When I was studying for my education degree I had the opportunity to spend four months teaching English in Chile. If you know much about the country you already know the connection to the title of this post. Chile is a land flowing with lots and lots of wine. They produce some pretty amazing stuff.
One of my travel companions happened to be studying to be a sommelier, which is a fancy word for professional alcoholic who likes to complain about wine, or something like that. In all seriousness, when I was asking her about the program she was studying, one of the things she mentioned was that it’s actually really hard to fully enjoy wine when you get to a certain level of education and experience, because you know what should be a part of it, and you start to pick up all of the little flaws. I’ve met a sommelier who carried around a set of $1000 worth of crystal glasses in the trunk of his car because it was the only way he could truly enjoy wine. As my friend was describing all of this to me, I couldn’t help but be a little thankful that I didn’t know that much about red wine (my criteria was less than $10 and with a religious symbol on the bottle… before you judge me too harshly, at that point $10 bought a pretty decent bottle of wine in Chile).
In contrast, many of the Chileans I hung out with, who were by no means the sort of people you are going to judge them as being in just a moment, tended to drink $4 a bottle Gato Negro in an unholy cocktail known as a jote. In English the most polite translation of it is a turkey vulture, but it’s also a bit of vulgar slang. The drink itself though… I’m really going for suspense here… was a mixture of 1 part cheap red wine (I guess you could use the good stuff, but I think there’s a special place in hell for you if you do) and 1 part Coke.
As a liturgy nerd, I actually understand what my friend was saying about the wine, because it became so easy, once I had a bit of education and some experiences of outstandingly prepared and ministered Masses, to become hyper critical of the experience in other places. You know, Mass was nice, but that second communion hymn just wasn’t quite solemn enough, and I could swear one of those stands of flowers were silk instead of fresh. I know it’s the Body of Christ, but everyone knelt instead of standing after they received it and that’s all I could think about. They could at least look at what the entrance antiphon is when the pick the hymn for the Entrance procession. And seriously, announcements from the Ambo? Ruined the whole experience for me.
I'm not saying we shouldn't know everything we can about our Liturgies. How we pray is a pretty big reflection of who we are, and if we don’t really appreciate and understand as much as we can about the source and summit of our faith we are missing something huge. What I'm saying is we can kind of get hooked on the type of physical experience Mass is, whether that’s the design of the Church, the choir, the homily, the postures, etc. Of course they are all important. They are how we give our best to God and honor the presence of Christ that we are blessed with in the Eucharist. They are how we connect to the 2000 year old history of our Church, join in the unending hymn of praise with the choir of angels, and immerse ourselves so fully in the presence of Christ.
So then what am I saying? Well, for that we need to go back to the liquid abomination that is jote. You see, no one drank jote just because it tastes awesome (it doesn't). Jote is a party drink. Jote was part of a celebration, a feast, a festival, or a gathering of close friends. The jote itself wasn’t the purpose of the celebration, nor the best part, or the part you were supposed to savor. Jote was what people without a lot to spare brought to enhance the celebration. At the end of the night the memories weren't of what a fine vintage the jote was, they were of spending time playing football with your nephews, or bringing in the avocado harvest (okay, I hung out a lot with avocado farmers… that might not be the best example), celebrating graduation or winning the regional dance festival. The comparison to liturgy is that even the best we can bring to Mass, the best music we can offer, the best flowers we can afford, the best architect or building materials, the best art on the walls, are only there to enhance the real meaning of our communal worship, that Christ is present among us in the Eucharist. In an era where many young Catholics are searching for something that sets us apart, and searching for a part of our history that we feel like we lost some of, it can be easy to miss this. Certainly we need to care about these things, but when the Word is read it is God speaking to us, and when the bread is broken it is God feeding us. If the choir isn’t quite in tune with the angels, it’s up to us to focus on what is most important, the presence of God.