform of the liturgy in 1969, this was the law until 1983, de- spite the fact that nobody observed it). The practice of covering ones head in a holy place is of the most ancient origin, as a sign of humility, reverence and re- spect. Coming from the teaching of St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthi- ans, women were instructed to cover their heads in worship that the glory of their beauty might be subordinated to the glory of God (cf. 1 Cor 11:2-16).

Obviously the question of women wearing veils in Church is one that stirs a great deal of debate, as many of Pauls reasons for a woman to wear a veil are rooted in what some consider to be out- moded interpretations of the respective roles of the genders. However, there is something to be said for the dignity and beauty of the female gender, especially when looked at through the lens of the Faith. Women are, in no small measure, a visible symbol of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and the veil is meant to be a visible reminder of the perfect sub- mission of the Church to the loving will of Christ. Put another way, a head cov- ering may be seen as a public proclama- tion that one is willing to submit to Christ out of love and serve without question.

For a similar reason, St. Paul for- bids men to cover their heads. To cover ones baldness, a mark of shame, would be to hide ones humility with vanity and pride before God. At the heart of the issue for either gender—and a les- son that can be learned by all—is the fact that we all must seek to humble ourselves in the Divine Presence as a reminder that we are truly dependent upon God for all that we need, and that our devotion to Him must always begin with a recognition of our own sinfulness and His mercy.

So, all that having been said, there is no requirement that a woman keep her head covered. It is merely an option that some choose to exercise as a visible sign of their own private devotion. Lest we commit a grave uncharity toward one of our neighbors, we ought never to judge one way or the other. Private de- votion is just that: private. And the di- versity that we can see visibly in how people choose to express their devotion to God should be a comforting sign to us of the greatness of God and His love for all people. 

Originally published in The Lewis County Catholic Times on 12 February 2017.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Liturgical Musings: Pulling Back the Veil 5

Following a discussion of the integral and necessary covering of the tabernacle and the altar, both as a matter of prescribed Scriptural tradition and current ecclesial law, we turn our discussion to the use of more common veils—common in the sense of being of a lesser significance more than of prevalence. There are many items within the Church that are veiled at various times and for various reasons, as discussed in the first installment of this series, including sacred vessels, relics, statuary, etc.  Having now a better understanding of the theory behind the practice of using veils within the Church, we turn our attention to some specific items that are commonly covered.
First, along with the prescription regarding the use of an altar frontal (antependium), a veil over the chalice and paten is also prescribed. This veil serves multiple purposes. First of all, as a sacred vessel, the veil denotes that the chalice is set apart for a specific and special use. In addition to this, its being veiled during the Mass highlights in a very visual way the separation between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  The chalice is veiled for the former and uncovered for the latter, making clear the indispensable relationship between the chalice and the Eucharistic Sacrifice about to unfold.
Second, one might notice that a ciborium will sometimes have a veil and sometimes not. While the practice of veiling a ciborium has lamentably fallen by the wayside in many parishes, the custom of doing so is observed here to indicate that it is a vessel which contains the Blessed Sacrament. Thus, the ciborium brought forward at the Offertory containing unconsecrated hosts is unveiled. But that which is places for reservation in the Tabernacle leaves no doubt as to the presence of the Holy Eucharist within, the same as does the tabernacle veil itself.
A more esoteric veil that is seen in the context of Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction is called the humeral veil. It takes it’s name from the fact that the humerus, the long bone of the arm, is covered by it. Some unwittingly claim that the priest or deacon dons the humeral veil for Benediction so that he does not touch with his bare hands the monstrance containing the Eucharist. However, this is untrue. By virtue of being ordinary ministers of Holy Communion and the priest’s hands being consecrated, that is no consideration (after all, the priest or deacon does not veil his hands whilst distributing Holy Communion or transferring the ciborium to the tabernacle). Rather, the humeral veil’s purpose is to obscure the person of the priest (or deacon) giving Benediction or walking in procession with the Blessed Sacrament, that all that is seen is God Himself, and not the cleric. At Benediction, it is not the priest who blessed, but the Eucharistic Lord Himself. Likewise, in a Eucharistic Procession, it is not the priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament in procession, but our Eucharistic Lord Himself processing.

