Liturgy is weak when it is treated as a production — a show that has producers and consumers. The producers of a movie or a television show create something for an audience to watch. It is not uncommon to find places where an individual minister or team of ministers take on the responsibility of producing the liturgy with little participation from the baptized priesthood. This trend was exacerbated during the pandemic when small ministry teams were literally producing streamed Masses for parishioners to watch.
When the liturgy is weak, several dangers pop up.
Liturgy that does not require my active participation allows me to retreat into my individual world and private imagination about who God is. Since no one challenges the God I’ve dreamed up, I’m free to continue to create God in my own image. Now I don’t know about you, but the probability of me, all by myself, imagining a God who will lead me to true repentance and conversion from all the stuff I need to repent and convert from is roughly the same as winning the SuperLotto … twice.
Pietism is a different result of the same problem. When left to my own devices, I am likely to envision a God who is so other than I am that there is little hope of ever achieving some kind of intimate connection. So I embark on a series of devotional practices which will, I hope, give me a glimpse of the Holy One or a momentary feeling of spiritual connectedness. My life becomes dedicated to seeking those momentary mystical experiences which actually lead me away from the Mystical Body of Christ.We are in communion not only with Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, but also Christ in the gathered assembly, the Body of Christ, the church, the people of God. Click To Tweet
A good example of just how deeply this is ingrained in us is the way the communion rite is celebrated in many parishes. With the reform of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, the rubrics for Mass called for the assembly to stand for the entire communion rite (from the Lord’s Prayer through the end of the Prayer after Communion). This change was never implemented in most parishes, and even some priests did not realize we were supposed to be standing. Until the recent reemphasis on the liturgical guidelines, most Catholics would return from communion and kneel down for a moment of private time with Jesus. The result is that what has been “taught” for the 50-plus years since Vatican II is that the very moment when we are supposed to be most in communion, we are most separated. We do not see Christ in each other so much as inside me.
Now there is nothing wrong with private mediation and focusing on our personal relationship with Christ. In fact, it is essential to a healthy spirituality that we do just that. Just not at Mass. And especially not at communion. We are in communion not only with Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, but also Christ in the gathered assembly, the Body of Christ, the church, the people of God.
A regular experience of weak liturgy can lead me to wonder what the point of it all is. I get up, I go to church, I come home, and life goes on just the same as always. Nothing ever seems to change. A lot of apathetic people will just stop going to church. Even some every-Sunday Catholics are apathetic about the liturgy and perhaps about their faith. They come to Mass for other reasons — perhaps to see old friends, force of habit, or to take out an eternal-life insurance policy on the off-chance God really is keeping track.
You notice this most when folks come late or leave early. Or only come to church once in a while. If liturgy is something to watch, there is no need for me to get there until it starts. If the show is boring, there is no reason to stay through the end.If liturgy is something to watch, there is no need for me to get there until it starts. If the show is boring, there is no reason to stay through the end. Click To Tweet
If, on the other hand, we thought of liturgy as a drama and ourselves as the actors, wouldn’t we feel compelled to arrive early? And wouldn’t it be necessary to stay until the “final curtain”? Could we ever choose to just not show up? The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says Christ is present in the liturgy in several ways. One of those ways is in the gathered assembly. If we don’t gather, the liturgy is missing an essential role.
If Christ came to free the oppressed, and the fullness of Christ is manifest in the liturgy, it follows that a weakened expression of that manifestation will not be as effective in furthering Christ’s mission. In other words, the poor of the world, the people Christ came to serve, are waiting for me to do something. If the liturgy isn’t teaching me what to do (and motivating me to do it), those poor people are just going to have to wait a little longer.
Okay, I know I’m never going to save the world, no matter how often I go to Mass, no matter how great the Mass is. But God never asked me to save to world. God asked me to do what I can do. God asked me to help. To help the person right in front of me. To answer the Catholic Relief Services appeal that’s on the top of the pile. To call an estranged family member on Christmas day. Liturgy that is well-celebrated, that does not put me in the role of spectator. Liturgy that is well-celebrated expects me to be an active participant, forms me and rehearses me in being a more active participant in the world.
Photo by timJ on Unsplash
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