[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
The Sixth Sunday of Easter is not the flashiest of liturgical events. We’re a good ways out from the euphoria of Easter, but not quite at the Ascension yet. It seems like a good time to step back at think about the liturgy in general.
We moderns have a lamentable tendency to see the liturgy and “religion” as add-ons to “everyday life.”
This isn’t to say that “everyday life” isn’t an important concept. We are apt to overlook its importance. My favorite contemporary philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, maintains that everyday life makes a huge difference in how we understand the world. Our American everyday life presumes a more or less regular waking hour, breakfast and a shower, business hours (normally “9 to 5”) that determine the schedules for public transportation, television programming and so on, supper, and bedtime. If we are Christians, we may squeeze into that schema morning and bedtime prayers, maybe a trip to Mass before or after work, and perhaps a rosary—worthy practices, all!
The liturgy is, in fact, “everyday life,” but not of twenty-first century America. It is the precondition for living in and understanding the Kingdom of God. When we Christians speak of ourselves as pilgrims, or, at more contentious times, exiles, we are noting that the everyday life of America is a kind of compromise, an adjustment we make to acknowledge that we haven’t yet arrived home. Our real life is life in Christ, and “the liturgy is…an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ [Sacrosanctum concilium par. 7].” As members of Christ’s Body, this is our true daily work or activity. It is what makes a day “normal” and normative.
Let’s compare what a typical day in America highlights as normal to what is normal in liturgical life. In both cases, we are dealing with a highly developed culture. Human cultures tend to be defined by symbols, music and other art, language, and ritual. Typical American music is perhaps corporate popular music, which is used, significantly, as background in marketplaces. Liturgical music orients us more obviously to the great cosmic dance and provides a fit setting for the proclamation of God’s Word. Americans tend to wear business suits at one time, jeans and sweatshirts at other times. Liturgical dress begins with the alb (the equivalent of the white gown worn by infants at baptism), the sign, not of professional competence or of casual downtime, but of incorporation into Christ’s body.
What prompted this reflection was my realization that we often celebrate Solemn Vespers on Saturday evenings, and this inevitably involves the same set of Psalms (144-147), often the same reading and a fairly narrow range of hymns. We always end with a Magnificat setting and Intercessions. Given our default understanding of the liturgy as a kind of addition to everyday life, rather than everyday life itself, there is a kind of temptation to make changes to this stable, normal order to heighten the impact on the occasional visitor or to avoid boring the regular worshipper. To give in to this temptation would be to miss the fact that “everyday life” for a Roman Catholic is precisely defined by Psalms 144-147 on Saturday night, every bit as much as “everyday life” for an American includes the news at 6:00 and the Tonight Show at 10:30, hot dogs on July 4, and McDonalds at every exit on the interstate. To the extent that we change this schedule, we change the culture in subtle ways.
Given the extent of liturgical changes in the Church in the past five decades, it is of special importance to preserve the normality of the ancient order of Vespers. What we celebrate every Saturday evening is the same order legislated in the early sixth century by Saint Benedict himself. How many saints were formed by immersion in just this everyday liturgical life!
The rosary, mentioned above, is itself a kind of distillation of the liturgy, a portable style of prayer for those who are not able to join the Church at the regular celebrations of Mass and/or the Office (which includes Vespers). It is best understood as a reminder of home, much as a letter from a loved one might serve as a reminder of our hope for a future reunion. The liturgy itself is an experience of home, a concentration of the Real Presence of Christ (certainly in the tabernacle, but also in His gathered Body), and for this reason should be preferred even to the rosary, when it is possible to attend. Such was the gist of the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, issued by the Vatican in 2001. That this is not widely understood is evidenced by the fact that if you Google “rosary and liturgy” the third hit is a blog post…by yours truly!
In any case, the more we can reorient ourselves to understand the liturgy as a foretaste of our true homeland, the stronger we will be able to resist the corrosive influences of the world.