Two persons styled by the media as “cultural icons” passed into eternity last week: first Farrah Fawcett, followed some few hours later by Michael Jackson. Farrah succumbed to cancer after what her friends called a valiant fight. Michael’s cause of death is not yet known, the coroner not yet willing to say it was a heart attack. Farrah’s funeral will be celebrated tomorrow at the Los Angeles Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (pretty fitting for a “Charlie’s Angel”). As of this writing, Michael’s funeral is unannounced. So much for the details.
Liturgy: Media and Music
The outpouring of public “liturgies” — yes, I wrote “liturgies” — following Michael Jackson’s death announcement eclipsed the announcement of the death of Farrah Fawcett. In the interest of full disclosure, I am no fan, nor even a follower, of either of these celebrities. However, it seems to me that the media and music associated with Michael (plus his tours and public relations efforts, of course) made his impact on people more global and long-lasting. His medium — the popular song — is short, tied to rhythm and lyric, and is easily reproduced and distributed both commercially and person-to-person via the web and cell and email. So the public mourning that looked so much like a celebration together with public singing of Michael’s songs and the wearing of garb closely reminiscent of him looked, felt, and sounded liturgical. Let us remember him, it all said. Oddly disconnected from his more recent legal troubles and accusations of child molestation, people were celebrating publicly across the globe — celebrating an individual whose music and lyrics and dress and even lifestyle of profligate spending (including giving to many charities), affected their choices, their values, their own lifestyles.
Here we see liturgy as a normal human response to affecting events. We should be reminded that we remember with music and lyric and dress in our Catholic liturgies — grace builds on nature. We should tell the Catholic faithful that we understand public liturgy. Even the pledge of allegiance to the flag is public liturgy in the ordinary sense. We do not have to ignore these events and refuse comment on them during our own liturgies and catechetical events. To do so is to miss the catechetical moment that is upon us. And to miss that an opportunity — a call — for prayer is being urged upon us.
What after all, are icons? They are sacred images. In Eastern Christian tradition, they are painted (actually they are said to be “written”), silent, and a source of grace from the prayer they engender. Yet, the sound and color of human lives can also engender prayer, and, thus, grace. Certainly we who celebrate every human life, from conception to death, with prayer and dignity, can celebrate the life and death of these two people. They were both masters of “the image.” That was their calling, their work, their employment in the world. Regardless of the low or high intent of their purpose or the evil or good of their achievement, they themselves were images. Images of God, even though marred. Still God loved them, loves them still. That’s Who God is. Love. We should remind those who mourn them, that God mourns them and the losses in their lives as well. That’s why He went to the Cross loving and mourning their and our losses. At the very least, the opportunity to point out to people what true icons really are is embedded in the very public stories of these deaths and the public appetite for stories about them. And just a word about this longing for story: Story is contained in the Eastern religious icons. Elements written into the icon connect the viewer to the sacred through the story of the saint, the narrative of the person or event in itself.
As the stories of Michael and Farrah’s lives are told and retold, it is time to point out that every human being is co-authoring with God the story of his or her life. Time to ask what they will say about you and me when we pass from this life.
So, all that said, what does one pray about where Farrah and Michael are concerned? The obvious place to start is for the repose of their individual souls. I daresay that ordinarily when people talk about celebrities, they don’t even consider that praying for them is even an option. I remember being startled a few years ago when a Catholic friend told me to pray for Madonna because she was in terrible, eternal danger. I agreed, but it had never occurred to me to pray for her. After all, prayer like that, prayer for public things, was for situations, situations like the Soviet Union giving up communism, Red China, world peace, the demise of abortion in the US. Prayer for an individual celebrity? You bet. Their influence on millions of people, as “icons,” is tremendous. Why not pray for their conversion, for the people whose lives they touch — for their children!
But beyond that, there is a situation buried within these two deaths. The age of sexual promiscuity born out of the so-called sexual revolution is bearing bitter fruit and contaminating the lives of many youth, youth that are not plugged into the JPII generation. Who better embodied conflicted youth denied of childhood than Michael who grew up between the negative, apocalyptic cult of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and international acclaim onstage to become a man never happy in his own skin? Who better embodied youthful fascination with body image and sexuality than Farrah? We need to pray specifically for them, and we need to let everyone to whom we minister the gospel, even those in our pews, know that we are acquainted with those fascinations and attractions and conflicts and denials. We invite them to pray with us both for these celebrities and about the issues connected to them. And we need to let our faithful Catholics know that the Lord has the answers to all these fascinations and conflicts.
And that brings us to catechesis. Prayer for these two people — prayer that is open, unafraid to mention the terrible distress they each suffered and the terrible message they each proffered to others in their public wake — opens the door for the people we catechize: young people, people preparing for marriage, people preparing themselves for the baptism of their children, or the first Communion of their children, people in Bible study, all those sitting in the pews on Sunday wondering if priests pray individually for anything or only publicly, and what do they pray for? It opens the door at least a little bit, or should I say: it opens for them the Catechism. Our students can become aware of the relevance of prayer to popular culture, and are opened to at least hear us on the issues of the teaching of the Church on sexuality, Theology of the Body, and our true Love Who is God. It opens the topic of the true Icon of God, Jesus Christ, Savior and real King of pop culture, real Head of the Body in all its glory, the glory of the sons and daughters of the Father. What an opportunity for catechesis!
Don’t miss it!