As I write this, we are two days away from Opening Day. If you are a baseball fan, you immediately know that by “Opening Day,” I mean the day regular season Major League Baseball begins — usually during the first week in April. Last year, my team finished near the bottom of the MLB standings. This year, they are predicted to do even worse. But every single fan, me included, is hoping for a miracle. On Opening Day, everything is still possible.
Liturgy is both timeless and episodic
We have been talking about the ways in which liturgy is a story. Baseball is also a story. Every game has a beginning, a climax, and an end. And like liturgy, the story structure — the plot — is the same every time a game is played. But also like liturgy, each game is unique. We never know exactly what is going to happen until it happens.
Liturgy and baseball share another characteristic of storytelling. They are both episodic. An “episode” is an event that is part of a larger sequence. Each baseball game is a single episode in a larger story. No single game tells the whole story. You have to progress through the season — from Opening Day until the final game of the World Series — to know how to story ends.No single liturgy tells the whole story. Sunday Mass on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time only makes sense based on what happened on all the previous Sundays of the season or liturgical year. Click To Tweet
Likewise, no single liturgy tells the whole story. Sunday Mass on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time only makes sense based on what happened on all the previous Sundays of the season or liturgical year. And the celebration on the 21st Sunday sets the stage for the story we will tell on the 22nd Sunday and all the following Sundays of the year.
Liturgy and baseball are, of course, telling different stories and therefore the plots are different. In the liturgy, we don’t have opposing teams and playoffs. But we do have a contest between good and evil. In baseball, the hometown team is “good” and the opposing team is “evil.” And we never know who is going to win. But in the liturgy, we know that good always wins. Even so, there is still an element of suspense, both within a single “episode” or Sunday and also over the entire liturgical year.
The importance of compelling storytelling
To better understand how suspense happens in stories that have been told many times, look at this passage from humorist Garrison Keillor:
In Uncle Lew’s story, a house burned down on a cold winter night and the little children inside ran barefoot into the snow of 1906—some were pitched out the bedroom window by their father—and all were safe. But although I heard the story dozens of times, whenever he told it again I was never sure they’d all get out. And since these children grew up to be my ancestors, I had an interest in their survival. (Leaving Home, 220–221)
So even when we know the outcome of the story, if it is told well, it is still compelling and even thrilling.
The episodic nature of liturgy differs from baseball in another way. In baseball, the climax of the year comes at the end of the larger story when the top teams play in the World Series. In the liturgy, the climax of the year comes in the middle when we celebrate the Triduum.
In order to tell the story of the liturgy effectively, liturgy planners, musicians, and homilists need to imagine that all the episodes previous to the Triduum are, week by week, preparing us to celebrate the Triduum. That means, for example, that the Sundays of Advent are as much about preparing for Triduum as they are for Christmas.
In addition, all the liturgies following the Triduum are the ongoing story of how we live out what happened to us at that climactic event.
One more level of suspense
And even though we know the end of the story when we get to the celebration of Christ the King Sunday at the end the year, there is an additional level of suspense. What we don’t know, until we get to that final Sunday, is how we have — as a parish — become more like Christ in this past liturgical year. In what way have we become more effective agents of change, converting the world more fully to unity with the Father? In what way have we changed our parish into a “field hospital,” going out to those most in need of God’s healing love?
When we start the new liturgical year on the First Sunday of Advent, it is our Opening Day. We get a fresh start. As liturgy planners, musicians, and homilists, our challenge is to make every Sunday — every “episode” — an opportunity to conform our communities closer to Christ so as to fulfill the gospel mission.
If we can imagine that, then everything is possible. Every single one of our parishioners will be actively hoping for a miracle.