Have you ever been to a liturgy where everything was going fine, but something didn’t feel quite right? The liturgical ministers were competent, the music sung well, even the preaching was pretty good. Everyone did his or her part, and yet, something still felt off.
The problem here is typically a lack of liturgical flow.
Liturgical flow is difficult to define because you’re not supposed to notice it when it’s there, but you certainly know when it’s not. When liturgical flow is missing, each part of the liturgy feels disjointed from the rest. This happens when each liturgical minister does his or her part of the liturgy but doesn’t pay attention to how their part fits with, affects, or flows from and into the other parts.
It’s a lot like watching a play put on by amateur actors. Each actor might get their lines right and hit their mark, but you can tell that they are simply waiting for their turn to “be on.” There’s no sense that all the actors are working together, playing off of one another, adjusting to the mood of the audience and the moment, and using the natural flow of the scenes to communicate the story in a compelling way. The audience gets distracted by secondary things—scenery, costumes, flubs, their program, their cell phone, the squirmy child a few rows down—and they never get caught up in the story. They end up observing the play instead of entering into it.
The liturgy helps us tell a story
The liturgy is not a play, but through it we do tell a story. It is the story of our salvation in Christ. When a liturgy feels off, it may be that those who have prepared it are not working as well as they can together to tell the story.
To attend to liturgical flow, presiders, musicians, and liturgists will want to know three fundamental things about the liturgy and prepare each liturgical element with these in mind:
- What is the climax of the liturgy?
- What is the purpose of each part of the liturgy?
- What is the rhythm and pace of the liturgy?
In this post, we’ll look at the climax of the liturgy. In following posts, we will cover the purpose of each part of the liturgy and the rhythm and pace of the liturgy.
Know the climax of the liturgy
Every good story has a climax, a turning point that changes everything. When it happens, we gain a new perspective that reorients us to see the entire story in a deeper way. Everything that came before was leading us to that moment, and from that climax we are sent toward its fulfillment in the story’s conclusion where everything may look the same, but nothing is as it was before.
One way we disrupt liturgical flow is when we misplace or miss altogether the climax of the liturgy.Liturgical flow is difficult to define, but if you follow these guidelines, liturgy will feel a lot less disjointed. The big benefit is that your community will have a more fulfilling and spiritual experience of worship. Click To Tweet
Now, you might think that in the Eucharist the climax is the sharing of communion, and you would be partially correct. In fact, the climax of the Mass comes earlier: “Now the center and high point of the entire celebration begins, namely, the eucharistic prayer itself, that is, the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 78).
In their Introduction to the Order of Mass: A Pastoral Resource of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, the United States bishops clarify the connection between this high point and the high point of communion:
The reception together of the Lord’s Body and Blood in a paschal meal is the culmination of the Eucharist. . . . Though each of these rites (the Lord’s Prayer, sign of peace, breaking of the bread) is important in itself, in the context of the whole celebration they constitute together a transition from one high point, the Eucharistic Prayer, to another, the sharing in Holy Communion. (no. 125)
Sharing the body and blood of Christ
The Eucharist Prayer gives context to what we do in the sharing of communion; and the act of sharing the body and blood of Christ fulfills the intention of the eucharistic prayer. A eucharistic prayer without communion is incomplete; and overemphasizing communion while minimizing the eucharistic prayer has led us to the misconception that communion services are the same as the celebration of the Eucharist since, in both, communion is distributed. The eucharistic prayer completed by communion together are the climax of the Mass.
Here are some suggestions to make this climax clearer:
- Sing the acclamations of the eucharistic prayer, even if a cappella. These include the preface dialogue, the Holy, the Mystery of Faith, and the doxology and great Amen. Make sure that the assembly knows the chosen settings well.
- Be sure that the concluding doxology of the eucharistic prayer and the great Amen is exactly that—great!—for this is the “climax of the prayer” (Introduction, no. 124). The people’s “Amen” confirms everything that has been expressed in the prayer, so this should be the strongest acclamation sung by the assembly. Because the Amen is of utmost importance, make sure the assembly knows the music to this acclamation, even if you have to use a different but more familiar setting than those for the Holy and Mystery of Faith.
- Even if the priest is unable to sing the preface dialogue or doxology, he can still proclaim these parts of the prayer in a strong voice. A powerful beginning to the prayer lets the assembly know that we are entering the heart of the Mass, and a powerful conclusion, proclaimed slowly, with intention, inspires the assembly to announce an authoritative and convincing “Amen.”
- Don’t let any musical settings used during the preparatory rites (Lord’s Prayer, sign of peace, fraction rite) overshadow the sharing of communion. Keep any gestures—for example, holding hands or sharing peace—in proportion to the more important sharing of communion that follows.
- The song during communion should be one of the assembly’s most well known, since its purpose is “to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the ‘communitarian’ character of the procession to receive the Eucharist” (GIRM, no. 86).
Liturgical flow is difficult to define, but if you follow these guidelines, liturgy will feel a lot less disjointed. The big benefit is that your community will have a more fulfilling and spiritual experience of worship.
In upcoming posts, we will cover the purpose of each part of the liturgy and the rhythm and pace of the liturgy.
This post is based on an article that originally appeared in GIA Quarterly (28.1).