Fall Pilgrimage: Church Music Association of America
Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
September 26, 2009
Following the Extraordinary Form of the Mass celebrated today, a lay reflection is offered to preserve as much of this day’s holy blessing as permitted, so that it might be touched anew, when necessary, as nourishment on our devotion path. After witnessing and living the soul-shaking majesty of the Roman Rite, there is inspiration to take best-possible care of the precious gift given through this pilgrimage of prayer, so that it might not be lost, nor to forget to give out the love we have just been generously given. At the same time, with trepidation is this done, mindful not to mar in any way, even unintentionally, what belongs only to that sacred hour and holy place.
Dear Lord, help us to remember and wisely use all the nourishment you have given us:
The Mass offered was the Common of The Feasts of The Blessed Virgin Mary, whose brief gospel (Luke 11: 27-28), was concluded by our Lord’s words “Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” Starting from the Epistle (Ecclesiastes 24: 14-16) Father Franklin McAfee’s homily spoke entirely about the beauty of the liturgy. The Epistle enclosed these words: “From the beginning, and before the world, was I created, and unto the world to come I shall not cease to be, and in the holy dwelling place I have ministered before Him. And so was I established in Sion, and in the holy city likewise I rested, and my power was in Jerusalem. And I took root in an honorable people, and in the portion of my God his inheritance, and my abode is in the full assembly of Saints”.
These immediately recognizable words came, eternally true, yet rarely heard: the Liturgy itself is Beautiful. By the implications, Fr. McAfee reminded us, God is, among His many perfect attributes, beauty. God is indeed beautiful! Praise Him who showers His people gifts of beauty!
In our time, the offering of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, a Mass sung completely in Latin, has become rarer occurrence, but one that was more regular in the past. Fr McAfee explained how its beauty has been present in liturgical celebration all along, throughout catholic history, and is not some reality disappeared. It is alive. We are in the very midst of it this day. The renaissance bud sprung by the words of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI now shows color! The homily proclaimed: the proof is all around us, become generously silent and still, listen observe watch open receive, God is with us, God grants life-sustaining splendors in His holy place.
In this place, coming as pilgrims from as far away as Oregon, Florida, Minnesota, with hours and years of preparation, and prayers and hopes for our Church and all intentions, where to begin to enumerate all the beauty in which the gathered became immersed. Just being at the National Shrine by itself was a touchstone of wonder and awe, glimpsing its monumentality. But down in its Crypt Church, surrounded by floor and walls and ceiling feet-thick of rock and polished stone, more immovable and weighty than can be grasped, was God’s sign, of His mighty hand and powerful protection. Being in a sacred place whose reverb took our human offering and turned it into angelic substance. What was more transfixing than solemn procession of priest and deacon, displaying patience; careful measured strides fitting to His presence and greatness? And adoring incense making mystic offering and homage in the beauty of silent rising smoke?
What could be more beautiful than hundreds of voices singing as one voice, the Gregorian Mass IX settings, with such affection and reverence? What beauty could exceed the artistic excellence of the schola and the chamber choir, summoning the labors of servants Palestrina and Byrd and anonymous monks from centuries ago? Who takes His children’s very supplications, and turns them into a blessing that returns immediately, filling us with healing raptures?
What is more beautiful? What is most beautiful? Fr. McAfee revealed ultimately: Christ alone.
Christ the center, the all, the everything. The Christ who, through years of devotion his people give Him as they are called to, has given Himself, given His merciful repair of our minds bodies and souls, and has prepared and called those to receive with open person the divine Beauty gift of this day. Who alone has made it possible for his brothers and sisters, to be overwhelmed in quiet ecstasy, in the presence of all that enveloped us - our day’s pilgrim yearning fulfilled? Christ! who perfects everything He touches. Christ in the perfect silent heart of this Eucharist, caressed ardently in attendant Gregorian love, Him that does not ever stop giving, because His nature is love and He is Love itself.
The Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass in this blessed temple, is a sign of poetic grandeur to which nothing in this world is close. It is a grandeur that is transcendent and yet intimate. The mystery of the Latin language’s radically concise syntax, is it not also a sign of the sublime? What person could want more than all these savors of heaven? But does not God the Only Poet humble us completely by showing the immensity of all of this, and yet remind His children: we little ones are still on earth!
With first the Blessed Sacrament, Fr McAfee’s panoramic homily on holy beauty was enjoined as a dove, and its wings all of the Liturgy, stretching from Introit and to Recessional, a whole - chanted prayer and silence, praising God, blessing God, thanking God, through the hands of our Mother. And the Holy Spirit, pressing firmly into the midst and speaking without words: make good, you who receive this reappearing, renewing gift of Beauty, who is Christ.
The Hand of God feeds us, heals us, filling us to overflowing with Himself, with Beauty of many orders, a mountain of beauty! deep in our city yet! but upon whose summit stands Jesus. Receiving His bestowal of beauty is but the meal, the beginning of the day. It is food for journey, food for service, beauty meant to be poured out again in new ways upon others not yet so blessed. “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”