Re-Entering the Mystery of the Mass
What an unprecedented time in which we live! Since March our churches have been closed to the public, and our liturgical celebrations have moved online, with very limited participation. As of this writing (late May), we’re deep in the planning for the time when we will reopen our churches, and by the time you read this, our churches will most likely be open for public worship, albeit with many protocols and restrictions still in place. There are, no doubt, a plethora of emotions that people feel at this new phase of this health crisis, just as there was when the pandemic was first announced in March.
I, for one, am hopeful. They say “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and for almost all of us, we’ve been absent from the physical gathering for liturgy. My hope is that as we do come back to our churches, we find that phrase ringing true in our experience — that indeed, absence did make our heart grow fonder of the beautiful gift that Jesus Christ gives us in the Church’s liturgy.
This might sound harsh for some, but I hope that we don’t go back to “normal” if “normal” means doing things like we were doing them before the pandemic. I hope that our experience of the liturgy is more than just “going through the motions” or “fulfilling the Sunday obligation” as it may have been for some. I hope that as we come back to our churches, our new “normal” means that we savor as much of the liturgical experience as possible and not simply be content with experiencing the bare minimum that can be experienced in a 60-minute time limit that we impose on the liturgy, even if our experiences are marked with safety protocols and physical distancing.
As we come back to our churches for Sunday and weekday liturgies, it is my hope that we treat the liturgy with the care and reverence that is due to so great a gift, and it is my hope that we even come to understand the very idea of “care and reverence” in broader terms — not just as a pious expression of how we approach God in the liturgy — but in the very way we think about how we approach the liturgical celebration itself.
Here, I think especially of the ministers of the liturgy. Many of our liturgical ministers (both ordained and laity) have made a special commitment to the liturgy and their role in it, and as we return to the celebration of public Masses, may their enthusiasm and love of the liturgy only grow stronger. I hope that our priests and deacons renew their attention to their homilies (including their time spent in preparation) and the attention they give to the ars celebrandi — the art of how they celebrate the liturgy.
It is my hope that lectors realize the care and reverence they have for the liturgy when proclaiming the readings with power and passion (this, too, includes their time in preparing, praying with and practicing the readings), that Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion demonstrate their care and reverence for the Body of Christ (the Eucharist) and the Church (the Mystical Body of Christ) through the very way they distribute communion, that altar servers and sacristans renew the care and reverence in the way they serve at the altar; that ushers demonstrate the care and reverence they have for the liturgy by intentionally greeting those who walk through the doors as if they were greeting Jesus Christ, that singers and instrumentalists renew their commitment to their gift of music (and the commitment that goes into preparing that gift of music).
And for those of us who don’t have one of the roles described above as a liturgical minister in the liturgy? I hope there is a renewal for you, too, as you come back to physical gathering for liturgy. My prayer is that your experience of liturgy grows deeper.
There are countless ways that this can happen – whether it is learning more about the various aspects of the Mass or taking the time after Mass for some special reflection on your liturgical experience. Might I just offer one way to reflect on the Mass? It’s simple: pay attention to your body at liturgy. I always like to remind people God created us not only with souls and minds but also with bodies. When we worship God, we try to lift our souls to God, and I hope that we actively engage our minds by reflecting upon our experiences at Mass. But I encourage you to remember your body in worship, and to engage your body in worship through gesture and posture.
Don’t simply make a hasty Sign of the Cross at Mass, but make the Sign of the Cross purposefully and feel that gesture envelop your body. Similarly, recognize that in the very act of bowing and of genuflecting, you offer worship and adoration to God through your body. It’s not simply something done for the sake of following tradition. It is done because we are an “em-bodied” people, and we are invited to offer our full self — body, soul and mind — to God in the liturgy. How are your bodily senses engaged in the Mass? What do you hear, speak, taste, smell, see, touch? Pick one aspect and spend some time in prayerful reflection this week.
Welcome back. It was a long Lent, and even as we come back to our Masses, it is not going to be the same experience because there will be safety protocols to follow. But that is OK. I hope that, ultimately, our liturgical experience will be better. The fact is, if we commit to renewing our love for and participation in the liturgy, this process of re-entering the Mystery of the Mass will be deeply fruitful and grace-filled.
— Josh Perry is director of worship for the Diocese of Burlington.
—Originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.