Advent is a chance to deepen our experience of the liturgy - beginning with silence

In a particular way the beginning of a new liturgical year provides an opportunity to reflect on the way we worship. How do we as individuals and as parishes enter into the mystery of Christ’s life through the gift of the Sacred Liturgy? How might these days of the season of Advent offer us an opportunity to recommit to our baptismal vocation to become “liturgical beings” – that is, united to Christ through baptism and formed by the worship of the Church in earth, in order to become true subjects of the kingdom of heaven; the place of true, full, and authentic worship of the Triune God?

The opportunity for such a liturgical “examination of conscience” is helped this year by the publication of a new document from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The Liturgy Committee of the Department for Christian Life has issued a new text entitled The Place of Silencethat seeks to reassert the demand of the Church’s liturgical rites for silence in her public acts of worship. This “demand” is made very clear in the document, which is littered with quotations from ecclesiastical documents, the writings of recent popes, rubrics, and other documents of the episcopal conference.

The Place of Silence is, though, more than simply a list of existing writings on this issue. It does not seek to add to this body of texts per se, but use them to establish anew the importance of silence in the celebration of the liturgy, particularly the Mass, in order that the experience of our ecclesial and communal worship might truly be a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy. The silence we experience in our earthly liturgy is not so much an empty void, but a space that is instantly filled with the silent music of joy and hope that is characteristic of the liturgy of heaven.

The document offers two important and very practical aids. First, a list of supporting texts that help provide background for clergy and pastoral teams concerned with the preparation of liturgical celebrations. These include an extensive compilation of quotations from the liturgical documents, a suggested process for consideration when introducing liturgical silence in a particular community, and a series of excerpts from scripture that may help the faithful discuss and understand more fully the meaning of silence. There is also a link to a fine pastoral letter of Bishop Hugh Gilbert, the former Abbot of Pluscarden and now Bishop of Aberdeen, on the need for silence.

Secondly, the document provides a number of very practical examples of how silence might be introduced into the liturgical celebration. The rubrics of the Roman Missal provide for a great number of opportunities for silence, and perhaps this is an important moment to ask ourselves how that rubrical flexibility might be of benefit.

Amongst these is the Preparation of the Gifts during which, it is pointed out, the familiar prayers (“Blessed are you, Lord God…”) may be said in one of three ways: in a low voice whilst the offertory chant or song is sung, in a low voice with no music, or aloud with the people responding “Blessed be God for ever.”

As The Place of Silence makes clear: “It might be argued that the Missal offers an order of preference for these options.” Indeed. In celebrations without music, the second option seems to offer an opportunity for an extended period of silence in which the faithful may be encouraged to truly prepare for the action of the Eucharistic prayer, and to offer themselves together with the gifts of bread and wine.

As a prayer of Mother Teresa, quoted in The Place of Silence, reminds us: “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.” If peace, service, love, faith, and prayer are to be characteristics of the Church, and in particular her liturgical worship, we must begin with silence. May this Advent – and our silent expectation for the coming Christ – be a time of renewal in this regard.