The dust finally seems to have settled from the celebrations of Holy Week and Easter, and I find myself left with the lingering question of what I just went through. As some have observed, the lead-up to the celebration of Sacred Triduum can be somewhat of a traumatic experience for the priest—not in the sense of an actual trauma, but because the liturgies leading up to Easter represent the culmination of intense preparation and are some of the most beautiful and complicated ceremonies that the Catholic Church has to offer. While most are at least marginally aware of the amount of work that goes into making Holy Week and Easter a spiritual experience of grace and mystery, the majority of Catholics observe the liturgies and do not think much about the behind-the-scenes “nuts and bolts” that make them such moving expressions that highlight the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord. I say this not to in any way seek sympathy or commiseration, but because it underscores an important reality in how we worship.
What happens during Holy Week is unlike anything else in our liturgical year. The liturgies are complex, rich in history and tradition, and their length and breadth are truly epic in proportion. In living out in a very real way the very mysteries of the Life of Christ, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem to his final meal with his Apostles to his betrayal, death, and burial, to his glorious Resurrection, we walk the path of Christ and enter into a profound experience of Faith that does not happen outside of Holy Week. But it should!
Every celebration of the Mass—whether the simplest spoken Mass or the most complicated High Mass imaginable—leads us into those same Mysteries that we commemorate so palpably during Holy Week. But we seldom take notice, do we? Does our frequency of Mass attendance (I hope!) lead us into a certain routine? Absolutely. But the intention is not that we should become complacent or participate in a perfunctory manner that excludes mental and spiritual engagement. Quite the opposite! The routine of the Mass is much like the repetition of Hail Mary’s in the Rosary. Its intention is not mere repetition, but is to provide a background to lead us into a deeper spiritual reality.
If we were to consider the ceremonial of the average parish Mass as the background on a canvas, the intention of the artist serves what purpose? To provide activity? Sure. But more importantly, it gives context and meaning to the principal figures. What we see in the Mass, when well-celebrated, are actions and rituals that highlight and bring to the fore the profound reality of what we celebrate. When a priest incenses the bread and wine at the Offertory, it’s not merely “something extra” that is used to make the Mass “more solemn”—it gives greater context to the otherwise ordinary action that calls attention not just to what we are offering, but to whom we are offering it. The same is true when torch bearers accompany the Book of the Gospels. They are not there merely to provide extra light, but like the virgins with their lamps that go out to meet the bridegroom and bring him to his bride, they draw our gaze to the Eternal Word of the Father, the Bridegroom Himself, as He is made truly present to His Bride, the Church in the proclamation of the Word.
Sometimes it becomes easy for cynics and “low church” Catholics to denigrate or write off as superfluous or silly the rich ceremonial of the Church. But those attitudes are often based either in a poor understanding of what the act of Divine Worship truly is, or out of a sinful and overly-developed Pride that allows one to justify giving the least amount of devotion to God as possible whilst still convincing oneself that “God understands” or that “God doesn't need all of that stuff!”
Ultimately, our attitude toward the Mass ought to be one of awe and wonder at the fact that the True and Living God of all Creation, at the invocation of the priest, descends upon the altar of sacrifice and makes Himself truly present in our midst in all His majesty and glory. It is a miracle to behold, and we are all partakers. Yet, do our actions and dispositions always reflect the reality that we acknowledge at least intellectually if not spiritually? For some, yes. For others, perhaps not so much. If we are truly a people of Faith, however, the manner in which we comport ourselves throughout the act of Divine Worship should reflect the deep belief in His True Presence that we are called to accept and believe. And, like the Apostles on Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit and unable to contain their excitement, our external actions—how we sit/stand/kneel, what we wear, how we participate, whether we take the time to prepare for Mass or make an act of thanksgiving afterward—they ought to serve not as “proof” to others, but as acts of discipline and reminders to ourselves of what we are encountering, of whom we have come to worship and encounter, and of why we return day after day, week after week to the same, unchanging ritual: because the Mass, our act of Divine Worship, is never about us, but always about, directed to, and principally about the One Supreme Godhead, to whom be all glory, honor, and praise forever!