We have been going through the liturgy of the Mass on this blog, piece by piece, showing how each small part of it informs the whole of our Christian life. Last week I wrote about how the preface grounds us in sacred time, in the precise point of our annual pilgrimage around the sun we are on. Both the temporality of it and its sacred meaning, the openness of time to eternity, earth to heaven, man to God.
The preface, then, always concludes with a reference to the angelic choirs singing the praises of God and our uniting our prayers with theirs, at which point the whole congregation bursts into song: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
The movement from the preface to the Sanctus is a precise encapsulation of the whole movement of the liturgy from earth to heaven, from one mode of existence and its exigencies, conditions, limits, to another mode of existence with a whole other set of these. This movement occurs over and over again in the liturgy and is the wide arching structure of the entirety of it, but here we see it in miniature.
Heaven has not been a popular subject in recent decades. In the mid to late 20th century our betters informed us that focusing on heaven led our ancestors to neglect the earth, and that it is preferable to forget about life after death and the eternal kingdom and just get on with building a just society here.
My fingers frankly had a hard time typing the previous sentence, rebelling against consigning such stupidity to print, even to critique it. For one thing, our ancestors who were so enamored of heaven and eternity did not exactly neglect the affairs of this earth.
They even built this little thing called Western Civilization, which for all its flaws has had a few good points to it, you know. A truly extraordinary flowering of art, music, literature, architecture, the discovery of the scientific method, the burgeoning of philosophy, the discovery of the concept of universal human rights (rightly credited to 16th century Dominicans)—all flowed from men and women who were quite taken up with the reality of the heavenly realm and its priority over earth.
Not to mention the works of mercy done by countless men and women on earth out of love for heaven, out of a desire to bring the ethos of heaven down to earth for the poor. The secularist approach to reality has not yet shown itself capable of doing any of that, and in fact all signs point to the opposite—a hardening, coarsening, flattening of earthly life has followed upon the banishment of heaven to an artifact of the past.
And of course similar flowerings of civilization and truly rich human life have occurred in other parts of the world where, while not Christian, men and women have been alive to the transcendent, the sacred, the mystical. The great civilizations of Asia all bear witness to this.
It is a simple fact known to everyone who knows anything of history, anything of the world beyond their own fingertips, that human life becomes more human, becomes richer, kinder, sweeter, more beautiful, when there is a lively awareness of the eternal dimension, of the heavenly realm, of that sweet music coming from afar, that Other Place which is at once so wrapped in mystery for us and yet which sends us such tantalizing messages, such flashes of light and beauty.
Humanity only remains human when it is open to the divine. Time only runs in its course rightly, that is, towards love and life, when it is continually circling around eternity, around that still point which seems at first and superficial glance to have little to do with the earthly round of things, and yet which fixes that earthly realm in order, peace, security.
All of which is contained in the daily liturgical chanting of the Sanctus, that moment when earth unites to heaven and is lifted up to the throne of God to sing there the song of the angels in glory. Let us sing that song today, and from that draw the wisdom and love to choose rightly our earthly course of action.