Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Liturgical sensibility gone wild . . .

Today marked an historic event in New York City. The Super Bowl XLII champions New York Giants proceeded down the "Canyon of Heroes" (Broadway, from Battery Park to City Hall), to celebrate this exciting event with their fans. The latter did not disappoint the Giants or the City, as they turned out to the tune of about 150,000.

Those of you who know me, are aware that I am a serious NFL (American Football) aficionado. So, you will not be surprised that I was in that large crowd to witness a parade, the likes of which our city has not seen in almost a decade. Even though it's still the post-Epiphany season and I have a few more houses to bless, it did not dawn on me to consider a special "blessing" to the team and coach of the victorious New York Football Giants. I guess I was just too caught up in the excitement of the past several days, to think of extending my pastoral or liturgical ministry to the Giants' victory celebration.

As some of you may have noticed however, there was at least one colleague in the clergy who thought it appropriate to not only offer well wishes to the Giants on this celebratory day, but to create a special liturgical celebration surrounding the parade.

While our Archdiocese does not have a parish along the parade route, I certainly applaud that churches that do, for their participation in today's event. Signs of pride and welcome surely help players and fans alike to see houses of worship as places that open their doors wide open to humankind. But the Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper, rector of the famous Trinity Church (Episcopal) at Broadway and Wall St. crafted an acknowledgment of the Giants' victory that, in this writer's opinion, combined popular theater with misappropriated liturgy.

Dr. Cooper thought it appropriate to offer a special "blessing" to the crowd and team, in particular, his old friend from Jacksonville days, Giants' head coach Tom Coughlin. While thousands watched either in person, on large screen TVs planted around the area or at home on television, the good Reverend Cooper mounted a step ladder to bestow the blessing. News commentators speculated as to whether this might be an actor hired for the occasion or the real thing.

Vested in golden cope, white alb and wearing a special "Super Bowl Edition" Giants hat, Dr. Cooper swung a huge Roman-style censer to and fro, as the team passed by the church yard. Smoke billowed out profusely from the censer, as the crowd continued to cheer and shreds of newspaper, left-over 81/2 x 11s and rolls of toilet paper flew jubilantly through the air, tossed from office windows above.

I certainly don't have a problem with adapting liturgical practices to the circumstances of our modern world. Services of blessing for various occasions are to be found in our rituals. However, if I remember correctly, the liturgy, by its very function of worship and sanctification, demands to be celebrated with dignity and the use of sensibility.

To stand on the steps of one's parish church and offer well wishes and even a blessing can be a very good way to witness to the church's presence in the world. On the other hand, to confuse the aspects of divine worship with situations of a quasi-religious or para-liturgical nature, does an injustice to the dignity they are meant to impart. In so doing, the church, in my opinion, does not serve as an witness to God's all-encompassing love, but rather opens up a wide opportunity for mockery of its liturgical expression and symbolism.

Everyone who has gone to seminary and studied liturgy, knows that the cope (and technically, also the alb) are used only in the context of a formal worship service. They are not worn when offering well wishes at a parade or mingling with civic celebrities.

Perhaps even more important is the use of incense. Since biblical times, incense has been used as an offering and sacrifice of praise to God. In Christian times, incense from a censer (thurible) is used in the church building, and directed towards sacred objects and images of God and the saints. In this case, its purpose is to render a sign of reverence and veneration to the person or persons represented therein. Other faiths too employ the use of incense in their prayer and reverence for God. As much as I may love the Giants and football, I could not imagine swinging a censer in front of them, as a sign of either blessing or honor.

I'm sure Dr. Cooper's intentions were the best, in thinking up this unique blessing for the Giants. My opinion is that it would have been quite well, for him to appear in front of his infamous parish church, wearing "choir garb" (usually some form of combination of a cassock and clerical hat), and raise his hands in a gesture of blessing for the crowd. However, to incorporate practices and vestments used only for the church's sacramental rites and worship services deprives them the dignity that is due. It is not that these objects or customs are sacred and holy in and of themselves, but because they point to a deeper symbolism and dignity which are reserved to God alone, and used at those times when the church is formally gathered in corporate worship.

Well, I am glad that I had the opportunity to witness this historic day for our New York Football Giants. It's not every year or even every decade that one can be part of such an event. Giants - you have my prayers too and my gratitude - for giving all of your dedicated fans a fantastic season. And yes, you have my blessing, that God allow you to continue to use your talents and resources, not only for the purpose of entertainment, but also for the host of charitable works accomplished by many a professional football player.

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