O Come, Instruction Manual

I am not one who usually subscribes to the “out of the mouths of babes” viewpoint. Most often, in my experience, out of the mouths of children come child-like things, which is perfectly fine—it allows them to be who they are. Let me further cement my curmudgeonliness: I also find that people try to ascribe a wisdom—which just isn’t there—to everything children say, or attempt to retrofit an awkward adult precocity into their mouths. (Commercial TV and film are among the worst offenders.) In the liturgical world, we sometimes adopt this behavior, and even make “cute” an objective liturgical value for children—as in a recent request/inquiry for a “super-cute” (quotation marks because it is a direct quote) song for the first communion class to sing for the audience [sic].

There are exceptional moments, however, when the Holy Spirit truly does burst into the world via a young tongue. I encountered such a moment during Advent, when a pastoral musician colleague related the story of preparing a class of first graders for an Advent weekday Mass:

Teacher: Who can tell me what Emmanuel means?

First-grade boy: It’s like a book with instructions. 

Teacher: That’s a solid answer, not what we’re talking about, but solid.

Enter the Holy Spirit.

This topic seemed particularly appropriate during the Advent/Christmas season, when there is frequent wrestling with instructions (as in the better part of an afternoon I spent in the organ loft putting together a small three-shelf storage unit). This wrestling often leaves you—OK, me—feeling like maybe only Nobel laureates or Pulitzer winners can understand the instruction booklet. While it’s pretty easy to relate to this particular first-grader’s translation of “Emmanuel,” it’s not likely to be used by liturgical or scriptural translators.

As we pivot from Christmastide to the Sundays of Ordinary Time (I like to think of the Baptism of the Lord as a “pivot” or “hinge” Sunday), we are about to receive an instruction manual for what it means to become the divine Word in human flesh. As Jesus proceeds through these Sundays—teaching, healing, preaching, and revealing the reign of God—we are instructed as to what it means for us to bear and reveal the Word in our own flesh.

Those of us who practice the liturgical arts work, I believe, as translators of this instruction manual. Again, if you’ve encountered instructions which were not originally written in your native tongue, you know how important this work is, and how flummoxed we can be by poorly-done instruction translations. (This is not meant to launch yet another discussion of the 2010 Missal; please don’t.)

There is a temptation in these post-Baptism Sundays to view our liturgical work as something of a breather between our “real” work during the Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter seasons. But that view does a disservice to this stretch of Sundays in which we should delve more deeply into the early days of Jesus’ earthly mission, and come to view our own mission through his. Done well, the liturgies we prepare during this stretch of time can be an ongoing “translation” of the Incarnation we have just celebrated. Our efforts should assist our fellow disciples on the journey, as together we explore what it means to follow Jesus as he calls the first disciples.

Our own mission, like that of Jesus, began in baptismal waters, with the presence of the Spirit who Christ-ened us as children of God. Though we may have attained a greater number of chronological, mortal years, we never cease being children of God. And so the reign of God must never cease coming forth from our mouths, being enfleshed in our daily actions, until our disciple’s journey here has ended.

God names us sons and daughters, too,

In font and Spirit born anew.

In Christ we die, with Christ we rise,

Through Christ, we enter paradise!

The Baptism of Jesus by John Pirtle http://www.johntpirtle.com, copyright © 2018 John Pirtle, used by permission of the artist. From “Praying the Rosary Together: A Guide for Home and Classroom” by Carolyn Pirtle with artwork by John Pirtle.

“To Jordan Jesus Humbly Came” (vs. 4) by Alan J. Hommerding. Copyright © 2004 World Library Publications. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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