Liturgy in Times of Tragedy

I am writing this column the day after the dreadful terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, feeling numb and shocked like everyone else by the terrible events of the past 24 hours. It’s difficult to put those horrific scenes of death and destruction out of my mind while I write about liturgy.

But the two are not mutually exclusive. Liturgy does have a role to play in the lives of people who are attempting to deal with unimaginable horror. In places all around the world, one of the first responses of many people to the tragic news has been to gather for prayer. Obviously private prayer is vital, but to worship with others in times of need gives us added strength through sharing grief, faith and hope. Scripture reassures us that whenever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name he is present. The presence of Christ and others around us can help to overcome feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.

Our liturgical tradition offers a way to pray at times like this. When minds are numb and thoughts elsewhere, the familiar patterns of prayer and ritual mean that we can still participate fully in the liturgy. When we cannot find words to express our feelings, the litanies and psalms and hymns that we know so well give voice to our thoughts. When creativity has vanished, our ritual books provide a rich source of prayers, readings and rituals for worship.

The psalms encompass every gamut of human emotion. There are psalms of lament such as Ps 74 “Why, God? Why always cast us off?”, Ps 83 “God, do not be deaf, do not be still, do not be mute” and Ps 94 “How long, God, how long will the wicked strut around?” Other psalms speak of consolation and hope: Ps 96 “God will cover you like a nesting bird, God’s wings will shelter you”, Ps 34 “The good endure great trials, but God comes to their rescue”, and of course the well-known Ps 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd”.

Volume III of the Lectionary for Mass offers scripture readings for a great variety of special needs and occasions. Passages which would be applicable to the current situation are given under the headings “For the Nation, State or city”, “For Peace and Justice” and “In Time of War or Civil Disturbance”.

In the Sacramentary (the book of prayers for Mass) there are prayers for these same circumstances in the section entitled “Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions”. Even if the liturgy being celebrated is not Mass, these prayers, particularly the opening prayers and blessings, are appropriate.

The second Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation uses words that are so apt at times like this:
‘Father, in the midst of conflict and division
we know it is you who turns our minds to thoughts of peace.
Your Spirit is at work
when understanding puts an end to strife,
when hatred is quenched by mercy,
and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.”

Our regular participation in the liturgy of the Church rehearses us for times of shock and grief. Through words, gestures and music we enter into communion with one another and are led as one into the presence of God. Such a communion changes us: it empowers us and sends us forth from the liturgical assembly to be agents of hope, healing and peace.

Elizabeth Harrington