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We Will Go Unto The Altar of God

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We enter the church just moments before things begin, the altar boys and thurifer standing in anticipation in the small narthex, a faint wisp of incense rising through cross-shaped slits in burnished bronze. In hushed voices, we urge our small children forward, directing them to a pew near the back, in order to be able to make the inevitable quick exit with a crying baby.

The bell rings, and the congregation rises to their feet, as the priest, hooded according to the custom of his order, makes his way to the sanctuary flanked by only two of the assembled servers.

“Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor…” he intones.

Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.” the schola responds in turn, joined by the congregation. Father prior makes his way back, his shoulders covered in a resplendent green cope, sprinkling holy water on the assembled faithful as he goes. I watch his eyes as they dutifully seek out each person, and his hand follows, ensuring that the blessing he proffers does not miss a single soul. The people genuflect in waves, making the sign of the cross as the water falls on them like sacramental rain.

The ritual completed, the procession begins, the thurible swinging now in a wide, rythmic arc, in sync with the cadence of the bearer’s steps. Smoke rises in thick puffs, forming a sweet and pungent aromatic cloud, while simple, clear Gregorian Chant blooms to fills the space.

The priest at last kneels before the the altar, and the congregation follows suit.

“Introibo ad altare dei.” he begins. I will go unto the altar of God. 

Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.” the servers respond, while a new chant is begun by the schola. To God, Who giveth joy to my youth.

Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab homine iniquo, et doloso erue me.” The priest now, as supplicant, echoes the Psalmist, Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.

Quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea: quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus?” The response comes as a lamentation: For Thou, O God, art my strength: why hast Thou cast me off? And why do I go sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me?

These refrains, so familiar to anyone who has become enraptured with the Church’s ancient and venerable liturgy, took on a special significance this past Sunday as we worshiped God the way Catholics have for all these many centuries. Meanwhile, in Rome, the Synod fathers gathered – many with nefarious intent, seeking to accomplish what must not come to pass – the alteration of those things the Church has always held most dear, believed, and practiced.

This is the battle for the soul of the Church, the quiet and ravishing beauty of a liturgy steeped in love of the Divine, the faithful gathered to worship at the foot of the cross, before the splendor of their Eucharistic God and King. They persist in pockets and enclaves around the world, the new catacombs of true belief, in an age where many would rather worship at the altar of self, with sex as their principal sacrament. These latter are those whom many of the Synod fathers wish to “accompany,” making no provision for the former, left to languish in the “rigidity” of authentic faith.

But as I assisted at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I became aware of the enormity of the thing of which I was a part. The little priory in a small, largely unadorned building was not designed in such a way to lift the mind and heart to God. But the spiritual edifice in which I found myself was as ancient as any Roman basilica, the richness of its tapestry of teaching and tradition, prayer and song, gesture and symbol are all more valuable than gold or precious stones. I was a part of something rooted and ancient, towering up to heaven, its cavernous and timeless interior resonating with the joyful hearts of every generation that has exalted the triumph of the Cross.

The people around me had come to be a part of that which has not changed, and will not, cannot. As Father preached about marriage and the natural law, about the Gospel lesson pertaining to the wedding feast, and how the garment which must be worn to be admitted is that of sanctifying grace, I looked around me. The families that filled the pews were anchored by marriages that would, as all marriages do, face tragedy and trial, but would not break. “What God has joined, let no man put asunder” are more than just outdated words in need of nuance and contextualization. They are the bedrock of the faithful, the adamantine bond through which twenty centuries of souls have been brought into the Mystical Body, the Bride of Christ, and to fall in worship before the altar of God.

The revolution that is at this very moment unfolding in Rome will change the lived reality of Catholicism, even if cannot change her teachings or God’s laws. It has in fact already done so, scandalizing and confusing and leading astray countless numbers of the faithful.

But the essentials of our faith are things that have not changed. Will not. Cannot. And there are those who will always preserve these things, through God’s providence and grace and the work of their own hands. There are those who would rather lay down their lives than to allow the profanation of what is sacred. These fervent souls, these who have fallen in love with He Whom is Beloved Above All Things, can never be defeated or driven out. The vicious persecutions suffered by our earliest ancestors in the faith in Rome showed the futility of such attempts. The more Christians they fed to the lions, the more apostles they crucified, the more the faith grew. The Cross is our salvation and Christianity is a paradox: it is by suffering and death that we are set free, ennobled, saved. Tertullian described the truth of it when he observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

True faith cannot be altered, stamped out, crushed, or killed. Every lash of the scourge, every prick of the thorns, every nail in the hands or feet of the Mystical Body of Christ only hastens His Resurrection and His glory.

Let them do what they will. We will go unto the altar of God, to God who giveth joy to our youth.

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