Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams presides
over Lessons and Carols in his Cathedral Church
After some obligatory (but short) visits to various relatives I made it back to the country town where I spend the holidays and decided to stop in at the local Methodist Church for their Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols service that began at 9 pm. This is a small hamlet of about fifty houses, with two Protestant Churches. The Catholic Church was closed two years ago and now is an “outreach center” with food, clothes, and limited medical services for economically stretched families. I tend to forget how many people in our society, especially in rural America, are still suffering from the economic crash brought on by the twenty-eight years of unsound and immoral fiscal policies (aka “trickle down economics”) that are creating a vacuum where the middle class used to be. I give credit to the Catholic Diocese here that instead of selling the Church property they maintain it as an outreach station. There is an ancient tradition for this in the diaconal churches of Rome. I will have to do a blog entry on that one day.
In any event, I settled into a pew in the Methodist Church—a tiny white clapboard building that could hold a hundred people at the most. There might have been forty people for the service, including the seven member choir (four women, three men), the pastor, and the music director. It was a lovely simple service. The music director is a first-rate organist (a little less successful with the piano) and has a phenomenal tenor voice. He opened the service with a solo of Handel’s “Who can abide the day of his coming?” from the Messiah. The choir did their best for seven people of somewhat advanced years. We sang a good variety of carols. The lessons were the traditional ones for Lessons and Carols and they relayed the story of salvation from Adam to John’s proclamation that “The Word became flesh.”
It was a pleasant regrouping of spiritual energy after the more frenetic mass. But, while I have often attended Protestant services, it struck me last evening how different the Catholic and Protestant approach to worship is. For us Catholics—and I think the Orthodox as well as (though perhaps to a lesser extent) liturgical Protestants (“High-Church” Episcopalians and Lutherans)—liturgy is about “doing” something for God. I seem to recall that the word “Liturgy” comes from the Greek, leitourgia “The people’s action” implying the exercise of a civic duty towards the gods. For more “Low-Church” or evangelical Protestants, worship is more about receiving from God than doing—being nourished or fed as they often say. I am not going to say that one approach is better than the other. In fact I think we need a balance that integrates our responsibility to offer God worship with God’s anxious care to provide us with his sustenance. Too often at Mass I think we are into the doing. Sing this hymn. Recite that prayer. Stand. Kneel. Bow. Up and Back for Communion. I think Mass too often becomes one-thing-after-another ritual.
Sometimes, though, Evangelical style worship can be all feeling and no substance. A friend of mine who is an Evangelical told me about a Memorial Day Weekend service at his Bible Church in Denver CO. He said:
“It was so moving. First they sang The Navy Hymn and everyone who served in the Nave stood up while the choir sang. Then they sang The Army Hymn (God of our Fathers Whose Almighty Hand) and everyone who served in the Army stood. Next came The Air Force Hymn and all those who had been in the Air Force stood. Then they sang The Marine Hymn, and all who had served in the Marines stood. And finally, as they raised a forty-foot American flag over the pulpit we all sang America the Beautiful. I was so moved.” As a Catholic I was somewhat appalled at such a service—not that I am not patriotic but because Jesus was never mentioned. This was all style and no substance—total emotion and zero Gospel. That is not what we need either. When I hear Joel Osteen or some other TV preachers I think it is little more than positivism for bible readers and I think our faith is meant to be much more than that. The Gospel excites me, makes me critique myself and the world around me, calls forth a response from me. It touches my heart not with an emotional feather but with an energy that calls me to respond.
I think we can have worship that both touches the heart and proclaims the Gospel. I am fortunate that I am able to participate in the prayer life of a local monastic community, joining them most days for both morning and evening prayer. The calm slow recitation of the psalms, the lesson with the reflective silence afterward, the ability to pray so much of the office from memory or with attentive listening gives a good balance to the higher pitched and more active demands of participation in the Eucharist. I think that a healthy prayer life needs both sacramental and non-sacramental worship—in addition to solitude and silence for meditation. Too many Catholics are unaware of prayer beyond the mass and, perhaps, (and especially for us older types) the devotional prayers such as the rosary or the Stations of the Cross. It is too soon to evaluate the effects of the current revision of the Mass but perhaps what we need it not so much to revise our Eucharistic liturgy as to look at the entire spectrum of prayer, communal and private, and see how we can revitalize spiritual life for the average Catholic.
This brings me back to Lessons and Carols. The service was designed by Edward White Benson, Anglican Bishop of Truro in England in 1880. Benson went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury before his death in 1896. (His youngest son ended up a Catholic Priest.) Benson looked at the mediocrity of Church life in his day and realized that some creativity was needed in the Church of England to nourish the waning religiosity of the ordinary people. He modeled Lessons and Carols rather loosely on a Catholic Matins service, substituting carols and hymns for the psalms. It has gone on to become a Christmas tradition in many parts of the world, a service cherished not only by Anglicans but by Protestants and Catholics alike. Perhaps today we need some more creativity to make spiritual life come alive for contemporary Christians. I don’t think the new translation of the Mass does that, in fact I don’t think the Mass, as wonderful as it is, is enough but needs to be the jewel set into the crown of a life of prayer. The stiffness of current liturgical practice in the Catholic Church falls short of meeting the spiritual needs of many. We may need the protein of sacramental ritual but we also need the spiritual carbs of more scripture oriented worship. After all, our faith tells us that it is not so much what we do for God but what God offers us. We live not by bread (and wine) alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.