Thursday, August 14, 2014

A "Feel Good" Feast

For the feast of the Assumption on August 15, the old Rituale Romanum contained a rite for the Blessing of Herbs. This was an originally Germanic custom which the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship's 2002 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy called "a clear example of the genuine evangelization of pre-Christian rites and beliefs" - turning to the true God, who created the earth and its vegetation "in order to obtain what was formerly obtained by magic rites; to stem the damages deriving from poisonous herbs, and benefit from the efficacy of curative herbs" (181). The association of herbs with Mary, the Directory suggests reflects the biblical images (e.g., vine, lavender, cypress, lily) applied to her and the reference in Isaiah 11:1 to the "shoot springing from the side of Jesse."

Such associations remind us of the agricultural context in which the calendar came to be. The pre-1969 liturgical calendar constantly recalled our rootedness in the natural world even as it strove to elevate us beyond the natural to the supernatural. The post-1969 liturgical calendar, in keeping with its more rationalistic mentality and the bureaucratic way it was created casually cast aside all those evocations of our rootedness in the natural world, ritually reflecting in a curious kind of way the environmental degradation of the modern era.

I never actually experienced an Assumption-day Blessing of Herbs. But my fondest memory of an Assumption feast was nonetheless also a Germanic one. I spent the summer of 1970 studying German in Austria, in a schloss just outside Salzburg. August 15 in Austria in 1970 was not just some culturally disconnected holy day but still a popular and civic holiday. Stores were closed, and church bells pealed their invitation with gusto. Moreover, the auditory delight of the day involved more than beautiful bell-ringing. It seemed as if every church in the city was singing Mozart's Coronation Mass that morning. To an American, it was amusing to watch crowds of people walking from church to church - catching the Kyrie in one, the Gloria in another, the Credo in another, etc. If, as someone once remarked, with Mozart one could literally fulfill the precept to hear Mass, the bells added an additional degree of auditory delight I have seldom if ever experienced elsewhere since!

Like Easter, Assumption is a pre-eminently "feel-good" feast. To cite the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy again, the Assumption "signifies and synthesizes many of the truths of the faith. Our Lady assumed into Heaven
- is 'the highest fruit of the redemption,' and a supreme testimony to the breadth and efficacy of Christ's salvific work ...
- is a pledge of the future participation of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ in the paschal glory of the Risen Christ ...
- is for all mankind 'the consoling assurance of the coming of our final hope' ...
- is the eschatological icon in which the Church joyfully contemplates 'that whihc she herself desires and hopes wholly to be' ...
- is the guarantee of the Lord's fidelity to his promise ..." (180).

As is so often said on this feast: where she is now, there we someday hope to be! 

Until then, blessed be her glorious Assumption!

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