The Magisterium of the Sacred Liturgy
Many people equate faith with superstition. For many, accepting Church teaching is like believing magic, or in flying saucers or voodoo. But in so doing, they neglect the crucial role that reason plays in our faith. So they invent an alternative narrative using their own dogmas on the meaning of life. For example, life happens. Then we die. In between, the best we can hope for is pleasure and material success.
But is it reasonable to rule out the existence of God, his self-revelation, and an afterlife? Is life random and unreasonable, promising a future of nothingness and despair?
To be fair, we must admit that Catholics at times, through a kind of liturgical sloth, treat the faith like a superstition, divorced from reason. Unthinkingly we can project a belief that our transformation in Christ results, for instance, from a kind of mechanical Mass attendance. As long as we arrive by the time of the Gospel and leave after the reception of Communion, we’ve punched the ticket and earned God’s favor—like magic!
Of course, ritual sustains us when our faith is weak and there is value in forcing ourselves to go through the motions even when we’re sluggish. But ritual without the exertion of reason cannot sustain a lifetime of faith. Without repeated attempts to overcome a dullness that can come with inattention to the content of ritual prayers, our spiritual lives can easily wither and cease bearing fruit.
It might be surprising to realize that hyperactivity is another symptom of liturgical sloth. To ease our boredom with ritual, a sort of spiritual lust easily sets in. We look for new and exciting ways to be entertained, like a married man who tires of his wife and turns to the Internet for excitement. As with channel-surfing to relieve our boredom, we are emboldened to demand secular “updates” to the liturgy. Unfortunately, priests can all too readily accede to such demands. So we invent “Folk Masses” to entertain the “young” people (who now take high blood pressure medicine and Geritol) and “Polka Masses” to entertain the older generations and “Mariachi Masses” to entertain immigrants. But the true Mass comes without such modifiers.
Entering into the mystery of the Mass every week is like being faithful to a spouse over many years. Virtue supplants boredom. The most solemn Mass of the liturgical year is the Easter Vigil: a celebration that requires a good deal of sacred choreography. As the years unfold—as a priest repeatedly celebrates the Vigil Mass—orchestrating those details becomes more habitual and less distracting. And when things are working well we often find ourselves truly feeling that we are part of something far bigger than the individual priest, the choir, the smells and bells. With God’s grace, we may even sense the profound reality that we are on the very precipice of eternity. And indeed we are.
But habits that prepare us for eternity are not formed without prayerful intellectual effort. This is why we as Catholics must resolve to be attentive to the details of the Sacred Liturgy. To ask questions about the symbolical meaning of candles and bells and gestures. We ourselves may deduce many of the answers on our own—without a Google search—as we piece together the words and actions of the Mass over the years of our attendance.
The solemnity of the prayers, our acclamations, and pauses, our kneeling—our gestures of respect for the Blessed Eucharist before Communion—are repeated at every Mass so that our external acts of reverence become good habits, and our internal appreciation for the Real Presence of Jesus becomes heartfelt.
The repetition of liturgical ritual and the recurring cycle of liturgical seasons will not be boring if we allow ourselves to be led deeper into the sacred mysteries with a holy inquisitiveness, never overlooking inconvenient truths. Bear in mind that it’s still acceptable to pray “save us from final damnation” (in the Roman Canon) in polite company.
The liturgy also repeatedly brings to our attention from various perspectives the mighty words and deeds of Christ. Every year, as the Easter season continues, the Church uses literary flashbacks when presenting the Gospels. The flashback Gospel passages encourage us to revisit—within the liturgical cycle—the early ministry of Christ in the light of the Resurrection. The multiplication of loaves prefigures the first Mass on Holy Thursday. When Jesus walks on water He reveals his divinity, a divinity confirmed by the Resurrection. His discourse with Nicodemus prior to the Cross and Resurrection confirms the necessity of Baptism. Jesus is true God and true Man. If we are attentive, we get it!
Still understanding the entire narrative depends upon the fundamental dogma of our faith: the Resurrection of Jesus as central to all of history. As a historical event —like much of recorded history—the Resurrection cannot be proved by scientific inquiry. The Resurrection can only be accepted by faith based on the testimony of witnesses, including the martyrs of the early Church.
When, with goodwill, the Resurrection is tentatively accepted as plausible, it becomes reasonable when considering the entire narrative of God’s encounter with man, repeatedly presented to us through the Sacred Liturgy and the liturgical year. Within the context of Revelation and history, the story of the Cross and Resurrection is reasonable: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26)
The Church has a phrase that sums up the often neglected Magisterium of the Liturgy: lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). The liturgy is not magic. It is the work of God’s grace on inquisitive souls reasonably engaged in the words and actions.
With eyes of faith informed by reason, we will see the Mass as it is: a piece of heaven on earth directing us to our eternal destiny.
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