This time of year always reminds me of the snow-covered Narnia of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a place that is in a state of perpetual winter but where Christmas never comes thanks to the rule of the White Witch.
It sometimes feels like there is a perpetual winter in my life. There are so many things to be stressed about and so many ways in which it seems that the devil is always nipping at my heels. I don’t think I’m alone in that. There’s a lot of darkness in our world today. We live in an age of chaos and confusion. And I recognize that I’m luckier than most, being born into the middle class of a first world nation.
But tonight is different. Tonight Christmas arrives.
There is a lot of fluff that surrounds this holiday. There is so much commercialization. There are stupid, endless debates about how we should greet each other this time of year and with what words. There are folks who will have their Christmas trees denuded and out on the front lawn for the garbage man by noon on Christmas day, instead of celebrating all the way to at least Epiphany (if not all the way to the Baptism of Our Lord or even the Presentation).
There are also people for whom this is a difficult time of year. There are people hurting and in pain. There are people who are alone or in mourning. There are people struggling to cope with addiction, depression, anxiety, or any number of other things. There are so many ways in which this season can be a horror that swallows us whole.
And yet Christmas is here. The Lord has come. And in His wake, all shall be made well.
It is hard to believe that sometimes. It was probably hard to believe that on the first Christmas, as Mary bundled her son while Joseph undoubtedly contemplated just how they were going to get back home. Not long after would come the murder of so many innocent babies by Herod, a spectacle of cruelty against children rivaled only in our own day by the cruelty of abortion, abuse, and human trafficking.
But there was more to it. There’s always more to it.
Tonight I will celebrate Christmas Mass. The Lord will show up. He will enter this cruel, calloused world and shake loose the branches that have covered us in our misery. He will thaw the ice that has formed in our hearts and reignite our spirits. He will make all things new, all by being born, helpless and cold, clinging to life in His mother’s arms.
The White Witch cannot have this world. Our winter under her has seemed endless, but it is not. Christmas has arrived. There is no power of darkness that this world has ever seen that can muster even a moment’s worth of battle against the baby in the manger. Heaven and nature sing with joy. The lion lays down with the lamb. The child plays over the asp’s den.
The calendar says that winter has just begun. But rejoice, friends. Rejoice! Christmas is here. There is a light burning in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. There is a crackle of fire that burns now in the Bethlehem of our hearts – and its heat shall burn away the darkness forever and blaze a trail of light that can never be exhausted.
Light makes the darkness look stupid. All those things that we are so afraid of in this long darkness that we have suffered, the monsters that we worry will climb out from under our beds and eat us as we sleep, they all get shown for what they are at Christmas: powerless, toothless, completely unable to destroy us.
“Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus will say. And the world will scoff and say, “Prove it.”
And that’s when we get to smile and look at Him and say, “Watch this.”
It is hard to figure out the date of Easter. It should not be, but it is. The dating takes into consideration ancient controversies going all the way back to Nicaea that few people remember anymore. It requires an understanding of moon cycles and the ancient Jewish calendar and something called the “golden number” which I am certain is associated in some way with Harry Potter and the game of Quidditch. If not for the chart in the back of the Book of Common Prayer showing the dates of Easter over the next few decades, I would be lost to figure it out. And, of course, the Orthodox figure it out in a different way than Christians in the west, meaning that most years we are celebrating on totally different schedules from one another.
Believe it or not, though, behind all that complication lies a simple and beautiful principle: Jesus Christ is the savior not only of humanity but of all creation. The whole of the cosmos finds its consummation in the Resurrection of Our Lord.
The entire framework of the Christian year is laid out to emphasize this, even the fixed days. It is no coincidence, for instance, that the Feast of the Annunciation, which marks the conception of Jesus, is on March 25, a date very close to the spring equinox. It occurs exactly nine months before we celebrate the Lord’s birth on Christmas, December 25, a date very close to the winter solstice. The rhythms of nature were taken into account by our ancient forbears when they put together the liturgical calendar. All the pieces are carefully put together so that they reveal Our Lord as the author of creation.
