Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Eve

I attended an Episcopalian service on Christmas Eve because a flutist friend of ours was performing there. It was... interesting.

In accord with the Episcopal tradition, which is very strong on good music, the music director at this church is very committed to playing and singing the classics. We had Vivaldi, Sammartini (I think), and Handel. Not terribly well done, except for the flute sonata by our friend and her husband (on harpsichord). The choir is just not big enough, nor does it have enough strong singers, to tackle the kind of repertoire the music director picked. But at least they were trying. That's more than you can say about many Catholic churches.

Despite this, there was something very noticeably missing from the service, that's present at even the humblest Catholic Mass when reverently celebrated: a sense of awe and wonder at the presence of God.

Which, I suppose, isn't too surprising. When you've dumped the belief in the Real Presence, all you have left is that kind of presence Christ promised when he said, "Wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, there am I also." That's a very good thing, of course, but it's just not the same as having Him physically in the room with you. Perhaps it's a little like the difference between (1) chatting with someone on the phone and (2) talking with them face to face. The first is nice, and may be perfectly satisfying for the more philosophically advanced, but the second is what most of us mere humans would prefer if we can get it.

In this case, we were also stuck with a kind of entertainment, one that We Must Get On With. There was the minister's bumptious "let me tell you about the interesting things that happened to me" sermon, and the jaunty remarks he tossed in here and there. But the real prize came at the Sanctus, when the music director found that the organ stops had stuck on the previous settings, which were loud and trumpety, not the softer ones he wanted. In the few seconds' pause that ensued, the minister turned to the congregation and said, "Well, let's go on," and then launched into his Eucharistic Prayer. He skipped the Sanctus completely! Couldn't we have just have... spoken it? Guess not.

The Episcopalians have traditionally had great gifts for music and the English language -- the renderings of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, not to mention the gorgeous 1928 version on which the later one is based, beats the wretched Catholic ICEL translations of the 1970's, hands down).

But for all the beauty they can produce with those gifts, I'm convinced that the kindest thing one can possibly do is to try, gently but persistently, to draw them back to where they can find the Real Presence; and the road to that destination runs through Rome.