Prince Vladimir of Kiev, seeking a right worship for his people, sent representatives to look into various faiths as well as liturgies. When emissaries went south to observe the Greek Christian Liturgy, they returned saying that they were not sure if they had been in Heaven or on Earth, so beautiful was what they had seen in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. They were sure that God dwelt there among men.
The roots of Christian faith among the Russians are obviously a lot more complicated. However, the legend does capture the fact that the Byzantine Liturgy of the Eastern Church was a significant factor in advancing Christianity among the people who populate what is today Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia, and other nearby lands.
Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), although noting the legendary quality of the story, underscored that the Sacred Liturgy can and does have a missionary quality that can inspire and draw others to the one true God.
Exactly how the liturgy does this, however, is a matter of debate. Some say that it is essentially the beauty of the liturgy and its ability to draw us away from the mundane that leads people to God. Others emphasize the liturgy’s ability to teach; the elements of the liturgy must be intelligible and easily grasped by the faithful and made applicable to daily life.
Of course we want to avoid a false dichotomy, in which one vision must be chosen to the exclusion of the other. Both notions have important insights. Yet in our time it is clear that at least in the Roman Liturgy, the emphasis has fallen on making the liturgy more intelligible and “relevant” to modern life, than ethereal and meant to draw us up and out of the ordinary through sublime beauty.
Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in 2005, said of this trend,
The way of thinking about “missionary liturgy” that became widespread in the fifties is, at the least, ambiguous and problematical. In many circles, among people concerned with liturgy, it led, in a quite inappropriate fashion, to turning a didactic element in the liturgy, and its comprehensibility even for outsiders, into the primary standard for shaping liturgical celebrations. Likewise, the saying that the choice of liturgical forms must be made with respect to “pastoral” points of view betrays the same anthropocentric error. The liturgy is then being constructed entirely for men. … Thus suggestions for styling liturgy became profane models, drawn for instance from the way meetings are held … or socialization rituals. God does not actually play a role there; it is all concerned with winning people over, or keeping them happy and satisfying their demands. … No faith [is] aroused in that way (Theology of the Liturgy, p. 332).
His language is quite strong here. Yet the influence of anthropocentricism (the belief that man rather than God is the central or most important entity in existence) in liturgy remains a consistent, troubling trend. It is a hard mentality to break in a culture so centered on consumerism and “pleasing the customer.” This may work well in markets, but in faith and to some degree in education, it is a harmful trend. God, the liturgy, and truth itself do not exist to please us, but rather to summon us to challenging heights, beyond our mere pleasures and passions.
I have written about anthropocentrism in greater detail before (here). While we obviously cannot wholly abandon a notion of the liturgy being intelligible, we are ultimately being drawn into mysteries above and beyond us. Thus, the liturgy should have mysterious and sublime aspects.
In the same essay, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote,
What persuaded the emissaries of the Russian Prince of the truth of the faith celebrated in the … liturgy was not … arguments that seemed clearer than those of other religions. What moved them was in fact the mystery as such, which demonstrated the power of the truth actually, transcending the arguments of reason … The Byzantine liturgy was not, and is not, concerned to indoctrinate other people or show them how pleasing and entertaining it might be. What was impressive about it was particularly its sheer lack of practical purpose, the fact that it was being done for God and not for spectators. … It was simply striving to be pleasing to God as the sacrifice of Abel had been pleasing to God … turning the gaze toward God was what allowed God’s light to stream down [and] … be detected even by outsiders (Ibid, p. 331-332).
And there is the money quote: it was being done for God and not for spectators. … It was simply striving to be pleasing to God.
How different this is from today, when the liturgy seems so focused on us! Everything must be understood (using the vernacular both literally and figuratively). Music must not be too taxing; it must be something the people can easily sing along with. Rituals must not be too elaborate. Ironically, in the one place where intelligibility is most important (the homily), it is often said that it should be brief, more exhortatory than instructive.
None of these things are intrinsically bad, but they are out of balance. There is little notion that the liturgy is directed first and foremost to God, that it is worship of God, that the rituals are for Him and are a sacrifice of praise, not merely a ceremony that pleases us.
It is fair to say that in the older form of the Roman Rite (especially low Mass) the people were so uninvolved as to be almost unnecessary, an afterthought. Everything was done by the priest and the servers. But perhaps we have overcorrected. Turning toward the people, introducing more vernacular, and simplifying the rites were seen as a way to involve and reintegrate the whole people of God, the whole Body of Christ, into the sacred action of Christ as Head and High Priest giving perfect worship to the Father.
Now may be the time for us to consider bringing back the balance we have lost, reintroducing sacred language, and teaching that God and the worship of Him are the essential focus of our liturgy. A gentle reintroduction of orienting especially the Eucharistic Prayer toward God through a unified posture and direction of all toward the cross may be helpful (under the guidance of the bishop). The Liturgy of the Word can and should remain directed toward the people, for they are the target of this proclamation.
Many will debate exactly what should be done and how quickly, but it seems clear that balance needs to be restored in most parish settings. The ultimate goal, as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, is that our Liturgy be done for God more so than for man, that we simply strive to be pleasing to God. The inclusion of God’s people is important, but not in a way that neglects our collective purpose of worshiping God, who is worthy of our sacrifice of praise. The liturgy should not be reduced merely to what pleases us.
Pope Benedict observed elsewhere that for those who prefer traditional Liturgy there is also a risk in reducing the liturgy to mere aestheticism, in which what is considered beautiful and more ancient is preferred for only those reasons. The manifestation may be loftier and less worldly, but the error is the same: that the liturgy’s purpose is to cater to man’s tastes. Things in the traditional arena can get very particular, such that Roman vs. Gothic vestments, tabernacle veils vs. none, or a missed genuflection by the celebrant can become contentious issues and lead to uncharitable remarks after Mass.
There is not room in this post to lay out the essentials of liturgy as Scripture sets them forth. (I have done that on the blog in the past: here.) God gave at least the essentials to Moses on Mount Sinai, to His disciples at the Last Supper, and to John in Revelation 4, 5, and 8. From these essentials we build and set our focus on what pleases God.
The deepest questions to answer after any liturgy should be these: “Was God worshipped?” and “Was God the true focus of our hearts?”.