The Liturgy is More Than a Text

One of the greatest liturgical shifts in the last sixty years has been in the area of language and the spoken word. Although the almost complete disappearance of Latin is lamentable, the use of the vernacular has arguably had some positive effects. To my mind, the augmentation of the Scriptures used has been notable and helpful. In addition, greater emphasis has been placed on preaching and preparing the clergy to be able to preach well.

The most recent debates concern a thirty-year struggle in English-speaking areas to get authentic translations of the Latin texts promulgated. The emphasis on and debate about the texts of the liturgy is necessary and has had good effects.

However, this focus on the texts has tended to reduce the liturgy to its texts alone, as if the intelligibility of the vernacular text ensures that the Mass is understood. Supposedly, people can now “understand” what is going on and what is being said. Other areas such as architectural and aesthetic beauty, music, the ars celebrandi (the manner in which the clergy and ministers conduct themselves during the liturgy), and deeper theological understanding and appreciation of the liturgy have all suffered as a result. It does matter whether the church building is awe-inspiring or ugly, whether the music is inspiring and teaches sound doctrine or is mundane and devoid of doctrine (or even contains faulty doctrine). There is more to focus on that just making sure that liturgical texts are intelligible and the Homily “meaningful.” God is worthy of our best and His people respond to more than just words.

Perhaps a quote from Rev. Uwe Michael Lang would be helpful:

The sacred liturgy speaks through a variety of “languages” other than language in the strict sense. [These are] non-verbal symbols which are capable of creating a structure of meanings in which individuals can relate one to another. … It is my conviction that these non-linguistic or symbolic expressions of the liturgy are, in fact, more important than language itself.

This would seem especially pertinent in today’s world where images are omnipresent: on TV, video and computer screens …. We live in a culture of images …. Today the image tends to make a more lasting impression on people’s minds than the spoken word.

The power of image has long been known in the Church’s liturgical tradition, which has used sacred art and architecture as a medium of expression and communication.

But, in more recent times [there is] observed a tendency to see liturgy only as text. And to limit participation to speaking roles …. It certainly applies to a broad stream of liturgical scholarship that has largely focused on liturgical texts that are contained in written sources from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. … This approach is legitimate, at least to a large extent, because the Church’s public worship is ordered to the official texts she uses for it.

However, … it is sometimes forgotten that the liturgy is not simply a series of texts to be read, but rather a series of sacred actions to be done … words, music, and movement, together with other visual, even olfactory elements (Sacred Liturgy: The Proceedings of the International Conference on the Sacred Liturgy 2013, Ignatius Press, pp. 187-189).

Rev. Lang does not assert that the sacred texts are to be neglected but that things have gotten a bit out of balance and it is time to put more focus on other aspects of the liturgy for a while. Even a text translated authentically and well-delivered can fall flat in an atmosphere of sloppy liturgy, ugly and uninspiring architecture, and insipid music. Thus, we do well to spend some time now on visual and other non-verbal aspects.

However, we must be careful not to go too far and reduce the liturgy to merely an aesthetically pleasing action rather than an act of worship.

For example, almost no one asks at the end of a Mass, “Was God worshiped?” Instead, many other questions and concerns occur to clergy. Were the lectors good? Did the Homily go well? Were the servers well-trained? The laity will often rate the liturgy on such things as the perceived quality of the Homily, the use of their favorite songs, the style of worship, and the hospitality level. But almost no one asks the key question: Was God fittingly worshiped? (or more personally, “Did I worship God?”)

Sometimes the honest answer is no. People largely went through motions and focused more on themselves and what they were doing, or on others and what they were doing, or on whether they “liked it” or not. God was barely considered at all. He may have been spoken to and referenced, but he was not really worshiped.

