Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Pope on community worship and the Golden Calf

In light of some of the unfortunate liturgical developments surrounding the Pope’s visit to the United States, particularly the variety show currently being planned for his Mass at Nationals Stadium in April 17, I’ve been rereading the Pope’s 2000 book The Spirit of the Liturgy.

It is far more impressive than I recall from having read it when it first appeared. It makes one understand the roots of the liturgical problems in our time are only tangentially related to the externals such as architecture and music. The core of the issue concerns the very meaning and purpose of liturgy itself, and this is the topic that Cardinal Ratzinger deals with extensively, along with applications to the specifics.

In particular, I want to draw attention to his unforgettable critique of the notion that liturgy needs to serve the community in a way that is relevant to their needs and desires. Once you hear what he says, many issues become much clearer. He begins with a discussion of the Hebrew scriptures.

“In the Old Testament,” he writes, “there is a series of very impressive testimonies to the truth that the liturgy is not a matter of ‘what you please.’ Nowhere is this more dramatically evident than in the narrative of the golden calf (strictly speaking, ‘bull calf’).”

Why do they make this calf? Ratzinger gives two reasons. The first is the desire to making God more tangible. The people “cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world. He must be there when he is needed, and he must be kind of gold that is needed. Man is using God, and in reality, even if it is not outwardly discernible, he is placing himself above God.”

The application to the claim that the primary duty of liturgy is to somehow speak to us should be more than apparent.

Now to his second reason, which I urge everyone to read in full, even though this is a blog:

The worship of the golden calf is a self-generated cult. When Moses stays away for too long, and God himself become inaccessible, the people just fetch him. Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself; eating, drinking, and making merry. The dance around the golden calf is an image of this self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification.

The narrative of the golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around. Or still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness.

So the questions present themselves in ways that should make everyone involved in parish liturgical life—priests, musicians, and everyone—somewhat uncomfortable. We all tend to be ever focused on the supposed needs of the community and on the need for affirming every group, making sure that people are pleased with what we do and are pleased to do what we ask them to do. We want there to be a “good show.” We seek praise for this work. The more praise we get, the more that people participate, the more we do that that thing for which we have been affirmed.

But a passage like the above serves as a grave and unforgettable warning about this path. All of us can learn from it.

How we can avoid this trap is dealt with extensively in this volume too. We must be humble and show deference to what the Church asks of us--now and in the whole of Christian history--concerning worship. The liturgy is not created by us, but given as a gift to us. We must do not what we please--"a festival of self-affirmation" leads only to "banal self-gratification"--but what is handed to us by the deeper, universal, and timeless practice of the Church.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: