Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"What is the nature of liturgy?" Or, the Elephant metaphor.

"Don't you love when you get back to the table and your food is waitng for you?" That's a line from a Quentin Tarantino blockbuster film that is apropos of my post yesterday. Well, that's how I feel when I happened upon my email inbox just now-
Mr. Adam Wood just happened to send me this compelling essay. Synchronicity-is it real or just an album by the Police? Anyway, this is a guest post from Adam (his own blog is found HERE ). I hope you enjoy his wisdom as much as I. Disclaimer about the post title-the first portion is a quote from his essay, the second is my usual odd teaser. Adam's essay-

    A recent conversation thread at the MusicaSacra forum explores the "debate" (for lack of a better word) between two views about what the Mass is: a "celebration" or a "sacrifice." Alternatively, the two opposing understandings might be called "a shared community meal" and "a sacramental ritual."
    Now, I'm of the opinion that these are all true and/or accurate descriptions of what is going on in the Eucharistic Liturgy. But let's explore what the question is really asking, before we get into arguments over the true nature of our public sacramental life.
    The question, as framed by the original commentator and also (it seems) Pope Pius X, runs along something like: IF the Mass is X, THEN what thing (Y) ought we to be doing?
    Since the Mass is a Sacrifice, the music needs to be real serious. Since the Mass is a community celebration, it's okay to play calypso music and dress in shorts.
    If liturgy is essentially a cultic act of ritual, then we should never change a single detail. If liturgy is essentially a public act of political theatre, then we should add giant puppets.
    While I'm sympathetic to this line of reasoning (especially when the reasoner confirms my own biases and preferences), it rests on a singularly faulty foundation: the idea that we can possibly understand what the Mass is truly about.
    This, to me, seems the great fallacy of 20th-Century liturgical reform (and possibly earlier liturgical reform- although I'm not qualified to speak on anything other than what I have experienced myself). Workshops and planning books have turned "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi" on it's head, teaching would-be liturgists that we should mold the liturgy to express our (new and improved) theology. But that's exactly the opposite of what (I understand) that phrase means. The prayer comes first, the belief second. Among the many graces bestowed on us by the sacrmental act, one of them is a potential lesson in the nature of supernatural things- things which we cannot, and perhaps should not, express in any other way.
    Outside of a firm grounding in the age-old traditions of how the Mass is CELEBRATED by the Church, any conversation about the nature of what is happening at the liturgy is mere speculation. And any attempt to use that speculation as a guide to the planning and execution of the Church's public prayer is meddling in things best left to more capable (and Venerable) hands.
    Liturgy then, should not be "done" in some particular way (as opposed to another) because we believe some particular set of things (as opposed to another). Liturgy should be "done" according the traditions of our heritage.
    Yes, yes- you can argue that within our tradition is a huge range of possibilities. True. And each parish or individual celebration has the freedom to find their way within that tradition. Even in a liturgically-ideal world (ha!), some will use Latin, and others the vernacular. Some will celebrate the Novus Ordo, and other the older Rite, and still others the Anglican Use, or the Ambrosian Rite, or one of the Eastern Catholic forms. Some would sing polyphonically and other monophonic chant. Some would employ an organ, and others not. Some would have a vested clerical choir of Men and Boys singing from within the Sanctuary, other a Women's schola in the loft, and still others a single Cantor (with his or her well-worn copy of the Simple English Propers in hand).
    But really- none of them would have giant puppets, would they? And while it's easy to point out the most obvious and ridiculous "adaptation" that has ever been made to the Roman Rite, I think we can agree that - even within the inherent disagreements that would follow - a basic conception of fidelity to tradition itself would cause a profound, and positive, change in contemporary liturgical praxis.
    Only THEN might we be able to understand what the liturgy actually is, and what it does to and for us.
    And then, when someone asks, "What is the nature of liturgy? Is it a sacrifice, or is it a celebration?" instead of stumbling over seminary-style explanations, we could simply say: Come and see.