Then there were the principles [of liturgical reform]: intelligibility, instead of being locked up in an unknown language that is no longer spoken, and also active participation. Unfortunately, these principles have also been misunderstood. Intelligibility does not mean banality, because the great texts of the liturgy – even when, thanks be to God, they are spoken in our mother tongue – are not easily intelligible, they demand ongoing formation on the part of the Christian if he is to grow and enter ever more deeply into the mystery and so arrive at understanding. And also the word of God – when I think of the daily sequence of Old Testament readings, and of the Pauline Epistles, the Gospels: who could say that he understands immediately, simply because the language is his own? Only ongoing formation of hearts and minds can truly create intelligibility and participation that is something more than external activity, but rather the entry of the person, of my being, into the communion of the Church and thus into communion with Christ.
Reflection – Ah, this is so crucial, right here. In the Eastern liturgy, the bulk of the action takes place behind the icon screen. At the most sacred moments, the curtains are drawn, and the priest’s voice is low, barely audible. The reason I have been told for this is that the reality of the liturgy is so beyond our human comprehension, that to see and hear it clearly with our senses is actually not to see or hear it at all.
We have to get this, we moderns who are so clear that everything is so clear all the time. Intellgibility does not mean having everything laid out for us to easily hear and see. Not when it’s the liturgy; not when it’s the mystery of God.
Liturgy is the great mystery of God – the love of God poured out in Jesus, consummated on the cross, made present to us in the Church by the action of the spirit through the ordained ministers of the rite. It’s not so much ‘what part of this do you not understand?’, as it is ‘what part of this do you understand?’
Get it? So the language of liturgy should be a bit elevated, should be a bit ‘up there’. If it’s all ‘Jesus you are so nice help us to be nice too’ we are actually falsifying the mystery we are supposed to be presenting. And so I personally am thrilled to bits at the new English translation with its sometimes tangled syntax and fun vocabulary words, its sense of hieratic language.
If we easily see it, we are not seeing it. If we immediately comprehend it, we have understood nothing. To be a bit baffled, a bit puzzled, a bit confused – to be uncertain of what’s really being said, what’s really going on – that puts on a more sure footing, a more correct track.
And that’s the intelligibility of liturgy. As it happens, that’s also active participation – to be swept into a mystery beyond our ken, and to give ourselves to it in wonder and in awe. This may look like silent prayer, attentive listening or yes, singing and responding with full voice to what is being said.
Liturgy: not our work, but God’s, not our truth, but God’s, not on our level, but God’s, and how we structure it should reflect this basic understanding.