The Drama That Is Mass
ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
21. In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.
In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.
Section 21 is the introduction to the actual “nuts and bolts” or specific directives of the reform of the Liturgy, many of which are fascinating and relate to our contemporary experiences of worship. By coincidence I just finished reviewing John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II? (2010) in hard cover, though it is available on Kindle, too. [See yesterday’s Friday post.] One of the “take-aways” of O’Malley’s work is the sheer wonder at the depth of change in the Church, how at least three quarters of the world’s bishops agreed to a sea change of the sort that came to pass. In reading section 21 on the Liturgy I can’t help but compare it to the instruction I received throughout Catholic elementary school, and the Mass I attended and served daily till the end of high school in 1966 when this document [SC] began to take practical force of law.
This section clarifies that the liturgy consists of both immutable elements and changeable ones. On the matter of changeable elements, the Council states that they ought to be changed with the passage of time, though the precise nature of the reason or the trigger is not as clear as one might like. Such changeable parts would have suffered “the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy.” Of course, what makes this paragraph somewhat harder to decipher is that the inner nature of the Mass itself, our self-understanding of worship as a Church, did change. The immutables are quite simple: our best documentation of early Church liturgies describes a reading of documents dear to the faithful [i.e., the Gospels, Letters of Paul, etc.] and the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup. The Council understood the fraternal nature of the sacraments in the post-Apostolic era and legislated accordingly. Thus, a great deal of the “changeable” needed changing.
The “subsection” of section 21, by contrast, is much more concrete. It singles out texts and signs in the liturgy that might be repetitive, unclear, or counterproductive to the very nature of the Mass. A somewhat unimportant but illustrative example is the maniple, a vestment that hung from the left wrist of the priest. The Vatican dropped the requirement to wear this accouterment in about 1967 in view of the general directive of Sacrosanctum Concilium regarding holy simplicity in all vestments and sacramental implements, though many priests stopped wearing maniples before that date, particularly in view of the maniple’s original purpose as a handkerchief. “Pure disobedience, Tommy,” my pastor would rail about those who jumped before the gun. “Pure disobedience.”
To think of the Mass as a collection of elements, though, is to overlook the Mass as a profound human experience, in its totality. Somewhere in my training I was required to read Aristotle’s Poetics, the famous tract of four centuries before Christ, the first analysis of what we would call today drama. Later I came to realize that the Poetics was entirely applicable to the celebration of the Eucharist, for the Mass embodies all the key qualities of great performance art that produces in the audience a catharsis, literally a “washing of the emotions.”
Aristotle writes: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play, in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of these emotions." To capture the Philosopher’s full meaning, consider the plays of his time, such as Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Both plays are of “grave matter,” life and death. Both involve moral dilemmas, in the case of Oedipus his marriage to his own mother; Antigone is buried alive for giving proper burial to her brother against a cruel tyrant.
Aristotle would go on to teach economy of action—every word and action, brimming with style and imagination, must tightly adhere to the unfolding of the plot. No comic relief, as appears in Shakespeare’s plays many centuries later. Once the play has begun, its witnesses and its actors become involved in an engrossing spiral of human drama that, as the saying goes, leaves one limp. Does the Poetics apply to the Christian liturgy? I believe so for multiple reasons: grave subject, a beauty of expression, noble and weak characters (Christ and his sinful flock), an internal unity of action, a climax of moral character or utter failure, an emotional impact that remains with a participant long into the future.
I would guess that many of you attended Mass this weekend. What you experienced was ritual, to be sure. The Scriptures were read, the Creed recited, the Lamb of God proclaimed. Now how did you feel when you left the Church? Were your emotions washed out? Does the poetic narrative, the unity of the drama that is the Mass, remain with you as we approach the supper hour after Mass? I am writing on a Sunday, and I attended Mass earlier today. What I experienced was not catharsis, the drama of my sins forgiven and the promise of life after death, but a string of individual “things” to be checked off—topped off by a semi-Shakespearean comic relief monolog about our upcoming parish picnic next week. By the time the menu had been read by the pastor, the drama of Jesus facing departure from his disciples was long forgotten.
As we roll into the specifics the Liturgy next Saturday, I will work diligently to look at the Vatican II rendering of its own Poetics whenever the Christian assembly gathers to recreate the drama of its own redemption and salvation. Perhaps we may gain insight into what is wrong with the rites—and wrong with us—that our emotions are not drained by the greatest story of all.
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