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Clothed in the Vesture of Royalty: Sharing the Beauty of Our Mass

Back around the turn of the millennium, I was invited one day to sing for the first time the Mass of the Dedication of a Church (Introit: Terribilis est locus iste), at a solemn Mass on the anniversary of a parish run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. It was the first time I had ever paid attention to these Propers. The Mass was sublime. The emphasis on the beauty of the house of God, the rich theological content of the prayers and readings, surpassed the imagination of mere mortals. Clearly the Holy Spirit was as active here as He was everywhere in the formation of the ancient liturgy.

Experiences like this, repeated over the years too many times to count, have shown me that everything in the old rite is more poetic, more symbolically rich, more enticing and satisfying to the God-thirsting soul. The introits are beautifully apt, announcing the day’s principal mystery or commemoration, but they are never didactic exercises. There is no need for a mini-homily at the start (as so often happens in the Novus Ordo); we are gently educated by the poetry of the psalms, placed in between the Aufer a nobis—an indispensable prayer of humility and trust in divine help, and a perfect formulation of the central intention of our worship!—and the Kyrie eleison, a ninefold pleading for divine mercy.

The ceremonies at that Mass, too, moved me more deeply than usual. I remember noticing several things for the first time. (Isn’t it often like this at the old liturgy? There is always more to notice, more to learn.) I saw that during the chanting of the Gospel by the deacon, the priest at the altar turned to bow to the tabernacle every time the Holy Name was mentioned.

I was impressed by the solemn and hieratic “giving of the peace” during the Agnus Dei—the priest in a simple but noble gesture giving peace to the deacon, the deacon in turn to the subdeacon, the subdeacon to the seminarian at the side, while the Schola chanted dona nobis pacem and the priest prayed Domine Jesu Christe, qui dixistis apostolis tuis, pacem relinquo vobis, pacem meam do vobis: “O Lord Jesus Christ, who didst say to Thine apostles, peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” It was clear that this peace streamed forth from the Lord, and through His ministers; it flowed from the altar outwards, as in Ezekiel’s vision of the water flowing from the temple. Watching how the peace was given—the symbolic announcement of fraternal union among the ministers at the altar, as though Christ’s peace were being both “acted out” in a drama and enacted in reality—it struck me that a congregation who witnessed it would be in a position to obtain a vivid insight into the objective nature of Christian charity and fraternal harmony, with its necessary link to Christ (=the altar), His Holy Sacrifice, and Himself in the Holy Eucharist.

I noticed too the manner in which the priest and deacon, hierarchically standing at the altar, turned to face the people at the end, the priest to sing Dominus vobiscum and the deacon to sing Ite missa est, while the subdeacon remained with his back to the people and his face hidden, giving a striking image of the Blessed Trinity—the Father and Son manifesting themselves through each other (the Father as Dominus, as in the prayer for the church’s guardian angel at the very beginning: Domine sancte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus; the Son as the High Priest who offers the sacrifice: the Missa est chanted by the deacon), while the Holy Spirit, though present, remains elusive: as St. Thomas explains, we cannot give a “proper” name to the Holy Spirit, as we can to the Father and the Son.

Could there be anything more beautiful and at the same time more instructive than every gesture, every word, every chant, of the ancient Roman rite? When properly done, it is absolutely the equal of the most elaborate and richly-texted Eastern liturgy. The main reason Westerners feel “Byzantine envy” is that they so seldom experience their own rite in its fullness. Each has strengths peculiar to itself: the Eastern liturgy excels in the poetic fervor and doctrinal content of its hymns, while the Western liturgy excels in the potent conciseness of its prayers and in the dignity, solemnity, order, and peacefulness of its ceremonies.

