Sunday, March 02, 2008

Some Thoughts on Liturgical Creativity

I emphasize up front that I am not a liturgist and am simply stating my worthless opinion, lest our Roving Medievalist take me to task for elevating myself to the state of Magisterium of One.* I'm not an expert, and my opinions are based on what little reading I've done in the GIRM, the Holy Father's Spirit of the Liturgy, and my limited understanding of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

I'm sure all of you are familiar with priests who innovate at various stages of the liturgy, whether it's the injection of more drama into the Liturgy of the Word or the alteration of certain prayers and formulas during the Liturgy of the Eucharist to emphasize some teaching of the Church. Some priests also feel a need to change the tenor of the liturgy to something less formal—more chatty and personable. When these priests are confronted about these innovations, they often see the concerned faithful as being pharisaic—too concerned with the "letter of the law" rather than the spirit of Christ's Church.

Of course, being part Pharisee myself, I can't help but interject my own opinion.

Interestingly, today's gospel reading (John 9:1–41) has something to say about this—albeit paradoxically. In the reading, Christ heals a man blind from birth, who based on this act comes to believe in Jesus as Christ. The Pharisees witness the results of this miracle but are so tightly enclosed in their own understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Law cannot accept that a Godly man would heal someone on the Sabbath. Christ indicates that these who claim to know are blind in their sin. The point of the story, clearly, concerns the ability to recognize and embrace the truth when it makes itself known.

To have this teaching juxtaposed to liturgical innovation, then, would seem to support the notion that those of us desiring more faithfulness to the norms are like these Pharisees who are so stuck in their ways and unable to see outside of their liturgical boxes. We can quote from the GIRM or the VII constitution on Sacred Liturgy, but we're unable to see anything because we are so stuck in habit or refuse to accept anything that isn't by the book.

No doubt there's some truth to this in some quarters. However, those who pose the desire for reverent worship as a somehow empty adherence to form are blind to something as well. The desire for innovation in liturgy stems from at least two possible sources: from a desire on the part of the celebrant to interject himself into the liturgy in a personal way, and from a desire on the part of the celebrant to make the liturgy more meaningful to the laity. The first is a preoccupation of the priest with self-expression; the second, a desire to engage or even entertain the laity. Both positions are misguided.

While the liturgy is in part an expression of the community of the faithful, it is primarily an offering from the faithful to God and His Son. The focus is on the Son in two aspects: the Son as the Word and the Son as the Bread of Life. The desire of the celebrant for self-expression misdirects attention away from the proper focus on Christ and redirects it on the priest. Many theologians, priests, bishops and even the Holy Father have noted that celebration ad orientum tends to lessen this tendency as the priest is facing with the people toward God instead of drawing the vision of the people to himself.

I assume (or sincerely hope) that few priests would openly acknowledge that they see the liturgy as a moment of self-expression. Many of the innovators might not even recognize this motivation as the individual spirit has been so ingrained in us over the last 40 years. I suspect that more of them innovate for reason number 2. They're trying to make the liturgy more meaningful or attempting to engage the laity.

This is where the blindness comes in. As I mentioned previously, the focus of the liturgy is to be on Christ as the Word and as the Bread of Life in the Eucharist. We have two mysteries present to us here. Christ is the Logos, the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. In Christ, God said all that needed to be said. We cannot say it better. What we need is help to recognize the Word in our world. We need to recognize the Truth. Dramatic readings will not drive this home. Authoritative interpretation of the Word will.

Second, innovation in the liturgy suggests that something is missing. Some of the laity want to be entertained, to have music that makes them want to move or to have jokes and anecdotes. Maybe most of the laity want this. The popularity of Protestant megachurches suggests that this is at least partly true. In many, you can go grab a latte and hear some excellent Christian music performed as well as any other live professional performance. The latter is rarely the case in a Catholic church. (I would hope the former were rare as well, but I've seen more than one Starbuck's-toting parishioner at Mass—Eucharistic fast notwithstanding.)

If we come to Mass seeking self-expression and entertainment, we are blind to what the Mass gives us. Instead of seeing the mysteries of the Word and the Eucharist, we're looking for human ends. We're missing the big picture. We're stuck in our everyday box and unable to rise out of it for the transcendent moment that the liturgy offers us. We're as blind as the Pharisees because we attempt to live our faith as if it were something earthly rather than something Divine.

Of course, so long as the Eucharist is there, it's still worth it. If we get bent out of shape because of a few irregularities (barring overt heresy or abuse), then we're just as blind—more concerned about the broadness of our phylacteries and the length of our fringes.

*This note is not intended as a jab in the least at Jeffrey S. I think his assessment of the Catholic blogosphere is pretty accurate.
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