There is nothing so great as the Eucharist. If God had something more precious, He would have given it to us.
– Saint Jean-Marie Vianney
The first time I walked through the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I was overcome. This greatest treasure of Christian architecture impressed upon me an incredible and awe-inspiring feeling of smallness. As I passed from the sunny piazza outside into the cavernous interior of this church of churches, I was swallowed up. Here, in this majestic testament in stone and marble, gilt and gold, to the overwhelming glory of God, my insignificance became clear.
No religion in the history of the world has ever inspired such temples; no pagan deity could claim the outpouring of human innovation, craftsmanship, and achievement that has been made manifest in the service of honoring the True God. The quantity and quality of architecture, artistry, music, poetry, and theological exposition that have been brought forth into the world by twenty centuries of Catholicism stagger the mind. There is no greater source of inspiration than He who gives us everything – our lives, our talents, our joys, our eternity. In honoring Him through the finest works of our own capacity for creation, we are merely returning all we are and have to Him from whom it was received. “Every best gift, and every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration” (Jas. 1:17).
It is only fitting, therefore, that God commands us to worship Him. We are created to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world in order that we may be happy with Him forever in Heaven. But do we believe that to fulfill these precepts on our own terms is sufficient? Is God not exacting in what He obliges from us? Is He not a jealous God, in the appropriate sense of the term – expecting that which is His due, which is to say no less than our very best?
It has always been so. Most people know the biblical story of Cain, who murdered his brother Abel, but not many could tell you what drove Cain into a killing rage. It was envy – envy that arose because Abel’s worship was more pleasing to God than Cain’s own.
Abel was a shepherd, and Cain a husbandman. And it came to pass after many days, that Cain offered, of the fruits of the earth, gifts to the Lord. Abel also offered of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat: and the Lord had respect to Abel, and to his offerings. But to Cain and his offerings he had no respect: and Cain was exceedingly angry, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said to him: Why art thou angry? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? but the lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it. And Cain said to Abel his brother: Let us go forth abroad. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him. – Genesis 4:2-8
“Why art thou angry?” asked the Lord. “why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well, shalt thou not receive?” When Abel sacrificed to God, he brought forth his very best. He sacrificed his firstlings, giving to God not just the best of the flock, but their fat, which is to say the most highly prized portion of their substance. He wasn’t holding anything back; he wasn’t keeping the parts he really wanted for himself. It was an outpouring, an emptying of self, his supplication before God pleasing in its totality.
We don’t know what Cain offered – only that he gave of some “fruits of the earth.” We know, too, by God’s words to Cain, that his sacrifice could have been pleasing if he had been generous. It is clear, therefore, that not all sacrifices offered to God are seen by Him as equal. There is a distinction between worship that is pleasing to Him and worship for which “He has no respect.”
It is not selfish of God to demand our best. Not only has He given us every good thing, and not only does He hold us in existence every moment we draw breath, but He “so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (Jn. 3:16). Whereas God sent the angel to stay Abraham’s hand (and spare the life of Isaac), He allowed every cruel torture that was perpetrated against His own divine and perfectly innocent Son until Christ’s ignominious death on the Cross. This chalice of suffering, as Christ Himself put it, was drunk “to the dregs.” There truly is nothing more precious to us than the Eucharist, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ crucified. God loves us so much that He gave us this unspeakably selfless gift to accomplish our redemption. There is nothing more great, for if there were, it too would be ours, such is His love for us.
But do we treat this gift as the greatest gift there is? Do we honor the Eucharist as the most precious thing in the universe? Do we recognize that this gift of God’s Self demands one of our own in return?
Every liturgy places us into this cycle of self-gift anew. God gives us the best He has, and He asks for the best we have in return. But we truly have nothing to give that can compare to what we have been given. So in the absence of a sufficient gift, God gives us Himself to give back to Him. He even takes our place as the offeror – by becoming both priest and victim. Every priest who stands at every altar is subsumed by Christ; it is Christ Who consecrates the Most Holy Sacrament of His own Body and Blood, Christ Who offers and is offered to the Father on behalf of us poor sinners.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not a meal. It is a holocaust. The priest does not set the table for a supper. He places the Victim, butchered and bloodied, upon the altar of sacrifice, because by His death He conquered death — the eternal death of sin — and by His rising He restored us to eternal life. The Mass is not, truly understood, celebrated; it is offered to Him whose Divine wrath must be appeased for all of our great and many sins. The Victim is not only perfect, but beloved, and as God looks upon Him, and us who receive Him, He pours out His mercy upon us as Christ poured out His blood.
