A "Solemn" Liturgy is Not a Somber Liturgy
By Oswald Sobrino
APRIL 10, 2009 (www.catholicexchange.com) - We often hear the ambiguous assertion that the liturgy should be solemn and that people are looking for a solemn liturgy. In English, the word "solemn" has at least two senses with which I am familiar: 1) serious, as opposed to frivolous; and 2) somber or gloomy, as opposed to joyful. Everything I know about Catholic Christianity tells me that the first sense is the Catholic sense: the Mass should be solemn in the sense that it's very serious and not frivolous. On the other hand, the Mass should not be "solemn" in the narrower sense of being either somber or gloomy, as opposed to joyful. The command in the Holy Scriptures — the voice of God — is plain: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice" (Galatians 4:4, ESV).
Some will immediately think that Lent is an obvious exception to this biblical command. I disagree. In Lent, we are preparing for the Resurrection; we are getting ready to come to the empty tomb of hope. We are seeking and receiving the healing we need to celebrate the Resurrection. Even on Ash Wednesday, we are told to repent and believe the Good News. It's like a bride getting ready for her wedding day: she is rejoicing at what she knows will be coming soon, even if it means a lot of hard work and planning and gladly sacrificing much of her former way of life and habits.
To be serious about something does not require a somber or gloomy manner. The most passionately authentic lover is extremely serious about her beloved, for true love is not at all frivolous — yet, she passionately rejoices in his very existence at all times. We see it in the Song of Songs where the bride rejoices to search earnestly for her beloved. Once she finds him, the rejoicing is even greater; but the rejoicing was there all along (see Song of Solomon 3:1-5). Likewise, in Lent, we are always rejoicing as we look forward to finding the risen Bridegroom. When we find him at Easter, the rejoicing is, as is to be expected, distinctively exuberant in its expressiveness. The same pattern occurs in Advent: we rejoice in anticipation and express that always present joy with even greater and distinctive exuberance on the Nativity itself.
In my view, it is a mistake to view the quest for solemn Masses as a prescription for grave and somber ceremonial. The quest for solemn Masses is a quest for seriousness and sobriety, not for the somber. The opposite of a solemn liturgy is a frivolous liturgy, not a joyful liturgy. In fact, one dictionary of ecclesiastical Latin defines "solemnis" as festive. This definition matches our liturgical usage: Christmas is a solemnity, so is Easter. The old Catholic Encyclopedia refers to the great feast of rejoicing, Easter, as the "solemnity of solemnities" and traces the origins of the word "solemnity" to the Latin meaning a yearly celebration — no somber gloom involved here.
The liturgy of Good Friday is the one place where we find an especially somber aspect in our liturgy; but note that this day is a day on which there is no Eucharist, no Mass, celebrated. Good Friday is the exception that proves the general rule of rejoicing always in the Mass. Where the Eucharist is celebrated, there is always rejoicing. Yet, even on Good Friday, we quietly anticipate the joy of the empty tomb. We know that the Eucharist is coming back very soon. In addition, even on Good Friday, we receive Holy Communion — we make contact with the living Lord and thus have even on that day a cause for rejoicing because he is alive and really present with us and comes to us, even on Good Friday.
If Good Friday was meant to be only and merely somber, then the Eucharist would not be distributed to the faithful on that day. Then comes the quiet of Holy Saturday on which no liturgy of any kind is celebrated at all in anticipation of the rejoicing of the Easter Vigil. Why no liturgy at all on Holy Saturday? In my view, it is because where there is liturgy, there is always rejoicing of some kind and degree. On Holy Saturday, such rejoicing would be premature because of the fast-approaching Easter Vigil on that very evening.
Thus, we see that the Catholic way is a path of continual rejoicing — even, if we look deeper, on Good Friday — because we solemnly and seriously believe that the God who became flesh and died for each of us did indeed rise from the dead and is still present, continually pouring out new life and new healing on those who call on His name. Leave the merely somber for those who have no reason to rejoice. Let us, instead, solemnly, that is, seriously, rejoice always.
Oswald Sobrino, J.D., M.A., is a lay graduate student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His writings have appeared in New Blackfriars (U.K.), Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Answer, New Oxford Review, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly.