Triduum

This year, for the first time in a while, I actually made it to all three main liturgies of the Triduum, which, in Catholic parlance, is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Back in the days when I served on liturgy committee and I and my daughters served in music ministry, I would be at all the Holy Week liturgies plus the children’s liturgy on Easter morning, but, after my long-time parish disintegrated in 2005, I couldn’t bring myself to attend all the services. The situation got even more complicated when my elder care responsibilities grew.

Then came 2020 and the pandemic and no one could attend services in person for Holy Week.

I didn’t attend mass in person for over a year. I wrote here about my first time back a dew weeks ago. I noted in that post that I wouldn’t try to attend every week yet due to space constraints at church. I was able to get a reservation to attend Easter Vigil on Saturday evening and decided to attend on Holy Thursday evening and Good Friday afternoon because the church made those open without reservations, although we did have to sign in and leave contact information in case a COVID case was verified and they needed to do tracing. We also had temperature checks and single-use programs so there were no hymnals or prayer books that subsequent worshippers would be touching.

Holy Thursday had long been my favorite liturgy of the year. Its focus is the Eucharist, as it commemorates the Last Supper. In an ordinary year, there would be significant involvement from the laity. The priest would wash the feet of twelve parish members and another group of people, often a family, would dress the altar. There would be a large choir to lead the congregation in sung prayer. Because of the pandemic, everything had to be pared down. Footwashing was eliminated globally to reduce risk. There were two lay lectors, appropriately distanced from the clergy in the sanctuary, but they were both men, so there were no women’s voices in any of the spoken prayers, which added to the sense of distance for me.

The music was beautiful, though. The music director put together an octet from the music ministry, which included some married couples so that the spacing would work as they could stand right next to each other instead of having to be feet apart. With masks, spacing, and good choral microphones, they were able to lead the sung prayer very meaningfully.

Because so much of the Holy Thursday liturgy revolves around a meal, there are many references to food. Because we are living in a time of increased hunger in the United States, these passages were particularly meaningful to me this year. For example, the gathering song was “Table of Plenty” by Dan Schutte, which contains the lyrics, “O come and eat without money; come to drink without price.” and “My bread will ever sustain you through days of sorrow and woe.” Those familiar lines resonated differently knowing that many people do not have enough to eat.

The service on Good Friday afternoon is, by its nature, quite stark. It’s the one day of the church year when there is no mass with Eucharist. Instead, there is a liturgy of the word, veneration of the cross, and distribution of communion with previously consecrated hosts. Without having the liturgy of the Eucharist, the emphasis shifts to the liturgy of the word, which includes reading the passion narrative from the gospel of John.

Paradoxically, Good Friday felt less stark to me than the Lenten and Holy Thursday masses I attended. I think this was due, at least in part, to the fact that there were more lay voices and, in particular, women’s voices included. The first reading, the suffering servant passage from Isaiah, was proclaimed as a choral reading, alternating between a woman lector and the music ministers. The gospel is presented with different people reading narration, the voice of Christ, and the voice of others in dialogue, with the congregation participating as the crowd. Even though we are assigned to proclaim a lot of challenging verses – we have to say, “Crucify him!” multiple times – it is good to feel that we have a part in telling the story.

Another element of the liturgy of the word that gets more emphasis on Good Friday is the intercessions that follow the homily. They were chanted by two cantors, a woman and a man, who alternated between them, with a sung response from the congregation and a prayer by the priest after each. This year, there was an added petition specifically for the pandemic, which was both moving and sobering to hear.

The veneration of the cross was much simpler than in usual years. It’s been the custom for each person to come forward in procession to kiss the cross but that isn’t possible under pandemic protocol. Instead, the assembly knelt and venerated the cross from our places in the pews. In truth, I preferred this to the processing and kissing because it felt more solemn.

For the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, we begin in a mostly darkened church. The time is set to be after sundown so it will be dark so that the first part of the mass, the service of light, begins in darkness. Usually, a new fire is lit and blessed outside the church, the new Paschal candle is blessed and embedded with incense, then lit and carried through the church in procession with music and sung responses, as each person holds a candle which is lit and passed to the next until the church is filled with candlelight for the singing of the the Exsultet (Easter Proclamation).

