I am thinking about the infamous red shoes. I am thinking about the non-wearing of the mozzetta. I am thinking about the growing juxtaposition in some conversations of simple liturgy versus lofty liturgy.
Some people are saying, “O how wonderful it is to get rid of all the symbols of office and power and be humble like the poor.”
When I first learned to say the older form of the Mass of the Roman Rite, that is to say, when I first learned how to say Mass, because there has never been a single of day of my priesthood when I couldn’t say it, I admit that I was deeply uncomfortable with some of the gestures prescribed by the rubrics. I even resisted them. For example, the kissing of the objects to be given to the priest, and the priest and the kissing of the priest’s hands… that gave me the willies.
I resisted those solita oscula because I had fallen into the trap of thinking that they made me look too important.
The fact is that none of those gestures were about me at all. They are about the priest insofar as he is alter Christus, not insofar as he is “John”. For “John” all of that would be ridiculous. For Father, alter Christus, saying Mass, it is barely enough.
When you see the deacon and subdeacon in the older form of Holy Mass holding, for example, the edges of the priest’s cope when they are in procession, or when you see them kissing the priest’s hand, or bowing to him, or waiting on him or deferring to him or – what in non-Catholic eyes appears to be something like adoration or emperor worship – you are actually seeing them preparing the priest for his sacrificial slaughter on the altar of Golgotha.
It is the most natural thing in the human experience to treat with loving reverence the sacrifice to be offered to God. The sacrificial lambs were pampered and given the very best care, right up to the moment when the knife sliced their necks.
The Catholic priest is simultaneously the victim offered on the altar. All the older, traditional ceremonies of the Roman Rite underscore this foundational dimension of the Mass. If we don’t see that relationship of priest, altar, and victim in every Holy Mass, then the way Mass has been celebrated has failed. If we don’t look for that relationship, then we are not really Catholic. Mass is Calvary.
The use of beautiful marble in the church building, precious fabrics and metals for vestments and vessels, music that requires true art and skill to perform, ritual gestures which to worldly eyes seem to be the stuff of bygone eras of royals and the like, all underscore the fact that step by step during Holy Mass the priest is being readied for the sacrifice, which – mysteriously – he himself performs.
Back when I resisted the liturgical kissing of my hand when being handed a chain, spoon or chalice, I had made the mistake of imagining myself to be more humble by that resistance. That was a mistake. Ironically, my resistance to those gestures turned the gestures into being about me. Submission to the gestures, on the other hand, erases the priest’s own person and helps him to be what he needs to be in that moment: priest, victim, alter Christus. The trappings, the rubrics, the gestures erase the priest’s poor person. Resisting these things runs the risk of making them all about the priest again.
In a sense, I had made the objection of Judas about the precious nard which the woman brought to the Lord. Jesus responded that the precious stuff should be kept for His Body, which was to be sacrificed. People who object that we should have only poor liturgy are falling into the argument of Judas. We must submit to the precious and sublime in recognition of the truth of what is going on. To pit the sublime and complex and precious and beautiful against the low, simple and humble is schizophrenic and not Catholic.
There is no real conflict of the humble and the sublime in liturgical worship.