Why do the things we do at Mass matter?
A few years ago, I was giving a workshop on how parishes could improve their liturgy. A man in the back row stood up and told us all that we were wasting our time. As long as we had a validly ordained priest who was consecrating the Body and Blood of Jesus, that was all that mattered. That should be good enough for anybody, he thought.
I was raised Catholic, so I can see his point. In Catholic grade school, we were taught that the moment of consecration was the moment Jesus became really and truly present on the altar. It was a miracle that we all believed in—and that I still believe in.
Or to ask the question differently, why do the things we do at Mass matter?
What we do at Mass matters because the way we pray changes the world. I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but it’s true. When the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, it’s not just the things on the altar that are changed. We are also changed. And when we then go out into the world, as people changed to be more one with Christ and more like Christ, we cause more change to happen in our neighborhoods, our schools, our businesses, and our families. When we celebrate liturgy well, there are four general things that get changed.
1. People become less individualistic
Liturgy that follows good ritual principles invites and even requires active participation on the part of those in the room. Liturgy is like symphony. It requires lots of players who are paying attention even when they are not “on.” To make the symphony work, everyone has to pull their own weight. You can’t just sit there. You have to keep time, pay attention to the flow, and come in at the right time without missing a beat. At that moment when it is time to sound your note, the entire symphony depends upon you.
Liturgy works exactly the same way. Knowing that the success of the liturgy hinges on you as much as on everyone else in the room is bracing. And it transforms people who really get it.
2. People will take God off the pedestal
People who try to pray by themselves—or who don’t pray at all—make stuff up about God. They tend to make God into either a bully or a distant Father who isn’t around very much. When people say they don’t “believe” in God, it’s usually the God they made up that they don’t believe in. Or, at the other extreme, some people work so hard at trying to get God’s attention or stay on God’s good side that they go overboard with devotions and pietistic practices and generally become annoying to the people around them.
God isn’t like anything we can make up. St. John (and lots of other saints) tells us that God is love. Think of someone you truly love and who truly loves you. That person doesn’t bully you. You don’t have to work for that person’s attention. You don’t have to worry that he or she is going to fall out of love. When we are worshiping with others who also love God, we experience firsthand all the many ways that God loves us. And that’s just life-changing.
3. People will become more enthusiastic
A couple of years ago, I was meeting a friend for a drink in downtown San José. At the time, the San José Sharks were in the National Hockey League playoffs. I’m not much of a hockey fan, so I wasn’t really aware they were playing on the day and time of my meeting. I did notice the game was on in the bar when I walked in, but we got a table pretty far away from the TV. Ten or twenty minutes after we sat down, the place erupted in cheers. I almost cheered myself, just because everybody else was cheering. It was contagious.
Good liturgy is like that. You can walk in on a Sunday, expecting to be bored, not really caring, and you get caught up in the passion. You are changed by the enthusiasm of those around you. You become a cheerleader yourself.
4. People will get justice
This is the most important benefit of well-celebrated liturgy. The reason Christ becomes present in the liturgy and the reason Christ became present in the world in the first place was to proclaim good news to the poor. The essential message of Christ is that the oppressed will be set free. In the liturgy, we hear that message and rehearse that message with each other. The liturgy changes us into agents for justice. And then we go out into the world and live in a way that makes the world a more just place.
How to make all this really work
What we’re going to look at in the next four topics is how to shape the experience of Sunday liturgy so all four of these things happen: People become less individualistic, they take God off the pedestal, they become more enthusiastic, and they cause the world to be a more just place. Some of the things we need to do will be simple and some will be difficult. Some might happen sooner than others. But there is no time to start like the present.
The next topic in this course will be e-mailed to you in a few days. In the meantime, pray over the readings for this coming Sunday, before you go to Mass. Ask yourself, what is the message the Lord is trying to give me, at this time, right now in my life. Then pay attention at Mass to everything that affirms that message.
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