Saturday, August 12, 2006

To Make Present the Ultimate Mystery

The Liturgy is at the heart of Catholic life. Those who have an active interest in the Liturgy, in terms primarily of going deeper into this reality, may be hard to find. Nevertheless, there are many diverse opinions of the concrete form the Liturgy should take “in practice.” Regardless of variations or changes in external form (e.g. from Latin to vernacular, i.e. English in English-speaking areas, and the orientation of the priest after the Second Vatican Council) Catholics should always approach the Liturgy with serenity and clarity.

Aidan Nichols, O.P. has a nice treatment of the Liturgy in Christendom Awake (©1999 T&T Clark Ltd). He writes about the unfortunate “secularization” of the Liturgy and that “The ‘re-enchantment’ of the Catholic Liturgy is the single most urgent ecclesial need of our time.” Fr. Nichols counters the idea —one that I have heard so often from both Catholics and non-Catholics — that external beauty is self-serving.

Too often we hear that the Mass as celebrated should be ‘more like the Last Supper’. It is little likely that the Last Supper bore a close resemblance, in, for instance, its seating arrangements, to the idealized and ‘modernised’ iconography offered in such famous paintings as da Vinci’s Ultima Cena. Was Leonardo making a covert proposal for the liturgical reordering of the Eucharistic assembly? To my knowledge, no art historian has suggested this. He understood better than his later twentieth-century co-relogionists that the Mass is not a repetition of the Last Supper but a celebration of what Christ instituted on that occasion — something significantly different.

Behind that appeal to render the Mass ‘more like’ what happened in the Cenacle there lies, one fears, a hostility to the ritual integument with which the Catholic instinct, in both West and East, has ever clothed the Church's worship. The still-Anglican John Henry Newman answered the objection well in advance:

Did our Saviour say that magnificence in worshiping God, magnificence in His house, in its furniture, and in its decorations, is wrong, wrong since He has come into the world? Does He discourage us from building handsome Churches, or beautifying the ceremonial of religion? Did He exhort us to niggardness? Did he put a slight on architectural skill? Did He imply we should please Him the more, the less study and trouble we gave to the externals of worship? In rejecting the offering of Herod, did He forbid the devotion of Christians?

This is what many persons think. I do not exaggerate when I say, that they think the more homely and familiar their worship is, the more spiritual it becomes. And they argue, that to aim at external beauty in the service of the Sanctuary, is to be more like the Pharisees, to be fair without and hollow within; that whereas the Pharisees pretended a sanctity and religiousness outside which they had not inside, therefore everyone who aims at outward religion sacrifices it to inward…

Persons who put aside gravity and comeliness in the worship of God, that they may pray more spiritually, forget that God is a Maker of all things, visible as well as invisible; that He is the Lord of our bodies as well as of our souls; that He is to be worshipped in public as well as in secret.

Our tongues must preach Him, and our voices sing of Him, and our knees adore Him, and our hands supplicate Him, and our heads bow before Him, and our countenances beam of Him, and our gait herald Him. And hence arise joint worship, forms of prayer, ceremonies of devotion, the course of services, orders of ministers, holy vestments, solemn music, and other things of a like nature; all of which, as it were, the incoming into this world of the Invisible Kingdom of Christ…

There words were addressed to Evangelicals. But a century and a half later, within Catholicism itself, a primate of France, Cardinal Albert Decourtray, in an essay ‘Mystère et morale’, found worse: a liturgical horizontalism reinforcing and reinforced by a secularisation mentality.

After twenty-five years of conciliar reforms, would it not be as well to take stock? Can we dare accept they hypothesis that this great movement, so beneficial in itself, might partly be at fault? … We are turned so much towards the assembly that we often forget to turn ourselves, together, people and priests, towards God! Yet, without this essential orientation, the celebration no longer has any Christian meaning.

The purpose of the Liturgy is to make present the ultimate Mystery — not to explain it away.

In addition to Liturgy, Aidan Nichols' Christendom Awake presents topics such as "Faith and Culture", "Doctrinal Consciousness", "Christian Philosophy", "Ecumenism", "Feminism", "Material Culture" and the "Priestly Mission." This text is certainly not a Stephen King "quick read". A "Doctrinal Consciousness" post may be coming soon...

Photo: Catholics at Mass in Shaanxi province (CNS/Sean Sprague)
Quotes: J.H. Newman, ‘Offerings for the Sanctuary’; J.H. Newman, ‘The Visible Temple’; A. Decourtray, Documentation Catholique 21 June 1992
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