Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Images of Liturgy

CommentTime4 hours ago

I apologize for the long post (feel free not to read it), but I wanted to put something out here that I think encapsulates a lot of discussion about liturgy.
Have you not noticed that, when it comes to discussing liturgy, people tend to revert to certain parables and images as touchstones for their positions? Perhaps you’ve heard some of these:

Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp! Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs! Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals!

Reference to Psalm 150 is often used to justify the presence of any kind of instrument in Church, liturgical dance, and a general carrying-on in celebratory mode.
What the justifiers tend to forget is that this is a psalm of David, who sang it in a totally different liturgical context than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Sing to the Lord a new song, etc.

This is often cited as justification for sheer musical novelty and/or the necessity of making the music of the Mass expressive of a particular, time-specific aspect of secular culture. After the Resurrection, however, it really means that we are to sing the “new song” of our new life as baptized Christians, to sing the song of our new, sanctified nature.
Obviously, the sheer novelty of a song does not guarantee anything about its sanctity.

David dancing before the Lord

Again, forgetting that David was dancing before God became Man and was crucified to atone for humanity’s sinfulness. The Mass, which re-presents this Sacrifice, is categorically different than the worship of Israelites in the Temple. Please note that I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with dancing for God and celebrating outside the Mass. On the contrary!

Strike up the guitars and tambourines! Just not at the Holy Mass, which is a special circumstance.*

The Widow’s Mite and The Little Drummer Boy

This has great resonance with many people because it appeals both to our humility and our understanding that God is kind and merciful. Isn’t God pleased with whatever we offer to Him with sincerity? Did not the Christ child smile when the little drummer boy “played his best for him”? Well, yes to both. God loves both our sincerity and our best efforts!
However, appealing to these stories obscures another terribly important fact, which is that, at the Mass, we do not offer things as individuals, but as the collective Body of Christ. What is our “best” as a collective Body? What are our Catholic communities really capable of offering? Are we ever settling for second-rate, or third-rate, when we should be cultivating and offering something first-rate? Is God pleased with the lukewarm efforts of His people?

The Last Supper

This is a big one. With the priest facing the congregation, and lots of servers and Extraordinary Ministers gathered around him, the Altar looks a lot more like the Last Supper than Golgotha, doesn’t it? But is that image of the Last Supper the fullest expression of what the Mass really is? Hardly. The Mass is infinitely more than a supper. I think some people really like this image of the supper because it is safer. It is safer to imagine you’re at a happy little supper than to imagine you are present at the dark sublimity of Golgotha, just as it is safer to imagine “breaking bread” than to imagine the total transformation of the substance of bread into the Real Presence of Christ Himself among us, in our humble abode. But are we not called by Christ to believe this? And if we are, shouldn’t our default posture at Mass be genuflection, even prostration?

The image of the Multicultural World at Prayer

There are wonderful pictures around of people of all races gathered around Christ’s table, and they are wonderful for a good and true reason: God is God of all of us. Sometimes this image is used to justify some pretty silly things, though. I used to worship with Protestants in the upper midwest of the USA. There simply weren’t many people up there with African ancestry. And yet, time and time again, we would sing songs of African ancestry and give it our best shot. It was, well, less than musically successful, but we felt good about our mild expression of solidarity. Is this really necessary? Isn’t it much more important to express our solidarity in other, more productive ways? If people are so concerned about this, why don’t they invite these other people to their celebrations, and let them sing? More often than not, the “multicultural” impulse is superficial, and trivializes true charity.

Christ driving out the money-changers from the Temple

Lest you think I’m too hard on so-called “progressive” attitudes about liturgy, let me address this popular image. This is sometimes used to justify liturgical severity, very close to Puritanical zeal, the banishing of all joy and creativity whatsoever from the Mass. This, too, is a mistake. Human creativity is good, but as we all know, human creativity without limits will quickly careen into sinfulness if it is not properly subordinated and guided. Christ cleared the market-place outside the Temple because He saw into people’s hearts and saw a lack of real contrition, a void, into which sinful impulses eagerly took up residence. This was His point.
Can you think of other images and parables similar to these? I’m sure there are others.

* I think a deep part of our liturgical problems have to do with the Mass being the only time Catholics ever congregate as Catholics. Perhaps some people think "it's now or never," and that the Mass must therefore encapsulate everything in Catholic culture in no more than 45 minutes. Consequently, Mass ends up looking like the Catholic Variety Show. Is this what our Pope and bishops want?

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