However, this was rather drastically abbreviated this year. We heard the blessing of the fire and the Paschal candle was brought into the church but the congregation had no candles of their own and most of the lights remained off in the body of the church. The Exsultet was chanted by a cantor whom I have had the privilege to hear sing for many years; it was very moving and brought back memories of hearing the priest chant this prayer when I was the teenage organist in my childhood church.

The liturgy of the word that follows the service of light begins with three readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, each followed by a psalm and prayer. Unfortunately, the lights in the body of the church were still off, which made it a bit difficult for the assembly to sing the psalm responses which were printed in our programs. I happened to know the pieces fairly well so I could sing, but I could tell that some others were not familiar enough with them to join in. Admittedly, it was dramatic to have the lights turned on as we were singing the Gloria, but I missed the growing candlelight followed by the lights being turned on as we extinguished our candles and began the liturgy of the word.

I admit that I struggled with the homily. While it was meant to be a unifying message, the way it was conveyed reminded me too much of how many instances of division there are within our society and the church. It saddened me.

The Easter Vigil is traditionally the time when new adult members enter the church, so there are often baptisms, professions of faith, confirmations, and first Eucharists included. This year, though, there was just one candidate for confirmation, most likely because the pandemic prevented the usual series of liturgies and classes for new members that take place in the months leading up to Easter.

The liturgy of the Eucharist unfolded in almost normal fashion. I was again very appreciative of my organist-friend and the octet she had assembled. The mass that we sang is one that I know well and that we had used often. In my mind, I was adding in the sound of the handbell accompaniment and larger choir that we used on festive occasions like Easter. I wonder when or even if such large and close gatherings will again be possible.

Perhaps I should say that the liturgy of the Eucharist proceeded in pandemic-normal. There is no sharing of a sign of peace, although people do wave or nod to others across the empty pews between occupied-but-spaced ones. We also do the formal dismissal before communion is distributed, so that people receive the host and then exit, all while keeping their distance.

I was just re-reading this post to edit and I’m sure, if you have made it this far, that you realize I’m a bit of a Catholic liturgy wonk. I want to convey my wishes for Easter blessings to those celebrating and my universal wishes for peace, love, respect, and care to all.

JC’s Confessions #12

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, now a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

I don’t miss going to church.

I’m writing this after being unable to attend in-person mass for two and a half months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been watching a pre-recorded mass on television and often reading a homily from the Catholic Women Preach website. These are good resources, but I feel more like an observer than a participant. Obviously, there is no opportunity to receive communion, which is a very important part of Catholic practice.

I should interject that there has never been a time in my life when I haven’t gone to church every weekend. For many years, I was involved in music ministry and liturgy planning. I am also a long-time advocate for church reform, including the ordination of women, the recognition of equality among the laity and clergy, and the model of servant-leadership. In 2005, my parish home was shattered due to abuses of power. Those wounds have never healed, but I still continued participating in mass, even though I would sometimes cry – and sometimes feel that I could write a more thoughtful homily than the one I heard in church.

Perhaps, being an isolated home observer feels safer than being in the midst of a congregation when I get emotional. It’s also unlikely that televised mass will plunge into fraught topics, so there is a certain level of safety that doesn’t exist when you are in the pews.

Some church congregations or groups have taken to meeting via Zoom or other kinds of video conferencing during the pandemic. The congregations that I know that have done this are much smaller, though, so there is opportunity for interactions, such as offering prayer petitions. There are well over 1,000 families in my parish here, which makes meaningful videoconferencing impractical. Some of the church reform groups with whom I affiliate are offering prayer services, which is appealing in concept, but I worry that participating would make it even more difficult to remain within the institutional church. Leaving has been a decades-long temptation for me. [There is not enough room in this post to explain that struggle. Maybe, someday…]

I received a letter from my parish, explaining that this weekend they will begin celebrating mass under a new protocol. The priest will livestream weekend masses so that people can see and hear it on their phones or other wifi devices from the church parking lot. At communion, several Eucharistic ministers will zigzag through the parking lot, stopping at each car so that its occupants can come out and receive communion and then get back in their cars so that they won’t be near to anyone else.

