Last weekend, we began to consider as a worshipping community the changes that will take place within our liturgies beginning November 27th, as we implement the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. We considered some historical developments over the last fifty-or-so years as English was introduced into the liturgy. And, most importantly, we began to consider certain liturgical principles that should guide our common prayer, principles like, “what we pray should reflect what we believe” and the principle of unity when we gather for public worship. This second principle then prompted us to consider how we might approach the liturgy, at least from this moment forward.
Recall, if you will, our reflections on common unity. Among them, we acknowledged that each one of us as individuals has been called and gathered together, asked to leave aside our own private ways of praying and devoting ourselves to God, and to embrace whole-heartedly the public, formal, ritualized, liturgical prayer of the One, United, Mystical Body of Christ. This might sound simple enough, but allow St. Ignatius of Antioch (in his letter to the Magnesians) to put some practical application to this principle. He writes:
“…I exhort you to strive to do all things in harmony with God: the bishop is to preside in the place of God, while the presbyters are to function as the council of the Apostles…. Let there be nothing among you tending to divide you, but be united with the bishop and those who preside—serving at once as a pattern and as a lesson of incorruptibility. Neither must you undertake anything without the bishop and the presbyters; nor must you attempt to convince yourselves that anything you do on your own account is acceptable. No; at your meetings there must be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope in love, in joy that is flawless, that is Jesus Christ who stands supreme.”
And so, comes to our attention, the need to reflect for a few moments on our overall disposition during the liturgy. These reflections will not be easy: for, most if not all of us, our Western & American sensibilities prompt us to lay claim to, and to stringently defend an individualism expressed in each one’s own personal creativity, individual projections of our own private ideals, ‘my rights’ often at the expense of ‘my obligations or duties to others’. But as we consider such sentiments, it becomes clear that the person being served by such statements is “me, myself and I” and there is much less room in such a mindset for “the Other”, a community, or even God Himself. No, if we maintain such a self-centered ideology then its fulfillment will be our undoing: for the Church is not a grouping of scattered individuals looking for their own benefit or service, but rather the Church is a communion of particular women and men called together by God to embody His Voice, His Being and to worship, thank and entreat God’s continued blessings.
And so I would propose that our disposition throughout our liturgical life must be a disposition of openness and submission, of surrender and honest acknowledgment, of docility and humility.
When we are all individually approaching Mass, we come with our own particular burdens and fears, and with our hopes and joys. We come with our individual intentions and prayers…and we all bring them into this one, singular yet united prayer of the Church. And one of the first things we ought to acknowledge—each and every one of us—we must acknowledge that something happens at Mass. It’s not a something of our own contriving or manufacturing or producing…it’s no theater where we’re playing or performing; no, it’s something that God Himself does…He acts! He acts now to save us: God is concentrating the entirety of His saving love for the world into the ritual action and words of our liturgy. And in the face of such awesome, divine action, what might be our response?
We could require God to work in our own way. We might expect and demand that God’s acting is done according to our own particular wants or desires, to what keeps us comfy & cozy. We might demand that God do or say nothing that causes us any discomfort. But, I propose that, these kinds of responses will only keep a distance between us and the God of love and salvation. I would venture to say that such expectations and demands would also alienate us from a God who wants so desperately to reveal Himself more deeply & intimately to us, yet who is kept at bay and is only allowed to act in ways that we want to control, that we might contrive and manipulate…all in keeping with our frail human nature, prone to avoid hurt or discomfort, but all at the cost of God’s intimate drawing nearer to us.
So what, then, might our response be to God’s awesome action? If we were simply to trust God and submit ourselves to His action, we might then become the wiser, the stronger, the more faith-filled, the more charitable, the more able…to respond in kind to the generosity of God by then adopting His Holy Spirit into our hearts. Yes, this seems a more rewarding experience of the Sacred Liturgy than if we were to attempt to control God’s own life in our own.
And if our response is then one of submission, we will be most open to experience the “ever newness” of our faith. On the other hand, if we come to Mass thinking that we have the right to have it be meaningful (or entertaining or engaging) in ways that we define, then that would remove all possibility of receiving the Mass—the Sacred Liturgy—as a gift from another, from God. But He defines it, it is God’s initiative, God’s action…we are humble participants and recipients. Here, then, we can begin to see that the Sacred Liturgy, the ritual, takes us outside of our own selves and beyond ourselves…its now an engagement of us with God where God’s action can then be adopted as our own communal action.
Yes, if we are open and we submit ourselves to Him, God is then able to entice us with His promise of love; He can then touch our hearts in new ways, encourage us by His spiritual gifts, invite us—through His Son—to enter into His own divine life most fully.
So far, this probably doesn’t sound too bad! It’s got lots of promise and lots of possibility…so you ask: what does it cost? It costs us our surrender and our humility. It will require us to begin to see ourselves anew. Let me draw on a few practical examples of specific elements in the revised Roman Missal.
Currently, as we recite the Profession of Faith, you may have noticed that I make a profound bow (at the waist) when we mention that Christ becomes incarnate of the Virgin Mary. That’s an abasement of sorts. All of us will begin to adopt that gesture within the next few weeks. Clearly we all can recall the many images from Sacred Scripture when the holy ones oftentimes are bowing, kneeling, or prostrating themselves in the presence of God or even at the mention of His name. As the Church is One—throughout time and space—we join with them in this ritual gesture.
And submitting ourselves to a greater authority is nothing out of the ordinary in our ritual is it? Recall the gesture each of us makes when we begin any form of prayer. We mark ourselves with the Sign of the Cross. In that simple gesture, a profound statement is being uttered: “I submit myself under the Cross of Christ”. At each baptism that we celebrate, we hear said that the sign of the Cross on the newborn’s forehead claims them for Christ. They are not to be their own master, but rather we are all made low, so that we might hear the invitation to follow the voice, call & love of our Eternal Shepherd…in humility, openness, docility & trust.
Some of you who are a bit older might recall striking your breast several times throughout Mass as a sign of your fault or sinfulness or weakness. In a very simple gesture of self-mortification, the goal was to deny our own selfish desires and adopt the desire & spirit of Christ, who humbled Himself, obediently accepting even death for us. This gesture in today’s ritual is preserved but a few times and only for the presider. In a few weeks, we’ll restore that simple, yet humbling gesture during the penitential rite.
In each of these simple examples, I’m hopeful that each of us will be most open to modifications, to adjustments and to changes. If we can only relax in the blessed work of our Saving God, only then can we be truly engaged in, and affected by, the great and awesome acts of God in our celebrations of the Sacred Liturgy, the Mass. Let us be a people of great peace and joy this week and always.