Yes, the liturgy is more than a text. Those texts are to be cherished and proclaimed accurately, but other sacred actions and dispositions are important as well. Beauty, reverence, and a manifest joy and humility before God are also to be cultivated. Above all else we must be able to say that we worshiped God fittingly.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Liturgy is More Than a Text

The Key Question of Every Liturgy

There is a legend that explains how the liturgy and the faith took hold in Rus (Russia):

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?”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Key Question of Every Liturgy

A Prayer for the Internet from the 1946 Roman Ritual? Sure, and It’s Wonderful!

telegraphThe old Roman Ritual (published in 1946) is a magnificent collection of blessings and prayers. It has some of the most amazing little blessings of things it would never occur to you to find in such a collection. Along with the blessings of expected objects (e.g., statues, religious medals) are blessings, often elaborately laid out, for things such as seismographs, typewriters, printing presses, fishing boats, fire engines, stables, medicine, wells, bridges, archives, lime kilns, automobiles, mountain-climbing equipment, and electric dynamos.

In that old ritual (which it is permitted to use), there is a remarkable prayer for a telegraph—yes, a telegraph. It quite elaborately lays out psalms and antiphons, but I will only present here the prayer of gratitude at the end, just before blessing it with Holy Water.

To my mind, it is also applicable as a prayer, expression of gratitude, and blessing for a computer or for the extended “cloud” of computers known as the Internet. The prayer is both thrilling and fitting. It is a minor masterpiece if you ask me. Though written sometime prior to 1945, and likely after 1830, its basic structure fits well what we do now with the Internet.

Without further ado, here is the prayer, first in the original Latin, and then translated by Father Philip Weller:

Deus qui ámbulas super pennas ventórum, et facis mirabília solus: concéde, ut per vim huic metállo índitam fulmíneo ictu celérius huc abséntia, et hinc álio praeséntia transmíttis; ita nos invéntis novis edócti, tua grátia opitulánte, prómptius et facílius ad te veníre valeámus. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen.

O God, who walkest upon the wings of the wind, and alone workest wonders; by the power inherent in this metal, thou dost bring hither distant things quicker than lightning, and transferrest present things to distant places. Therefore, grant that, instructed by new inventions, we may merit, by thy bounteous grace, to come with greater certainty and facility to thee. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sign of the Cross + and sprinkling with Holy Water

Magnificent! It almost paints a picture in the mind. Yes, such beauty, and a picture of the swiftness of information going hither and yon, like lightning, or as on the wings of the wind. May this wondrous tool serve to draw us closer to God and not be corrupted by sinful curiosity, hostility, defamation, profanation, or prurient temptations.

One word, “metal,” may need adjusting in order to use it for a computer or the Internet. What word would you suggest (perhaps silicon)? Perhaps simply “computer” would work, but more is in mind: the whole Internet is part of what we are grateful for and ask blessings for. Of course we may not be in a position to bless the entire Internet, and our blessing or prayer of gratitude is only to be directed to our computer, our one portal to the vast communication network. Anyway, this is just a thought.

The video below of the history of the telegraph reminds us that the first telegraph message sent by Samuel Morse was “What hath God wrought?” This almost seems to have influenced the prayer in the ritual!

 

In Loud and Strident Times, the Sacred Liturgy Can Restore Us to Balance

One of the most concise and cogent descriptions of these often-strident times came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986. It is contained in, of all places, his treatise on the theology of sacred music in a book called The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986). His comments have recently been republished in a larger compendium of his works: Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014, Vol 11).

It hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.

To be sure, every era has had, and needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.

However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.

Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. He paraphrased an insight by Gandhi, applied it to his analysis of our times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:

I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.

Today—I would like to add—we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth. …

The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. …

Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).

This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the Liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.

As Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out, though, we are too often preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world.

Good and proper liturgy trains us in all three aspects (silence, shouting, and singing) and accomplishes the balance that is often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.

Recovering Reverence for the Lord

We live in times when many trivialize God or at least reduce Him to someone who can be managed and understood. God the Father has become more of a grandfather or a philosopher king than the Ancient of Days, dwelling in unapproachable light, surrounded in angelic praise and with fire going out before Him. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is just a quiet dove or a gentle force rather than the rushing wind and tongues of fire that stirred the early Church. Finally, Jesus is reduced to the laid back, harmless hippie talking about flowers and birds, or some social reformer who just “cares” for people rather one who challenges them and insists they accept His truths.

