As a former Pentecostal Protestant, having musicians and singers perform in front of the church was normal. As a Pastor and song service leader, there were times in the last few years that being in the front during song service began to be uncomfortable for me.
At one point, I made sure that no one, singer or musician was in the direct center of the stage or blocking the view of the cross. I tried other things like arranging the performers in a half moon, hiding the drummer, dressing the choir in robes, etc. It seems there was something working in me that desired a redirect in the attention of the congregation from the performers to something or someone else.
As a soon-to-be Catholic, there are many things that have been striking to me. The first time I experienced a Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite there were many things that stood out, not the least of which was the Cantors. At the beginning of Liturgy, a voice sang out beautifully from the distant back of the church. Being new and unsure of protocol, I resisted the strong urge to turn around and see who the singer was and if their movement was sanctioned.
My concerns were quickly relieved as the whole church joined her in strong voices ringing out heavenly choruses.
My next reaction was; where do I look?! As a Protestant, if my eyes were open during song service, they were accustomed to resting upon and obeying the prompts of the song leader(s).
I fumbled with the words of the songs I had never known. And as I tried to sing with this passionate group of Catholics, my eyes scanned the many visual treasures present.
I noticed first the Virgin Mary, her arms lightly stretched downward and out, gazing out toward me. I’ll never forget that gaze rendered by an artist unknown to me. She seemed to be trying to present or show something to me.
As I continued to scan the room during Liturgy, I noticed other saints from long ago and I thought of their lives and sacrifices in service of Christ our Lord. I did not miss the singers being up front, nor the musicians.
This last week, I attended my first Latin Rite Mass, and my experience was similar. I went to an 8:00 am “low mass”. There were more attendees that I had expected. A kindly man helped me through the mass as I followed along with the English translation.
There was an organ that played at specific moments during the mass but I could not tell where the sound was coming from. The priest in the Latin rite, much like the Byzantine Rite, is nearly ‘blended in’ with the altar, so one’s eyes may scan the room and various statues(Roman Catholic) in the church.
I have attended numerous Divine Liturgies and masses the last few months, and so I was expectant for one thing; the consecration of the host. My eyes waited for that moment when the priest would lift the bread high above himself. My eyes quickly looked to the crucifix and I noticed the detail the artist had given to the rib cage, then back to the priest. I thought about how easy it would have been for those in the crowd during Jesus’ Crucifixion to doubt the claims of His Messiahship, how easy it would’ve been to think this dying man just that, a mere man.
And then the bells! I looked back in time to see the priest lift high the chalice containing Blood of our Lord. I looked again at the crucifix to see if the artist included any painted blood on this crucifix…..
I suddenly felt petty for wanting to know such a thing during such a Holy moment. So I bowed my head and meditated on the term; “Emmanuel, God with us”, as I began again following along with the mass.
I realized on the drive home just how different it is for me to not have the distraction of singers and musicians in the front of the church. I was thankful for the time to be near the Lord present in the Eucharist.
So for this soon to be Catholic convert, I am getting used to, and appreciating more and more the absence of someone to stare at in church. I am loving more and more the icons and statues that remind us that this is eternal, this is everlasting, this transcends our temporal situations. There is power and meaning beyond our time and space. It is relevant because it’s irrelevant. It is otherworldly yet so important for my little world.
In the absence of someone to stare at, I may allow the Lord, and all the saints, all of Heaven, to gaze at me. I may look at myself. I may gaze back at the Lord and all of Heaven, and belong.
These moment during Divine Liturgy have become the high point of my week. These moments so close to the Risen Savior, and truly, all of Heaven, have become a paradise for me.
I don’t need a cheerleader to get me to love Jesus, and I don’t need a pep rally leader to get me pumped, not when it comes to Jesus. This is too special for that, too holy.