|Medieval Bas Relief at Lucca|
Cathedral showing Mass celebrated
facing the people.
Well, Holy Week has come and gone another year, but I noticed something in the Krazy response to Pope Francis and his manner of performing the washing of feet on Holy Thursday that I had previously missed and which gave me a clue to the problem, not only of why the Krazies go sooooooo kraaaazy about Francis washing the feet of women, but why so many have issues with the current Liturgical Rites in the “Ordinary Form.”
What I noticed this year and had somehow missed in previous years, is the complaint that “because the Rite of Washing the feet reenacts Christ’s washing the feet of his apostles at the Last Supper…” Wait a minute. The Rite does not reenact anything. The Rite fulfills the command of Christ that as he washed the feet of his disciples, so too should the greater among us wash the feet of the lesser. This Rite has from ancient times been referred to as the mandatum, the commandment. It is not a sacred play in which an actor—the pope, a bishop, a priest—is Jesus and 12 other guys are the apostles. It is the leader of the community washing the feet of 12 (or six or thirty-two or whatever) members of the community because Jesus has told us that whoever is the greater among us is to become servant to the rest.
But the problem is not simply the foot washing; the problem is seeing the Liturgy as some sort of a piece of sacred theater in which things are “acted out.” When one sees the Liturgy this way, it makes all the sense that the sanctuary becomes a stage, vestments become costumes, choirs are the chorus, the sacred ministers become actors, and the rest of us sit back and enjoy the show. This describes the “Extradordinary Form” perfectly. I have always noted the similarities of that final scene of Tosca to the traditional Liturgy, that scene in the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle with the magnificent procession with the “Blessed Sacrament,” which is no more than a cardboard cut-out placed in an antique monstrance but which makes the pious swoon in faux-ecstasy as they recall the “good old days” of the Latin Mass. Now I realize why that scene always has impressed me as it has. It is the “Old Church”—where faith is reduced to theatre—good theatre, great theatre, but theatre. The Mass as performance can be great, it can be moving, it certainly can be beautiful when it is done well, but it is not what Christ gave us. In the Liturgy we are all called to be “actors.” There are no spectators. I don’t mean simply that we are not to sit back and watch, but I mean that in the Liturgy we are all called to be directly and intrinsically involved in the sacred action. We are all “actors” as it were. In the Reforms of Vatican II, the “stage” is not the sanctuary—it is the entire worship space. In the “old Mass” we were to sit there (or kneel or stand as the rite dictated) while the “sacred ministers” performed the Rite on our behalf. Oh, sure, we were to “spiritually join” ourselves to them in the rite—but in the way that members of a high-school musical audience are swept up into Oklahoma or The Mikado. We certainly weren’t to go up on the stage and interact with the players. But in the liturgy we are to do precisely that. The word liturgy comes from the Greek and is derived from the word λαος—(the people) and the word εργο—a work or project. (“Laity” also comes from the word, λαος, the people.) In our modern churches where we are comfortably seated facing the “stage” sanctuary, it is all to easy for us to fall into that audience mode but in the ancient and medieval churches where people stood throughout the liturgy and where much of the liturgy happened in the middle of the assembly—the processions for the gospel and the offertory, for example—there was a stronger sense of the people being participants and not merely spectators. This can still be experienced in the Eastern Rites, especially in the old churches of Eastern Europe where there are still no seats and where the clergy move easily among the congregation for the various incensations and processions. In fact in the Byzantine Rite, with which I am very familiar and which I much admire, the entire liturgy is a sung dialogue between the priest at the altar and the people gathered in the Body of the Church. But what some nostalgia freaks want is the old days where you could sit at Mass and engage in some sort of pious reverie that made you feel “spiritual” but was more a quasi-devotional fantasy than genuine prayer.
The Liturgy is not a play or a historical re-enactment. It is profoundly mystical but not in an esoteric way. It is a living engagement with God in Word and Sacrament, an encounter with Grace. Gone is the railing that once marked stage from audience and for a reason. Gone is the arcane language that kept the people at a distance from what was taking place. Gone are the separations and distinctions that urged us into passivity. “full, conscious, and active” participation is now required so that we too can both make our sacrifice and emerge changed to the heart from this encounter.