Saturday, December 10, 2011

Signposts in a Strange Land

One Pink Candle and Other Curious Signposts – that’s my title for the talk I gave to the RCIA group this week. Obviously, it refers to this week’s unique phenomenon signifying Gaudete Sunday, our day in Advent dedicated to rejoicing.

Gaudete Sunday takes its name from the first word of the Introit or Entrance Antiphon for the Third Sunday in Advent: Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near. (Phil 4: 4-5)

The lecture introduced our inquirers to the fact that Christian worship is characteristically liturgical, and went over some of the aspects of the Catholic liturgy, including feasts and seasons, vesture and posture. The form and content of our liturgy is received from the Church and her tradition, to form our prayer and practice, and inform our faith. This lecture is always fun to give, since there are so many concrete and colorful examples to discuss – like this week’s Advent candle.

Oddly, though, in recent decades, American Catholics have lost sight of this element of the Mass, its proper antiphons. They are called proper because they are different for every day, feast, Mass, or occasion. Every Mass has three: the Introit, the Offertory, and the Communion. They are related to the Scriptural readings of the Mass and are often themselves based on Scripture, and are combined with selected verses from an appropriate psalm.

Possibly because the translations into English were slow to be available after the changes forty years ago, and possibly because musical settings were nearly non-existent, in most places they have been replaced with generic songs or hymns.

With the introduction of the new translation of the Missal, however, the Church has renewed all of its texts, and emphasized the value of all of them to the full celebration of the Mass. Since the texts, including the antiphons, have been available to composers for some years now in anticipation of their introduction, there are musical settings of them available.

I hope you have noticed and appreciated that, since summer, at all of our Masses with music, we have had these antiphons sung by the cantor or choir, and the text available to read in the program. It has preceded, but not supplanted, the songs we have grown accustomed to singing. On some occasions, the congregational song is clearly chosen because of its relation to this antiphon.

This is all part of our effort, encouraged by our Holy Father and the informed leaders of our Church, to sing the Mass rather than simply sing at Mass. Coupled with the new musical settings necessitated by the new texts of the commons of the Mass (which are those parts we sing or say every Sunday, like the Gloria, or the Lamb of God) this makes for a lot of new music.

Novelty can be exciting, but in liturgy it can also be unsettling. One of the key elements to liturgical worship is familiarity and repetition. For this reason, in introducing these antiphons this year, at the same time we have been learning the new Mass parts, we have not reduced or removed any of the songs or hymns that we previously had been singing at Mass.

So I hope that this Gaudete Sunday you appreciate hearing sung the full antiphon that is the reason we call it Gaudete Sunday. Along with that familiar pink candle, it is another beautiful signpost pointing our way to the heaven on earth that is our full participation in the Sacred Liturgy.

Monsignor Smith