Liturgy old and new

We continue to go through Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy in “RCIA” (in fact, it’s a one-priest/one student affair). I found the historical discussion fascinating, for example with regard to the traditional orientation of Christian prayer to the East because of the association of the rising sun with Christ.

It seems to me that the loss of the sense of that cosmic dimension in the West, which apparently took place in the Middle Ages, goes along with other changes Ratzinger mentions: the change from the image of Christ Pantocrator to that of Christ suffering on the Cross, and the greater emphasis on the reserved sacrament. If focus shifts from the cosmic, mystical and eschatological to the concrete everyday world around us while the faith remains the same, our relation to the faith will change. In particular, we will look for the presence of God more in the confusion and disorder of life—in the extreme, in the midst of horrible crimes and calamities—than in the order of the cosmos, and we will find his presence in the transformed Bread and Wine more startling and worthy of note. The change from standing to kneeling and in the manner of receiving communion would be part of the same transformation. The general understanding of the world had changed in a way that made God seem farther away, so more special observances were needed so we could see him as present.

All of which makes me wonder what recent liturgists were thinking when they responded to an increased orientation toward concrete everyday things by doing away with everything that had developed in response to the initial shift in that direction during the Middle Ages. The Bread and Wine are indeed for eating and not for looking, and the point of eating them is that they transform us, but that isn’t likely to happen unless we know and feel what’s going on, and it seems to me a lot more is necessary to make the point to us today than was needed in Patristic times. You can’t persuade people today that bread and wine are the very Body and Blood of God just by saying so. The effect of moving bits and pieces of pre-Medieval liturgies to modern times, when men’s sense of the cosmic and eschatological has long evaporated, is radically to secularize the liturgy and thus teach a different faith.

One of the things that always drew me to the Catholic Church was the crucifix over the altar. It seemed to me that if they put that there then they were a church that knew that absolutely horrible things happened, took them seriously, and thought they had a way to make sense of them. That made me feel they were on to something important that other people didn’t know about. The notion of mass as a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice that is at the center of spiritual life had the same effect on me. The Church tells us how to find God when it seems God is absent. Part of its answer is not to conform yourself to the world’s way of thinking. It seems to me though that to make an alternative way of thinking real to 21st century Americans takes some doing. What we need is what we lack. It follows, I think, that liturgy that imitates how we habitually live is basically mistaken.

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