Over and over again, such experiences have impressed upon me the importance of ceremonial, the “clothing” of the Mass. The way the priest is dressed, the way he behaves, the way the acolytes fulfill their tasks, the nature of the sacred vessels, the design of the altar, the gestures and motions: all of these are like the clothing of the mysteries, which are too bright to see without mediation. We can compare it to the clothing of Mary, the Mother of God. Would our Lady wear immodest or ugly clothing unworthy of her dignity? Of course she would not; and neither should we in our public worship of God. All of our rites should be fully and magnificently clothed in the vesture of royalty.

The more I attend the traditional liturgy, the more I realize that the difference between it and the Novus Ordo is not merely one of content, or arrangement, or ritual, but of the very essence of what is being expressed by, or through, the prayers and ritual. I am not questioning the validity of the Novus Ordo; but I am willing to go as far as Ottaviani and assert that the Novus Ordo radically distorts the sacrificial character of the Mass. The entire letter, spirit, motion, orientation of the old rite is towards the Father (pros ton Theon; apud Deum), like the Logos, according to St. John: the liturgy concretely reflects the eternal and temporal offering of the Son to the Father—that is why the priest so evidently stands in the place of Christ, as all the “accidents” of the classic rite declaim. The Novus Ordo, as celebrated 99% of the time, loses all of this—which is to say, it loses the phenomenological expression of divine latria or adoration, which is the supreme formal, final, efficient, and material cause of the entire liturgy.

This cluster of truths was brought home to me on the morning of that Mass Terribilis by an image that kept haunting me: the image of what the liturgy looks like “from above,” in conspectu Dei. It is true that the Father always and only sees the Son—that is, the Father sees everything in the Son, who is ars aeterni Patris, the art of the eternal Fatherso that, from one point of view, it hardly matters whether we are talking about the classic rite or the modern rite. But if we consider the manner in which man, through the priesthood, offers the sacrifice of Calvary, it must appear radically different to the gaze of God.

Imagine Him looking down upon the liturgical ceremony. In the traditional liturgy, the faithful and the priest are united in their focus “forward and upward” to the altar: they focus on the bread and wine set apart for divine use alone, the miracle of transubstantiation, the elevation which symbolizes the raising up of Christ on the Cross, the communion rite in which the priest brings the holy gifts “down” from the altar to distribute them to the people, like manna in the desert. In the modern liturgy, in contrast, the point of focus has vanished into a confusion of horizons—the priest faces the people, the altar turns into a table, the bread and wine become Jewish meal-offerings, the “unambiguous verticality” of latria turns into an ambiguous social event where it is no longer possible to see the centrality of the Father-Son relationship, the directedness of all towards the Father alone, carrying everything else into this offering of the Son to the Father.

Such lessons are learned by those who enter, with an open mind and heart, the terribilis locus—the awe-inspiring and divinely-saturated place—of the Tridentine Mass, and who let the ancient liturgical rites whisper and sing out their life-changing message. For the problem is truly one of experience. Unless one has allowed oneself to become familiar with the old liturgy’s reverence, beauty, and profound content, argument will tend to be as useless as discussions of Christian doctrine among those who have never seen Christian charity in action.

Think of how much more true the Catholic teaching on birth control appears when one can live among large Catholic families who reveal the truth of the teaching, its foundations in lived experience. Similarly, the dogma of the Trinity is bound to seem like a bizarre and extravagant intellectual revery except among those for whom it has become the principle of their prayer, their life, and their love. The same will be true of defenses of the traditional liturgy. Religious experience has a kind of centrality and primacy—not absolutely speaking, but relative to us. What principles we will learn, what conclusions we will draw, depend heavily on the scope of our direct experience.

In this New Year, let us resolve to invite some family members, friends, or acquaintances to join us at the traditional Mass—preferably a High Mass, or, better still, a Solemn High Mass. If they seem interested in talking about it afterwards, see if you can get them to tell you what appealed to them and what bothered them, and be prepared to respond to their questions or objections. Great conversations can emerge from these experiences, and great conversions. It may happen that, in time, they will also join the growing number of Catholics who have made this venerable rite their spiritual home.

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