[T]he Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.
Gaudium et spes, #4, December 7, 1965
Some of the “signs of the times” I encounter in daily living make me sad. They are part of the literal signage that evidently is necessary to tell people how to behave in shopping malls, or when commenting on blogs, to give up seats on mass transit to the elderly or disabled, and—maybe one of the saddest—to remind parents of kids on sports teams that the point of the game is to have fun, and not to be verbally abusive when your kid’s team happens to be losing.
A lot of these signs are pretty much telling folks how to get a grade of “C” in the class I often refer to in conversation as “Human Being 101.” Though I do qualify to be a member of the curmudgeon’s club, I am not one who looks back on the early decades of my life nostalgically, nor do I believe that I learned every necessary thing in kindergarten (which would have made re-financing a mortgage even more mystifying). But I do believe that we as a society have all been infected by a cultural hyper-individualism and the self-centeredness that it has generated.
I saw some of that infection when it came time, a year ago, to talk about the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of Vatican II and the issuing of its fourth constitution, On the Church in the Modern World. My liturgy and music colleagues—who had been dizzy with excitement over the fiftieth anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy—seemed to be perplexed as to why, exactly, we should care about this other anniversary. Didn’t the Council say the liturgy was source and summit for the Church? Yes, it did. But before it made that statement (CSL, 10), it was quick to caution the Church that liturgy doesn’t exhaust the Church’s entire activity (CSL, 9). I fear that many of us in music and liturgy have overlooked #9 for fifty-plus years.
Sometimes I think of the mystery of the Incarnation—central to Advent and Christmas—as God deciding to enroll in the “Human Being 101” course. Not because God didn’t grasp what it was like to be fully human, but because WE didn’t grasp that God fully knew our human experience. So, in the person of Jesus, God lived among us and knew our joys and hopes, our griefs and anxieties first-hand. And we still unfold and celebrate that mystery in our own day-by-day living as members of Christ’s Body.
What Vatican II also called the Church to do in Gaudium et spes was to enroll in “Human Being 101” and live as Jesus Christ did: sharing in the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties (the full first phrase of the constitution) of the world around us. We cannot stay wrapped up inside ourselves or our liturgies, but must go out and be the divine presence, visible, literally incarnated in our flesh, for the world around us. Reaching the liturgical summit does not exhaust us as a church, but perhaps the rest of the week should exhaust us, as we go forth from the liturgy to announce the gospel of the Lord. And that exhaustion, in turn, should be what causes us to return back to the source of our life.
Happy Fifty-first Anniversary, Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II.