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Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Taste of the Heavenly Liturgy

Yesterday, the Universal  Church commemorated the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord.  When the Church celebrates a saint or a blessed, she usually reckons the feast by the date of the holy person's death.  Their death is their birth into new life.

However, other than the Nativity of Our Lord, the Church celebrates the births of the Blessed Virgin Mary (inclusive of her Immaculate Conception) and St. John the Baptist.  The Blessed Mother's conception and birth are important because these events set the wheels in motion for the coming of Christ.  The nativity of St. John the Baptist is unique, not only because of the supernatural circumstances surrounding it, but because he serves as the bridge between the Old and the New Testaments.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. John the Baptist "surpasses all the prophets, of whom he is the last" because the saint "goes before (the Lord) in the spirit and power of Elijah."  The Catechism goes on to note that he is "the Lord's immediate precursor or forerunner, sent to prepare his way."  Even from the womb, St. John the Baptist "inaugurates the Gospel", as he leaps for joy at Mary's greeting because the Lord was close at hand.

As a major solemnity, the liturgy for the day certainly deserves the best that the Church can give, especially when it comes to music.

Yesterday, my employer gave me the day off because of an out-of-town conference.  I decided to visit the local monastery of the Congregation of St. John, commonly known down here as the "Brothers".  One of them, a friend of mine, had just come back from the Sacra Liturgia Conference in New York.  He and his brethren are trying to re-infuse the sacred back into their liturgies.  It certainly showed at yesterday's Mass.

The altar arrangement was very Benedictine in nature.  By "Benedictine", I mean Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:  three candles on either side of the altar with a beautiful gold crucifix at the center.  The monastery chapel is very simple in nature, but, the layout has a Middle Eastern, almost other-worldly feel.   Prior to the Mass, the brothers, led by their deacon, chanted midday prayer.  We were invited to join them in prayer. We chanted the Veni Creator Spiritus and the corresponding psalms for the solemnity.

Had we stopped at midday prayer, I would have been spiritually satisfied because of the beauty of the chants that filled the sacred space.  But, there was more to come.  My friend caught sight of me and asked me if I wanted a chant book.  I said, "Of course," and he lent me a copy of the Gregorian Missal and told me which parts of the Mass we would be using.  We were to chant the Kyrie, using the Orbis Factor, and the Latin Mass IX setting.  Even though I didn't know the setting, thanks to the Corpus Christi Watershed's tutorials, I was able to stumble my way through the Gregorian notes. I then spied my friend's copy of the Simple English Propers!!!  This was BIG!  Having downloaded the PDF onto my iPhone, I swiped my way to the Solemnity of St. John the Baptist and was ready.  Even though it has been awhile since I used Adam Bartlett's settings, the tone was familiar.

As the Entrance chant began, I joined my friend and the Sisters of St. John.  Even though I was a little off, it was incredibly powerful and refreshing to sing the Mass. While my voice was not at its best form, I could not help but joyfully chant out the Introit and the rest of the Mass.

Although incense wasn't used, it's lack certainly did not take away from the majesty and the beauty of the liturgy.  The prayerful reverence of the celebrant, who wore beautiful vestments, the homily which came from heartfelt simplicity and the overflowing of the magnificence of the chants made this a truly profound liturgy for me.  It "cut to the heart" of what authentic worship is.  It is not someone at the microphone waving arms and leading us into some banal rendition of OCP's latest "relevant" song.  It's not loudspeakers blaring the sounds of a praise band.  It is the noble simplicity of praying the Church's actual texts in music that best expresses its form.  It is about offering God worship in spirit and in Truth.  It is an experience of the heart and the soul that transcends time and space.

St. John the Baptist came from the priestly class.  His father,  Zechariah, was a priest.  He was exercising his priestly office when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him to give him the glad tidings of the coming of St. John the Baptist.  I'd like to think that the young John learned the importance of authentic worship from his father.  It was fitting, then, that a priest should be the one to make way for the Messiah.

And so it goes with the Mass.  The Holy Sacrifice is our encounter with the Divine.  This encounter should be out of the ordinary.  A properly celebrated, reverent liturgy with sacred music, majesty and beauty makes way for that encounter with God.  The solemnity of the music becomes like St. John the Baptist, pointing us to and leading us towards Christ.