Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated with the liturgies of the Church. This was especially true on the major feast days. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I always insisted on trying to attend the “high masses” on days like Christmas and Easter. In those days, that meant the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Midnight Mass at my childhood parish actually started at midnight in those days. Factor in the late arrival and the childlike desire to spring out of bed early on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought, and you can understand why my parents preferred the earlier service. Fortunately for parents of young children, the liturgy that was once called Midnight Mass is now often celebrated at a much earlier hour. Except for the start time, the liturgy is the same.
I loved the extra pageantry of the “high masses.” I loved that the high masses featured bells and incense and extra musical instruments. I loved that people dressed up a bit more than they did for regular Sunday services. I loved that the vestments the clergy wore were more elaborate than they were on most Sundays. I loved that the sanctuary was full. There was so much about a high mass that spoke to me, even as a child. Today I am honored to be able to preside at the Eucharist as a priest, and I still especially love presiding at high masses.
The late service on Christmas Eve will mark the third time we’ve celebrated a high mass together since I’ve been here as your Rector. We had a high mass on Maundy Thursday when we celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, and we had a high mass on Holy Saturday for the Great Vigil of Easter. When we celebrate a high mass, we always make sure you know in advance. While it’s true that this is for the sake of disclosure so that you may plan to attend a different service if you wish to avoid the high mass, it is more importantly so that you can make an informed plan to attend!
You might be asking yourself, why would I want to attend a high mass? The answer is that high masses are special. We’ve talked a lot about the word liturgy coming from a Greek word that means “work of the people.” In a high mass, the people really go to work! There are extra ministers involved in the service. There are extra elements put into motion. Everyone has a role in the liturgy, and in a high liturgy, everything is elevated. While some churches celebrate “solemn high mass” every Sunday or even every day, there’s something to be said for leaving the celebration to special feast days.
Worship is a multi-sensory experience. Think about the last time you entered a church and could smell incense. Chances are good that you noticed right away. Your sense of smell triggers memories better than any other sense. When we smell incense (most churches do use real frankincense by the way), we know we’re in church. We know it’s a special day. Think about the visual of the color of the vestments, the light shining in through the stained glass windows, the deep redness of the poinsettias, the flickering flame atop the candles. All of these are visual cues that tell us it’s time to worship. Think of the texture of the wax of the candles, the book in your hand, the feel of the bread in your hand and between your fingers. This stimulates your sense of touch. If you look closely, you’ll notice the Gospel book has a texture to it, too. Would you like to touch the Gospel book to find out? Let me know and we’ll make it happen! You hear the preaching, the chanting, the ringing of the bells, and the lessons. You also hear the music, and I hope you sing along! To round out your multi-sensory experience, you taste the bread and the wine during communion. When we attend a high liturgy, we stimulate all of our senses as we praise God.
Now you might be asking, “Father Tim, what if I’m allergic to incense?” The answer to this question is that very few people are. Do you see a lit thurible (that thing at the end of a chain that emits incense smoke) and immediately start coughing? If you do, this could be psychological. I know this because I once used dry ice in a thurible and people started coughing as soon as they saw the “smoke.” It wasn’t actually smoke, but carbon dioxide gas that is present in the air all the time! Another reason might also be that your lungs are irritated because of the burning of the charcoal used to light the incense. Finally, it could be that the incense being burned is not of a high quality. Some manufacturers of incense “cut” their incense with impurities like sawdust to make them bulkier. Pure frankincense burns very smoothly and its smoke does not generally cause adverse reactions. As for the burning charcoal? Well, that’s a different story. When it comes to incense, I always try to burn “the good stuff” for two reasons. It causes less irritation and it smells better. The smoke from the thurible rises upward, and we say the smoke represents our prayers rising up toward God.
If you prefer a simpler service, then that is perfectly well and good. We have three distinct liturgies from which to choose this Christmas and I want you to worship in a way that is meaningful for you. If attending the children’s liturgy is of importance to you, then the earlier service is the one you should attend. If you like to wake up on Christmas Day and head to church, then come to the 10 a.m. service. I will be present at all three services and I appreciate them in different ways.
Whenever it happens to be, the next time you attend worship, pay attention to your senses. How does what you’re sensing affect your worship? Do you pay attention to the taste of the communion bread and wine? Does that help enhance your experience of receiving communion? Do you prefer traditional beeswax candles to the more modern candles that burn kerosene? Do you prefer the kerosene variety because they never seem to burn out? Do you appreciate the feel of a book in your hand, even though you are able to read the same prayers on a piece of paper or on a screen? Do you appreciate the feel of a firm handshake or a hug during the passing of the peace? All of these are examples of how you are putting your senses to work during the liturgy. The liturgy, when done well, enhances our prayer life and helps us to feel closer to God. While I am certainly not always the most formal person around, I am a proponent of doing what we can to enhance our relationship with God. To this day I love liturgy. And although I can sometimes be playful with my liturgics, I believe it is something we ought to do well. For me, the high mass is my favorite expression of doing liturgy well.