The pun in my title for this post exaggerates a bit, but in attending the Easter Vigil at a local parish a week ago I found myself surprised, disappointed, and (to be honest) indignant at the malpractice of one ritual gesture during a liturgy that clearly the pastor and staff had put great care into planning and executing. For all their attention and efforts to celebrate the myriad symbols of the four successive services comprising the Vigil, one dropped gesture landed heavily on my heart. Attending with three young friends so touchingly committed to the church and their own lay ministries, I found myself a bit surprised at how personally hurt I felt for them and me at a pivotal point in the service.
The emotions arose at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The pastor/presider, not surprisingly during such a solemn service, incensed the gifts prepared on the table, then began circuiting the altar, headed halfway down the aisle of the long nave to incense the six-foot paschal candle positioned there, returned to the sanctuary to complete the circuit of the table, and then handed the thurible to a deacon. The deacon simply took it away. My feeling of disappointment, of a sort of emptiness, was over the priest’s and deacon’s complete neglect of the real-live human beings — the sacramental, mystical body of Christ in its members — participating in the eucharistic sacrifice. I felt reduced to a mere spectator, watching the priest dignify the objects of bread and wine and candle — symbols of the risen crucified one, indeed–but seemingly blind to the dignity of the baptized assembled for the great offering of praise and thanksgiving.
Earlier, in the Service of Light, the priest had incensed the paschal candle before he chanted the Exultet. At the Gospel proclamation one of the deacons carried the gold-clad book of the gospels up and down the center aisle and then around the entire interior perimeter of the very large nave, while an altar server walked backward in front of him, swinging the smoking thurible at the book (a rather athletic feat, at least to my eyes). The teenager turned around only to climb the steps back into the sanctuary and reach the ambo, where the deacon arrived behind him. To me, that minutes-long action seemed an odd insertion. Some dozen neophytes were soon baptized by immersion in a pool set up in front of the altar table, and this done with care and robust symbolism, including the assembly’s professing baptismal promises simultaneously with the neophytes. But all of that, for me, just added weight to the heavy feeling I had as in disbelief I watched the thurible taken away once symbolic objects had been honored, leaving us, the liturgy’s faithful subjects, extraneous to the sacramental solemnity — left undignified. Hence, my feeling rather indignant.
I realize this is a negative reflection-of-a-blog-post. But the image and feeling from eight nights ago has haunted me with the concern over the difficult challenge the fundamental symbol of Christ’s presence in the people assembled in prayer and song (alluding here, of course, to Sacrosanctum concilium and the GIRM) continues to pose this half-century into the official reform and renewal of the rites. Giants in the liturgical movement decades ago taught and wrote of the need to attend to the fundamental, primary symbols of the rites. I ache in thinking that “sacrament” might persist in being identified more with objects than people and their shared engagement with them. In this Easter Season I find myself recommitted to raising up — in my preaching and presiding, in my teaching and writing — the sacramental character of the assembly in each and every one of its members as integral participants in the sacred mysteries.