Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where is our sense of the sacred?

Perhaps you've heard of the "Benedictine" altar arrangement -- whereby a priest celebrating Mass versus populum (facing the people) has a crucifix and candles placed on the altar. You can see an example of it in the first picture in this post. I think it's great; it's theologically sound, liturgically appropriate, and spiritually enriching. You can read what the Pope had to say about it (before he became Pope) here.

Well, in a Catholic forum, in a thread asking people whether their parishes had adopted this altar arrangement, one woman posted this remark:
It is just a preference he has - until he takes steps to make into some kind of enforceable practice does it make any real difference what parishes do or don't adopt the same practice?

My parish is no less Catholic because my pastor does not use the same table setting as the Pope.

Now, on one hand, she's absolutely right: this altar arrangement is a preference of the Pope (albeit one he is endorsing more and more lately) and it is not law or enforceable in any parish.

But it was the second thing she said that really disturbed me. Does she really see this as quibbling over "table settings"? Is this what the Altar of Sacrifice has become? A dining room table with a tablecloth and candles and napkins and utensils and a centerpiece?

Don't get me wrong: Holy Communion is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, and happy are those who are called to share in that banquet! But the Eucharist is first and foremost the sacrifice the Church offers God, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the Father. It's not a picnic! It's not a meal! It's not a snack! It's not a "course". It deserves more than a "table". Pope Pius XII says that "one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform" (Mediator Dei, n. 62) or entertained a host of other antiquarian tendencies, such as removal of black as a liturgical color, or ridding crucifixes of any signs of physical distress.

Is the sense of the sacred suffering in our parishes? Is Mass about showing up and "taking" Holy Communion... or is it about accepting your place in the Body of Christ, which is His Church, and rendering to God His due worship, the corporate public worship of the Church, culminating and originating in the offering of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the Heavenly Father?

Is it about being present when Heaven touches Earth? Or is it about table settings?


Gretchen said...

Thanks for your post. It is meaningful to this former protestant who absolutely appreciates what the Catholic Church has in the mass. I do see on a frequent basis that the mass has become very ho-hum to some Catholics. It is their 'obligation'. I don't know how some can forget what it all means, but the old adage 'Familiarity breeds contempt' may be in force.

Fr. Gregory Jensen said...

Several years ago I was asked to teach a class in Eastern Christianity at a local Catholic university. I had taught the class before and was looking forward to doing so again.

That is until the first day of class.

One of the students, an older woman (i.e., my age), assured me that unlike in the Orthodox Church (of which I am a priest) in the Catholic Church the Eucharist was a celebration of community not a sacrifice. Try as I might I could not get the students--with one or two notable exceptions--to see that unless the Eucharist is first and foremost a sacrifice, then it could not also be a celebration of community.

There is no life for us apart from our participation in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The best liturgical music and practice in the world--East or West--is worse then useless if it is not before all else the "rational and unbloody sacrifice" of Christ on the Cross.

Thanks for the post and keep up the good fight--reconciliation between East and West will only come when both communities are renewed from within.

In Christ,


japhy said...

Fr. Gregory, thank you for visiting. Eulogeite.

There has been some damage done (accidentally, one would hope) over the past several decades, regarding the true nature of the Eucharist.

I am sorry you encountered the "fruits", and at a Catholic university no less! I'm glad you were able to get through to least one or two of them... hopefully they will be good leaven.


Moonshadow said...

As to the comment itself, and I haven't read it in context, but it sounds to me here, in the context you've set it, like a deliberate understatement, made for rhetorical effect. IOW, for the sake of argument.

The comment does not convey to me any of the woman's personal sentiment towards the nature of the mass and I would not guess from it (the comment) whether she esteems it (the mass) more or less than any on the forum.

Fr. Gregory Jensen said...

Actually, I was able--in other classes--to get through to quite a few students. Thank God.