Sunday, June 16, 2013

Send Out the Clowns

The liturgical level [of Christian life] does not stand on its own. It has meaning only in relation to something that really happens, to a reality that is substantially present. Otherwise it would lack real content, like bank notes without funds to cover them. The Lord could say that his Body was ‘given’ only because he had in fact given if; he could present his Blood in the new chalice as shed for many only because he really had shed it. This Body is not the ever-dead corpse of a dead man, nor is the Blood the life-element rendered lifeless. No, sacrifice has become gift, for the Body given in love and the Blood given in love have entered, through the Resurrection, into the eternity of love, which is stronger than death.

Joseph Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 55

Reflection – Well, back to Benedict on this wonderful Sunday in June (it is currently grey, cold, and rainy outside here in Combermere). It is still too soon to talk about ‘legacy’ with Joseph Ratzinger and his life of service to the Church. I think, though, that in the long run this book Spirit of the Liturgy will be the most significant contribution.

I say this because of the very real chaos that has existed in the Church in the past 50 years, a chaos expressed on the local level in widespread liturgical disobedience, an ‘anything goes’ attitude where the rubrics and texts of the Mass are at best suggestions, a chaos expressed on the level of liturgical theory by a determinedly horizontal, anti-hierarchical, ahistorical casting of liturgy as primarily or exclusively the local community’s self-expression—a sort of Hegelian manifestation of Spirit through the locally devised rituals of the parish gestalt (a gestalt that is in fact the pastor and his hand-picked liturgical committee inflicting their creations on the rest of the parish).

Ratzinger’s book, which is the best of several fine works on the liturgy he has written, is so significant because it shows the vacuity of that reigning liturgical ideology, and establishes the theology of liturgy on the sure foundations of Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. By knowing how the saving work of Christ has been communicated in the Church, we can see why the liturgy is structured as it is, and how each rubric is carefully fashioned to express some dimension of this saving work of Christ, each text is carefully formulated to precisely articulate it.

And so we can’t mess around with it. The era of experimentation and liturgical improv is over. Alas, the memo has not quite gone out everywhere. Just recently there was a Star Wars themed first communion Mass in Germany, complete with light saber blessings. Because, you see, they had used Star Wars in the catechesis of the children, and so it was really ‘relevant’ to the community’s self-understanding. That ‘the Force’ has no connection whatsoever to the Christian understanding of God and that there is actually a pretty profound historical, mystical, transformative reality of Christ being, well, communicated in the Eucharist is dismissed as irrelevant. The children had a good time and everyone had a great laugh, and church was fun for once. That’s what matters.

Meanwhile, the Body and Blood of Christ are given, not as symbols or notional ideas but as living realities. Sacrifice has become gift, and love flows through every prayer, every gesture, every element of the liturgy, until it rises to a climax where Christ in the priest transubstantiates the bread and wine into His own being, which is then given to those present who are in communion with Him (by being free of grave sin) and with His Church (by being members in good standing of the visible Catholic Church).

This is simply the truth of the matter. I think what jars me, and people like me who would be classified as ‘conservatives’ liturgically (I call myself no such thing), is the idea that we have to dress this truth up with balloons or clowns or skits or comedy routines or… I don’t know – something else. Like what’s there is not enough and needs a little help from us. What God has given us is insufficient and so the creative skills of the liturgy committee needs to come to God’s rescue with pirates or dinosaurs or superheroes or strobe lights.

At Mass, we are at the last supper, on Calvary, at the empty tomb, in the upper room. Jesus is there, risen, living, radiant, bearing the wounds of his passion and death, and bearing his love and salvation. We don’t need to dress it up with the fashions of the day or the latest pop culture references (coming soon, a Twilight themed Mass!).

We just need to say the black and do the red and prayerfully, reverently, gratefully, let Jesus love us and save us in the action of the liturgy. Happy Sunday – see you in church!


  1. Thanks Fr. Denis. I've seen clips of such liturgies on Youtube, and they are usually taking place in Germany or Austria. But thank God, I have never attended one in Canada or the U.S. that had "themes" such as you describe. I rather suspect the days of flagrant experimentation and "making relevant" are well behind us, although our liturgies remain in many respects a "horizontal" expression, and still need recovery of the sense of the sacred. Our digitalized universe requires such spaces of incarnate religious experience. I also look forward to reading your book. God bless! - John O'Brien

    1. I agree with you - at least, I hope we're both right that the worst is over. Although my understanding is that continental Europe in general has a lot of pretty bad stuff going on generally.
      I would love to hear your feedback on my book - it does touch on these very matters of incarnation, silence, sacredness, encounter...


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