The Dutch historian and philosopher of religion Gerardus van der Leeuw once said, “The modern man is not capable of finding himself in several circles simultaneously as his primitive cousins did. ‘When we dance, we do not pray; when we pray, we do not dance. And when we work, we can neither dance nor pray.’” In a word, the sense of the sacred has disappeared. But not completely nor irretrievably.
The Liturgy of the Church is a moment where all the dimensions of our lives come before the living God. It is the place where we have an active encounter with God. It is the place, therefore, where we can rediscover the sacred in our lives.
The Second Vatican Council began the liturgical reform with the hope of reinvigorating this sense of the Presence of God who comes to meet us in love. Two generations after the Council, we are still searching for a deeper sense of the sacred in our Liturgy. We now realize some of the ways in which this can be accomplished. It is good to look at a few of these.
Certain settings demand their own particular etiquette. Dress at a wedding reception differs from dress at a sports event. Conversation in a bar is louder than in a funeral home. The more we realize we are coming into the Presence of God in Church, the more respectful and reverent our whole person becomes. Chewing gum in Church, loud talking, beach attire and immodest dress simply do not belong!
In church, we need to cultivate a sense of God who is present to us. This is why we are called to observe moments of silence. Both before Mass begins and during Mass. Liturgy is much more than our joining together. It is our opening ourselves to God. By our singing and praying, we respond to the God who addresses us in Liturgy. A constant torrent of words and songs filling every empty space in the Liturgy does not leave the heart the space it needs to rest quietly in the Divine Presence.
In the Annunciation, after the angel announces to Mary that she is to be the Mother of the Lord and Mary gives her fiat, there is silence (cf. Lk 1:38). In this pregnant silence, that Word becomes flesh. Mary remains the model of the disciple before the Word of God. She reminds us that we need moments of silence for God to enter our life. We need those moments in our personal prayer and in the Liturgy.
In the Liturgy recorded in the last book of the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation, the word proskynein (to bow) is used twenty-four times — more than in any other part of the New Testament. John, the author of the Book of Revelation, presents this heavenly Liturgy as the model and standard for the Church’s Liturgy on earth. Our body bowed in prayer acknowledges the Lord’s majesty. It visibly confesses our belonging to God who is the Lord of all. Here is a strong reminder of the place of body in Liturgy.
We are not just spirit when we pray. We pray in our total reality as body and spirit. And so, to recapture the sense of the sacred, therefore, we need to express our reverence through our body language. The norms of the Liturgy wisely have us stand in prayer at certain moments, sit in attentive listening to the readings, and kneel in reverent adoration during the solemn prayer of consecration. These norms are not arbitrary nor are they left to the discretion of any individual celebrant.
Creativity is not an authentic rule for celebrating the Church’s Liturgy. In many cases, it humanizes the Liturgy and draws attention from God to the celebrant. The priest is merely the servant of the Liturgy, not its creator or center.
Commenting on this, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, said: “The greatness of the Liturgy depends—we shall have to repeat this frequently—on its unspontaneity (Unbeliebigkeit)…. Only respect for the Liturgy’s fundamental unspontaneity and pre-existing identity can give us what we hope for: the feast in which the great reality comes to us that we ourselves do not manufacture but receive as a gift (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 170). Since the Liturgy is a gift and not something of our own creation, it takes great humility to celebrate the Liturgy properly and reverently.
Observing the norms of the Liturgy helps to create a profound sense of the sacred in each of us at Mass. Celebrating Mass and observing liturgical norms also makes us visibly one with the entire Church to which we belong. “Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 52).
Today it has become commonplace at the end of the Liturgy to recite a litany of gratitude for all those who, in some way or another, have made the celebration beautiful. No doubt there is a way to express gratitude at the end of Mass. But is it possible that each time applause breaks out in the Liturgy at the end of the Mass for someone’s contribution, we lapse into seeing the Mass as a human achievement? Sometimes even during the Mass after someone has sung a beautiful hymn, there is spontaneous applause. At such a moment, does not the real meaning of Liturgy lapse into some kind human entertainment?
We can recapture more and more the sense of the sacred, the more we allow the Liturgy to be what it is. A gift from God that allows God to speak and act in our life. A gift that draws us out of ourselves and out of time into the eternal life of God even now.
Bishop Arthur Serratelli, S.T.D., S.S.L., D.D.
To be continued