When the liturgy bites back

Here’s a little bit of humor to spruce up your Triduum.

My parents live in the suburbs of Montreal. They attend a good parish that celebrates the Mass reverently, with a nice choir, a pipe organ, incense, etc. The building itself is very old and beautiful. Their Good Friday service was very well done and very reverent. However they had a glitch in their liturgy for Holy Thursday with respect to the washing of the feet, because they tried an “innovation.” The outcome is sad but kinda funny.

First of all, instead of washing feet they decided to do a washing of the hands. Granted, washing people’s feet is not a pleasant task. But that’s the whole point. Christ washed his disciples’ feet in a beautiful act of abasement and service to set the awesome example that the Apostles needed to follow. Switching to a washing of hands totally breaks the symbolism and meaning. Our hands are usually squeaky clean because they’re the part of the body that we wash most often in a day.

Then, instead of pre-selecting a group of men whose feet would be washed, they did a sort of altar call in which they asked anybody that felt a particular calling from God for some special work to please come forward to have their hands washed. Well, wouldn’t you know it, virtually the whole congregation came forward! Now this is a large church. It can seat close to 1,000 people. And the joint was packed.

Washing the hands of so many people also breaks the symbolism of the moment since only the Twelve had their feet washed.

If we were naive, we’d be grateful that so many people felt a special calling from God to do a particular work. But I have a different explanation: people don’t pay attention. Most people didn’t grasp that only a select few were supposed to come forward. So when some people got up, the herd effect kicked in, leading the distracted masses to do like everybody else.

That’s unfortunate because they needed 8 stations to wash the hands of all these folks. The stations involved all the priests from the sanctuary and several lay people. Despite all this manpower, it took about 20 minutes to wash everybody’s hands. You could see the pastor and the other hand-washers sometimes lift their weary heads and look down the aisle to see how many people were still left  in line. The towels were soaked by the end. The hand-washers were exhausted. Their drenched fingers looked like raisins. The choir was running out of hymns. The organist was getting blisters. But everybody’s smelled like Dove.

Sometimes the liturgy bites back.  😛

The multiple hand-washers again defeats the symbolism since there was only one Jesus doing the washing.

Take a step back and look at the big picture. Instead of commemorating how Almighty God got down on his knees and washed the dirty, smelly feet of his soon-to-be-ordained bishops, we have a group of random, distracted people having their already-squeaky-clean hands washed by another group of semi-random people. There’s just no connection between the two events.

I don’t want to be too harsh on this parish because, like I said at the outset, they do things very well most of the time. I don’t mean to scoff at them or deride them. But this amusing misadventure serves a lesson. I just don’t know how on earth they thought this would be a good idea. Nobody went home on Thursday night feeling a deep spiritual experience because they had their hands washed.

Please, let’s stop trying so hard to change the Mass to make it more “meaningful.”

The Triduum liturgy is already so amazingly beautiful and richly filled with symbolism and meaning. Let’s allow that beauty to speak to our souls without getting in the way. Rather than spending time inventing new rites, let’s try to live out the existing ones. Why not explain the symbolism to the people so they can have a deeper experience?

There’s only so much a priest can do. If he tries his best to celebrate a vibrant liturgy, it’s up to the faithful to make the investment of paying attention and participating spiritually. If people are attending just to do their time and minimally fulfil their obligation, no amount of circus acts, flame-swallower or bobble-heads will give them a spiritual experience, but you’ll be ruining it for the others who are seeking Christ.

People will find the Mass meaningful if it leads them to encounter Christ. If the Mass is celebrated reverently and the congregation is “all there”, Christ will also be there, waiting for us. He searches for us more eagerly than we search for Him. Having already given His life for us, there’s nothing that He wouldn’t give now.

2 thoughts on “When the liturgy bites back

  1. One of our former parish priests (a faithful Marian priest) said the only one in the Scriptures who washed his hands was Pontius Pilate.

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