Laughing, Weeping, Living

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The Holy Things for the Holy

on March 23, 2014

343_vierge_orante_large iconDuring my days as a graduate theology/liturgy student, I had the pleasure to attend a lecture by a favorite scholar of mine, and she was talking about the different elements of the Roman Catholic Mass. Her position was that when the liturgy was reformed after Vatican II, they left a dis-jointed sequence of texts leading up to communion. Her biggest beef was with the acclamation, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; only say the words and my soul shall be healed.” She didn’t like that we had this penitential prayer right before we receive communion. We are holy, she argued. We already did the breast-beating part earlier; we have witnessed the transformation of our gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ; we are now standing around his altar in praise and thanksgiving, why do we have to ruin the mood by harping on our sinfulness yet again? It’s redundant; it upsets the “flow” of the liturgy.

Now, at that particular time and place there were a number of liturgy scholars who saw the Eastern Rite as the more sophisticated and mature older sibling to the Roman Rite. These professors saw the poetry and mystery of the East and wanted some of that to imbue the rituals of the West. They loved the Roman Rite and wanted it to be the best it could be.

This scholar held a similar opinion. She had this example of “Lord, I am not worthy…” and for contrast she offered a line from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the primary liturgical celebration for Byzantine (Eastern) churches. She stood at the podium facing the audience and said that, right before communion during Divine Liturgy, the priest holds up the Body and Blood and acclaims, “The holy things for the holy.” Then the scholar demonstrated the gesture with her hands up, and moving her imaginary vessels out towards the audience. It was a powerful moment. All of us in the audience made that “ohh/mmm” sound you hear during powerful moments among a crowd. The scholar’s point was, the priest is acknowledging the holiness of the assembled people, their worthiness to now receive the Precious Body and Blood. That’s all fine; that was a nice point to make and it certainly sold her argument. I can tell you I was sold on her argument.

But now, having attended the liturgy where this moment occurs, I can say she had it completely wrong. Totally wrong. If that scholar had ever attended the Divine Liturgy she would immediately notice that priest spends the entire time standing at the altar, facing the tabernacle, so his back is to the assembled people. When he does indeed hold up the Body and Blood and acclaim, “The holy things for the holy,” he gestures toward the tabernacle–toward God–who is holy and who is receiving the holy gifts we his servants are offering to him. The priest is speaking on behalf of the people, addressing God, and offering God the holy sacrifice of the Body and Blood. This is completely the opposite from the point that scholar was making many years ago.

The other piece of that long-ago scholar’s argument was that the penitential line, “Lord, I am not worthy…” is misplaced and doesn’t belong immediately before communion. She can have that opinion, but she needs to find another counter-argument because the Divine Liturgy only offers an even more extreme act of penance immediately before communion. Again, if she had ever attended Divine Liturgy, or even read a complete liturgical text before drafting her lecture, she would have known this. During Divine Liturgy, after the priest acclaims, “the holy things for the holy,” the people pray:

I believe, O Lord, and confess that You are truly Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. Accept me this day, O Son of God, as a partaker of Your mystical Supper. I will not tell the mystery to your enemies, nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief, I confess to You:
+ Remember me, O Lord, when You come into Your kingdom.
+ Remember me, O Master, when You come into Your kingdom.
+ Remember me, O Holy One, when You come into Your kingdom.
May the partaking of Your Holy Mysteries, O Lord, be unto me not for judgement or condemnation but for the healing of soul and body.
+ God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
+ God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
+ I have sinned without number, forgive me, O Lord.

Then, in a suitably humble frame of awareness, we walk up and receive Eucharist. As an aside, I have noticed some members of my congregation actually beating their breast during those last three lines. The liturgy scholars would be horrified.

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