Why is it, I wonder, that for fifty years priests have been able to get away with any number of liturgical abuses, from the simple disregard of a rubric here or there, to radically-disobedient ‘clown masses’ and other such things (see here, for example, and here… if you dare!), yet another priest may seek to guide his community in returning to the practice of the Church from the earliest centuries through to the modern era, in obedience to the liturgicon or missal and following the example of the recent Pope as well as the best liturgical scholars of either East or West, and this is met with bewilderment or even hostility?
For a few years when I had no access to an Eastern Church, I lived through Roman liturgy that was so bad I lost my faith. There were other factors involved in my disintegration, of course, but when I needed the Church to sustain me, all I encountered was a celebration of Mass based on whatever the priest happened to decide that week, or worse, the decisions of the Liturgical Committee. And it hurt. I think it was Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who declared that he was thankful he belonged to a church that recited the Creed, because when he couldn’t believe, the Church did for him. But whoever it was, he was spot on. The Mass or Divine Liturgy faithfully celebrated is, for Catholics and Orthodox, the weekly recitation of the Creed, for it is lex orandi lex credendi. And as such, it has the power to encourage or to undermine faith.
A number of things have knocked me for sixes and nines over the last few weeks, and I sometimes I struggle to find the inner resources to bother getting up in the morning. If I had my way, of course, I would spend my time in the Liturgy, happily touching my head to the floor (as in the Presanctified), or singing the Pater noster with dignified gusto, drawing from these acts the strength they have proffered the faithful through the ages. Alas, eventually all liturgies come to an end though (yes, even Byzantine ones!), and I am forced to contend with the fact that I must earn my keep, and live among my fellow human beings as a peculiar minority of one.
I turn to the Liturgy, though, because in it I find Christ. He promised that he would be known and encountered there, and I believe it; but I have also experienced it. The Liturgy has the power to transform, as it transcends all human categories and draws its partakers into a cosmic and eternal mystery. Just as our Lord himself became subject to the vulnerabilities of the flesh though, such as when the crowds pressed in and threatened him with death, his mysterious kenosis under the bread and wine is vulnerable to our abuse as well. By de-mystifying and anchoring our celebrations in the here and now, we limit the degree to which they can communicate heavenly realities, and undermine their power to nourish and strengthen.
Ultimately, the Liturgy has therapeutic power. This is because it is not a performance, but an effectual representation of heaven and what goes on before the throne of God. It is also, as our Lord himself promised, an extension not only of his act of Sacrifice, but of his own self for the sake of his people. And this means, in turn, that the entirety of his teaching ministry and the entirety of his healing ministry are manifest there, alongside everything else. It means that when the Liturgy is celebrated objectively and without the undo interference of personality and idiosyncracy, of ego and fleeting taste, then God’s people can be assured of meeting him there, and of receiving his grace and mercies. In light of this, priests and people alike need to pursue the improvement of their liturgies in greater conformity to Tradition with some urgency. The wellbeing of our souls depends on it.