Those who work in liturgical studies often quote from “Holy the Firm” by Annie Dillard: “The higher churches — where, if anywhere, I belong — come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.
“I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches, they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.” (p. 59)
Have we, the Church today, forgotten our danger? Fear before God reminds me of an annual ritual my family participated in during the 1960s. Every year when we were young, the film “The Wizard of Oz” was on television. (This was before VCRs, DVDs, DVRs or Netflix.) We had to set aside the exact time that the movie would be televised. It was an important family event. The part of the film that is most vivid in my memory is the fear and trembling of the small group of seekers near the end of their quest, when they slowly walked the long hallway to meet the Wizard. I was afraid just watching them.
In the end, the destination was within themselves. The Wizard didn’t have their answers, but he could remind them of why they were searching. He was just a man, with needs and hopes and desires of his own. The group found what they were looking for by asking questions and journeying. They knew it would lead to fearful places, but the hunger of their hearts was stronger than that fear.
The story of the “Wizard of Oz” can be interpreted in many ways, but the metaphorical journey still reminds me of the spiritual journey: the hunger for truth, love and communion. The Annie Dillard quote above is a reminder that the point of our religious journey is not the doing of the rituals. It is journeying courageously together into the mystery. “Our help is in the Lord who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 124:8) It is acknowledging the hunger we have for God, for love, for a connection with a power outside of ourselves that gives meaning and purpose to life. Have we also forgotten the hunger? We fill the resulting yearning with all sorts of busyness and addictions. Biblical language calls these “false idols.” Have we forgotten that the yearning in our hearts was given to us by God? The yearning is God calling us, unceasingly, into divine love.
So, what does all this have to do with the Mass? Participation at Mass requires that we not saunter along the edge of life, like the Mohawks on the edge of the cliff without awareness of danger. It requires that we surrender our lives to the higher power that is God? At the liturgy, we learn together that the hunger is stronger than our fear. We come to Mass first to stand together before the mystery of God, and secondly, to stand as those baptized in Christ, journeying together into the mystery of God incarnate. Baptism gives us each a responsibility in the on-going incarnation of God’s love, the building of God’s kingdom on earth.
At Mass, we use a set of rituals, initiated by Christ and further developed over the centuries, which we know as church tradition. Participation in these rituals are a pathway into the mystery, and they form us in the ways of God’s kingdom. Through the rituals, we meet God as Father, Son and Spirit and in God we join with one another to do the work of God’s kingdom in the world. The Mass is a rehearsal in the way-of-the-world according to God’s plan. By participating in the rituals, we learn by doing! Through Jesus Christ, God incarnate, we have been given a human pathway, a means to connect with the vast, unknowable God.
Our liturgy, based on very human ways of expressing and interacting, enables us to stand courageously together in this frighteningly powerful mystery of God’s presence, with the one sacrificial body of Christ as our connecting point. Through our ritual, we remember and acknowledge a truth that is larger than our own existence. Through full, conscious and active participation at the liturgy we practice surrendering our individuality, so that we can live in God, as one in Christ, serving the kingdom of God. In this way, liturgy teaches us how to be less so that God can be more.