Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Priestly Character of Ad Orientem Worship: Guest Article by Zachary Thomas (Part 2)

Click here to read the first part of this article.

The versus populum posture fashionable today suggests that the priest is there only to give, without first receiving something from God. And, since the laity must all “participate” in this activity-privileging event, we often have a whole sanctuary full of actors and givers who don’t seem to have received anything in the first place. It is no wonder, then, if the modern priesthood is in a crisis of identity and self-respect. The public ritual role he has been given, his highest responsibility, contradicts his essence at every point. Indeed, the usual ceremony provides precious little evidence of the awesome dignity and terrible responsibilities of his office, and often forces him to pawn off nearly all his functions on laymen in the democratic sanctuary, where he begins to look rather superfluous.

In sum, what the Novus Ordo needs is not only a renewed eschatological perspective, not only a more emphatic turning towards the Lord, but most basically a return to a priestly posture, through a more honest ritual actualization of the priest’s intercessory role, and a sacred choreography that better expresses the metaphysical reality of priesthood. Is the priest a true mediator like Christ and Moses, ascending and descending the mountain to stand in the breach before God, or is he a rebellious Aaron down below, cleaving to the people, fashioning for them a Golden Calf, the idol that always faces the people to give them what they want, because he dare not turn his face to God?

The comparison is not unjust; this foundational story is offered to warn us about the fundamental shape of all true worship of the Lord. The sacred authors all see Christ’s priestly ministry as a recapitulation of Old Testament models, and so should we. Just as Moses prays and toils on the mountain, entreating for his people in the cloud, so the Israelite priest ascended the Holy of Holies, and so also Christ does carry His cross to Golgotha to make His eternal sacrifice, and after death enter the true Holy of Holies. Scripture provides us these ancient models as the lens through which to understand Christ and Christian worship.

In contrast, there is idolatry. When we fear turning to the Lord, we make gods in our own image. The static, tame, and visible bull-idol is contrasted in Exodus with a fiery God shrouded in shadow, attended by a tireless Moses, who toils up and down the mountain, hidden in the cloud, descending without warning. This divine encounter at Sinai is the paradigm for all true worship of God: a matter of distance, holy fear, intercession, hopeful expectation. Salvation is never in our possession, but always a gift, radically dependent and contingent. The Israelites did not want to receive God’s frightful gift, and so they made their own gods, a laughable thought and a lie. Only God can reveal himself and the way He desires to be worshipped. (See Pope Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.23)

In this respect, as in many others, the new Mass’s ritual forms as commonly practiced, statically versus populum, almost contra Deum, are a misrepresentation, a failure to recapitulate the divine economy of Christ the High Priest mediating and governing His Kingdom from the bosom of the Trinity. The harried priest relentlessly “engaging” his “assembly” is a ritual expression of the worried tyranny of the idolatrous soul, caught in a spiral of self-contemplation from which he cannot escape. This daily spectacle is harmful not only to the faithful, but to the priest’s own spiritual life and sense of self-worth.

This is not at all to say that when we worship with the new Mass, we necessarily fail to pray it with the proper spiritual dispositions, or must deny our dogmatic understanding of sacrificial action, or definitely receive less grace. Of course not! It is to say that the rite itself, as a structure of symbols and actions meant to guide our mind and heart toward the sacramental action at hand, simply fails to express its own interior nature and thus to weld us onto itself. Like a poorly acted drama that fails to engage our attention, it fails to dispose us properly to receive what it communicates: Christ himself. We may know what the action means notionally, and even be able to reproduce it, if we are well formed, in our own hearts; but we are not offered the awesome, stable, visual, physical expression of sacrifice that would be required for us to confess and enact it properly with our whole being, and thus cooperate most fully with the fountain of grace. The old Mass’s sacred choreography, combined with all the riches of its other forms of expression—music, text, artistic forms, etc.—is an awesome expression of the theology of sacrifice whose power for spiritual formation never ends.

I have suggested that the Old Testament, particularly the Sinai episode, offers models for understanding the proper shape of divine worship. The New Testament picks up on these references, and so did those who crafted the liturgical life of the various churches during their nursery period. It is the going-up to the altar of God, a holy place, on the part of a High Priest by Whose action we are saved. I propose therefore to explore the ways Scripture in which offers perennially valid orientations for Catholic worship, orientations expressed more richly in the ritual language of traditional rites than in those constructed by mid-20th century scholars.

