Monday, June 19, 2006

Making a Mess of Mass

Religious ritual is theater. Its power rests on its use of music, symbol, and liturgy to open the heart, mind, and soul of the worshipper to the presence of God. Mostly it is bad theater, primarily because the people in charge of worship refuse to treat it as theater. Case in point: the newly proposed changes to the American Catholic Mass.

In the new version the standard exchange between priest and people: “The Lord be with you”/”And also with you” will now be “The Lord be with you”/ “And with your spirit.” This is supposed to better reflect the Latin from which the English Mass comes. That may be. My Latin is limited to E Pluribus Unum and Biggus Dickus. But it is bad theater.

The repetition of “you” in the two phrases links the priest with the people. We could bless one another as equals. Now the people are asking that God be with the father’s spirit. But what about the rest of him? This splitting of body and spirit is both false and unfortunate. A church still reeling from child abuse scandals should know this most of all.

The second change deals with Communion. Prior to taking Communion Catholics used to say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” Now worshippers will say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” What were they thinking?

Taking the Body and Blood of Christ into oneself is the center of the Mass. This is a moment of integrating God and wo/man. No one is worthy of this, and thus it is a sign of God’s love that it is offered to you. But to shift from receiving God to having God under one’s roof misses the point completely. God isn’t entering under your roof; God is entering your mouth. Even if the liturgical writer was thinking of the roof of one’s mouth when he made this change (which I doubt), it is a terrible change.

I have been to many Communion services. I have seen the power of this intimate in-taking of God. It is moving and stirring. This new liturgy can only take away from that.

These changes reflect the error at the heart of organized religion. Rather than work to deepen our experience of God’s presence here and now, organized religion focuses on conforming to some historical experience there and then. These changes to the Catholic liturgy are just the latest example of how religion misses the mark.

True worship should have elements of continuity with the past, but should not simply imitate the past. Imitative worship cannot open us to God, unless the god it presents to us is also imitative. Indeed that may be the problem. Religion is all about the second-hand. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob rather than the God of you and this moment. Even if you add the matriarchs to the mix—Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—you are doing nothing to shift worship into the present.

When I go to a worship service I want to moved to let go of past and future and awaken to what is here and now: God manifest. I guess that is I why I rarely go to services.

2 comments:

Rachel said...

Given your Latin, I take it you too are a Monty Python fan? :-)

Anyway. I'm with you that these liturgical changes seem unfortunate. This is something I wrestle with a lot -- how do we know when changes to our liturgies are good ones (productive, useful, helping the ritual become more what it already is, opening the worshippers' hearts to the Infinite) and how do we know when they're bad (stilted, clich├ęd, or just mired in a kind of temporary diction that will seem ridiculous in just a few years?)

Chris T. said...

I agree wholeheartedly, especially about the "and with your spirit" revision. Even if it is closer to the Latin, "and also with you" represents an entirely different theology of the Mass (not to mention a different anthropology, as you point out). They are changing the character of worship for tens of millions without even talking to the laity. No one knew until the bishops voted which changes would be in and which would be out.

I struggle with the same things that Rachel does when it comes to liturgy. The Independent Catholic movement has tons of liturgies going around as a result of our almost-total doctrinal and liturgical freedom. But it can be difficult to decide what is bringing a particular community closer to God and what is just there for the priest, or the liturgist, or whoever else added it because they themselves chose it.