Monday, February 13, 2023

Processing through the Courts of the Great King

The Jewish Temple, in either of its historical forms—Solomon’s or Zerubbabel’s—possessed certain basic features that go all the way back to the tabernacle erected in the wilderness of Sinai. In its most elaborate form, as renovated and expanded by King Herod shortly before the birth of Jesus, we find a series of concentric circles of holiness, from the most secular to the most sacred.

First there was the Outer Courtyard, which anyone, including Gentiles, could visit. Then there was the Inner Courtyard, which only male Jews could enter. Next was the Temple itself, with its Holy Place where only members of the tribe of Levi were permitted to serve. Lastly, you came to the Holy of Holies, which was off limits to anyone but the High Priest of that year. What we see in this arrangement of the Temple mount is a gradual progression from the secular to the sacred. There was the throne room of the King, but there were also many antechambers surrounding it where His citizens came and went, busy with their prayers or offerings.

In her life of worship, the Catholic Church, inheritor and fulfiller of the religious life of Israel, has something analogous to this concentric series of spheres, although now that Christ has pierced the veil and entered the heavenly Holy of Holies, there is no longer a distinction based on sex or race or tribe; all who are baptized have access to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. While we do see physical remnants of the Temple such as the clear separation between the sanctuary of a Catholic church and the nave where the faithful congregate, what I have in mind is the rich variety and complexity of Catholic liturgical and devotional life outside of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Mass is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” but we do not reach the summit except by climbing the mountain, and the mountain represents all the other rituals and pious practices we have been given, such as morning offerings, grace before and after meals, the Divine Office, Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction, the Rosary and the Angelus, First Fridays and First Saturdays, the Stations of the Cross, processions, Bible study groups, popular religious gatherings.

We are prepared to drink from the source by increasing our thirst for the living waters. We intensify our readiness to receive Our Lord at Mass by allowing His presence to permeate the rest of our life outside of Mass—something we do at set times with set practices, and more generally, by cultivating an awareness of the presence of God wherever we are. The spiritual life of a Catholic is not one-dimensional but many-dimensioned. To change metaphors, even as a homestead has different paths and gates, buildings and fields, and as the main house has many rooms and floors, doors and windows, for all different sorts of purposes, so too does the great spiritual homestead and household of the Catholic Church.

This richness and diversity in our expression of faith is not only healthy, but necessary for communal and personal sanity. Indeed, things begin to go very wrong when Catholics forget about the huge realm of public prayer outside of Mass and the private devotions that are their rightful heritage. When people attempt to compensate for this unrecognized loss by packing all their devotional needs and wishes into the Mass itself, they start expecting things that might be reasonable to expect, but not from the Mass.

Take music, for example. The stance of the Catholic Church is that popular religious songs are, as far as they go, a good thing (although some of them might be bad, either because the lyrics are unorthodox, or because the musical style is too distracting or animalistic). Lovely popular religious songs have been sung for generations in the living rooms of homes, in outdoor meetings, at prayer groups and other events. However, this music is simply not appropriate for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is an awesome mystery—a matter more for fear and trembling than for rousing refrains and tapping toes.

Listen to the way the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom speaks of the Eucharist: “the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly, life-creating, and awesome mysteries of Christ.” This is what Mass is all about: cosmic mysteries before which we bend our knees in humble adoration. It is not a jamboree, not a sing-along, not a “festival of praise,” not even a Scripture study or a Marian devotion. We are kneeling before the Holy of Holies, and so, like Moses before the Burning Bush, we must do what is appropriate for that encounter with Divine Fire. As St. Ephrem the Syrian writes: “He called the bread his living body and he filled it with himself and his Spirit . . . He who eats it with faith, eats Fire and Spirit.”

When, on the other hand, Catholics develop a more diversified culture and life of prayer, they find outlets for all the different legitimate needs and wishes they have; the Mass does not have to bear all the weight. It is quite unreasonable to expect that our complex and manifold spiritual needs can all be met by one hour each week on Sunday morning, but unfortunately that is the typical expectation of many American Catholics.

We men and believers need to do not just quantitatively more things, but qualitatively different things. To return to my opening image, we reach the Holy of Holies or the Throne Room by entering in a leisurely way the Outer Courtyard, proceeding with increased piety to the Inner Courtyard, stepping up with reverential fear into the Temple itself, the Holy Place, and, at last, coming to the very foot of the Throne, in the presence of the King: sitting while his prophets and apostles are speaking, standing at attention when He addresses us in the Gospel, kneeling when He delivers Himself to the Father as a sweet-smelling oblation and yields Himself to us for our nourishment.

How can we not exclaim with St. Francis of Assisi: “What wonderful majesty! What stupendous condescension! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation.” We will be properly prepared for this “admirable exchange,” whereby we give ourselves to God and He gives Himself to us, when we have walked, with devout presence of mind, through the courtyards and into the Temple.

We owe it to our King to prepare ourselves for His royal banquet, His wedding feast, and the Church has given us an abundance of ways in which we can do that: the Divine Office; Eucharistic Adoration; Lectio Divina; Confession; the Rosary; and so forth. The Mass is the crown jewel, to be sure, but it is not the entire crown; indeed, the jewel is given its appropriate place by the other materials that hold it and complement it.

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