Coming away from Holy Week, I am reminded of the powerful symbolic actions of our liturgy: washing feet, processing, venerating the cross, lighting fires, sprinkling with water, and a myriad of other intentional actions. These powerful elements of Holy Week’s liturgies called me back from my recent preoccupation with language, and the anticipation of the new translation of the missal. I realized that in my anxiety perhaps I, and maybe others, had forgotten that liturgy is first and foremost an action of the Church, the ‘work’ of the Church on behalf of the world.
The quality of liturgy cannot be based solely on the texts of our prayers. Indeed, liturgy must be an exuberant physical expression of our baptismal vocation as disciples of Christ. I find this a relief in light of the fact that there is nothing we can do about the coming changes to the texts of our missal. What we do have control over is the degree to which we celebrate the mysteries of our faith in the symbolic actions of the liturgy. We can, and must, make very sure that when we participate in these symbolic actions, we celebrate them with fullness and lavishness. No drop of water on the forehead will do; it will be a full immersion into the baptismal font that awakens us to the awe and splendor of God’s work in our lives.
Working in a parish setting, I have become keenly aware of a congregation’s participation when we break from the normal ways of doing things. When we are sprinkled with water, eyes lighten up and smiles appear. When we pass a flame from our candle to our neighbor, and light spreads throughout the church, there is a perceptible change in mood. When we process as a community, there is a profound sense of moving together as one body. I can think of no better way to elicit full, conscious, and active participation than to move the assembly, to awaken people to the presence of our God through prostrations, water, light, and song.
Some people may grumble, because celebrating these symbolic actions brings them outside their comfort zone. The washing of the feet on Holy Thursday is sure to provoke a reaction from people. I always smile inside when a priest suggests that those to have their feet washed will be chosen at random from the seated congregation. In that instant, are we not all like Peter: “You will never wash my feet!” We are instantly aware of our shortcomings before God. We are challenged and moved by the call to participate and believe.
So it is in the spirit of Jesus’ own action upon the cross, an action that moved and continues to move billions of people world-wide, that we orchestrate our symbolic actions in the midst of the liturgical assembly. It is our duty as ministers, as congregants, and as people of God to ensure that our liturgical action be celebrated most joyfully, or sorrowfully, depending on the occasion. And perhaps it is this action which will carry us out the doors of the church and into the street to perform all sorts of righteous actions in the name of Jesus. May the coming changes in our liturgy spark us to a renewed sense of vitality and energy about our symbolic actions, and a new appreciation of the liturgy as a place to embody our participation in the life of Christ.
Clarey McInerny holds an MTS in Liturgy from Notre Dame and currently serves as a Coordinator of Faith Formation in Avon, MN, near Saint John’s University.