A Sobering Reminder on the Liturgy from the Book of Leviticus

There is a sobering passage in the Book of Leviticus that speaks to the need for priests to be faithful to the prescribed liturgical norms. While the offense described in this passage is complex, the main point is clear enough: The liturgy is revealed by God and is not the personal plaything of the priest or the congregation. Although some of the liturgical edicts of the Old Covenant have been fulfilled and are therefore no longer binding, only the Church, in careful discernment, can set liturgical norms; God’s priests and people must not stray from them.

Let’s take a look at the text consider its sobering reminder:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Wow, two priests struck dead by God for a liturgical violation! The severity of this moment ought to make us more cautious about brushing off liturgical abuses as “no big deal.” And while not all liturgical errors are equally serious, intentionally dispensing with sacred norms is highly displeasing to God.

The sin of Nadab and Abihu is complex and the nature of their offense is somewhat debated. A common explanation sets forth the following problems with what they did:

  1. Although the wording is not completely clear, it is likely that Nadab and Abihu each took “his” own censer rather than the sacred thurible of the sanctuary. However, it is also possible that the “his” referred to Aaron, and that Nadab and Abihu each took Aaron’s censer (see # 3 below).
  2. They seem to have offered it together, whereas the incense was generally offered by only one priest at a time.
  3. They intruded upon the functions of the high priest, who alone burnt incense in a censer (see Leviticus 16:12-13; Numbers 17:11). (Although ordinary priests sometimes burnt incense, it was only on the golden altar in the holy place (Exodus 30:7-8) or on the brazen altar as a part of the memorial (See Leviticus 2:2-3; Leviticus 2:16).)
  4. They offered the incense at an unauthorized time (apart from the morning and evening sacrifice).
  5. They offered “strange fire,” meaning that they filled their vessels with common fire instead of taking it from the holy fire of the altar, which was always to be used in burning incense. (Others think that the phrase “strange fire” denotes fire not offered according to the prescribed law (see Leviticus 9:24; Leviticus 16:12).)
  6. Later on in Leviticus, the text indicates that Nadab and Abihu had partaken too much of the drink offering and were likely intoxicated (see Leviticus 10:9).

The above enumeration may seem like “inside baseball” and the technicalities described arcane, but we should be most concerned about the last line of the Scripture passage: Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’”

In other words, the purpose of the liturgy is not to glorify man. It is not to entertain. It is not to serve as an occasion for priests to boast or to engage in unauthorized and egocentric displays. The purpose of the liturgy is that God be glorified and known as holy.

Sadly, many people today see the liturgy as a stage upon which man is to be exalted and entertained. Much time is devoted to announcements, self-referential hymns, self-congratulatory outbursts. Liturgical norms are often set aside in service of human preference or the ego of a priest who thinks his own words and gestures far outshine what the “institutional” Church and sacred tradition have directed. Speed, convenience, and comfort seem to far outweigh any notion that the liturgy involves offering a sacrifice to God in gratitude and obedience.

This does not mean that the sacred liturgy has to be unreasonably severe, slavishly robotic, or wholly unconcerned with the good of God’s people. Charity and prudence both require that the liturgy also manifest God’s mercy, goodness, and truth in ways that are intelligible and helpful to God’s people. In general, though, the balance has tipped so far away from glorifying God that we must constantly reminded ourselves that God is the point, not us. When He is the point we are blessed, for we look beyond our often petty and vain pursuits and come to find our true selves in God.

This passage from Leviticus should remind us that misconstruing the sacred liturgy is displeasing to God—not because He has a big ego, but because such abuse harms us. We were made to glorify God and find true happiness in so doing. Liturgical abuse in service of anthropocentric interests makes our liturgies small-minded and insular. Ultimately it is we who are deprived of our truer and greater joy, which is God Himself.

13 Replies to “A Sobering Reminder on the Liturgy from the Book of Leviticus”

  1. The liturgy cannot become a thing of fashion because, like the whisper line, its meaning will soon be lost. Putting your own into the liturgy is, essentially, to destroy it. Thus, it is God given, and, as it is given, it must remain.

  2. What a great article !! I plan to run it off and show friends, and priests.

    This is so true !! I remember Malachi Martin talking about the difference of the NO vs TLM, being that in the TLM, the priest only does exactly what the rubrics dictate, nothing more, nothing less. ( I had never thought about) Compare that to the Polka Mass !!

    This really makes a serious point !! Thank You, God Bless

    1. How do you know that the priest at an Extraordinary Form Mass does “only does exactly what the rubrics dictate, nothing more, nothing less”? Are you an expert in Latin? Do you have extraordinary hearing to be able to hear when the priest speaks in a low voice? Can you see through him to see his gestures? And why would you be so focused on what the priest is doing to be able to say what he does and does not do?

      And by the way, what you so profanely and sacrilegiously call the “Polka Mass” is the Holy Mass in which our Lord is present. That it might be celebrated by imperfect human beings – sinners – does not make the Mass any less holy and worthy of your respect. Perhaps you also might want to do what the words of the Church say, nothing more, nothing less, and call this sacred liturgy by its proper name.

    1. An interesting reference, Nick. I read it, but I don’t find a name in it, just titles like Lord, Father, ha’Shem and so on. Do you have a reference for the name itself?

  3. I often get asked why I, as a Deacon, don’t change the words I use at Mass as often as the priests seem to do. For the most part I reply that it’s all in the rubrics. The rubrics for my parts usually say “The deacon says” and then I say what’s written. There’s no wiggle room. I don’t get to ad lib. While the rubrics for the priest will often say “The priest, using these or similar words, says” which allows some tailoring of the words spoken. We have enough options available in our liturgyI don’t see a need for personalization. I do think it wold be helpful to expose the people to a greater variety of the accepted variants of our liturgy so I get fewer complaints about things being liturgically incorrect when they come straight out of the Missal and are perfectly ok.

  4. For whatever reason we seem to have forgotten that God is holy and our duty out of gratitude and obedience is to worship Him. Maybe it’s our sinful nature but if we the laity dropped our labels at mass and gave our all to bow before our Lord and to exalt Him no matter the liturgy form, the good Lord would surely direct us on what He desires of us and which battles to fight if any, and which are in His hands. We could do much to help by example alone and more by simply adoring our Creator. Thank you Msgr. Another excellent observation and article

    1. we seem to have forgotten that God is holy and our duty out of gratitude and obedience is to worship Him

      I would suggest that precisely because so many people do in fact see worshiping God as “duty” and “obedience” that they are not all that interested in it and they stay away. Meanwhile, “worship” does not interest them because they look at it as mindless rote appeasement.

      So what’s the point of it all? Does God ask us to worship him because He needs it? Because it feeds some greedy narcissistic desire in Him? Because He wants to say, “Hey, look at me!” as if he were some triangle player doing a solo at a Brandenburg Concerto concert?

      Thus says the LORD, “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool.” He has no need for and takes no delight in burnt offerings. God already has everything, He is already all-mighty. He is already fulfilled. And what is more, we do not possess the power over God to make Him angry, no matter what we do worship-wise. So, if not for God’s sake, why does He ask and why do we do these things?

      We do these things, we celebrate Mass and pray and so on for OUR sake. Because it is good for us. As Monsignor says above, “misconstruing the sacred liturgy is displeasing to God —- not because He has a big ego, but because such abuse harms us” — and God loving us, He does not want to see us harmed. Conversely, “When He is the point [it is] we [who] are blessed.”

      The point is that paradox that Jesus speaks of — He who gives himself will find himself. By giving the whole of ourselves to God, sacrificing ourselves to Him, we do not lose ourselves — rather, inasmuch as God is Life and Love and Truth, He multiplies what we offer Him and gives it back to us so that we might enjoy a far greater life, love and truth.

      Mass, etc. are really an opportunity, not “obligation” as people usually think about it. They are entirely for our benefit. They are duty only in the sense of our parents commanding that we eat our vegetables and don’t play in the street. If we don’t, it hurts us, not them, and if we do as they say, we become stronger and are safe.

      1. Are you trying to be harsh and unpleasant toward others? Because you are most certainly succeeding. Go back and re-read the article.

        1. Are you trying to be harsh and unpleasant toward others?

          No — not at all in my response here to MitisVis. Aside from my tone, what specifically are your objections to the substance of what I have said here?

          1. Bender,
            In my comment I was suggesting the laity could help improve the situation by attending mass reverently and worthily. Clerics are well aware of the faithful, and even if it doesn’t change the abuses it is a reminder and an example whenever we give God the best we can. You made some very good points, many could be further discussed elsewhere as they are related but outside the articles topic. One point you made I would like to expand on:

            “I would suggest that precisely because so many people do in fact see worshiping God as “duty” and “obedience” that they are not all that interested in it and they stay away.”

            I believe duty or lack of it is the root of the article as well as the problem. We as a whole no longer accept our duty as an honor but as you mention “rote”. When a father doesn’t feel like driving an hour to a decent liturgy or a son doesn’t get along with his father, that is when duty kicks in. The dad drives because he loves his children and wants the best for them, the son remembers he must protect his father’s good name. These are done out of love and service to others, the true purpose of duty. If the cleric preforms his duty to God and his flock he is serving both. As Catholics we assumed the duties and responsibilities our faith requires, and they are nothing but an extended set of requirements this life imposes. One of the greatest parts of scripture to me is when St. Joseph was described as an Honorable man. I’m sure he did many things he didn’t feel like doing. As to why or how we have lost our true sense of duty and how we could recapture or instill that sense is another article.

  5. Thank you for this article and all your beautiful leadership, Msgr. I would like your response to a thought my husband and I had regarding this topic. In our diocese we are submitted to inexhaustible liturgical abuse (believe me, we have tried to address it), what struck us not long ago is that not only is it abuse of the liturgy but it is abuse of the people and we feel as though we are literally suffering the trauma of abuse. Are we off base in our thinking?

  6. Apparently, for the Jews, the rubrics for their liturgy haven’t changed since the time of Moses. Wow. Not so for Catholics and the institution of the Mass that Jesus gave. One could claim that all Masses should be in an upper room, since the first Mass was in an upper room. That is one thing bishops are for: to dismiss such claims.

    That the rubrics can change, in the Mass, in a way that isn’t displeasing to God, must tell us something.

Comments are closed.