When we go to Mass, it is the most intimate experience of God we will ever encounter in this life. We come to the altar to participate in a mutual outpouring of self. He gives His all to us, and though this is infinitely more than we can return, we nonetheless give our all to Him. Whereas a husband and wife cling to each other to become one flesh in the imperfect union of the marital embrace, God allows us to consume Him so that He may literally, physically, become one with our bodies and our souls and, in so doing, may consume us. It is a breathtaking experience.
Once we begin to truly understand the nature of the Mass and our purpose there, it becomes possible for us to recognize how important it is that it be conducted in a fitting manner. Though the Mass can be said to have been made for man, it was made so that he might have a fitting means by which to honor Our Lord. The object of our worship is God, not ourselves. This is why any Mass where man becomes the center of attention or the principle focus is a dangerous inversion.
Some argue that the shape of the liturgy does not matter as long as Christ is present. It is true that whenever Christ is made present, the sacrifice being offered is perfect, but that does not mean our worship or understanding of the sacrifice is. Christ’s Eucharistic presence is accomplished through divine action. It is Christ the Priest offering Christ the Victim to the Heavenly Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. What we see taking place upon the altar is a glimpse of the inner life of the Blessed Trinity, the love and interaction between Divine Persons that takes place by no merit of our own. As the priest prays in the Quam Oblationem of the ancient Roman liturgy:
And do Thou, O God, vouchsafe in all respects to bless, consecrate, and approve this our oblation, to perfect it and render it well-pleasing to Thyself, so that it may become for us the body and blood of Thy most beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is God Who makes the oblation pleasing to God, and this is possible because it is God Who is the oblation.
What we bring to the liturgy, what we offer to God is our honor, reverence, supplication, contrition, adoration, and praise. “A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17). The priest who consecrates the Eucharist does so not by some power he possesses, but by one that possesses him: participation in the One True Priesthood of Christ.
“When I say the Mass,” a young traditional priest once told me, “I am a slave to the liturgy. The Church tells me where to stand, how to place my hands, when to genuflect, when to kiss the altar…I am gone, and it is Christ who acts through me.” The priest’s offering is one of humility, of reverence, of the emptying out of self. “Judge me, O God,” he implores at the foot of the altar, echoing the words of the Psalmist, “and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man; for thou art my God and my strength…”
We, too, come as humble supplicants, with a receptive and attentive disposition. The liturgy happens independently of us, but it draws us into its mysteries and grants us heavenly gifts, thereby perfecting us and propelling us toward Heaven. We unite our prayer with the priest, who prays on our behalf, who performs, in virtue of his union with Christ, what we cannot.
It is the most important and beautiful thing this side of Heaven.
It is therefore inescapable that a proper understanding of liturgy grounds us in a correct knowledge of our place in the universe. Liturgy that emphasizes Our Lord’s Sacrifice and places us mentally and spiritually before the Cross on Calvary humbles us and makes us receptive to our absolute dependence on God for all good things, especially our salvation. Liturgy where priest and people alike are oriented toward Heaven and where sacred things are veiled and shrouded and reverenced in an appropriate way teaches us who we are — and what duties we have — in relation to Him from Whom all good things come and in Whom we must trust when we have no choice but to walk by faith rather than by sight. Liturgy should make us feel small, like entering the great edifices of Christendom.
The attack on the liturgy that we have witnessed over the past half-century can be understood as nothing less than a diabolical attempt to strike at the heart of our most important and intimate connection with Our Creator — and also to confuse and disorient us through this loss of perspective. We have been given over to idolatry – the idolatry of self, such that we see the world only through the lens of our own desires. Christ’s sacrifice has been replaced with food and fellowship, His altar of oblation turned into a table, His priesthood adulterated by those persons who intrude upon the domain of the priest but do not possess the ability to act in persona Christi, the universal orientation of priest and people toward God turned inward so that we are, in essence, all just talking to ourselves, and nearly every act of reverence for the sacred has been stripped away.