Even before His resurrection and ascension, Jesus was no pushover to those who really encountered Him: demons trembled before Him, religious leaders feared Him with an almost apoplectic reaction, people fell to their knees in front of Him, and His own apostles were described by Mark as amazed and afraid (Mk 10:32). Jesus’ words and answers left the crowds spellbound and even His enemies were afraid to ask Him any more questions.

The reworked Jesus of our dainty times bears little resemblance to the Jesus of Scripture, even before His glorification in the resurrection and ascension; after His ascension Jesus’ glory is beyond description. Even John, who likely knew His gentleness better than anyone, fell to his feet when he encountered the glorified Christ of Heaven:

On the Lord’s day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, saying, “Write in a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was One like the Son of Man, dressed in a long robe, with a golden sash around His chest. The hair of His head was white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like a blazing fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. He held in His right hand seven stars, and a sharp double-edged sword came from His mouth. His face was like the sun shining at its brightest. When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man (Rev 1:10-17).

Jesus seeks to reassure John, but He does not do so by offering him the ancient equivalent of a “high five.” Rather, He speaks out of His glory and to the assurance and obedience that glory should inspire:

But He placed His right hand on me and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last, the Living One. I was dead, and behold, now I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of Death and of Hades. Therefore, write down the things you have seen, and the things that are, and the things that will happen after this (Rev. 1:18-19).

For all of us, a balance must be found between a cringing fear and the widespread trivializing of the Lord that has taken place in our times. Jesus is the ruler of the Kings of this earth, the Great I AM, and Lord of all, and he loves us and has died for us. All of this should inspire a deep love for him and a reverential spirit that is both docile and grateful.

In his book Humility Rules, Fr. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. writes,

I was visiting a church not long ago when I noticed a boy in line for Communion wearing a t-shirt that read “Jesus is my homeboy.” I guess I can see how that might help … when it comes to rediscovering one’s dignity as a brother of Christ; but remember, Jesus is also our King. If you don’t find his divine power a little intimidating, there is probably something wrong with you. … We should not be in the habit of thinking that Jesus would be grateful for our friendship. We should love him, but we should also be in awe of him. Don’t get me wrong, our ultimate objective is to discover the perfect love that “casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18), but be careful you don’t wind up sliding into a comfortable familiarity that drives out all respect … fear and love must go together (Humility Rules, pp 32-34).

Amen!

Liturgically in the last fifty years we have also reflected and reinforced a casual and overly familiar relationship with God. People used to dress up for church, keep a reverent silence prior to Mass, and be more serious about the state of their soul before approaching Holy Communion. Today, much of this is gone. Today many people dress casually at Mass, barely reflect on their worthiness to receive Communion, and seem more focused on the human dimension of the liturgy. Beginning in the 1960s the emphasis was on the Mass as a meal and so it should look and be like one. Thus, altars were turned around and made to look like tables (frankly not nearly as nice as my mother’s dining room table), and sacrificial language was lost. It also seemed a rather casual meal at that. The chalices were gone, replaced by pottery and ceramic vessels; the hosts got bigger and more “pita-like.”

Much of this was based on a mistaken notion that the Mass is a representation or reenactment of the Last Supper—it is not. It is the making present of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Even at the Last Supper, Christ pointed beyond it, to the cross and resurrection. And even if the Last Supper is recalled, we ought to remember that the Passover meal (the context for the Last Supper) was no casual affair. Only the best was used; formality and ancient customs prevailed for this night that was different from every other night.

Slowly we are (and must continue) regaining in the liturgy an appropriate formality that reflects the respect and reverence we should have for the Lord. Dennis McNamara, in his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, reminds us,

Liturgical imagery must rise above both the saccharine, porcelain-doll portraits of the 19th century holy cards and the hyper-realistic and overly optimistic imagery of Christ as a chummy first century Mediterranean blessing our children [and hugging us on judgment day] ….

