Tuesday, September 03, 2013

In the Liturgy, Man is Most Active—and Most Receptive

For this feast of St. Pius X on the traditional Roman calendar and St. Gregory the Great on the new calendar (two great pontiffs whose legacies are fittingly thus intertwined), it seemed appropriate to offer a meditation on a fundamental principle of liturgical theology.

Although liturgy is the greatest act of man, it is never an act of man by himself, but always and essentially the action of Christ the High Priest, true God and true man, who allows and enables us to participate in His theandric action, His all-sufficient Sacrifice for the salvation of the world. This being so, liturgy is a peculiar kind of action, one in which man is also most passive, in the sense of being utterly receptive to the gift God wishes to give him, through the hands of the Church.

If we were to fall into a way of thinking about the liturgy as a kind of workshop, an evolving sphere of self-expression, a communal celebration of the here and now, then we would be truly guilty of Pelagianism. We would be making ourselves the central agents or actors—activists instead of imitators of the Virgin Mary who received the angel’s greeting, gave her consent to the divine initiative, and conceived by the Holy Spirit to bring forth the ultimate gift to mankind: the Son of God, in flesh and blood. The liturgy and its music have and must have this Marian dimension of receptivity, a virginal intention to stay untainted by the profane world and a faithful mothering of the Word-made-flesh.

One important expression of our Marian receptivity is that we receive the liturgy from the Church and her Tradition, we do not create it, and we follow her rubrics and rules, not our own. Although duty has been given a bad name by Immanuel Kant, rightly understood it remains a fundamental reality of Christian life. It is our duty, as Catholics, to follow the Church’s doctrine and discipline concerning the liturgy (especially the Mass). For example, when it comes to sacred music for the Ordinary Form, we must follow the full and clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, and other documents such as Sacramentum Caritatis that have made clear how we should be singing the Ordinary and the Propers, giving Gregorian chant the foremost place in the repertoire. There are norms, rules, standards, because the public worship of the Church does not belong to us, it belongs to her Master, the Lord she worships.

Recently I read this moving passage from Martin Mosebach’s endlessly insightful Heresy of Formlessness:
Many people regard the rubrics as the most distinctive—and most problematical—feature of the old Missal. . . . . Rubricism stands for a liturgy where all subjectivism, all charismatic enthusiasm, all creative inventiveness has been condemned to silence. . . . Public prayer, not the prayer of the individual but of the Church’s whole Mystical Body, possessed a binding quality that, in an atmosphere of emancipation from all pressure whatsoever, could be felt as a kind of dictatorship. Now, however, after more than a century of the destruction of forms in art, literature, architecture, politics, and religion, too, people are generally beginning to realize that loss of form—almost always—implies loss of content. . . . Formerly, seminarians learned rubrics so well they could perform them in their sleep. Just as pianists have to practice hard to acquire some technique that is initially a pure torture, but ultimately sounds like free improvisation, experienced celebrants used to move to and fro at the altar with consummate poise; the whole action poured forth as if from a single mold. These celebrants were not hemmed in by armor-plated rubrics, as it were: they floated on them as if on clouds.
Along the same lines, Ryan Topping, in his book Rebuilding Catholic Culture, has this to say about rubrics:
If you no longer see yourself as the servant of a tradition, but as its master, no longer believe that the rubrics veil a mystery, that the soul requires truth to be wrapped in the garment of beauty, then reasonably you are likely to treat the Mass more as a gathering of friends than as a sacrifice of God.
Is this not precisely what has happened, in spite of the noble witness and teaching of Pope Saint Pius X and many of his holy successors?  There is such sanity and sanctity in these words of Dom Mark Kirby of Silverstream Priory:
To begin with the liturgy is not to set about tinkering with it; it is to submit to it, as it is. To begin with God is not to engage in a critical analysis of theology; it is to fall prostrate saying, “The Lord he is God, the Lord he is God” (1 Kings 18:39). To begin with adoration is, in the inspired words of the Cherubic Hymn of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, “to lay aside all earthly cares” in homage to “the King of Kings who comes escorted invisibly by Angelic hosts.” 

It almost sounds like an examination of conscience that we might pursue: do we truly begin with liturgy as something first, something that preexists us and will continue long after we are gone, rather than something we master, manufacture, produce, shape at will? Do we submit to the liturgy, not as we think it should be for “modern man,” but as it has come down to us from holy tradition, passing relatively unchanged through centuries of doubt, dismay, and disaster like a strong ship sailing over the churning waves of a stormy sea?  Is our most characteristic action to fall prostrate before the mystery and majesty of God as He deigns to reveal Himself in the ritual words, actions, and signs that He has left among us?

Traditionalists might have a tendency to think that such questions need not be put to them, as if they are automatically “covered” by their faithful adherence to traditional forms. I think this is an incorrect and perhaps spiritually dangerous assumption. We, too, need to be sure that we are following the full teaching of Holy Mother Church in all that pertains to our offering of public worship. For example, in our zeal to set aside a widely prevalent superficial understanding of active participation, are we zealous to embrace and promote Saint Pius X’s clarion call for the active participation of the people in the singing of the Gregorian chants of the Ordinary of the Mass and the responses that belong to them in a High Mass? Are we careful, as we sift the good results of the liturgical movement from the bad, not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Would St. Pius X, Pius XII, and John XXIII, among others, recognize us as their children, as the ones who have finally taken their magisterium to heart and made it shine forth more brightly in the world, for the spread of the light of Christ?

St. Pius X and St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.

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