Why words in the liturgy need to be ritual words

Why words in the liturgy need to be ritual words

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Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

In liturgy, if you are trying to get lightening to strike, you not only need to choose the right word, you also have to choose the right kind of word.

Liturgy is fundamentally a symbolic activity. That means that when we use something like water in liturgy, it is not just water. It is also a metaphor that signifies many things (for example, blessing, healing, washing, saving, sanctifying, refreshing, renewing).

Likewise, the words we use in liturgy are also symbolic. For example, “The Lord be with you” is not just a pleasant hope on the part of the presider that God is hanging around in the assembly. It is a statement rich with meaning and significance.

Do you know what ritual your words are conveying?

In addition to having layers of meaning, ritual language usually also does something. For example, when the presider says, “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive our sin, and bring us to everlasting life,” God actually has mercy, forgives, and brings us to everlasting life. The words perform what they say.

Words like these are what Aidan Kavanagh calls “primary theology” (On Liturgical Theology). By “primary,” he means that these kinds of words reveal the radical presence of Christ to us. In a sense, ritual words name the unnamable. But it’s more than just that. Think of any love relationship you have. When you try to describe that relationship to someone else, the words always fall short. They fail to name the unnamable. But when you bring flowers to your beloved, and say, “I love you,” you not only name what’s going on between you, you also effect or perform the love that you have. A similar thing happens in liturgy. Our ritual gestures and words both name and perform our encounter with the Holy.

Our ritual gestures and words both name and perform our encounter with the Holy. Click To Tweet

Don’t retreat from encountering the divine

However, not all of our ritual words are “primary.” We have some secondary words in our rituals that are more like stage directions. “Let us pray,” for example. Or “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.”

And then we have words that are not part of our ritual language at all. For example, “Today’s opening song is number 107 in your hymnal.” Or “Good morning.” Or “Please join us after Mass for coffee and doughnuts.”

In every liturgy, lightning strikes. That is, we mere humans encounter the mysterious, tremendous reality of the Divine. Often, however, we shield ourselves from awareness. Instead of focusing on the primary words that name the unnamable, we indulge in words more easily grasped that do not unmoor us from the familiar.

Have your heard this exchange at Mass?

“The Lord be with you.”
“And with your spirit.”
“Good morning.”
“Good morning, Father.”

What is performed or enacted in that exchange is a preliminary attempt at encountering the Divine, an admission that the encounter is too formal or frightening for ordinary folk, and a retreat to an inward focus on our own, manageable, human interactions. We gave up on trying to name the unnamable and settled for naming what we already know.

We perhaps need some non-ritual words in our rituals. We wouldn’t want the coffee to cool and the doughnuts to go stale for lack of an invitation. But the kinds of words we use and how we use them in the liturgy make a difference. If we want our worship to be a life-changing encounter with the mysterious and tremendous One, we have to speak and act in ways that open our hearts to divine presence — the Lord being with us.

It’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Your Turn

What words in the liturgy most strike you with a sense of the mystery of God? Where do you find yourself moving quickly ahead, past an encounter with this mystery? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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