This scenario does not appeal to me. I worry about the risk to the Eucharistic ministers, who will be in close contact with dozens of people, albeit outdoors. Other than being able to receive the Eucharist, the participation quotient is about the same as watching a televised or live-streamed mass, other than being in your car in whatever weather that day offers instead of in your home.

The root meaning of the word liturgy is “the work of the people.” To me, the current methods of celebrating liturgy at a distance feel more like watching a performance. I don’t know if I will adjust to this over time or not. I also don’t know if, many months from now when larger gatherings with singing are reasonably safe to attend, it will be difficult for me to muster the energy to leave my home and be in the midst of people and all the uncertainties that involves.

I don’t know and it makes me sad.

Is it Easter yet?

In my religious tradition, Easter is about joy and light and hope.

Easter this year does not feel like that.

I was trying to get ready for Easter by viewing this series for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. They were beautiful videos and being able to watch them alone was helpful. I spent decades involved with church music and/or liturgy planning, so I have many wonderful memories of those liturgies. They are very emotional for me. Even if we had been able to celebrate at our church, though, I probably would have chosen not to attend because I would have been at risk for crying through them. At this time last year, we were in the last few weeks of my mother’s life, so this is another in the long line of “first times” we have been dealing with over these last months. In some ways, it felt appropriate to be commemorating at this time alone.

Easter Day itself was complicated by some upsetting things that happened with family and friends beyond our household. It is difficult to want to help but not be able to do anything, or even to go to see them. Instead of Easter joy, there was a lot of sadness. pain, and uncertainty. One bright spot was watching Mass recorded at our diocesan cathedral. I decided to watch because our bishop is relatively new and I hadn’t heard him preach yet. I  appreciated how pastoral he is: Pope Francis has been appointing bishops who have more pastoral experience rather than just those who have worked their way up through the bureaucracy. It was also nice to hear the cathedral’s pipe organ, two great soloists, and trumpet. I especially appreciated the soprano singing the Mozart “Alleluia” that daughter E had sung for her college auditions.

This Easter Monday has been spent trying to work through some of the complications that arose yesterday. In the back of my mind, I am also thinking of my parents, who were married on an April Easter Monday, though that year Easter Monday was not the thirteenth.

It was 66 years ago and the first time that they won’t be celebrating together.

father, farmer, and builder

This week, my daughters and I sang in the choir for the funeral of our friend Nancy’s dad. Nancy is a long-time church musician and liturgist, so many current and former choir members and friends arrived to support her by participating in the liturgy. We had 43 singers and 3 instrumentalists. The music was a beautiful and meaningful part of our prayers for Joe and being surrounded by so many musician-friends helped Nancy to play the funeral mass.

I know from personal experience how difficult it is to play for a loved one’s funeral or memorial. Because you have to concentrate on doing your job musically, some of the mourning that one would typically do at a funeral is deferred. My hope is that the memory of the music we shared will be a comfort to Nancy when she reflects on the funeral in the coming days.

The reflections offered centered around Joe’s roles in the community as a father of five children, a farmer in his younger years, and then a long-time builder of homes in our area. Each of these roles has many scriptural and faith references which were woven throughout the liturgy.

It was my privilege to write the universal prayer for the funeral. I served on the liturgy committee with Nancy for many years in our former parish and learned so much from her; I was honored that she asked me to write the petitionary prayer that closes the liturgy of the word.

Nancy and I have been supporting each other through an extended period of multi-generational family caretaking. Strangely, some of our most stressful periods have coincided. Fifteen years ago, I was staying at the hospital with one of my daughters when Joe had a serious stroke following heart surgery. I missed Nancy’s mom’s funeral when my mom had a heart attack while my dad was in the hospital for surgery. Now, Joe’s final illness and death happened while my mom is in a hospice residence.

I am truly thankful for Nancy’s support, friendship, and gracious example. I pray for solace and peace for Nancy and her family. Rest in peace, Joe.

flowers from Joe's funeral luncheon
Joe’s favorite color was blue, so there were blue hydrangeas and white roses on the tables at the funeral luncheon.

