E’VE ALL HAD THAT MASS: the one that gets away from us, the one that trainwrecks so badly that we’re embarassed that we were the ones in charge of the music. Sure, it probably wasn’t as bad as it seems in our minds, but it sure feels like it was. It happens to every single one of us from time to time. Since I am new in my current position, I hope it doesn’t happen more frequently.
This one just happened to me last week. Our Cathedral was holding a penitential Mass marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I met with the pro-life liaison of the archdiocese, and we in the Office of Worship hammered out a simple liturgy that would work well for the day. The archdiocese celebrates this Mass annually on the same day as the March for Life in Washington, DC, so this year we had to push it back to last Friday. Everything was organized well. We didn’t have a choir; it was just a cantor and me playing the organ. All of the forms were filled out and sent to the Archbishop’s office, all the worship aids were made, and all of our rehearsing was completed.
Then it happened. Right after the Penitential Act was proclaimed by the deacon, there was a great big pause. There I was, up in the loft, thinking, “Oh, some poor server is dropping the ball here. He should be bringing the Missal to the Archbishop for the Collect. Where is he?” Then the Archbishop started reciting the Gloria. I looked around, panicked. I didn’t have a setting of the Gloria up in the loft, and what in the world was he doing reciting the Gloria on a Friday in Ordinary Time, at a Mass of penance?
That certainty lasted until the First Reading, which was not the same as the reading we had put in the worship aid. It was Saul’s conversion on the way to Damascus. It’s not the reading we had chosen from previous years, but it seems like a pretty good oh no, today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul! There really should have been a Gloria!
The rest of the Mass was pretty much like that. We got through it, but an error like that (everyone stumbling through a recited Gloria that they do not really know yet, and the text isn’t in the worship aid), can set the tone for an entire liturgy. When we wrapped up the recessional hymn, I was considering just skipping my prepared postlude, because who was I kidding? I knew how embarrassing that was, and I really just wanted to go hide in the stairwell until the cathedral was empty.
This is the part where I’m supposed to talk about what an edifying experience the Mass was anyway, how Jesus was still re-presented in His sacrifice on the altar. This is where we all remember how miraculous the Mass is every time, even when celebrated poorly. He was, and it is, but I am not going to pretend that this was an edifying experience. It was humiliating. The Archbishop, the MC, the woman who works with me in the Office of Worship, and I were probably the only people of a crowd of 700 that knew what had gone wrong, but it was embarrassing nonetheless. I should also mention that, not only am I new to the position, but the Archbishop was also only recently appointed and we’re all trying to make good impressions.
It is key to remember, though, that no amount of preparation, liturgical excellence, or flawless execution could ever actually make us worthy to partake in the Sacrifice of the Mass. We are only made worthy by virtue of our Baptism, and by God’s grace. If that Mass had gone off perfectly, if I had not stumbled through some of the organ parts, if I had actually been prepared to celebrate the proper liturgical day, it would not have made me more worthy to receive Him. All of our efforts to please God are like that of my daughters bringing me flowers picked from the backyard. Sometimes those flowers are ugly, but those dandelions are beautiful to me because they were given to me by my children. God does not need our worship, but it is precious to him because we are precious to him.
This is not to say we shouldn’t try. Of course, we should prepare all we can to make our worship of God the most dignified and excellent offering we have. Remember that the greater dignity we try to present, though, the more jarring the effect when we have egg on our faces, which will happen someday. No matter how much you prepare, at some point something will slip through the cracks, and one day you will have the Trainwreck Mass.
These are the days when liturgy truly is the “work of the people.” More specifically these are the days when liturgy is work. We stagger through it and just hope to reach the finish line without leaving out anything critical. We forget about the Gloria (or at least I do), we put the last piece behind us, and pick up the next as a new offering to God.
And play the darn postlude.