On Mediocre Liturgy, Part 1

Sometime ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a wonderful bit of parody that begins:

Awake from your slumber!
Arise from your sleep!
The homily’s over!
It wasn’t too deep!

It brings to mind the old joke that the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist is that you can reason with a terrorist. Jokes are one of the last refuges of a people who have little power over The System. The Soviet Union was a wellspring of this sort of humor, as were, of course, the Jews of the Borscht Belt era. People who can’t do a lot about the Powers That Be can still laugh at them.

So I thought it was a healthy sign when the mysterious domination of our hymnals by third rate drivel was lampooned by the late, lamented Society for a Moratorium on the Music of Marty Haugen and David Haas. I neither know nor care who decides what twaddle we have to murmur through Mass, but I did appreciate the bleat of satire while it lasted.

There are a few things I find vile, loathsome and dreadful in contemporary liturgy. I think much of the “Glory and Praise” drivel is essentially ordered toward encouraging what Amy Welborn calls the “Church of Aren’t We Fabulous” to worship itself.

The apotheosis of this is The Worst Hymn Ever Written: “Anthem”:

We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another.
We are promise to tomorrow,
while we are for him today.
We are sign, we are wonder,
we are sower, we are seed.
We are harvest, we are hunger.
We are question, we are creed.

Words can barely express the awfulness: cringeworthy lyrics, atrocious theology and hootenanny music Like a Mighty Breaking Wind. What’s not to hate?

Other hymns do this too.

  • “Gather Us In” for example, is basically a hymn wherein the congregation reminds God to Respect Our Diversity as it catalogs the glories of our Gorgeous Mosaic of a Community.
  • “Sing a New Church” is yet another anthem of the Triumph of AmChurch over the False Consciousness of the Bad Old Days Before the Spirit of Vatican II.
  • In “Ashes” we learn the important falsehood that we “create ourselves anew”.
  • In “City of God” we again celebrate ourselves and cheer on the construction of Babel, apparently oblivious to the fact that “unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain”.

I’m not as persnickety as some about tunes like “Eagles Wings” or “One Bread, One Body”. I think almost all modern hymnody is dull. But it’s only when it passes from being boring to being narcissistic that I draw the line. I prefer hymnody that directs our minds to God, not to contemplation of How Truly Wonderful We Are.

For the same reason, I dislike the tendency of modern hymnals to expunge the Pronoun Formerly Known as He. Sometime in the Eighties some sort of revolt was attempted in which somebody had the bright idea of castrating God in deference to bitter nuns with short-cropped, iron grey hair, bland wardrobes and sensible shoes who attended conferences on liturgy featuring undersexed men with scraggly beards and guitars who mewled on about subverting the dominant paradigm.

Judging simply from the results, some Task Force on the Elimination of Sexism evidently decided that the thing to do was start by getting rid of the masculine pronoun. And so, like a rising tide, more and more parishioners were instructed/influenced/miscatechized to say things like “Glory to God in the highest and peace to (Delete: “his”/insert “God’s”) people on earth” or “It is right to give (Delete: “him”/insert: “God”) thanks and praise” and so forth. The OCP Hymnal was sanitized for your protection, so we could learn that Charles Wesley wrote “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” to read that Jesus was “born to raise the (Delete: “sons’/insert: “ones”) of earth”. Some improvers even got as far as getting a few ninnies to change the Sign of the Cross to “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier”.

But then, somehow, the enthusiasm waned. The tide rolled back. The Sign of the Cross reverted to normal. Most linguistic victimology withered on the vine. And so, each Sunday, in the liturgy, we now have a congregation in which everybody refers to God as “Father” (like our ignorant sexist Lord did) and not “Parent”. We also, of course, call Jesus “Lord”, not “Lady” and “Son”, not “Child”, of God. But about 1/25 of the congregation has this strange lingering terror of the masculine pronoun and can’t bring itself to say “he” “him” or “his” while the rest of us do. So we are left with this linguistic fossil remnant of the revolution that failed. When I encounter it, I offer it up in imitation of St. Therese, who was irritated by a fellow nun who rattled her rosary beads at evening prayer. Not very heroic of me, but better than nothing.

Beyond that, however, I don’t have passionate issues with liturgical stuff. That’s because I don’t have a passionate interest in liturgy, and the fruits that I see among those who do have such passionate issues persuade me to never develop a passionate interest in liturgy.

On that matter, more next week.


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