“Eh, Bart, I’m glad you had fun, but I wouldn’t get too into that Catholic Church. With all the sitting and standing and kneeling, it’s like Simon Says without a winner.” – Marge
“Mom, that’s blasphemy! I’ll say a rosary for you.” – Bart
– The Simpsons, Season 16 Episode 21 (“The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star”)
Liturgy is central to the Christian life. In Roman times, “liturgy” (Greek: leitourgia) meant “a tax or financial obligation paid by one for the benefit of many”. Think about the Crucifixion and the Mass, which joins in on that perpetual single Sacrifice (Hebrews 10:11-14), and realize the meaning of the word itself.
“[I]n the beauty of the liturgy…wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshiping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centered on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity.” – Pope Benedict XVI [link]
The Mass is, of course, totally in line with both Scripture and Tradition. It has been integral to Christianity since the Last Supper. St. Peter Julian Eymard said, “The Mass is the most holy act of religion; you can do nothing that can give greater glory to God or be more profitable for your soul than to hear Mass both frequently and devoutly. It is the favorite devotion of the saints.”
The Mass also has a very rich history. Some forms of it, like the Ambrosian – which is still in use today – have older origins than even the Tridentine form. At great personal risk, Catholics preserved early liturgical documents. Thanks to their efforts, teachings have survived wars, famines, persecution, and the elements.
In addition, the Mass is another sign of the Christian fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17-18), because it is in harmony with ancient Jewish traditions. We use stone altars, as the Jews did. Priests also ritually wash their hands before celebrating the Sacrifice, in accordance with commands from the Old Testament (Exodus 30:17-21, Psalm 26:6). Even the use of holy water at parish entrances has its roots in Judaism. Before entering the Temple, Jews were required to undergo immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath).
Unfortunately, within this liturgical framework, there is a minority that puts its personal preferences above the judgment of the Church. There are some that insist on identifying only with the Tridentine form (which, by the way, was not even promulgated until 1570, despite its proponents’ focus on antiquity) and push willful neglect of the perfectly-valid Novus Ordo, and there are some that advocate the reverse. Both sides are wrong – both forms are right. These factions do nothing but needlessly scare off potential converts that seek a unified message.
All approved forms of the Mass are equally valid, but sometimes differently demonstrated. In keeping with the centrality of sacrifices in Judeo-Christian history, the Eucharist is essential – that, not our preferences, is what matters. For example, I may not be thrilled that the Ambrosian rite has the Epiklesis after the Words of Institution (rather than before), but I defer to the wisdom of the Church and recognize that its Eucharist is valid.
On the Sunday before Christmas, I attended an Orthodox (OCA) liturgy. It was mesmerizing and markedly devout. The “smells and bells,” the obvious reverence, and the different prayers kept me piqued. One part of the Communion prayers struck me especially: “Receive me today, Son of God, as a partaker of Your mystical Supper. I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries, nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.”
This is how a proper liturgy should be. A liturgy is supposed to be transcendent, to connect us to God. The Church tirelessly works to ensure that this is the reality, but we need knowledge to appreciate this. Let us all learn more about our liturgical heritage and continuously fall in love with the Church over and over again.
(All verses are from the NASB translation.)