Liturgy as pointless as Valentines

Seminarians speak
By Aaron Williams
aaron-williamsThe twentieth century liturgical theologian, Romano Guardini, devoted the fifth chapter of his famous “Spirit of the Liturgy” to discuss the seeming lack of purpose in the liturgy. He raises a series of important questions which are at the heart of why so many people find the “extravagance” of the liturgy a form of useless pageantry. Why is it necessary, for example, that a Church be richly decorated or that a priest wear vestments?
In a few days many couples will celebrate Valentine’s Day during which they will engage in many other “meaningless” acts. Gifts will be given of jewelry or flowers. Others will go see a movie, or share a more extravagant meal than they normally eat. Children will give their classmates candy or homemade cards.
All of these acts have no real purpose if divorced from love. The lover, however, does not focus on the “pointless” nature of his acts, but on what these gifts mean as an expression of love. In some cases these gifts may even be regarded by the sacrifice they require, either in time or in money.
The liturgy is our expression of love for God. We could offer the Eucharistic sacrifice by merely recalling the words of Christ at the Last Supper, but our prayers and sacrifice are sweetened by the actions of the liturgy. We build giant stadiums to enjoy our favorite sports and even pay exorbitant amounts of money to put granite countertops in our bathrooms, yet we question the necessity of some of the gestures of the liturgy.
When the sinful woman poured perfume over our Lord’s feet, Judas asked, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5). There are some things we do for those we love which oftentimes may not make sense to other people. Why, for example, is it necessary that the “happy birthday” song be sung? Could it not simply be spoken and its purpose still be accomplished?
The monks at Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma are constructing a massive Church for their small community. I noticed in this church a very large and empty space between the altar and the monastic choir. The guest master explained to me, “This place is for Gospel processions.” If we truly believe that Christ is alive in the words of Holy Scripture, why shouldn’t we make space to provide for a procession to celebrate his presence?
Ancient Jewish scholars tell us that during the time of Passover, a veritable river of blood flowed from the side of the Temple in Jerusalem due to the sheer number of lambs being sacrificed. God commanded Moses that a bull was to be offered each day for a week when Aaron and his sons were ordained. God made these “pointless” acts rich in meaning for his chosen people. And, in the fullness of time, God sacrificed his only Son so that his creatures could become holy. What better example could be found of a seemingly-useless act done in the name of love?
Perhaps the reason we find our liturgical practice lackluster today is because we do not give it a chance to fully express our love for God. Instead, we focus on how to make the Mass shorter or the building less expensive. Yes, not all communities can afford large churches, have the number of servers to produce grand processions or choirs to sing difficult choral works — but our worship must be an expression of the true love and devotion we have for God, which does not imply rich ornamentation, but means that it should be a real sacrifice of our time, talent and sometimes even our money.
One of my professors once questioned why so many people build churches out of concrete. “The homeless sleep under concrete bridges. When they step into a beautiful church they are able to enjoy its beauty as an equal with even the richest person there. Because, both are home in their Father’s house.” We should not ignore the poor by demanding ostentation in churches, yet, our service to one another must flow from the outpouring of our love for God.
Dorothy Day — a hero of the American Catholic social movement — insisted that the poor who lived in her house recite daily prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours. If we want to actively live our faith, we must fully participate in our worship, which, I would suggest, is why “active participation in the liturgy” was a primary goal of the Second Vatican Council.
This goal can be better fulfilled on an individual and a parish level by a deepening engagement in the liturgy — by preparing beforehand, being willing to sacrifice our time, and refusing to cut corners in the worship of God.
One thing we could all do is strive to make Sunday truly the day of the Lord by spending time with our family and, most importantly, in prayer. It isn’t enough for a husband to tell his wife that he loves her. He must act. And, so too must we act to demonstrate our love to God.
Guardini says, “When the liturgy is rightly regarded, it cannot be said to have a purpose, because it does not exist for the sake of humanity, but for the sake of God…man is no longer concerned with himself.”
(Aaron Williams is a third-year theologian studying to become a priest in our diocese. He and his classmate, Nick Adam, will be ordained to the transitional diaconate in mid-March.)