Monday, May 4, 2009

Obedience and the Liturgy (or, Let Go, Already!)

It's almost seven p.m. as I begin to type this, and once again I find myself just starting to write a post--which means it must be Monday. I'd apologize, but I have a feeling most of my highly patient readers have noticed this particular trend before.

It's too bad, too, because I had hoped to get out here relatively early to write about our parish's implementation of Bishop Vann's swine flu precautions. Given that our pastor is out of town, visiting family in India, I thought our parish did a good job of making the announcements before Mass and the visiting priest of reminding everyone before the Liturgy of the Eucharist began.

The announced changes were just what the bishop had asked, with one slight modification: communion under one species, people were encouraged to receive in the hand (note: not required, encouraged), no holding hands at the Our Father, and--here was the change--there would be no Sign of Peace (we choir members had been informed of this, since it means launching right into the musical setting of the Agnus Dei at that point of the Mass instead of pausing). Given that the one aspect of these precautions people were inclined to ignore was the "don't hold hands during the Our Father" part, it was probably wise for whomever decided to go this route to do so, instead of causing confusion or even open anarchy among the committed hand-grabbers out there.

I found it interesting that people were apparently placid (though I don't, of course, know about complaints made later) about all the changes save the "Our Father" one. Granted, many people probably thought that as they were sitting beside family members with whom they came in daily contact, it didn't matter if they held hands (and certainly not everyone in the church disobeyed this particular precaution on the bishop's list). But I did have the opportunity to reflect about how disobedience begets disobedience, and always has.

The practice of holding hands during the Our Father is not an approved one. It is nowhere to be found in the rubrics, and is not one of the approved postures for prayers at Mass. I realized a long time ago that getting angry about it, or icily refusing to participate, was counterproductive, as most people had no idea this was a departure from liturgical norms; my open refusal might cause a greater disturbance than the disobedient posture did. But I've thought of it as something to put up with, not something to celebrate, and certainly not something to cling to.

But the holdouts at Sunday's Mass obviously thought otherwise. There was a sort of "How dare they!" miffedness about the defiant grabbing of hands, as though the hand-grabbing were not a dubious local custom of no liturgical value, but the high point of the liturgy for these people. No other temporary privation due to swine flu concerns caused (apparently) the blink of an eye, but this...this they were mad about, mad enough to be openly disobedient.

Of course, some weren't even being that; they were just so used to that darned "form a human chain" moment that they caught up the hands of those beside them without a second thought. Which is why it was the right call to eliminate the Sign of Peace altogether, as it's not required; people who have spent the last ten or fifteen years assuming that the first words of the Pater Noster are a call to cling tightly to each others hands are likely to grab equally blindly to shake hands, associating the handshake in some Pavlovian way with the words "Let us now offer each other a sign of peace."

The liturgy matters. And obedience in the liturgy, especially, matters. It's much harder to root out dissident customs that have take a foothold than it is to root out dissident customs that were just tried out yesterday; but too often we keep our mouths shut abou the latter, until they've become an established parish or diocesan "tradition" regardless of how far they deviate from liturgical norms.


wizz said...

Holding hands during the Our Father is ridiculous. People do it and they have no idea why they are doing it.

Anonymous said...

What a wise decision, not having the Sign of Peace. Ours was awkward as he said as to how to extend it to neighbors, but we were left wondering about family and it was just, odd and uncomfortable.
We were not given the option of how to receive communion, but told to receive in the hand (unless you were handicapped). But considering they touch my mouth anyway when I receive on the tongue, I was happy to oblige, right now that is.

John Thayer Jensen said...

I am fascinated by the hand-holding during the "Our Father" business. I have seen it a little bit in New Zealand, but almost exclusively amongst groups of tourists. Thank God it hasn't 'caught on' - though the way every American custom appears to go pandemic eventually, I won't be surprised if it does.

kkollwitz said...

Being 51, I well remember how the idea that we'd open Pandora's box just a crack changed things so totally......I think many "innovations" from those days will just have to die out.... so to speak. Fortunately the Church takes the long view.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Not a lot was different at our Mass at the monastery. Father took an extraordinarily long pause before asking everyone to extend the sign of peace, so long that I thought he was going to skip it. We did not shake hands, just waved. It felt very awkward. I wish Fr. had just skipped it. We did notice that many people who don't normally sit up front were sitting in the first couple of pews but most people still received on the tongue. (We were sitting up front so that the little guy can see his favorite Br. better.)

Anonymous said...

You know, after all the swine flu hoopla dies down, parishioners may not return to the hand-holding and handshaking since they'll have become accustomed to refraining...

The hand-holding may seem widespread, but I've been to many churches where it's not the norm; often, it's just members of one family holding hands (something I, being young, grew up doing) instead of the entire pew. I would draw the line at reaching hands across the aisle though, which looks awful. However, refusing often makes more of a disturbance, so sometimes one has to just go with it.

Jeannette said...

I just don't look at our neighbors during the Our Father, when we're at one of the aggressive-hand-holding parishes; besides, I usually have a short one in my arms, who may or may not have recently deposited some kind of bodily fluid on my hands. No one ever gives me trouble, even pre-swine flu!