Last Sunday at mass, the members of Teach Bhride were struggling. We had typed up the wrong lyrics to one of the hymns in the powerpoint that parishioners follow to sing along with the choir. One of our microphone stands had just broken, and the other mic was giving off terrible screeching feedback that had Joy ducking over to the soundboard to turn the volume down every few seconds. Joy had a splitting headache and I was nursing an upset stomach. The onset of autumn had us all fighting colds and seasonal allergies and had left us sounding significantly less than our best. Between our hoarse voices, our malfunctioning sound system, and our flawed powerpoint, I was feeling a little less confident than usual about our ability to lead the congregation in praising God through song.
But after we finished singing the responsorial psalm, something beautifully unexpected happened that changed my whole outlook on our ministry at mass that morning. As the choir sang their last note and the guitarists strummed the final chord, a little voice cried out, “Yay!” Appreciative chuckles broke out throughout the church as parishioners and choir members alike glanced around, smiling, to find the child whose outburst of unrehearsed, unfiltered joy had pleasantly surprised us all.
The liturgy continued uninterrupted until the end of the Offertory hymn, at which point that little voice again exclaimed, “YAY!” this time accompanied by the sound of two small hands clapping enthusiastically. Again and again, throughout the liturgy, at the end of each hymn a little blonde head would bob up, radiantly smiling, and a child’s delighted shout would echo jubilantly through the quiet church. I saw the child’s father fighting back an embarrassed smile as he gently shushed the little one after one such “Yay!” and couldn’t help but be reminded of a story my mother tells of my childhood. Apparently my love of singing in church started early, and I used to belt out all the hymns with as much gusto as my little vocal chords could manage. Unfortunately (though unsurprisingly), my sense of liturgical appropriateness was not quite fully developed at age two. I mistakenly got the idea that, since Mommy and Daddy seemed pleased when I sang in church, and told me that God was pleased to hear my voice as well, singing in church was always a good idea, whether I was singing along with the rest of the congregation to a traditional hymn or offering up my own idea of a really great song to praise the Lord. And so, in the hushed pews of St. Joseph’s church one morning at mass, two-year-old Mary Atwood stepped up onto the kneeler where her mother knelt with eyes (alas!) closed in prayerful silence, took a deep breath, and began crooning, “I’m a little teapot, short and stout! Here is my handle; here is my spout!”
My poor mother quickly scooped me up off the kneeler, whispered to me that now was not the time to sing nursery rhymes, as lovely as they might be, and begged me to be nice and quiet until it was time for everybody to sing. Though momentarily mortified, she was touched by the reactions of the older parishioners who stopped her in the vestibule after mass: they were universally positive, reminiscing about when their own children were small and thanking my parents for making the effort to bring their young family (five kids under the age of nine, at that point) to mass and to pass on their faith to the next generation. Last Sunday, I got to see things from the perspective of those parishioners who responded with love, not annoyance, to my musical outburst as a child. When that little one in the congregation at Clonard started clapping and cried out with joy at the end of the hymns, people smiled at the spontaneity of the child’s delight in the music. Neither our sound system nor our voices were in top-notch condition that morning, and we might’ve lamented that we didn’t sound our best. But that little child saw, in our music, something beautiful and worthy of praise, and his joyful praise served as a reminder of the glorious wonder of childhood, a wonder we would be well served to cultivate more often in our own experience of liturgy.
In Uganda, it’s customary for the congregation to clap after the consecration, to greet the Presence of God Himself upon the altar with reverent and overjoyed applause. While I wouldn’t advocate for Irish or American congregations to embrace the habit of breaking into applause during the liturgy, I do think there’s something beautiful in these moments of spontaneous delight and celebration – something we could maybe stand to be reminded of from time to time. In our own culture, we would never think of clapping during a moment of solemnity; it’s hard to imagine mourners breaking into applause at a funeral, nor worshippers cheering when the Eucharist is held aloft by the priest. And yet, what do we do when our favorite football players rush out onto the field? Before foot has ever touched ball, we applaud them. We jump up and down with excitement at the very sight of them. We don’t wait for them to prove their merit once more by feats of athletic brilliance; we already know and adore them, and cheer them for their very presence, confident that they will stir our hearts, raise our spirits, and keep us on the edge of our seats as soon as they start to play.
Last week, the members of Teach Bhride had the wonderful opportunity to attend a dress rehearsal for one of the operas performed at this year’s Wexford Opera Festival. It was a marvelous evening and the opera itself was stunning, but one moment that stuck with me long after the night was over actually happened just before the start of the opera. As we sat in our seats and the lights dimmed, one of the festival directors walked out onto the stage. At the very sight of him, the patrons around us burst into thunderous applause. This man wouldn’t sing a single note in the opera that night. He had neither painted the sets nor sewn the costumes. He wouldn’t be in the light booth, ensuring that the singers were flawlessly illuminated, nor in the orchestra pit, directing the stirring score that swelled beneath their well-trained voices. He would go on to say a few words welcoming patrons to the opera, but at that moment in which he walked onstage, he hadn’t even opened his mouth. And yet, his presence alone was enough to awaken in the audience a wave of enthusiastic clapping; they recognized him as one who had given so much to the Wexford Opera Festival that his mere presence was worthy of their applause.
Every Saturday and Sunday, the members of Teach Bhride plug in microphones, type up song lyrics, warm up voices, and earnestly strive to use our gifts to help the community of Clonard praise the Lord with one voice. Some weeks, we’re at our best and can give thanks that the music went off without a hitch; some weeks, technical difficulties and human error waylay our hopes for seamlessly lovely music. But, at the end of the day, the Holy Mass isn’t about how pretty the music was, nor how beautifully decorated the church was, nor even how eloquent the homily was: the liturgy of the mass is always a cause for exultant joy, because it is in the sacrifice of the mass that Heaven comes down to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, made fully present on the altar. A child may shout “Yay!” when he hears beautiful music, and an adult may clap enthusiastically when an athlete or artist worthy of recognition enters the room. Perhaps one day, I might have a chance to attend a mass in Uganda, at which I would be able to clap in joy and adoration as God Himself enters the midst of His people. But I need not wait for times in which outwards expressions of joy are appropriate to remind my inner child that it is always the right time to rejoice in the presence of her Lord. Let us be like little children at mass: open to beauty, unafraid of allowing joy to interrupt our daily routine, and ready, always, to delight in giving God praise. And even as our lips maintain the reverent silence of one awed by the majesty of the King, surely our hearts can echo in exultation that jubilant “Yay,” for He who made heaven and earth has come to dwell with us.