What's the Deal with Liturgy?

"Everything's better in Latin," say the 'traditionalists.' "Why do anything other than the red and say anything other than the black?"

On the other side of the fence, the über-progressivists contend that Mass ought to be anything but cookie-cutter. "Jesus is present in the people, and people are dynamic and alive, so Mass should be too."

Finally, for the pietists, "Mass is Mass; and as long as Jesus is present, that's all that matters."

[N.B. For those who don't care for sweeping generalizations, this post is not for you.]


So, again we ask: "What's the deal with liturgy, anyway?" Why all this hubbub about the Mass? In a few short lines, we are able to class the vast majority of liturgical sensibilities into three (fairly) tight-knit groups; and despite the (resounding) accusations that such categories are naïvely cliché, the fact is that stereotypes arise from empirical data. After all, there's probably a reason that we don't speak about neo-Arians and hyper-Origenists: no one cares. But something about the liturgy fascinates people; and it fascinates them enough to divide them into distinct and undeniable camps (regardless of what we decide to call them).

Whatever's at the heart of all this debate about the way the Mass 'ought to be' is certainly a powerful concept. It's something that must strike to the core of what it means to be a Catholic, or at least a Catholic in the twenty-first century. No doubt, this central issue is deeply connected to various ideas of how the Church ought to interact and exist in the modern world. The question of liturgy is one that permeates the entire Christian life, since it is a question of man's openness to the divine, and his practice of worshiping God, the Creator of all that is.

Really, it's this last notion, I think, that forms the real edge of liturgical disagreement and dialogue. The idea that the Catholic liturgy is the prima theologia is undeniable, even for those who are far from being theologians in any other respect. There is something unavoidably 'theological' about Mass; and I think this inevitable sense of encounter is what makes liturgy such a touchy topic.

In fact, I would be remiss in failing to admit that a certain facet of this concept of prima theologia is present in all three of the liturgical camps I mentioned initially. For the 'traditionalists,' it is apparent that the Church's authority to discern the appropriateness and fittingness of certain liturgical activities is absolute. The Church is the Body of Christ, and she is reliant upon her divine Head (whose Vicar is the pope) to distinguish what will benefit the entire Body as a whole. For the 'progressivists,' the idea of dynamism is ever present; and a dynamism that really does capture the reality of a Body fully alive. The same Body of Christ is ever growing and developing in its environment. It is the Body of a divine Person, but in human form. And for the 'pietists,' there is the simple fact that "God alone is enough." No matter the form of the Mass, or the political agendas vying for supremacy, the really important thing is that God-made-man is present among us; and we, as a Church, are there to pay him homage.


In some way, perhaps, this distinct, tripartite theologia is actually a Trinitarian theology. In other words, each emphasizes a Person of the Trinity which, unless seen in relation to the others, loses its relational subsistence. God the Father is the ungenerated font of all being, and of all Truth. He is the source of all reality, and the ultimate term by which are understood the Son and the Spirit. Accordingly, the Holy Spirit is the dynamic breath of the Father, sweeping through his creation and imbuing it with life. And finally, the Son, Jesus Christ, is the vision of the Father. He is the way we approach the Father, and the one to whom all praise and honor is due.

Ultimately, the trick with any 'theology' is in coming to get all the parts to fit together. And this is without a doubt the trick with liturgy. But the more we come to appreciate the individual contributions of any given liturgical sensibility, the more we'll come to see the Mass as a real prima theologia; and as the true vision of the Paschal Mystery that it is.

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