 

 

the legacy of Father James

In my last post, I wrote about a long-time, retired pastor who was near death. Father James died Friday night and these past few days have been about preparing and celebrating the funeral rites.

Leading those efforts has been Father James’s nephew, Father Tim, and Father James’s long-time music director Nancy. Father James served at Blessed Sacrament church from 1978 through his retirement in 2003. He hired Nancy early on, shortly after she graduated from university with her music degree, and they developed a true partnership and deep friendship that lasted through his retirement years.

They both loved liturgy and taught me that thoughtful, prayerful planning was the key to vibrant worship. I served on liturgy committee and in music ministry for many years and learned so much from them both. My role in the funeral planning was to write the universal prayer, which is a set of petitions which closes the liturgy of the word, for both the vigil service and the funeral mass.

Along with my daughter T, I joined the 40-voice choir, which was assembled from the choirs of Father Tim’s church, Nancy’s current church, Father James’s boyhood church where the funeral was being held, and some other former Blessed Sacrament music ministry alumni. (A number of the other choir members had also sung at Blessed Sacrament when Father James was there.) We rehearsed for two and a half hours Sunday night to be ready for the two services.

When a priest dies, he lies in state in the church, clothed in his priestly vestments. Father James had chosen white vestments with a multi-colored trim which, if I recall correctly, had been a gift from the parish for his 40th ordination anniversary. For three hours before the vigil service, Father Tim along with Father James’s nieces and other nephews received condolences from hundreds of friends and former parishioners.

We then held a vigil service with Scripture readings and prayers which focused on service. There were three homilists, one a priest-friend, who offered stories of Father James as a friend and traveling companion; one a niece, who told of growing up with with three priest-uncles, Father James and his two older brothers; and a Blessed Sacrament parishioner-friend, who told of the strong bonds of love and friendship that Father James built among us. His words reflected beautifully my own experience at Blessed Sacrament, what that parish family meant and continues to mean to me. (Unfortunately, for reasons too complex to relate here, the Blessed Sacrament community that we knew no longer exists as a parish.)

The next morning was the funeral liturgy. Nancy played prelude music on the organ, followed by two choral pieces. During the opening hymn, the many priests and deacons in attendance, all dressed in white, processed to their places, followed by the concelebrating priests, including Father Tim, and finally the bishop, who was the presider for the funeral mass.

The readings centered around Eucharist and included a gospel passage that was close to Father James’s heart and ministry, the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35).  Father Tim gave an inspiring homily, which was both intimate and encompassing. Not only had Father Tim had the example of his uncle Father James before him all his life but he had also been in residence with him at Blessed Sacrament for nine years when he was serving as chaplain at a nearby hospital, during which he assisted with weekend and special liturgies and shared homilist duties.

I was especially moved when Father Tim spoke about how special the Blessed Sacrament community was in the twenty-eight years of Father James’s pastorate, how Father James drew people together and encouraged them to develop and share their talents, how important liturgy was to him as the work of the people, and how extraordinary the partnership was between Father James and Nancy, resulting in eight choirs and a congregation that actively and joyfully participated in both spoken and sung prayer, empowering them to go out and serve others. He reminded us that it is up to those of us who were part of that community to continue to carry on the good works, friendship, love, and caring to others.

For T and me to be singing in the choir for the services was a special blessing. While Blessed Sacrament had been a modern renovated building with the music ministry in the front of the church, the church where we were gathered is one of the oldest in our area with a choir loft and a pipe organ. Being in the loft gave us a good view of the church and a bit of space from the emotions of the family. It also gave us the best advantage of the acoustics.

Some people who were unfamiliar with Nancy’s skills had expressed reservations about the choir not being amplified, but, under Nancy’s guidance, we did not need microphones to be heard and understood. They were also afraid that the congregation wouldn’t sing, but we were confident that they would – and they did. Many people were former Blessed Sacrament parishioners who were used to singing hymns and responses. Moreover, what many Catholics don’t realize is that it is not a choir or cantor that leads the singing, it is the organ. Nancy is a wonderful organist, who knows how to register the organ effectively and to pace and phrase in such a way as to lead the congregation to confidently sing the hymns and prayers.

Nancy also is the best liturgist of any Catholic church musician that I know. The hymns beautifully reflected the Scripture readings that had been chosen for the services. People commented afterward about how thoughtfully the music enhanced the service.

I know that Father James would be pleased with the vigil and funeral mass that we celebrated before laying him to rest.

With a wink, he would say it was because he had taught us how…which he did, by word and example.

As Father Tim reminded us, it is up to us to carry on, loving and serving one another, as Father James did.

May he rest in peace and may perpetual light shine upon him.

 

 

Thanksgiving Eve

Today is the day before Thanksgiving in the United States. My daughter and son-in-law have traveled 5,000 miles to be here to celebrate with us, their first trip back to our home in almost three years. As a special bonus, we are having a snowstorm. Snow is not a featured weather form at their home in Honolulu!

We have been doing some of the prep work for feasting tomorrow. Beth and Larry have the dough for chocolate babka rising in the refrigerator. They wanted to make it for a festive breakfast to fuel the rest of the kitchen work tomorrow morning. The Indian pudding is baked, ready to re-heat tomorrow. The flavors blend and deepen overnight, so we always prepare it a day ahead. Ditto for the spiced cranberry orange relish.

One unexpected aspect of the day, besides the earlier than expected arrival of the snow, was my attendance at a funeral this morning. Wednesday morning is usually the meeting of the spirituality study group I facilitate at church, but I cancelled today so that we could participate in the funeral liturgy for Virginia, who was one of our former members.

Virginia was a fascinating woman. After serving in the W.A.V.E.S. during WWII, she had married a firefighter. When she was 36, he was killed in the line of duty and she raised eight children on her own. She was a librarian and an insightful thinker. She was in her 80s when I met her and I loved to hear her perspective on life and spirituality. She had served with the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day and was one of the most joyful, insightful, service-oriented women I have ever met. She was 91 when she died on Sunday. Rest in peace, Virginia.

I thank God for the privilege of having experienced your witness of true service to God and neighbor.

Remembrance

We just returned from Holy Thursday Mass. Fittingly, the focus of the homily was remembrance. The 4,000+ years of remembrance of the Passover, the almost 2,000 years remembrance of the celebration of the Eucharist, and the remembrance of our call to serve one another, symbolized by the washing of the feet. The twelve whose feet were washed were a cross-section of the community, diverse in race, ethnicity, and gender, with an age range of at least six decades.

There were other personal remembrances for me, especially of my former parish, which was the Church of the Blessed Sacrament. This made the Holy Thursday liturgy especially significant for us and it was always my favorite liturgy of the year. I was remembering our music ministry at Blessed Sacrament, which was brought to mind by the fact that some of the musicians this evening, including my daughter, were music ministers at Blessed Sacrament back in the day.

I was remembering the sculpture of Jesus, seated as though at a table, holding the bread and the cup, which dominated the wall behind the altar. It was such a welcoming presence; during times in my life when I felt unwelcomed by some in the Church, it was a comfort to meditate on it.

At communion, I was remembering that on Holy Thursday, instead of the usual hosts, we consecrated tiny individual unleavened breads that had been baked by one of our long-time parishioners.

The Holy Thursday liturgy ends with the Blessed Sacrament being placed on an altar of reposition, instead of in the main tabernacle of the church. Tonight, the church had placed a glass tabernacle in a simply but beautifully decorated space along the side wall of the church. I was holding in remembrance my favorite tabernacle, which was the one we used at Blessed Sacrament after our major renovation. A liturgical artist made a natural linen-colored square-based tent for us, decorated with piping that matched the red, blue, and green color accents painted in the tower of the church. On Holy Thursday, we carried the tabernacle in procession before the Blessed Sacrament and set it on the altar of repose. The Blessed Sacrament was placed inside, incensed, and then the tent flap was closed. I loved the symbolism, because the word tabernacle comes from the word tent and reminds us of the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant was housed before the Temple was built in Jerusalem. Like the Passover remembrance, the tent-tabernacle reminds me of the profoundly Jewish roots of Christians and the love and respect to which we are all called.