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Slow Down the Liturgy
Some of you might remember these lines from a popular song by Simon and Garfunkel: ”Slow down, you’re moving too fast, got to make the moment last.” Perhaps these words offer the key to improving our experience of liturgy in many parishes.
Our consumer-driven, time-conscious culture has come to influence the way we worship. People shop around for the shortest Mass in their area. I have heard a priest boast that he can do a Sunday Mass in 35 minutes. Personally, I would consider 35 minutes of barrelling through the liturgy with no time to absorb and integrate it to be a waste of time, whereas 65 minutes of meaningful worship which offered a sense of the sacred and opportunity for reflection would be time well spent. It is not enough for us just to have heard the liturgy; we need to appropriate and interiorise it as well.
Our liturgical celebrations for the most part are far too short. Liturgy needs time to deliver its riches. Many of our Masses and other forms of worship do not provide enough time or space to enter into the event. Anyone who has ever experienced liturgy in the Orthodox Church will know that the attitude to time sent in worship in that tradition is quite different from our own. Their ‘Hymn of the Cherubim’ invites those who participate in the liturgy to ‘leave all worldly cares behind’. I once attended the Ordination of a Priest in the Greek Orthodox Church that lasted nearly 4 hours, and not one person complained!
Our liturgical celebrations seem rushed because the opportunities provided in the rituals for times of silence are not being used. For example, the invitation ”Let us pray,” is rarely followed by a true time of silence in which the assembly can in fact pray. It is more common for the presider to quickly leaf through the sacramentary and launch into the opening prayer. It is a pleasant change when the priest models for the community a moment of real prayer with body still, hands together and head bowed before reading the ‘collect’ which closes, rather than fully occupies, this time of communal prayer.
Readers and cantors also need to observe a generous time of silence between the scripture readings. They too can model how to use the silence with body still and head bowed. There is nothing worse than musicians sitting in full view of the assembly who use these times of silence to find the next piece of music or pass on instructions!
We need silence in liturgy in order to absorb its beauty, to give ourselves the opportunity of being present to God and to sense God’s presence to us. Although our culture might march on with scarcely a spare moment to stop and reflect, liturgy calls us to a higher form of living. Lack of silence turns worship into an unstoppable, succession of words that leaves no time to absorb what is being said. I suggest that this is one of the main reasons that liturgy has become incomprehensible and meaningless to very many people.