Having just had a very peculiar book shown to me, depicting the most appalling abuses in the Liturgy since 1969, I am reminded just how much and how often we all – traditionalists and revolutionaries, Greeks and Latins alike – completely misunderstand the nature of the Liturgy. This misunderstanding leads, at best, to poor teaching at the parish level as to a Christian’s vocation, and at worst to Liturgy that itself becomes nothing short of an act of heresy. In saying so, I am not referring to merely sloppy celebrations and occasional rubrical omissions – although these are bad enough; I am talking about, rather, a fundamental miscasting of the nature and purpose of the Church’s ultimate act.
The Liturgy of the Church is an icon of the cosmic work of God in the Logos. This fact bears repeating over and over again. The Liturgy of the Church is an icon of the cosmic work of God in the Logos. For this reason, when we ponder the Liturgy, we really need to begin by pondering what this work is. In as few words as possible, the work of God is to see the world separated from Him by sin, to extend Himself to that world by means of the Incarnation of His Son, to walk among men for a time before committing Himself to the sacrifice of the Cross, to conquer death and rise again, to walk among men for a short time more, and then to ascend into heaven to take up His rightful place in the divine economy of the Three Persons. This whole picture can be summarised by a single, three-word description: exitus et reditus, procession and return, referring to God’s procession from Himself into the world, and His return to heaven, as He draws the world back to Him in the process.
It is in light of this that the Latin Church deploys her most common name for the Liturgy: Mass. Ite missa est; go, this is the dismissal: these final words of the Roman Liturgy wonderfully manifest what the whole Liturgy is about. To name the whole act after the dismissal, announces to those present that they are being sent out into the world. Having approached the Holy Table, the faithful have joined themselves to the reditus of God: that is, having entered the doors of the church, they have returned to the source of Grace, to the seat of all good things. Then, once they have received the Food of Heaven, they are sent back out into the world, to consecrate it, to convert it, to be as leaven in the loaf. Other names for this service may be equally valid, but none are so descriptive of the liturgical purpose in representing God’s work as ‘Mass’.
In precisely the same way as we understand the whole of God’s action in the Incarnation as of equal potency and significance, from the procession of the Logos to His return, we should understand both what we do inside the Church through attendance at Mass, and what we do outside the Church through attention to our daily lives, as liturgical. Indeed, we might say of our attendance at Mass that it is the Liturgy of the Return, while what we do in the world is the Liturgy of the Procession. Yet this is where the great, and even fatal, confusion comes in.
When I am not at the Altar, I listen to any manner of music from Pergolesi to Mendelssohn to Tom Petty to Leonard Cohen. I love it all. I also love the ballet, good theatre, Werner Herzog documentaries, and Mad Men. I have a penchant for nice clothes, but no corresponding dress sense, and I have a boyish weakness for bicycles. The thing is, not one of these characteristics or interests in remotely relevant when I am at the Altar. These are all things that enhance my life, and to some extent reflect who I am, but when I enter into the church and begin by venerating the icon of Christ and of the Theotokos, then when I vest and begin to undertake the Proskimedia (preparation), and when I begin to cense as we move into the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, it is not appropriate for me to drag these personal things in with me. In exactly the same way as when I die and cannot take my earthly possessions with me, I cannot and should not try to bear them when I meet God in the reditus. To be clear, it is not as if God hates these aspects of what I do and who I am. It is not as if listening to Leonard Cohen or going to the theatre is sinful. In fact, in pursuing such things, I am pursuing God and meeting Him. But when the time comes for me to step off the street and onto the porch of my church, I subordinate them to the vivid and ever-effective icon of Calvary with all its corresponding sights and sounds as composed and offered by the Church. In precisely the way that our Lord’s Body was transformed in the Resurrection in advance of His return to heaven, we leave the limits of this world’s things behind in preparation for our approach to the throne of God.
All of this holds deep and significant implications for the choices we make in the ‘Liturgy of Return’, or the Mass, the Divine Liturgy. Above all, if we leave our secular tastes behind, then it is not appropriate or desirable to replicate them with our liturgical music. We may love the ballet, but it certainly not appropriate to create amateur dance performances in the Sanctuary. Perhaps we love the theatre, but all theatre finds its consummation and perfection in the Drama of the Altar, so pantomime or amateur ‘enhancement’ of the Mass is required.
Ultimately, the church is no place for us to exercise our subjective desires and worldly interests. When approaching the Transcendent, we are bound to respond transcendently. This is the Liturgy of the Return, and while we find all our rightly-directed activities affirmed in the economy of God, we have neither right nor reason to confuse those things which belong to the Liturgy of the Procession – that is, all that we do in the world – with all that we are called to do in church. It is the unequivocal responsibility of all who have been called to meet God in the Liturgy, to do so with all possible decorum and beauty, in terms and forms that are as God-like as human minds can conceive, rendered in love unrestrained.
ADDENDUM: By way of illustration, I offer this piece from Southern Orders, in which Fr Allan McDonald sets musical choices drawn from traditions of the exitus and reditus alongside one another.