In a child’s mind, adults have all the freedom. They do what they want, when they want. Adults might counter that a child can’t even comprehend the cares and concerns of adulthood, but the kids are right about the freedom.
Typical of the time, my childhood was highly regimented. Our father woke us at the same time every day and, following breakfast, punctually deposited us at school. The sisters marched us, literally, to 8:00am Mass, every school day. Nothing interrupted the regularity of recesses. Lunch came at the same time every day. And we spent the last twenty minutes of the school day watching the hands of the clock make their way towards dismissal. Even our after school hours were fixed. Free time ended with dinner at six, followed by homework and a single hour for television. Then we were off to bed to await the start of another, unvarying day.
There was one day of the school year that utterly razed the routine. On Ascension Thursday, we marched to Mass but returned to school only long enough for the restroom drill. Then, two by two, with a Sister Adorer of the Precious Blood bringing up the rear of each column, we marched, about a quarter of a mile, from St. Joseph’s Parochial School to the city park. Our Ascension Day School Picnic had arrived! It was also the day summer shorts made their first appearance.
At the park, our moms would be waiting with a potluck picnic. How my mother pulled that off, working full time at my father’s grocery’s store, I don’t know. That was part of the cares and concerns of adulthood.
In the center of the park, the Knights of Columbus had done, to my mind, the most marvelous of things. They had filled a large cattle trough with ice and pop. I had never seen so many pop bottles swimming in a pool! We spent the day playing games like horseshoes, and competing in three-legged and gunny sack races. It was heaven on earth!
And that’s what was in the mind of Saint John when he wrote the Book of Revelation, heaven on earth. "After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands" (Rev 7:9). Whatever the nature of John’s vision, it clearly had an inspiration, namely, the Church he already knew on earth, gathered in prayer.
The great challenge of our post-conciliar Church is that we have only partially replaced one form of Sunday worship with another. Whatever its strengths — and they are many — the Tridentine liturgy essentially left our grandparents praying on their own, fingering rosary beads or paging through a beloved missal, while, in the sanctuary, the priest and servers performed the great work of the Church.
Today of course, we’re told that the Sunday liturgy is the work of all God’s people, but many still struggle with Sunday Mass. They wonder, if we’re not supposed to say our own prayers, how does one pray the Mass?
Of course, as the Book of Revelation — with its elders, incense, altar and Lamb — insists, Sunday liturgy is meant to be an experience of the celestial world. We’re supposed to act like we’re in heaven. How? There are three things that I learned in my first experience of heaven on earth, the Ascension Day Picnic. Each of those lessons can teach us something about liturgy.
First Lesson: It’s a free day. Time to play in the park! Sunday worship should break open our normal routine. This is not a time for effort, not a moment to accomplish something. If the question is, "how do I pray at Mass?" the answer is, "Pray by receiving. Take it all in. Listen attentively to what’s said. Watch what happens. Revel in a moment of pure reception."
Second Lesson: It’s a time for play, not pedagogy. Adults are an earnest lot. We don’t relish wasting time, so we think that liturgy should accomplish something. Sometimes those who plan them want to turn liturgies into teaching moments, and even those in the pew tell themselves that they are there to learn. They earnestly scan the readings that are being read to them. And some communities send the small children away, "to make sure they learn something from all of this."
But liturgy is life’s picnic, life at play, and sometimes more can be learned by a good game than by a book. Liturgy is like theater. We’re not meant to have our heads in the script or try to accomplish something while the play is going on. We’re supposed to take in the sights, smells, and sounds. Ironically, when we let them, kids are better at this than we are.
Third Lesson: Others have already done the work. At the picnic, our mothers and the Knights provided the labor. All we did was show up and play. In the same way, whatever our personal experience of Sunday worship, the essential work has already been done by Christ.
The word "liturgy" comes from two Greek words, meaning "the public work." Christ is the Lamb who was sacrificed. His cross and tomb are the great work that needed to be done. Certainly we should labor as a community to do liturgy well, and each one of us should put effort into speaking and singing with bold voice, but all of that is simply a way of saying thanks for what Christ has already done. To pray well at liturgy means to take it all in, with a grateful heart.
"For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them" (Rev 7:15). If liturgy were meant to be work, how could it be heaven on earth? Liturgy, like the coming world it foreshadows, is a day in the park. The saint don’t go a marching into mines. They’re ready to romp. We can imitate them by remembering those three little lessons: liturgy is a free day; it’s about play, not pedagogy; and others have already done the work.
Acts 13:14, 43-53 Revelation 7:9, 14b-17 John 10: 27-30