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CNP Feedback - Rigid and Pompous?

The "Feedback Box" on the CanticaNOVA Publications website has proven quite effective in promoting communications on a variety of subjects, and expressing concerns of liturgists and musicians. From time to time, we'll compile a few of these questions or comments and put them in public view anonymously, with the hope that others with similar concerns may benefit from their content.

Q. Dear CNP:

I happened on this website. My church is non-liturgical. Why is the church year so rigidly constructed? What is the history behind all of this "pomp"? Is this what the church is really here for on earth? Pomp??? I don't get it.

Thank you.

"Sarah Mohney"

A. Dear Ms. Mohney:

Thank you for your questions regarding worship in liturgical churches.

The Christian religion was born from Jewish roots — our Savior himself participated in routine Jewish ceremonies (praying the psalms, the Passover meal, etc.). The Jewish religion itself was very structured (a better term than the pejorative "rigid"). There was a pattern of prayer during the day and a cycle of celebrations which ran through each year — Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Booths, etc. Early Christian worship continued in this tradition, transferring the weekly Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (the day of the Lord's resurrection). A single feast celebrating this resurrection specifically (Easter) was begun, and the Lord's birth was also commemorated with a feast during winter (initially on January 6, later on December 25). To these two great feasts were added seasons of preparation (Lent prior to Easter and Advent prior to Christmas). The importance of these two great feasts was emphasized be extending their celebration beyond the day itself: Eastertide is a season that begins on Easter and lasts 50 days until Pentecost; Christmastide is a season that begins on Christmas and ends (in Roman Catholic tradition) on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Just as the secular world marks time with seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) and holidays (New Year's Day, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving), so too the Church has seasons (Advent, Christmastide, Lent, Eastertide) and holy days (Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, Transfiguration, Ascension Thursday) that celebrate and recall events in the life of the Lord. I don't see anything unusual about that at all.

Much of the ceremony (perhaps a better word than "pomp") that surrounds liturgy has its roots in Jewish worship and Roman court customs. Incense, for example, is mentioned in many places in the Old and New Testaments and was an integral part of Temple ritual. Incense was burned as both a symbol of our prayer rising to God ("Let my prayer rise like incense before you, O God" [Psalm 141:2]), as a sign of respect to high Roman officials, and as a means of honoring the holy and the divine ("Frankincense to offer have I, Incense owns a Deity nigh").

The ultimate goal of the Church is to leads souls to Christ the Lord, who died to save them. Many means are used to effect this, including Scripture reading, sacraments, and the arts (music, visual arts, architecture). Liturgy, which includes ritual and ceremony, is a means of leading the heart toward the mystery of God. The value of ceremony / ritual (i.e. liturgy) is its ability to help us experience the sacred. A Palestrina motet or a Gregorian chant can lead people to prayer, incense represents those prayers and awakens us to the "fragrance of holiness." A grand organ work can help us understand the majesty and beauty of the Almighty, and a stately procession helps us to enter the presence of God as a "pilgrim people" on our way to heaven.

There's really nothing un-Christian or anti-Scriptural in any of this ceremony, once it is understood in the way it is truly intended.

I hope this helps to clarify the issue somewhat. Some of the articles on our Liturgy page offer further, more detailed information.

Thank you for your interest in exploring the meaning behind Catholic liturgy.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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