Throughout the history of the Church, people have always objected to the formality of the liturgical rites of the Church. If Jesus was humble to be born among us in a barn – why do we celebrate Mass in large decorated Churches? Our Lady placed him in a manger – why do we need gold plated ciboria or chalices? He was surrounded by barnyard animals – and the dirt and smells that go with them? Why do we care how the people dress?
A similar complaint has arisen as a result of our new Roman Missal. If Jesus came among us as a baby of humble origins, why do we need to use such formal and exalted language in our prayers? Would not a simple liturgy with more familiar language correspond better to the actual experience of our Lord in the Gospels?
I think that the visitation of the Magi – which we commemorated this past Sunday – can help give insight into this paradox. What the Magi encountered when they arrived at the home where Mary and Joseph were staying was quite ordinary – two young parents and a little baby. However their response was extraordinary – they fell to their knees, paid Him homage and offered gifts. These were not gifts for a baby – but gifts for a king. Their gifts corresponded not to the appearance of things – but to the reality – a reality perceived by faith. They knew that Jesus was a king – even if he didn’t play the part of a King – so they treated him as such.
The same dynamic takes place at Mass. Christ continues to humble himself, to abase himself. Today he comes to us hidden in the ordinary elements of bread and wine. Yet we know that he is truly present. Our response does not correspond to appearances – but to the reality – perceived through faith. We use sacred vessels, and sacred vestments, we gather in a sacred place, because what is happening is sacred. We use exalted language because something exalted is happening. We know that our God is present, that he is near us, even if his presence escapes the human senses.
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