Everyone likes a good liturgy, which is no doubt a statement that evokes a hearty laugh from most. I understand. We don’t usually think of ourselves as liturgical beings, but we are, which I argue because of the questions I’m often asked about Catholic liturgies and their seeming strangeness, especially during Lent and Easter. I’d argue that liturgies are more than strange; they’re naturally necessary. Let me explain.
First, what is liturgy? Well, they depend on rituals. A ritual is merely an isolated and habituated act, such as what time you get up and how much milk you pour in your cereal. If there’s constancy in your action, and you’ve developed a habit you live out daily, you’ve developed something like a ritual. In fact, many of us talk rightly about our “morning rituals” explicitly.
Second, a ritual and a liturgy in this regard aren’t much different. A liturgy is nothing other than a series of interconnected rituals that tell and reenact a story. Our various rituals as strung together throughout the day tell the story, in my case, as a professor and a tired parent, the final ritual of which is wondering whether my daughter will join us yet again in me and my wife’s bed for the night.
You might break down the Catholic Mass accordingly. There are a number of rituals: there’s an opening processional, the saying of the peace, the breaking of the bread, to name a few. But these rituals aren’t isolated. They rather comprise a story, which is the story of the Gospel. These rituals (such as the peace and the breaking of bread) are purposed through the liturgy to draw together a community to commit themselves to enact the peace and mercy of Christ in the world, and to do so spontaneously and sacramentally. If you don’t believe me, let’s look at a jazz quartet, which is a very liturgical community.
A jazz soloist in a bop quartet is not one who defies ritual and tradition, even if the spontaneity of the solo often elicits that feeling. The soloist is one who has become so thoroughly defined by liturgy that he can express it and live it out in and through the solo spontaneously. He is spontaneous precisely because he is liturgical! After all, no soloist that I’ve met hasn’t practiced through and veritably memorized the transcriptions of Charlie Parker’s solo, or listened to Davis and Marsalis alike, imbibing in and internalizing these greats’ styles and goals.
As with the jazz soloist, so too with the Catholic. We engage in liturgy because it is practice for the solo we call life, which we learn to spontaneously live out within a broader world through liturgy in which we practice the solos of the “greats” in liturgy.
In this context of liturgy, I’d like to defend it against a few common critiques. Let’s start with a more secular objection, that liturgies are falsely binding and oppressive. I think the statement’s wrong-headed, and I do so on the breakfast grounds already argued. We are always already bound up with and to liturgies, whether we recognize it or not. Take the simple handshake, which is naught but a ritual that comes to express an outward sign of a liturgical willingness to place a provisional trust in the person. In this regard, most people know what a bad handshake is. There is the limp handshake, which evokes a sense of wanting the other to have more confidence; and there’s the hard handshake, which elicits a sense of unchecked machismo—and an eye-roll. If we call liturgies binding and oppressive, then we must call all social habits binding and oppressive, including the current habit of calling all social habits binding and oppressive.
Secondly, and from a critique developed by some specifically Christian brothers and sisters, I often hear a similar idea: that we Catholics bind ourselves strange rituals when we should be more authentic, acting and praying ad hoc. I respond to this much the same way. Look at the contemporary church service. It, too, contains defined, predictable, liturgical elements, which looks as such: fast song, medium song, new song, slow song, favorite slow song. Bring persons back in with another fast song and move on to the three-part sermon, after which there’s a minor worship service that fits the same structure.
That, my friends, is called liturgy, and Catholics take it up and celebrate it because we know that we’re liturgical beings and, as the old statement goes, “as we pray, so we think.”
Dr. Eric Hall is an Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Carroll College and author of "The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God."