How do you prepare a eucharistic liturgy? If you belong to an ecclesial communion in which the scripture readings are found in the lectionary, where the ordinary parts of the liturgy are fixed text-wise, and for which several proper prayers are assigned, you’re probably thinking the few options of choice remaining are music, intercessions, and some ritual additions or deletions, often related to the liturgical year. But some of us may remember the dreaded opening sentence above, in which the cantor, or other minister, began the liturgy by saying “the theme of today’s liturgy is…” guaranteeing that the particular word or image would show up in every possible text, often reiterated multiple times in redundant interpretations.
Prompted by an interesting short essay of Björn Odendahl in Katholische.de on the widespread love of root vegetables and squash arranged in front of altars in these harvest days (and by the adoration of the vegetables here in Canada this Thanksgiving week), I’ve been reflecting on the ritual confusion between things primary and secondary in pastoral liturgy, on how we actually do make liturgical choices, and how different communities need different degrees of complexity in the art of shaping the dance of liturgy.
First, preparing liturgy, ourselves, or in the training of others. The extremely helpful triad of judgments to make with regard to music in the liturgy, compliments of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978): musical (is it well written music, is it singable, etc); liturgical (is this music appropriate to this liturgy, and to this particular place in the liturgy, and to this particular season); and pastoral (does it work for these people in this place at this time) would be helpful in a liturgical parallel for a basic understanding of liturgical preparation. Perhaps something like a liturgical judgement, in which one asked questions of text as an exercise in the creation and expression of faith as articulated in this ecclesial communion, along with structural understandings of the liturgy (this could be Gordon Lathrop’s juxtaposition, or artistic flow with highpoints and quiet points, etc). These together might help with the issue of primary and secondary emphases, all too evident in “offertory” or preparation of the gifts that take longer than the Liturgy of the Word – “soft spot” as sinkhole. I think the pastoral judgement borrowed from EACW (these people, this place, this time), would work as it is. What is the third category? I wonder if contextualization might be the umbrella – temporal (feasts and seasons), spatial demands, and personnel abilities.
Second, while I continue to ponder what that third grouping is, necessary and distinct from the pastoral category, another set of questions arises on the needs of different communities. I used to work in a parish that was wealthier than many, highly educated, musically sophisticated, and liturgically demanding. Choosing music and ritual options for that community did not mean following “the theme of this liturgy is…”. It often meant that the text of the music chosen was an alternative homily – not always agreeing with the first homily, but offering another view. It might have meant a change of rhythm to counter a bombastic Old Testament reading, it might have offered a different gender paradigm than the official prayers. This was a successful approach to liturgy planning in that community, “metaphorically catechetical” as I’ve written elsewhere about preaching. But more recently I’ve found myself helping out in parishes where the reality of uncatechized baptized comes crashing in. The whimsical, complex, and evocative dance of different approaches to the scriptures and season that worked in one place does not work here. The theme of pumpkins, or other harvest vegetables really did need a more literal follow-up in hymn-texts, and some articulated assistance on the secondary nature of fruit and veg in front of the altar in contrast to the “bread from heaven” prominent in the gospel reading. In other words, a more unified and narrower focus of images was needed – still metaphorical, but also catechetical. This is very much a pastoral judgment of liturgical choices – not didactic – but sufficiently unified so that the community could enter into the facet of the paschal mystery facing outward on that particular Sunday.
There is that third option too – where the parish is mixed between group one and group two – so a nimbleness akin to multicultural, multilingual liturgy preparation calls us to speak to different people in different places all at the same time. What do we sing, what are the words we pray, what we are looking at, where are we moving, what are we smelling, tasting, touching? If all we can see is squash, how does that become symbol for a plethora of meanings, rather than the theme of the liturgy? In this harvest season for so much of the Northern Hemisphere, in the midst of too much rain, not enough rain, fires, earthquakes, and economic stress, may the fruits of the earth help us remember all these dimensions, and perhaps when the liturgy is over, the community could make some hearty soups with all the decorations, feeding hungry bodies and souls!