Also by this author: Church Music Association of America Colloquium
I don’t associate communal prayer with the invitation to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:11). Meditating on Scripture by myself, walking alone: perhaps. With others: less so. Least of all at Mass, sad to say. A recent experience reminded me that my associations are a bit misguided and provided an opportunity to reflect on the depth of the mystery of the Visitation.
From June 30 to July 6, I attended the Church Music Association of America’s annual colloquium, a gathering of church musicians from throughout the United States and Canada. Each day’s packed scheduled culminated in the celebration of Mass. Two of the conference’s six Masses occurred in the Extraordinary Form, the form of the Mass promulgated in 1962. While the current Roman calendar celebrates the feast of the Visitation on May 31, the 1962 calendar celebrates it on July 2. As a result, I got to celebrate the Visitation a second time this year.
Attending the Extraordinary Form can be jarring. It features everything that, when I was a child, adults had described without joking as the “bad old days.” The Mass is in Latin. The priest and congregation face the same direction. The Eucharistic Canon is lengthy and the priest says most of it silently.
Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to attend the Extraordinary Form about a dozen times, in settings from a thousand-person congregation, an orchestra and Mozart’s Requiem to a cramped chapel with ten people. The most striking thing about these liturgies has been their silence. For the Visitation, the colloquium congregation sang a Gregorian chant setting of the Mass ordinary. As always, silence fell over the whole church after the Sanctus. The thick silence speaks for itself: something significant is happening. It confronts worshippers with the magnitude of the Mass. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” He is coming, very soon. Be still and know that it is he.
This silence affords worshippers a certain space and freedom. One can pray the text of the Canon, reflect on the Gospel or simply kneel and be. As a hyperactive college student, this has been a healing way to experience the Mass. Even though congregants may be praying slightly different kinds of internal prayer, everyone is united in praying the Mass.
Reflecting on the Annunciation in December, Pope Francis said, “Silence is really the ‘cloud’ that covers the mystery of our relationship with the Lord…where there is no silence in our lives, the mystery is lost, it goes away. Guard the mystery with silence!” Some things are so awesome they must be proclaimed on rooftops, some so awesome they remain unspeakable. The Mass, it seems, is both. If anything deserves rooftop proclamation, it is the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, and their reality in the Mass. But if there is anything before which humanity must also stand mute, it is those events.
Sound ebbs and flows throughout the liturgy, creating a rhythmic structure for the Church’s prayer, revealing the importance of both sound and silence. The Visitation narrative presents not only an interaction between people but also the relation between their sounds and silences.
Mary hastens to Elizabeth after Gabriel’s announcement. In Pope Francis’ December reflection, he presents Mary as a model of silence and suggests she may have remained completely silent after Gabriel departed. How would a person react to that staggering news, perhaps even more mysterious to Mary than to us now?
In the verse after the angel departs Mary goes up to visit Elizabeth, bearing the growing God in her body. She cannot contain her good news, so she goes to aid Elizabeth and relate her great joy. John, who cannot speak, leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary greets her, even before Elizabeth can respond. Then Elizabeth “crie[s] out in a loud voice” (Lk 1:42) and exclaims Mary’s blessedness. Elizabeth recounts to Mary what the narrator has already recounted, that John leapt at Mary’s greeting.
John’s leap is mentioned twice. While Elizabeth’s line—“For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1:44)—is well known, the third-person narrator is the first to mention John’s leap, just before Elizabeth’s line. This structure makes John an active part of the narrative, not just someone about whom his mom talks. While the reader learns of John’s action through the written text, Mary learns it because Elizabeth cries it out in a loud voice. John, of course, cannot say a word. His inability to speak does not mean his silence is an inferior substitute for speaking; his silence is good on its own. His silent expression of joy is its own word, a testimony to Christ’s presence. This word he speaks silently becomes a subject of Elizabeth’s own words spoken aloud, as each of them greets the bearer of the Word, who also cannot speak yet. Mary in turn cries out with the Magnificat, proclaiming God’s greatness.
The apparent protagonists respond to the Incarnation of the unseen and true protagonist, each in his or her own way. Mary, who silently “kept all these things close to her heart” (Lk 2:19, 51), responds first perhaps with silence and then with haste and loud exultation; John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, in silent joy; Elizabeth, the woman who didn’t expect a child and is now expecting both John and her Messiah, cries out with irrepressible excitement.
Of course, the mystery of the Visitation is not primarily about sound or silence. It is about the mystery of Christ’s presence and the mystery it engenders, true joy. Mary, John, and Elizabeth can serve as images for sound and silence at Mass. Each of them comes to know that the child in their midst is God. Be still and know. At Mass, as at the Visitation, the mystery of Christ’s coming receives expression both in sound and in quiet. Mass is not a matter simply of either silence or sound but of joy.
When the Church gathers for Mass Christ invites her, “rejoice at the presence of the Lord, for he comes to rule the earth.” (Ps 98:9) She realizes that “you make him rejoice with the joy of your presence.” (Ps 21:7) In my haste and my noisiness, I often lose sight of that joy and that presence. Attending Mass in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms has reminded me of the fullness of rejoicing present at the Visitation and still present when the Word Incarnate hastens to greet us.
Sound, silence, and the Visitation comprise a welcome and needed reminder of the joy of the Gospel and of the Eucharist, an astonishing joy but easily forgotten. As the Church prays after Communion on the Ordinary Form feast of the Visitation, “as Saint John the Baptist leapt with joy when he first sensed the hidden presence of Christ, so may your Church rejoice to receive in this Sacrament the same ever-living Lord.”