Easter is always on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox. That may seem like an arbitrary arrangement, but it is not. It has to do in part with when Passover is celebrated since Jesus rose after Passover, but the connection between the moon cycle and the equinox is also vital because of its relation to light. On the equinox, day and night are of equal length. The moon affects not only the amount of reflected light that we see in the night but also the gravitational realities that affect the tides and therefore all the natural rhythms of life on this planet. Having Easter when we have it means that we are locating Our Lord’s triumph at the moment of greatest struggle between darkness and light, at the height of the transforming of the world from winter into spring, from death into new life.
But lunar cycles can be calculated in more than one way, hence the difference between eastern and western dating for Easter. The details of that difference are relatively unimportant. There is a scandal in it, as there is in all Christian division, in that it presents the world with a divided witness. If a great ecumenical consensus were to form between western and eastern Christians on just which method to use to calculate the date of Easter, that would be a great benefit and I would applaud it. But I sincerely hope no decision is ever made that simply makes the date arbitrary. What we would lose would outweigh what we would gain.
Holy Week can be a slog, especially for clergy who spend many hours planning and executing complicated liturgies that seem to attract fewer and fewer of the faithful each year. There is tremendous pressure to do it well, particularly the Easter sermon which may be the best evangelistic opportunity of the year. In the midst of this, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I am in charge of making our worship beautiful and speaking just the right words at the right moment that will break through the ice around the unbelieving heart. It is not so. The liturgy is already beautiful because Jesus is at its center. On Saturday night, at the culmination of the Great Vigil of Easter, I will stand at the altar as bread and wine that come from creation, grown through the cycles of light and darkness, tide and moon, become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The creator will become the creation as death is transformed into life, not just for us but for the whole created order. All of heaven and earth will sing in harmony with the one who sang it all into being in the first place. And it will all happen right as it should, right on time.
Jesus Christ is not merely the God of some small, self-referential sect called “Christians.” He is the one, true, living God in whom and through whom all things were made and have their being. On Easter, even light itself bows down to worship Him.
“Evangelize through beauty!” is the clarion call of many Catholic Christians these days. It’s a phrase used quite a bit by folks like Bishop Robert Barron or the bloggers at New Liturgical Movement. And whether or not the exact phrase is used, it is a sentiment that comes up often in Orthodox and Anglican and even some Lutheran circles as well, especially among the younger, more traditional clergy. The point being that the more beautiful we allow our worship to be, the more people will be attracted to it.
Beauty comes from God. When we see something beautiful, we find ourselves in contact with some aspect of God’s own beauty. Yet the fact is, for as many people as I have seen converted to Christ or deepened in their faith by the beauty of traditional worship, I have seen just as many if not more who have been turned off by it. They see the historic liturgy as cold, overly formal, boring, or wasteful.
Much of this is due to a general lack of understanding of what beauty is. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty is “that which when perceived pleases.” For the modern west, this has morphed into “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a phrase which most people think means that beauty is entirely subjective. To call something beautiful is to state nothing more than a personal preference for it. If I think something is beautiful and you disagree, there is no right or wrong answer.
Yet what Thomas meant was not that whatever happens to please us is beautiful, but that when we perceive something—when we truly experience it through the senses in a way that we can contemplate it—we find it satisfying if it is beautiful. And the reason we find it satisfying is because it fulfills a deeper longing we have to come into contact with true being.
When is a dog beautiful? When it is the most perfect specimen of dogness that it can be. It fully and completely exudes the quality of dogness to the degree that when we look upon it, we see with absolute clarity the truth about what it is to be a dog. Substitute in whatever you like there for dog – a beautiful piece of music, a beautiful building, even a beautiful woman – they all shine through with the clarity of their own being, communicating in the simplest and fullest way their own nature. We are naturally attracted to this beauty because we are made for union with the true source of all being, He who is Being Itself. To the extent that dogness was created by God, a fully realized dog will reflect in its own being some small piece of the fullness of being that is God. Therefore, whenever we encounter anything that is truly beautiful, we encounter God.
