Good News That Stays News

I am enjoying – indirectly, wholly unmerited, by virtue of marriage to an Eastern Rite Catholic – an Easter reset, indeed a second Easter, this week. Some Eastern Catholic churches follow the Orthodox calendar and celebrated Easter yesterday and Easter Monday today. The reasons for the disparate dates are complex, but historically fascinating: first (early fourth century), involving different reactions to how Jewish authorities, in diaspora after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, re-calculated Passover; and only later, East-West factors.

It’s unlikely that the two main branches of Christianity will ever agree on a common date. And providentially, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The soaring Eastern liturgies, which rise to a high pitch in this season, coming so soon after our Easter, make about clear as anything could how pallid Masses have become in the West, despite Pope Benedict’s reforms. And maybe the contrast suggests one of the main reasons why Western Christianity itself has come to seem colorless and insubstantial.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (worth rereading), aimed at greater lay participation in the Mass – a good thing, if it had been done properly. But it was bungled. It didn’t raise the people to a higher level (which the document, in several places, clearly intended and seemed possible given greater educational opportunities by the 1960s). Instead, it lowered the level of the celebration until it became mostly just religious talk.

A lot of words are sung, chanted, spoken in the Eastern liturgies, but you’d have to be tone deaf to think it mere prosaic talk about God. In these liturgies, there’s broad lay participation, but also a palpable lifting up of the spirit above the everyday to something that is both of the people and timeless. Thereby, perhaps, hangs a lesson.

Ezra Pound once remarked that poetry is “news that stays news.” Not all poetry, to be sure, but great poetry. Charles Péguy put it concretely, “Homer is new, this morning, and nothing perhaps is as old as today’s newspaper.” An important truth, and not only about poetry.

I cringe sometimes when I hear Western priests and bishops talk about the Good News. The usual way it’s done makes the Gospel seem just another piece of information. And the more they labor to make it seem special – even worse, relevant – the more the Good News sounds like very old news. Faith must come by hearing. But there are also other, shrewder ways to convey it.

Most active Catholics today sense the loss of mystery in the liturgy, but that reflects the prior loss of poetry in the words and loss of the kind of music that every good religious ceremony – Christian and not – employs to take us into a different realm, a place where we encounter the really real, the Good News that stays news.

I saw that this weekend at a Ukrainian church listening to the people singing the Easter Tropar, one of the most beautiful hymns of the season:

Christ is Risen from the Dead, trampling death by death.

And on those in the Tombs giving Life!

Ukrainian Orthodox worshipers gather outside a church before an Easter service.
Ukrainian Orthodox worshipers gather outside a church before an Easter service.

As they tend to do in the East, this gets sung multiple, multiple multiples of times during Mass, in a kind of communal incantation that doesn’t just repeat an idea, but carries the people back, again and again, to the thing itself. The melody suggests something that came long ago, from afar, and along the way gathered to itself high soprano and plunging basso parts.

As well as abrupt turnarounds, reprises, crescendos, diminuendos, the kinds of things good musicians know create an emotional response. It’s a common complaint among us that religion has become mere feeling for many people these days. The solution is not to discount emotion, as if bare theological propositions are the only Christian reality, but to inspire and guide emotion into more authentic channels. Tried and true methods already exist.

The Ukrainian choir, locals with no soloist ringers, manage rich, uplifting music – familiar to them all – without strain. The congregation sings too, in a vernacular understandable to any average Ukrainian speaker. And in one or other of the four vocal parts. It’s almost like someone, somewhere, studied Sacrosanctum Concilium and took its more ambitious side to heart – before the fact. Imagine: A Christian people who can handle far more than primitive liturgical demands. And without benefit of liturgists.

The American novelist Walker Percy brilliantly described in an essay “The Message in the Bottle” how we are all like castaways on a desert island. We can do many things: study science, marry, raise a family, run for political office, create a business, contribute to the community. But there’s another set of questions that cannot be answered by island news, only by a piece of “news” from across the sea.

News in this sense has to tell of another realm, to correspond exactly to a different set of questions: where do we really come from, why are we all here, what can we expect in the future (a future life)? Explicit teaching gives us part of what we need, but quickly meets intellectual resistance in our time. Rich liturgies at their best speak to the various, unsuspected, deeper parts of our being.

If we aren’t simply going to be carried away on the wave of news about what happens – much of it disastrous: plane crashes; slaughters of Christians and others in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria; millions displaced from their various homelands; globally, who knows how many kidnapped, trafficked, sold into slavery or prostitution. Or if we want more than to be stuck in our everyday concerns, we have to be anchored somewhere else, where there’s better news, Good News, that stays news. No matter what.

I don’t expect to see it happen on any large scale in my lifetime, but another go at liturgical reform might do a lot to provide that anchor and right a disoriented world.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.