We celebrated the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary yesterday. At least some of us did. Not many of us did, actually.
It’s not always a holy day of obligation anymore.
When an obligatory holy day falls on Saturday or Monday in the U.S. it’s not obligatory, unless it’s the Immaculate Conception, which is a national patronal feast and thus obligatory, except when December 8 falls on a Sunday of Advent which supersedes it, in which case the feast day moves to Monday but the obligation does not transfer (unlike when December 8 falls on Saturday or Monday).
Judging by the questions I keep hearing and the amount of confusion I see in the blogosphere, I don’t think Catholic have gotten that at all. Here’s what they have gotten, more or less: holy days aren’t that important anymore, and liturgical time should not interrupt real time, which is what happens in one’s real (and very busy) life in the secular world.
We still kept the holy days of obligation in the tiny parish where I grew up in southern Minnesota. There would be comments at home about “no servile work” and how it used to be that you didn’t do any farm work on a day like August 15 (except feeding the livestock and milking the cows), but that part of the feast day observance was starting to slide. But miss Mass? Not on your life.
The feast day liturgies on weekdays were hardly solemn High Mass. About a hundred people were there (which is to say, the whole parish), and if there was an organist we sang some Marian hymns and the Mass parts. Probably recited the Responsorial Psalm since cantors were rather scarce, and recited the Gloria too. It might have been a rather quick Mass on November 1 or December 8, fit in before the public school began classes.
But still, the liturgy on such days – with all its simplicity, and the quiet dignity of the steady and predictable reformed rite, had a formational impact on me. The holy day liturgy said, more than any religion class or episcopal statement could, something about the claim the church makes on us.
“We have our own schedule,” the liturgy was saying to us, “and it’s not the world’s schedule.” Just think for a moment what that said about Christian identity and the church’s relationship to broader society. It said it especially strongly when two obligatory days fell inconveniently a day apart, Saturday plus Sunday, or Sunday plus Monday.
The holy days of obligation are there to form us in an alternative narrative. The liturgy tells us that it has its own integrity on its own terms. The liturgy is countercultural, not by behaving like an obnoxious culture-warrior, but simply by being itself.
I don’t mean to be overly romantic about all this. I’m sure there was plenty of unhelpful legalism behind getting the obligation fulfilled. Nor am I unaware of why things changed – including a shortage of priests able to preside at all the Masses in the multiple parishes they oftentimes serve.
And at this point, it would be hard for church leaders to attempt to turn it around without appearing out of touch or nostalgic or controlling. Heaven knows the hierarchy does not have a lot of credibility chips ready to cash in for this.
That’s too bad. I wish we could put Ascension back on Thursday, and maybe even Epiphany back on the 12th day of Christmas. And tell everyone that God is still God, even on Saturdays and Mondays. With common sense, and lots of respect for the decisions priests and people make in the face of difficult schedules.
When it comes to being countercultural, and putting God before all things, here’s a thought: How about we forget the Fortnight for Freedom, and instead just let the liturgy be the liturgy?