Friday, December 4, 2009

Liturgy, Day 3: Gather Us In

What you call something is important, as I was reminded this week, when I was on the phone with a customer service agent and she began to call me "Jimmy".

Suffice it to say, that did not go on for long.

Sorry, Jimmy.

Another example: Australia of late is dealing with a lot of refugees coming from Sri Lanka. And there's been a big political debate about what to do with them. And depending on your position, these players talk about "asylum seekers", "illegal immigrants", "people smuggling," "refugees." Each term highlights a different tack and angle.

What do you call that first song at Mass? My usual inclination is "the opening song", but I've also heard it called "the processional" and the "gathering hymn". These three terms might sound less loaded than the Australian example, but still, each has an orientation. The opening song is about chronology, obviously. But it might also have a bit of Judy G. in it, too, as in she opened with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". There's a certain concert feel, and a certain, but not to be overstated, focus on the singer.

"Processional" is all about the action. This is what we do while the celebrant and company are walking down the aisle. And note, here, there's a focus on a particular group -- the ministers.

"Gathering" is all about the purpose. It's the only one of the three, in fact, that accurately tells us why the heck we're singing at all. We're not singing because that's what you do at the beginning of religious ceremonies (though that's often true) or at the beginning of all major events (although wouldn't it be fun if that were true? "Well, let's begin our office meeting today with David Bowie's 'Space Oddity.'").

Ground Control to Father Tom.

We're also not singing because we need something to distract us while people walk. No, the song is an act of drawing us together, of knitting us once again into a community. It's the end of that process which began with us coming in, maybe saying some hellos, maybe doing some quiet prayer. And it's the culmination because it's something we all do -- strangers, friends, enemies -- together.

Last week I was at Mass at St. Francis Xavier church in the Village. At the end of the Mass they sang "Soon and Very Soon", that old spiritual. And someone in the choir began clapping, which the song sort of naturally invites, but this isn't an African American congregation, it's all us white folk, and few of us are demonstrative like that. Especially if it seems like posing -- as in, hey, I can do "black". To its credit, the choir did not push the point, and it died a quiet death.

What was striking to me, though, was the power the congregation has in the moment of the song. We can refuse to participate, no one's going to stop us, and it will kill the whole dynamic. Makes sense: if we won't gather, then there ain't no gathering.

And on the other hand, maybe we've had the experience of a group really singing out, and it's like something else takes over, a bigger spirit than the group of us put together. Maybe it even sounds like there are more voices singing than there are people in the church. It's like we're all part of something. A gathering, indeed.

No comments: