Liturgies of the Church: To Everything There is a Time

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Particular moments and in life are too grand to be captured completely by anything new or original. While we may feel that nobody has ever experienced our depth of joy or sadness or love, we find our personal attempts fail to properly convey our intense emotions. In times such as these, we can turn to the liturgies of the Church to gesture to the great significance we internally experience. Although the rituals of the Church might strike us as unimaginative or trite, with the correct frame of mind, we might discover that tradition carries a weight of significance that the novel does not.

There Is a Time For Everything

At the birth of a child, the Catholic Church offers the beauty of the baptismal liturgy. In the times when we have turned from God, the gift of Confession and Reconciliation reunites us with our Creator. When our love seeks to make itself definitive and exclusive, the nuptial liturgy forges bonds unable to be broken by human beings. In the grief of a loved one’s death, we turn to the funeral rites to console our hearts and to commend the faithful departed to eternal life. As every day and each week passes, insignificant and routine as they may seem, we mark the passing of time with the memorial sacrifice of Jesus Christ at the Eucharistic table. These varied moments reveal important rituals within our lives, ones that we know are set apart and yet with which we struggle to capture the significance.

My friend Katie says that some things are cliche because they are true. The phrases we choose to express the movements of our heart appear overused, but perhaps that is because they are the perfect way to say what we want. Our language is limited when it tries to manifest what is experienced in the secret of the heart. Instead of new and inventive phrases, we find that we use the same old words. It doesn’t make these moments matter less, it simply shows that human hearts move in similar ways. I wouldn’t describe the liturgies of the Church as cliche, but I would argue that our common emotions can be bound together through common expression in her liturgies.

“A time to be born and a time to die…”

A couple weeks ago, I sat in my hometown parish church at the wake for a family friend. It was a death that came far too soon, leaving behind young children still in middle school. The grief was evident and the circumstances were difficult. Several decisions had been made in the few days since this mother had died, but I couldn’t help but consider how the liturgy of the Church took care of a substantial amount of the decisions. The family was not required to make an original service that honored their mother. In the midst of grief, they did not need to creatively design prayers that expressed their hope in the midst of suffering. Instead, they could turn to the Church and use the words that had been prayed for years in similar situations.

Families choose the readings for the funeral liturgy and connect the Living Word of God with the life of their loved one. I’ve read the passage from Wisdom 3 for at least three funerals over the past few years. Now when I hear it, I cannot help but recall the lives of my deceased family members. This connection between Scripture and the lives of our family members is also spoken of in the Order of Christian Funerals.

At the funeral rites, especially at the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice, the Christian community affirms and expresses the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints.

The Church mourns the loss of our friends and family members, avoiding the desire to dismiss intense sorrow in preference of a celebratory attitude. Yet the Church keeps at the forefront of her mind the truth that our earthly death means a birth into everlasting life. I am often surprised how many times our baptism is referenced in funeral liturgies.  However, it makes sense since our hope for resurrection rests in the reality of our being sealed with the cross at baptism.

A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing…”

The beginning of January found me battling the northeast Winter Storm Grayson and losing.  A dear friend from college was getting married but cancelled flights and several inches of snow prevented me from being there.  As I spent thirteen hours in the airport, I considered the great event that I would be missing.  I’ve been to many weddings, so I know the structure, yet there is something uniquely beautiful about each wedding that is rooted in our Catholic faith.

While there is a desire to make the nuptial Mass original and reflecting the preferences of the couple, the vows they exchange remain the same.  The Church does not encourage us to write our own vows because we aren’t promising whatever we want in a marriage.  Rather, we are promising what the Church means and intends by marriage.  Even as movies portray touching moments where the couple expresses in their own words unique vows, the Church instead commits us to vows centered on a free, total, faithful, and fruitful union.  We are entering into something that is beyond us and which is not determined by our personalities or individual hopes for the union.  By proclaiming the same vows, we recognize that marriage is more than two people in love, but it is a mirror of the love that Christ shares with the Church.  As such, our vows must reflect that union, even if we desire innovative language or poetic descriptions of our individual journey.

O God, who consecrated the bond of Marriage
by so great a mystery
that in the wedding covenant you foreshadowed
the Sacrament of Christ and his Church…
(Nuptial Blessing)

A few years ago, I heard the Nuptial Blessing at a wedding and it struck my heart as if I had never heard it before.  This is now one of my favorite parts of the nuptial Mass as it reveals the covenant the couple is entering into with all its beauty and gravity.  It acknowledges the sacrifice involved and the grace needed while also calling to mind the gift of such a love experienced by the couple.  In particular, it reminds us that marriage is meant to be a reflection of Christ’s love for the Church that endures beyond death.

“He has made everything appropriate in its time.”

In the beauty of the Church, we find the appropriate liturgies for the monumental moments of our lives.  When what we experience goes beyond mere earthly significance, we are able to turn to the Church to give a heavenly perspective.  In times of joy and in times of sorrow, the words of the various liturgies mark the way that God has fully entered into time and dwells in the midst of humanity.  Every time in our life is not important for the individual alone, but rather they impact the entire Body of Christ, the Church on earth as well as the Church in Purgatory and Heaven.  For the moments that transform our lives, the liturgies of the Church are present to grant a sense of timelessness to them.