For many modern western people though, the categories of being have become all mixed up. Postmodernism has so thoroughly eviscerated our ability to recognize objective truths that we fear and misunderstand beauty. We believe that we are the makers of our own destiny. We determine our own meaning through the twin demons of consumption and choice. We choose what we want and then we consume it. That is how we know who we are. That is the meaning of the now fraught word “identity.” We create our identities by amassing an ongoing list of personal preferences. If you are not sure who you are, just look back over your receipts for the last few months to see what you’ve chosen to consume, or better yet cycle through your Facebook “likes.”
Postmodernism has both encouraged us to make our own truth and made us skeptical of all truth claims. If somebody says something is true with absolute confidence, we scoff and reply, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Objective beauty then is an affront to our senses because it forces us to grapple with something other than our preferences. Postmodernism tells us that dogness is not a thing. A dog can also be a cat if it wants to be. Objective beauty forces us to see that this is not so – a dog that looks and acts like a cat is ugly, even if we happen to like it.
When it comes to worship, there is a clear mandate given in Psalm 29 and repeated in the Book of Common Prayer: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Samuel Johnson made just this point in a sermon he gave at King’s College in 1761.“It is a common Mistake which hath too much prevailed in these Times,” he said, “and in this Country, and that even among some well-meaning People, that they seem to account the Hearing of sermons, to be the principal and most important and edifying Part of the public Worship of GOD.” In our own time, we might substitute for preaching any number of other shibboleths – “spirit filled” music (Read: Rock or Gospel band), a progressive or conservative political agenda, programs for kids, entertainment, social justice, etc. Johnson says that what we really need is already present in the historic liturgy. We need worship that is beautiful. And he claims that the liturgy of the prayer book is beautiful, not because he happens to like it, but because “Beauty consists in the Fitness, Proportion, Variety and Uniformity of Things with regard to the End designed in them” and the liturgy of the prayer book meets each of these criteria. A similar case could be made for most other historic rites of the Church.
I do not believe this means that every Mass must be set to Palestrina. It is possible to sing in the traditional tones of west Africa or the style of African American spirituals or even—God forbid—to sing hymns with a guitar and have it be beautiful. But we have to see beauty as more than a nice garnish on our worship. Beauty is an end unto itself. If our worship is not beautiful, we are failing at properly worshipping God.
As we plan for worship, evaluating not only the steps of our liturgies but also the vestments and music and images and even the design of the building itself, we need to ask some questions. Is this beautiful? Does it clearly reflect the truth and beauty and goodness of God? Does it make that beauty known to all the senses? Does it do so in a way that would be obvious not only in our own time and culture but universally? Given this set of criteria, we are best equipped to have beauty in our worship if we start with those things that we know are beautiful because they have been passed down through the generations, rather than starting from scratch and hoping for the best.
All of this is good and necessary, but will it fill the pews on a Sunday? I have to admit, I am skeptical. Certainly, there will be people who will be drawn to the faith simply because it is beautiful, but there will be many others for whom the very fact that our worship is beautiful will be a repellant. They will want to customize the liturgy and rearrange it to their liking. When they cannot, they will threaten to go to the church up the street where the pastor is much more open to “creativity.”
Evangelizing through beauty is good, but I think we need to evangelize for beauty as much as we do anything else. We need to gently but firmly begin to teach people what beauty is and why it matters. That will require a far broader witness to the world than just making our worship beautiful along classical lines. It will mean stepping out into the world, into the public square, and boldly pointing to the beautiful, inviting our friends and neighbors to open their eyes to it, insisting that we acknowledge the beautiful even if it shatters our carefully constructed identities to see it.
It is no accident that my sons, Langston and Micah, are named after a poet and a prophet. I have always found my solace in words. For as long as I can remember, I have been a writer, a reader, and a talker. I’m not good at sports. I’ve never been able to draw. I still count on my hands sometimes to do math. But words have always been both my paint and my canvas.
When I imagined being a father, I dreamed about both sharing my words with my children and having them share their words with me. But that has not been my experience. My boys are eight and four now and they are both on the autism spectrum. While there is great variety in how autism manifests itself, for my children it has come in a form that is probably best described as non-verbal. They both have some words at their disposal, but the number is very limited. They cannot have a conversation. They cannot follow most stories. They cannot read. They live inside a world that is largely wordless.