The Liturgical Christ is Sovereign Mediator between God and man, the eternal High Priest, the divine Teacher, the judge of the living and the dead, caught up into the light of eternity, and [beyond] time and space. The Liturgical Christ cannot be domesticated (p. 75).

Yes, He is the great High Priest, judge of the world, and the Lord who is to come. He enters our assembly and walks the aisle as we sing a hymn of praise to Him. He teaches in the liturgy with authority and we stand in respect as His Gospel is announced. He dons priestly robes and enters on our behalf into the Holy of Holies in Heaven and we rightly fall to our knees. Scripture says, Let all the angels of God worship him (Heb 1:6). Scripture also asks, [T]o which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, this day I have begotten you”? (Heb 1:5)

There is too little of this appreciation in our modern liturgies. I do not claim that the only remedy is to use more ancient forms. There are modern forms that can and do capture the glory of God. Gospel music, for example, emphasizes a high Christology and a Christ who can do anything but fail, who can make a way out of no way, and of whose goodness “I cannot tell it all.” A modern Christian song by Hillsong speaks of the Lord as King over the storm, in whom I will be still and know that He is God. The more ancient forms have much to teach us as well, for they strongly emphasize the otherness of God and a reverential stance and silence before Him. He is above the latest trends and ephemeral issues.

To a domesticated notion of God, I can only cry, “May reverence, wonder, and awe be a gift to us in abundance!”

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:5-7).

The Call to Integrity in Worship

The first reading for Monday of the 15th week of the year is provocative, especially for those of us who hold the Liturgy in high esteem, as well we should. However, it is possible for us to distort even great things like the Mass and the sacraments.

Let’s look at the reading and then draw a few teachings from it:

Hear the word of the Lord, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah! What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; in the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow (Is 1:10-19).

Our worship can lack integrity. That which is supposed to glorify God and bring forth in us a holy obedience can become lip service. God seeks hearts that are humble, docile, loving, and repentant. We cannot satisfy Him just by singing a few hymns, saying some prayers, or attending Mass. These things, good though they are, are meant to bring about a conversion in us that makes us more loving of both God and neighbor, less violent, more just, more merciful, more generous, and more holy. Our worship should effect change in us such that we cease doing evil, learn to do good, strive for justice, address injustice, and defend and help the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the dying, and the helpless.

An additional problem with our worship today is that God has become almost an afterthought. Much of our liturgy is self-centered, self-congratulatory, and anthropocentric (rather than theocentric). We are “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” While the Mass should focus on God and summon us to humility and joy before Him, too often it seems more an exercise in self-congratulation. We are very narcissistic, even in a communal setting.

God cannot be pleased with all of this. Even if our worship is rightly ordered, we are not going to buy Him off that easily. God wants an obedient heart more than sacrifice. Sacrifice without obedience is a sham.

We need God to restore our integrity and give us a new heart. We are “dis-integrated,” in the sense that pieces of our life that should be together (e.g., worship and obedience, liturgy and healing) are not. Too often our worship does just the opposite of what it should. Instead of drawing us more deeply into the love and obedience of God, it becomes the very occasion of keeping Him at a distance and seeking to placate Him with superficial gestures. This makes our worship a lie and an insult to Him. God doesn’t mince words in the passage above when He says how displeased He is.

We need God to give us a new heart, one that loves Him as well as the people and things that He loves. Only then will our worship will truly reflect the heart that God seeks: a loving, humble, and generous one.

May our worship give us a new heart and deepen our commitment to God and neighbor!

The Biblical Roots of the Liturgy

Catholics are often unaware just how biblical the Sacred Liturgy is. The design of our traditional churches; the use of candles, incense, and golden vessels; the postures of standing and kneeling; the altar; the singing of hymns; priests wearing albs and so forth are all depicted in the Scriptures. Some of these details were features of the ancient Jewish Temple, but most are reiterated in the Book of Revelation, which describes the liturgy of Heaven.