Christ remains present in this reinvented, banalized, man-centered liturgy, but He is ignored, forgotten, abused, and upstaged. Like Cain, we no longer offer God our best, but keep it for ourselves. Anyone who attempts to offer God what He deserves, like Abel, is met with envy, contempt, and even violence.
The crisis in the Church is manifestly a crisis of selfishness and anthropocentrism. It is the fruit of this new idolatry. We have come to believe that we know better than God what is best for us. The Second Vatican Council tells us, “[A]ll things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown.” We must reject this. All things on Earth should be related to Christ as their center and crown. We are not worshipers of man; we are worshipers of Jesus Christ! Of the Blessed Trinity! But if our liturgies fail to hold God as our object of adoration, is it any wonder that we have become obsessed with ourselves? We talk incessantly about how we “feel” about liturgy and what we “get out of it” and whether it “moves us” – but for Whom are we there?
The architects of the Church’s “new and improved” liturgy knew exactly what they were doing. And they have been successful. They have, with a single stroke, moved the entire liturgical edifice of the Church to a foundation of sand. And now that this edifice is crumbling to the ground, and the faith along with it, they swoop in, telling us that the other truths of our faith are nothing more than “ideals” too hard to live up to, that because things have strayed so far, we must now find ways to accept and work with situations “as they are.” By destroying our understanding of our relationship with God through the central act of prayer of the Church, they have undermined all else besides. Now, after half a century of demolition, they are dismantling what’s left of the faith almost unopposed.
Those who have come to terms with the crisis in the Church will occasionally raise the question, “Why can we see what’s happening when others can’t? Why does God seem to be showing this to only a handful of us?” Could it be that it’s because of what he said to Cain? “If thou do well, shalt thou not receive?”
Someone recently wrote to me concerning the level of denial among fellow Catholics about what’s happening in the Church: “It’s only attending the Latin Mass,” she said, “that has allowed the scales to fall off my eyes.”
It is not too late. Do not lose your way, fellow Catholics. Do not be deceived. Good liturgy — and by that I mean holy, reverent, God-fearing liturgy — will change your life, even if you have to make difficult sacrifices to have it. Is there anything more important to you than your salvation, or that of your children? If you don’t have a good Mass to attend, move! If you can’t find a Traditional Latin Mass, turn to the East, which has been largely ignored by the demolitionists!
The saboteurs had one shot, and so they struck the one form of the liturgy that would affect the greatest number of Catholics. They gave it all they had, but as God would have it, it was not a killing blow. God is still truly worshiped. And we are obliged for His sake and for our salvation to join in that true worship. No more excuses.
While it is true that good liturgy alone will never be a panacea, there is nonetheless nothing more powerful you can do for your faith, for your understanding of what is happening in the world, for the good of your soul and those of your loved ones, than to stop, without delay, attending a liturgy that was designed to separate you from the very Sacrifice it is supposed to commemorate. You cannot drink poisoned water without ill effect, no matter how thirsty you are, or how resilient. It does not nourish; it emaciates.
The new paradigm is collapsing on itself even now. It will be abandoned in our lifetimes, a husk of what it once was — or else rendered unrecognizable to anyone with faith as it becomes, like the Arian churches of the 4th century, the exclusive domain of the enemies of Our Lord.
The liturgy is the key to our entire understanding of what we face, of who we are, and of what we must do. There may well be no other way to weather what is coming. More importantly, it is our most essential interaction with God. We have a duty to find a place where the priest and the people worship God in a way that is fitting and pleasing to Him. Once it is found, flee to it. Cling to it. Do not worry about the hardships you must endure to accomplish this, for God knows these things, and He will bless you.
Be reminded of your place in the universe. Be subject to Him Who rules it. Love Him with all your heart, mind, and strength, and adore Him as He deserves. It’s a decision you’ll never regret.
This post has been updated.