De profundis

Originally published on Maggie’s Farm.

Psalm 130, called De Profundis, is chanted after Holy Thursday Mass while the altar is stripped bare:

“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.
My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”

I rarely write about my faith. It is, to me, an intensely personal realm of my life I am uncomfortable sharing. As Holy Week is upon us, however, it is time to break that silence.

We often hear that Christianity in the U.S. is at a crossroads, but I believe that we came to the junction 20-30 years ago, and some stayed the course, while others did not. I am no fan of ecuminism, at least as it usually exists, which requires that we turn off the road to Gethsemane so as to make others more comfortable, or welcome them into our fold without asking that they believe. I do pray for reconciliation, and I believe that the body of Christ on earth is wounded. I am a traditional, conservative Roman Catholic, but I am not a denominationalist. I do not see how criticizing others for their faith can be productive, either to my salvation, or to the Church.

As I said, I believe we have come to the crossroads and chosen whether to remain on the path or leave it. I refer not to Catholics and Protestants, but orthodox Christians — which encompass Roman Catholicism, Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, some of the Protestant traditions, and the LDS — and heterodox groups — which encompass the Anglican Communion and most mainline Protestant traditions. Each took their own path, one toward Christ, and the other, away. I do not condemn the heterodox groups, but I also do not take them seriously, nor do I consider them Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. And it is not by my judgment that I do not consider them Christian, but their own disavowal of Christianity.

I see little point in mourning their departure. They did so of their own free will, knowing exactly what they were doing. I feel for the Christians like my sister-in-law who have always been affiliated with one of these groups (she’s a lifelong Methodist) and have not found the courage or will to leave. But I ignore the bodies, their statements, and agendas.

I said above that I pray for reconciliation, but I do not hope for it within my lifetime. I am content to worship, and let other Christians worship as they will. We are all children of God, and Christ died for us all. I bear no ill will to evangelicals, even those who believe that I drink baby’s blood at Mass every Sunday.

I have been seeing healing over the years. I have a colleague who is a conservative Southern Baptist. He and I were talking some ten years ago when he told me he was going to Ash Wednesday services at his church. I found this a bit jarring: Ash Wednesday services at a Southern Baptist church? I said so, tactfully, of course, and we had a long, productive discussion, first about how his church was reaching back into the past and rediscovering the liturgical year, then the importance of the liturgical year in a Christian life. Since then, I have seen quite a few similar instances of Protestants from what we usually think of as the far opposite side of the spectrum from Catholicism rediscovering and celebrating the ancient rites of the Church, often during Lent.

One can easily be a Sunday Catholic, just as one can easily be a Sunday Presbyterian, and do no more than attend Mass on Sundays. Many do, and often migrate to parishes that cater to their kind, with clergy and laity that expect little. Those of us who feel their faith more poignantly, and more frequently than just on Sunday mornings, migrate to less feminized, more masculine parishes, where priests and laity expect a great deal more than weekly attendance. We expect more from each other because being a practicing traditional Catholic is a difficult faith that requires the most of us, even though we usually fall short. We keep ancient fasts, even though the Church no longer requires it of us. We read and pray the monastic hours daily, even though we are not ascetes. We do everything to keep our faith in the foreground of our lives every day. We pray that we may be better Christians and find stronger faith. And we look upon our brothers and sisters, Christian and non-Christian, with charity.

We are human, and so, we do not achieve the goas we set for ourselves. But without striving toward those goals, we believe we can no longer call ourselves Christians.

Central to our lives as Christians is the liturgical year. We anticipate the birth of Christ during Advent, and celebrate that birth on Christmas. During Lent, we contemplate the central mystery of Christianity, that God sent his Son to die for us that we may be resurrected to eternal life as He was. And while Advent is a sacred time, to Catholics, Lent is the most sacred, solemn part of the year because of that central mystery.

We celebrate that mystery at every Mass, but Lent calls us to make that mystery the center of our contemplation. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we are reminded of our mortality, that we will die, as did Christ upon the cross. And Ash Wednesday leads to Holy Week, as our lives must lead to death and resurrection. During Lent, vestments are the purple of forgiveness and the passion, and the Alleluia is left out of the Mass.
In the West, asceticism gradually became isolate from the rest of the Church, while in the East, asceticism remained the core of the life of the Church. Over the last ten years, we Catholics have also rediscovered ancient rites kept alive in monasteries, priories, and convents, and have reincorporated them into the life of the laity.