“Noli me tangere”: Ad Orientem as Offense

Revelation and redemption both began with God’s offense to man. Placed in the garden of delights, Adam is given almost everything, “but of the tree in the middle of the garden you shall not eat.” Here is the smallest obstacle to Adam’s godlike dominion over the earth. When God prepared the way for his Son in the Church, he “called out” Abraham from the bosom of his family and made him a sojourner in a foreign land; later, he even asked him to kill his only son! From then on, one could read the whole fabric of Israelite religion as an attempt to preserve the nature of God as an offense to man: the presence of the Lord cannot be confined in idols, manipulated through ritual, detained within the nation-state (which thus becomes divine!), worshipped as we please. Under no circumstances is He to be touched. The God of Israel is a god of boundaries, which are meant to protect the Israelites from sacrilege, and teach them the true nature of the transcendent God in a world always guilty of bringing God down to its level.

Offense is inseparable from faith, because fallen man is incapable of true faith. He is too willing to believe the serpent’s whisper, that God is just a jealous man like us, or the grumblings of the people, who want nothing more from God in the end than the abundant flesh-pots of Egypt, even if that means a miserable slavery to passion. True freedom comes only when man renounces his graspings after God and adores Him in His transcendent majesty. Only after a long training in “offenses” can the people of Israel understand their God, and even then, it takes the rebukes of countless prophets to awaken them from their indifference.

This leads us to another Scriptural perspective on the priestly posture—and despite the expanded lectionary, our liturgical disorientation is at root a loss of Scriptural perspective—that is, its fearfulness. The Pharisee in the Gospel proudly faced the Lord in the Temple, sitting in the front row to be as close as possible to the holy forms; for what should stand between him who was so pure and the sacred? By contrast, the publican sat far to the rear, covered his head, and sighed over his own sinfulness. If a priest had descended from his place at the altar to come near to him, he might have fled away. In this parable, surely Our Lord was trying to teach us something about the proper attitude at Holy Mass? Surely He did not rebuke, because He was not displeased by, a sinner’s expression of fear at His approach: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinner!”

In an age without comfort, in “the silent society [which] abandons [man] to himself: not one lesson, no advice, no support...”, it is good and right for the Church to emphasize Christ’s nearness, his mercy and all-embracing love. But we miss the mark, and fall into an even greater error, I think, if we do not also stress his remoteness as the Holy One of Israel, as the King of the Universe, as the High Priest in the Holy of Holies at the right hand of the Father. Without realizing God’s awesome distance from us—which is not incompatible with his tender closeness!—we risk collapsing Him into another piece of mental furniture in our comfortable existence, a therapeutic presence for the bad times, rather than a Lord, the majestic object of our religious devotion. Man’s initiative is first to fear and repent, God’s response is to heal and console; but the dramatic integrity of this exchange must be preserved. Christ never heals those who do not ask for it in faith and repentance, loathing their own spiritual leprosy and crying out “Save me, son of David!”

We could multiply examples of the “distant” Christ in the Gospels, who runs away from his parents, flees to the mountains, speaks in riddles and gets exasperated with his disciples, drives people out of the temple, and bitterly disappoints Messianic expectations by dying on the Cross. The whole Gospel of John is a sustained excursus in ironies and perpetual misunderstanding between one speaking “from above” to those “from below”! Just as much as the jealous God of the Old Testament, Christ resists being pigeon-holed or tied down to human conceptions, and his closest relationships are tinged with alienation.This is an important point of catechesis for our time. We are too willing to think that the religious worldview of the Old Testament has been largely abrogated and tossed out; but this is an error, and an ancient one at that. Rather, it was elevated and purified, as grace does to nature.

This dogmatic truth entails that all the basic attitudes and practices of the Old Testament are still valid and good, if understood in the light of Christ; further, they are an ineluctable part of the totus Christus. The fear of God apparent on every page of the Old Testament (and for that matter on the lips of all good ecclesiastical writers) is therefore still a Christian virtue. In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI observed that the perennial fear of the Israelites, that seeing God would bring death, was not proved invalid in Christ’s coming, but is precisely fulfilled by Our Lord.

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