There are many ways in which the communication challenges that my children face are frustrating for them and heartbreaking for me, but none more so than in the realm of faith. I consider it my most solemn duty as a parent to teach the Christian faith to my children. “Fathers,” says Paul, “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). My children have trouble understanding the most basic things I say. How can I instruct them in who God is and what He has done for them? “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). But what good is that preaching if they can’t understand it?
As Catholic Christians, we are fortunate to have a few more tools at our disposal than we might otherwise. The Word of God is to be found not only in the words of a preacher or catechist but in every facet of the Catholic life. My wife and I try to surround our children with the things of God. There are icons and crucifixes in our home. There are songs that we sing. Many prayers can be learned in a rote fashion – the only way that my children ever gain language – and so my oldest is now able to make the sign of the cross and recite the Lord’s Prayer with some coaching, even though he has no awareness of what he is saying.
And of course, in the sacramental life of the Church, the grace of Our Lord is given as a gift to all of us, regardless of our capacity to understand it. I had the privilege of baptizing both of my boys as infants. Like all the other babies I have baptized over the years, they could hardly have been cognizant of what was happening, but that didn’t matter because God was at work. It wasn’t about them getting it. It was about Him giving it.
Yet the sacraments come with their own challenges for my family. The height of the Catholic life is the Mass, but my children are hardwired by their autism to screaming fits and other behaviors that many people find distracting or even outrageous. I cannot help my wife to wrangle them during Mass since I am usually up front leading the service. They rarely make it past the peace.
Moreover, my children have never been able to attend Sunday School. What happens when it is time for them to be confirmed? How will they be able to take on the baptismal promises as their own?
How do I bring my children who live in wordlessness to know the God who makes Himself known only through His Word?
“Is not my Word like fire?” says the Lord in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. “And like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Word which God speaks is not just an ordinary word. We hear it in ordinary words, but its power is far greater. This is a Word that doesn’t just point us towards God, it actually is God. It doesn’t just act as a symbol for our minds so that we can contemplate God, it actually delivers God to us. It is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, assuming all manner of human weakness in that act of self-emptying love. God’s Word can break the rock of my children’s autism into pieces. He can speak to them in a thousand ways that I cannot, because He has been one like them. He knows what it is not to be able to communicate. He knows what it is to be cut off from the world.
I wish I could say that I have the answer to these questions. There are, of course, programs that help to make liturgy more accessible to children like mine. There are good people trying to work through this. But it’s hard. It’s messy. It’s uncertain. I pray for guidance every day. Ultimately, it is a question of faith, not theirs but mine. Do I trust God enough to find a way to give His Word to my children even when I am unable to do so? In their baptism, Christ claimed them as His own and marked them as such forever. I know that some day my children and I will share words. We will worship God together in a shared language of prayer, whether on this side of the grave or in the life to come. There will be no wordlessness in the Kingdom.
There has been quite a buzz lately about the practice of priests celebrating the Mass ad orientem (facing east) as opposed to the much more common practice today of celebrating versus populum (facing the people). It has touched off debate amongst Roman Catholics because of remarks by Cardinal Sarah and the subsequent Vatican response. It has even created some debate lately amongst Episcopalians, including some friends of mine, Bishop Dan Martins and Fr. Matthew Olver who wrote great pieces at Covenant recently on either side of the question (both of which came out after I had already written the bulk of the following post). I do not want to add to the controversy. I believe that ad orientem celebration is generally to be preferred for both historical and theological reasons, but that does not mean that versus populum is somehow all bad nor that ad orientem is without certain pitfalls when done poorly. So rather than throwing another log on the fire of debate, what I would like to do instead is reflect on my experience as a parish priest who has celebrated almost exclusively ad orientem over the last decade and offer a few observations that stem from that experience.
Observation #1: If you are a priest who is going to introduce ad orientem celebration in your parish, you need to educate your people about why you are doing it. And you need to be prepared to explain it to visitors on a regular basis.
The first time I ever saw an ad orientem celebration was during my senior year in college. It was at a small, country parish where the interim Rector had introduced the practice. I had no idea what he was doing. I did not know the history. I assumed that all priests had always faced the people. I was instantly put off and thought this man to be rather rude to turn his back on us. I left vowing never to come back. I offer that not by way of argument, but rather to stress the great ignorance that many laity labor under when it comes to this practice.
Observation #2:If you face the people, you should find a way of making it clear through your mannerisms or through other practices that the prayer you are offering is being directed towards the Father and not towards anyone else. At the altar, the priest stands in the place of Christ. This needs to be emphasized more than I think it currently is.
It was in seminary that I discovered the reasons for ad orientem celebration, mainly from the experience of worship in some fine Anglo-Catholic parishes where the practice is maintained. I was delighted when it turned out that my curacy would be at a parish that faced east. It taught me a deep and abiding reverence for God. I learned to think of myself as in conversation with God. The whole of the Mass became a single motion in which I stood in front of God and offered the Sacrifice for the sake of the gathered faithful. On those rare occasions when I would celebrate at some other altar and face the people, it was profoundly disorienting. I was talking to God but not looking at Him. I did not know where to turn my eyes.
It made me realize that for most of my life I had not known or understood that the Eucharist was being offered by the priest and faithful to God. It seems like a weird thing to say, but growing up with versus populum celebration I unconsciously absorbed the idea that when the priest stood at the altar and faced me he was there to talk to me. It never would have even occurred to me that I should be adding my own prayers to those of the priest, orienting my own spirit along with his so that I could offer myself to God just as he was offering bread and wine to Him, making myself “a living sacrifice” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer. There are, I am sure, ways of mitigating this concern that would still allow for versus populum celebration, but it will not happen on its own. Those who choose to celebrate mostly in this manner need to make a conscious effort to make the orientation towards God clear in the liturgy at all times. Likewise, those who celebrate ad orientem need to be consciously finding ways of inviting people into the mystery, not just doing your own thing at the altar and assuming everyone in the room is with you. This is especially true in church buildings where there is less in the art and architecture that points the people in the direction of understanding and knowing that God is present and that He is the focus of what is happening.
Observation #3: The Mass is a sacrifice before it is anything else. Ad orientem celebration communicates this in a much more evocative way than versus populum. But after years of forgetting and even obscuring this essential truth, both methods of celebration need to be placed in the sacrificial context again.
There are undoubtedly many things happening during the Mass and many images that we can use to talk about the Mass, but among them sacrifice must always be primary. Since the 1960s, the dominant way of talking about the Mass has been to identify it as a sacred meal. To be sure, this is a helpful and true image. More than a meal in fact, the Eucharist is a great banquet. It is the wedding feast of the Lord to which we have all been invited. But as Fr. Olver points out, “The Eucharist is only a meal because it is first and most fundamentally a sacrifice.”
This sacrificial character of what happens in the Mass is not only to be preferred because, as Fr. Olver notes, it is the image most frequently used by the early Church Fathers, but also because it is the source from which comes all the other blessings and good things that we identify with the Holy Eucharist. To have a sacred meal in which the people of God come together to eat as one body is good. To have such an event in which the Lord Himself actually shows up to feed us is even better. Yet when we go to Mass, we are doing one better even than that. We are going to Calvary. We are being transported out of space and time and placed at the foot of the cross. We are being gathered up by Jesus Himself into the one and eternal sacrifice that He made for us. Jesus is bringing us into that moment and pleading that sacrifice on our behalf before God the Father. And then, as part of the priesthood of all believers that unites us with the priesthood of Christ Himself, we do what all priests have always done and actually take the sacrifice into ourselves. In ancient Israel, the priests ate the animals sacrificed in the Temple. In the Mass, we who have shared in Christ’s own priesthood eat the Lamb of God who has offered Himself as both priest and victim on the altar of the cross.
However the Mass is celebrated in your parish, remembering the God-centered, cross-focused nature of the Mass will help you to walk much deeper into its divine mystery. For priests like me, keeping these considerations central to how we celebrate will go a long way towards recovering the great beauty and majesty of the liturgical life in our parishes, no matter on which side of the altar we find ourselves.