Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Vigil and the power of the liturgy

My wife and I celebrated Easter in America for the first time in 2 years this weekend, and it was great. Spending time with our family is excellent, but the best thing for us (or for me, at least) has been enjoying the liturgy in English, after hearing it in Korean for 2 years.

This is especially true with the Easter Vigil, which in the Catholic Church is a night of high symbolism and beautiful liturgy. I appreciate the liturgy much more now than I did 2 years ago. Of course, the connection to believers across the millennia represented in the liturgy is one of the factors that drew me to join the Catholic Church, but I don't think I truly appreciated it before we moved to Korea. My understanding of the language in which the mass was spoken got in the way of my experiencing the true power of the liturgy. The city we moved to in Korea was fairly small, however, and none of the Catholic churches there offered masses in English.

For nearly 2 years, we experienced mass in Korean, with nary a word in English. We knew what was being said at least half the time, of course. (In that way, being Catholic is like going to McDonald's: you know the menu's the same wherever you go, no matter what language the menu's written in.) That's part of being a universal Church. The rest of the mass, however -- the prayer requests, the homily, and such -- were mostly off limits to our understanding (although increasingly less so as our Korean improved). Being raised Protestant, I'd learned to take my meaning from church through the sermon. As a Protestant, the way you feed your soul is by feeding your mind, so the sermon is absolutely essential. As a Catholic, however, the way you feed your soul is by feeding your will, the part of you, as C.S. Lewis says, "that chooses." So taking the Eucharist is essential, as is observing the liturgy. I'd known this (it was another thing that drew me to Catholicism), but my knowledge was purely intellectual. In Korea, however, that knowledge became real for me, became fact, in a way I don't think it could have had we not gone overseas.

Because I couldn't understand the parts of the mass from which I'd drawn meaning before, I sought meaning through the liturgy. It's kind of funny, actually, and kind of pathetic. I was finally drawing spiritual sustenance from the timeless, universal part of the mass (the liturgy and the Eucharist) instead of the least important part of the mass (the homily or sermon), but only because I was forced to.

I finally understood what Lewis meant when he said that the standing and kneeling in the mass is there because we are amphibious beings: embodied souls or ensouled bodies (depending on your perspective), both flesh and spirit. We act and experience life with our whole beings, and therefore the mass helps us attenuate our spirits to the Holy Spirit by having us stand at certain points and kneel at others.

I finally understood what it meant for the priest to be in persona Christi, standing in the place of Christ, as he consecrated the host and the wine that became Jesus' body and blood. I could see Christ doing this thing through the priest in a way I simply couldn't when I'd heard the mass in English. The language barrier, which frustrated comprehension at one level, opened my mind and my heart to comprehension at a much more profound level. That's irony for you, I guess. Or, rather, it's God: it's His style, His calling card. Not for naught did St. Paul write that God uses the weak of this world to showcase His strength and power, after all. He uses what we think of as blocks, barriers, and weaknesses to show us the way forward, to give us understanding, and to give us strength. As the psalmist says, "The LORD has done this, and it is wonderful in our eyes."

I finally appreciated all the prayers, repeated over and over each week. Even if I didn't know exactly what the words meant in Korean for most of my time there, I knew the meaning in English. The experience helped me feel a small measure of solidarity with Christians of the Middle Ages, sitting through masses spoken in Latin, memorizing prayers and repeating them week after week. And yet there is power in those prayers, a depth of meaning that eluded me when I knew (or thought I knew) what everything I said in them meant. Now that I was scrambling to learn how to say them in a new language -- and slowly learning some of the idiosyncratic differences in meaning between the Korean meaning and the English translation (like the use of 소서 [pronounced "so-seo"], the only real word for "please" in Korean -- used only be destitute or impoverished beggars -- in nearly every prayer, a word which drives home our absolute need for God with an elegant brevity that an English translation just can't match) -- I was struck by the power of the prayers themselves. What does it really mean that Christ makes me worthy to receive Him through the Eucharist? Every mass I admit that I am not worthy to receive Christ and that I can be made worthy to do so through by the power of His word, but the full import of that phrase just didn't strike me until I said it in Korean.

All of this was brought home to me again at the Easter Vigil. The darkness, slowly turned to light, culminating in a gospel account of the Resurrection. The scripture readings. The psalms sung and recited. All of it was filtered through my experience with these things in their more elemental forms in Korea.

And it was wonderful, powerful, mystical, and glorious.

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