The liturgy here on earth is modeled after the liturgy in Heaven; that is why it is so serious to tamper with it. The Book of  Revelation describes the heavenly liturgy and focuses on a scroll or book  that contains the meaning of life and the answers to all we seek. It also focuses on the Lamb of God, standing but with the marks of slaughter upon it. Does this not sound familiar? It is the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

We do well to be aware of the biblical roots of the Sacred Liturgy. Many people consider our rituals to be empty and vain, “smells and bells.” Some think austere liturgical environments devoid of much ritual are “purer” and closer to the worship in “spirit and in truth” that Jesus spoke of in John 4.

To such criticisms we must insist that our rituals, properly understood, are mystical and deeply biblical. Further, they are elements of the heavenly liturgy since almost all of them are mentioned as aspects of the worship or liturgy that takes place in Heaven. In this light, it is a serious mistake to set them aside or have a dismissive attitude toward them.

With that in mind we ought to consider the biblical references to the most common elements of Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. I have added my own occasional note in red.

Candles  –

  • Rev 1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man. In traditional catholic parishes, there are six candles on the high altar and a seventh candle is brought out when the bishop is present.
  • Rev 4:6 Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne.

Altar –

  •  Rev 9:13 The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the horns of the golden altar that is before God.
  • Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.

Chair –

  •  Rev 4:1 and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald …
  • Daniel 7:9  As I looked,  thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; … In the Sacred Liturgy, the chair of the priest is prominent. But, as he takes his seat, we are invited to see not Father Jones, but rather the Lord Himself presiding in our midst.

Priests (elders) in Albs –

  •  Rev 4:4 the elders sat, dressed in white garments …

Bishop’s miter, priest’s biretta –

  •  Rev 4:4, 10 With golden crowns on their heads … they cast down their crowns before the throne … In the Liturgy, the Bishop may only wear his miter at prescribed times. But when he goes to the altar he must cast aside his miter. The priest who wears the biretta in the Old Mass is instructed to tip his biretta at the mention of the Holy Name and to lay it aside entirely when he goes to the altar.

Focus on a scroll (book), The Liturgy of the Word

  •  Rev 5: 1 And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” In the ancient world, books as we know them now had not been invented. Texts were written on long scrolls and rolled up.

Incense, Intercessory prayer

  •  Rev 8:3 another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God …
  • Rev 5:7 and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;

Hymns – 

  •  Rev 5:8 And they sang a new hymn: Worthy are you O Lord to receive the scroll and break open its seals. For you were slain and with your blood  you purchase for God men of every race and tongue, and those of every nation.
  • Rev 14:1 Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads … and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth.
  • Rev 15:3 And they (the multitude no one could count) sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and wonderful are thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are thy ways, O King of the ages!  Who shall not fear and glorify thy name, O Lord? For thou alone art holy. All nations shall come and worship thee,  for thy judgments have been revealed.”

Holy, Holy, Holy –

  •  Rev 4:8 and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,

Prostration (Kneeling)

  •  Rev 4:10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne
  • Rev 5:14 and the elders fell down and worshiped  In today’s setting, there is seldom room for everyone to lie prostrate, flat on the ground. Kneeling developed as a practical solution to the lack of space, but it amounts to the same demeanor of humble adoration.

Lamb of God

  •  Rev 5:6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain …

Acclamations –

  •  Rev 5:11  Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

Amen! –

  •  Rev 5:14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!

Silence – 

  •  Rev 8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (And you thought your priest paused too long after communion?)

Mary

  •  Rev 12:1 And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; 2she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.

Happy are those called to His “supper” –

  •  Rev 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder peals, crying,  “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; … And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

Golden vessels, vestments  –

  •  Rev 1:12 And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,
  • Rev 1:13 and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest
  • Rev 5:8 the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense
  • Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, at the golden altar before the throne.
  • Rev 15:16 The angels were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests.
  • Rev 15:17 seven golden bowls

Stained Glass –

  •  Rev 21:10 [The heavenly city] had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, … The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. (The image of stained glass in our Church walls is hinted at here.)

Here is but a partial list, except for one quote drawn only from the Book of Revelation. I invite you to add to it.

Here is an awesome video with wonderful quotes:

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.