I do realize that as I write these not everyone is enthralled with liturgical trivia and minutia as I am.  I am grateful for your patience and your willingness to explore these topics with me, as I do think they will form the basis of a much wider liturgical catechesis as we move forward. 

Originally published in The Lewis County Catholic Times on 5 February 2017.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Liturgical Musings: Pulling Back the Veil 4

Continuing last week’s discussion of the tabernacle veil, its significance, and its expected use within the Church, there is a related issue: that of the covering of the altar.  For centuries, in most (but not all) churches, the tabernacle and altar were not only joined in their theological significance but also physically.

Up until the 13th century, the Blessed Sacrament was commonly reserved on the altar itself.  The altar would be beneath a canopy supported by four columns, and a curtain was raised between the columns in order to completely obscure from view the altar and the Blessed Sacrament.  In fact, the action of the Mass was carried out largely behind this curtain with the Faithful unable to see or hear anything (more on this at a later date). The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) mandated that the Eucharist and Sacred Chrism (interesting that they address both in the same statement!) should be kept under lock “so that no audacious hand can reach them to do anything horrible or impious” (no. 20). At that point, the tabernacle was kept either on the altar, as has been the maintained tradition of the Churches of the East, or in close proximity to it.  Eventually, many altars were joined to the wall in which the tabernacle was placed, giving us the common, traditional arrangement that was rather ubiquitous until the call of the Second Vatican Council that the altar should be free-standing so that one might be able to walk all around it.

Despite their present separation, the tabernacle and altar are linked most especially by their centrality to the mystery of the True Presence of Christ in the Church.  The former houses the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharistic species which is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The latter is Christ Himself in the Eucharistic Sacrifice (remember, in the Mass, Christ is priest, victim, and altar all at the same time!).  For this reason, it has been the custom of adorning the altar in a similar manner to that of the tabernacle (although tabernacles were a later innovation, which actually suggests tabernacles being adorned in the manner of the altar).

It is prescribed that an altar be covered by a frontal or antependium, a cloth that covers at least the front side of the altar, as well as at least a single white cloth covering the mensa, or tabletop of the altar (three cloths are traditionally used). The white cloths covering the top of the altar, the place of the Sacrifice of the Mass, were usually made of linen and called to mind the linen burial shroud in which the body of Our Lord was wrapped after his crucifixion and death. The antependium, on the other hand, constituted a covering of honor for the “body” of the altar, and was very rich in its ornamentation to highlight the royalty and sovereignty of Christ. These “robes of majesty,” as Bishop J. F. Van der Stappen calls them in his work Sacra Liturgia, represent Christ as Priest and King, and are only stripped away on Holy Thursday. “His faithful, His costly garments, His disciples, are all stripped from Him; and His desolation is made all the more evident by this complete annihilation of colour.” Moreover, the fully dressed altar draws further focus to its architectural significance as the focal point of the church, the epicenter of the great Mystery of our Faith, the Eucharistic Sacrifice itself.

Finally, and on a more practical note, the antependium of the altar, with its changing of color throughout the seasons of the Liturgical Year serves as a visual representation of the liturgical cycle, a tangible and prominent reminder to the Faithful of how the celebrations of various Masses pertain to the person of Christ Himself as our King and Savior.

There seems to be prevalent habit these days of lessening the sensory effect of the liturgy in the life of the Church, which I decry as lamentable and entirely preventable. The call of the Second Vatican Council to rediscover the “noble simplicity” of the Liturgy subordinates simplicity to nobility, wherein we are lifted out of the mundane into the unspeakable Beauty that is the House of God itself. Blessed Idelfonso Cardinal Schuster, Archbishop of Milan in the early 20th Century, wrote the following: “It is well known that all the present texts of the Missal and of the Breviary have beautiful melodies attached to them. As no one, for instance, would desire to judge of an opera simply by reading the libretto of the author, but would wish also to hear the music and see the full effect of the mise en scène, so, in order thoroughly to appreciate the sense of beauty and inspiration, the powerful influence produced by the sacred liturgy on the Christian people, it is necessary to see it performed in the full splendour of its architectural setting, of the clergy in their vestments, of the music, the singing and the ritual, and not to judge it merely from a curtailed and simplified presentment.” 


Beauty. Nobility. Splendor. The things of Heaven, prefigured on earth for our sake. That’s certainly something to aspire to.

Originally published in The Lewis County Catholic Times on 29 January 2017.