Holy Thursday is the feast of the first eucharist, and except for Easter, is the most solemn Mass of the year. The bishop or priest washes the feet of deacons, and in many parishes, thanks to our reincorporation of ascetic traditions, the deacons in turn wash the feet of others in the congregation. After the Mass has ended, the De Profundis is chanted or sung while the altar is stripped bare, as it will remain until Easter, and the remaining blessed eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle. From the end of Mass on Holy Thursday until Easter, there is no organ music, and there is no consecration of the eucharist.

On Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday, depending on the parish (monasteries perform it on all three days), many parishes now perform one of the most ancient rites of Christianity, that comes down to us, mentioned first in 5th century texts, but then called ancient, the Tenebrae. The Tenebrae is usually in the evening (as is customary in monasteries), but many parishes is during the morning.

Upon the bare altar is an inverted triangle of candles, with the Christ candle at the peak. A cycle of Psalms and antiphonal prayers are chanted, and after each one is chanted, one of the candles is extinguished. When all but the Christ candle have been extingushed, the Christ candle is taken out of the sanctuary, and there is a loud sound, representing the death of our Savior, the earthquake, and the rending of the temple veil. The Christ candle is brought back into the sancutary and placed upon the altar, and we leave in silence.

The symbolism is clear. The power of the Tenebrae, however, can only be experienced. Tenebrae leaves me shaken, and weak, and awed.

From noon until 3 o’clock on Good Friday is the passion service, which revolves around the seven last words. After the passion service is the Good Friday eucharist — not a Mass, because there is no consecration — using the reserved eucharist from Holy Thursday Mass. At the end of the Good Friday eucharist, we kiss the feet of the crucifix, and silently leave the church. The evening of Good Friday is the celebration of the stations of the cross. We walk along Christ’s path to the crucifixion, praying and meditating upon his torture, death, and resurrection.

Holy Week for us is a time of great sorrow that ends in great celebration, and the contemplation of that central mystery for all Christians. It is a time of great solemnity which strips us bare to our most mortal, most human selves so we may focus on how much God truly loves us.

I’ve often heard it said by Protestants that we use the crucifix because we focus on the death, but they use the bare cross because they focus on the resurrection. This is wholly untrue. Every Sunday Mass is a celebration and commemoration of the death and resurrection of Our Lord. We use the crucifix because without the death of Christ, the resurrection has no meaning. The crucifix reminds us not only of the death of Christ, but our own mortality. We use the crucifix because it makes the glorious resurrection of Christ that much more poignant.

Easter Mass is the most joyous, and most sacred, rite of the Church. Many parishes adopt the most ancient custom of beginning the Easter Mass shortly before midnight, chanting as we carry lit candles around the church three times to commemorate the women who waited outside the sarcophogus, before entering the church. The priest proclaims, “Christ is risen!” and we respond, “Indeed, He is risen!” and the Mass begins. The sorrow of Holy Week is thrown off, but never forgotten, and again, we have the celebratory organ and Alleluia during Mass. Easter Mass is a joyous celebration of the triumph of life over death.

Easter is the culmnation of the contemplation of Lent, the celebration of why Christ was born, and why we are Christians. It is not merely a Holy Day. It is the fulcrum of the liturgical year, the reason we are Christians. Holy Week — the Easter Triduum — are the liturgical celebration of St. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

I once knew a man from Saudi Arabia, a Muslim, who was curious about Christianity. We had many long talks, and he had many talks with other Christians. I invited him to come to Holy Week services with us, and he accepted. The first time I saw him quietly crying was during the passion service on Good Friday; the second time was just before Easter Mass began, when we held up our candles and sang, “Christ is risen!” He told me afterward that he had never felt such power, and had never been so moved. I found out some months later that he had converted.

Christ is among us always. We only need to open our hearts to Him.

May you have a very blessed Easter!

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