Monday, July 18, 2016

A Reader Laments the Lack of Attention to “Externals” in the Liturgy

A regular NLM reader sent in this letter some weeks ago; it is reproduced below with the author’s permission.

* * *
Men being ordained to the Sacred Priesthood in the traditional Roman Rite (2016)

I enjoyed your post on “The Logic of Incarnation and the Temptation of Disincarnation.” I am so weary of the snide remarks and condescending attitudes characteristic of those who dismiss the Traditional Latin Mass and traditional Roman devotions as a nostalgic preoccupation with externals. As if these things existed in a vacuum or were alien to the heritage of the universal Church! As if they were not the bread and butter of countless saints, still as powerful today in their meaning and impact as they ever were!

I would propose a scriptural sign that God Himself prizes “the externals.” If we re-read the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, etc., we discover a stunning amount of exacting detail that the Lord Himself insisted upon, concerning the specifications of the construction and adornment of His own ark and even the details of vesture and behavior of His priests. The best woods, precious metals, precious stones, and finest fabrics were specified by name. Burlap, ceramic, clay, and sand, incidentally, were not. Those books of the Old Testament are full of accounts of God specifying clearly who was to do which job and exactly how — down to which fingers to use for blessings (I think we could safely call that an early instance of rubrics). God was specific about how, in the externals, He wished to be worshipped, not because He’s an arch-snob but because He knew (as the architect of the human species) that fragrant cedars and jewels and gold filigree would inspire the human heart to higher thoughts of the Fountain of Pure Love than would bare wood and asymmetrical cement.

While there is room for some organic evolution in the minutiae of liturgy as the millennia progress, and while Christianity brings with it a certain artistic freedom as it moves through cultures, how could we ever be justified in the too-frequent modern enshrinement of ugliness and banality in construction, vesture, ritual, music, self-styled liturgical amendments (to “make” the liturgy “more relevant”), and general approach to God, simply because a few measly thousand years have passed? Has the immutable God evolved or devolved? Or rather, have we lost our way?

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI reminded us that the first Mass, which Our Lord offered on the eve of His Passion, was replete with ritual and formality, stemming from the detailed worship of the Jews. The Mass of the Last Supper would have lasted several hours. Jesus did not despise or scorn such ritual; why should we? Nor was He in any hurry, despite the immense weight of sorrow resting on His sacred shoulders, and His divine knowledge that the gears of His own demise were cranking away. Why should we be in a hurry and consider it too much to kneel for a long while in God’s presence, or to pray in silence, or to sing the chants and listen to them?

I see (and lament) the fruit of the shallow theology that spawns a casual or perfunctory worship in many of the Catholic churches I have visited. It is revealed in the amount of respect shown the Real Presence by the congregants therein — both during Mass and outside of it. Does the cursory head bob truly equal a genuflection? Would any modern day human sovereign recognize one as equivalent to the other? Which, if they could choose, would they prefer for themselves as a sign of allegiance and fidelity?

Does the fact that many lay folk go right up to the Tabernacle and help themselves to its august Occupant bespeak a proper respect for Him? When they dare to handle the Body of Our Lord at Communion time, does it show deep respect for the Lord’s establishment of the priesthood itself and His sacrament of Holy Orders, in which the priests’ hands have been consecrated and anointed unto the specific purpose of handling the precious Body and Blood of the Creator of the world? Have we no humility to accept our status as fledglings that need to be fed by hand in the mouth? Have we forgotten that God struck down dead one Uzzah in the Old Testament (2 Sam. 6:6-7) when he presumed with seemingly good intention to lay his hand upon the exterior of the ark of the covenant to steady it (let alone its contents!)? Is this not the same God? While we know that Jesus taught us to pray to God as our Father, “Abba,” and while we find our salvation in communion with His flesh and blood, Jesus did not nullify all the previously known (Old Testament) attributes of His Father. “I have not come to destroy but to fulfill. . . .”

I heard a story recently that sent a chill down my spine. Apparently a Moslem had been inside a Catholic church (I'm not sure why), and afterwards, he was talking with someone about what he had experienced. When this person said to him that Catholics believe that the Eucharist is really the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, he replied: "No, they certainly don't believe that, because they would behave in a totally different way if they actually believed it. They would get down on their faces in homage to the Almighty. But they acted as if nothing special were there."

I think what is missing from the current age is the HOLY FEAR and its concomitant respectful behavior that are born of the realization of just WHO is enthroned — albeit in humble estate — in that little box in the center of the church that was once known and revered as the Holy of Holies. It bespeaks a pitiable blindness to the invisible realities, the angelic spirits, who are nevertheless present and attendant upon the King of Kings. Once upon a time, the Church was convinced that the Lord should be given royal treatment and worship. Thankfully these practices are still retained in the Church’s treasury of the Traditional Latin Mass.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: