On liturgical failure

Today, in the liturgy at my local parish, I was privileged to hear a wonderful homily about how the Lord, rather than choosing to save us by a mere act of divine will, involves us in his mission. The pastor reminded us of the beauty of being asked to help, being made able to help. Drawing on his experiences as a child and an adult, he recalled the way that we love one another and grow in community when we work together, even if it might at first seem more efficient to do something alone. Similarly, although God could bring salvation by power alone, God chooses to allow human beings to join together in love and care for one another, so that we may be grateful to one another as well as to God. In the Eucharist, rather than shining forth and becoming present by divine power alone, Jesus asks us to bring the works of our hands, wine and bread, and offer them for transformation. We do what we can do, and he completes our work by doing what he alone can do.

Unfortunately, sometimes, in the liturgy as in life, we also fail to do what we can do to accomplish the Lord’s mission. Of course the Lord alone accomplishes the change of the bread and wine into his body and blood, and the Holy Spirit alone can accomplish the change of flawed human individuals into the eschatological Body of Christ. Yet, as Father Stephen also pointed out in his lovely and thoroughly Thomistic (his name was never mentioned, but for those keeping score at home) homily, we can also hinder God’s work by failing to recognize that we are being asked to assist.

Which made it painfully ironic when, at the very beginning of the Sign of Peace, I watched one of my fellow parishioners lean over to my friend Tim O’Malley, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, and ask him to remove his son from the church because he was disturbing this parishioner’s prayer. There are many things about this situation that the parishioner does not know, and painful as the situation was for me, I am able to recognize compassionately that some of this failure proceeds from ignorance. Likely, this person does not know that Tim has published on the stigmas, challenges, and joys of expressing God’s radical love for humanity through adoption. Or that it is his birthday today (happy birthday again, Tim!). Also overlooked was the impact of an “adults only” attitude on the large family in RCIA who were dismissed during the Prayers of the Faithful, two parents and four kids all expecting baptism at the Easter Vigil. One of the younger catechumens (missing his front two teeth) connected with my kids after mass over the Lego Minecraft person he had brought, which his parents explained (and I worry, was this explanation apologetic or defensive?) was the only thing that could get him quietly through the homily. Perhaps the parishioner had not read the bulletin feature for the past few months emphasizing the welcome our parish community wishes to offer to its youngest members. So while the community was being asked to extend to one another its gesture of peace, two were instead being asked to leave. That is liturgical failure.

These posts are legion (for example, a recent one on Aleteia), and are always followed up by comments defending the need of people to concentrate during mass, or complaining about the worst examples of kids acting up in the liturgy that one has ever witnessed. And frankly, while I realize they are well-meaning, these posts add injury to injury for those of us in the “front pews” of the difficult task of liturgical formation for our children. So just for today, I’m not going to write about how I understand that there’s a balance and there’s a line and we should discuss what it is. Instead, I’m going to preach.

We always act out of ignorance, because God alone knows the whole truth. So act ignorantly in compassion and humility, in favor of others and not for yourself. Make a little space in your corner of the world where others can exist in their own way of being, and then don’t judge whether they’re doing it right. Let God be the judge. Join with God in being instead the lover of humanity.

The Good News is, the Lord brings good forth out of evil. We act in ignorance and we often fail to represent the Lord’s word — alas, even in the liturgy! Yet Christ, who brought life out of death, can also bring love out of ignorance, even if we do not always see it happening.