On Stability of Liturgical Form

The Roman Catholic experience of the last few decades has produced a variety of strange “theme Masses”– Teen Mass, Contemporary Mass, Clown Mass, Polka Mass, Children’s Mass, Puppet Mass– this most unfortunate list goes on. In these cases, the Mass becomes a plaything manipulated at the discretion of certain individuals who hold a severely distorted view of the sacred liturgy. In order to make Mass more accessible, fleeting tendencies of profane pop culture are introduced into the liturgy. Instead of recognizing what is proper to liturgy, liturgy itself loses its own distinctive properties. Instead of elevating man into the transcendent, the transcendent is made purely immanent, brought down from its celestial heights into temporal vicissitudes unworthy of the eternal.

Liturgical stability is a hallmark of authentic worship. Individuals do not impose their idiosyncratic biases into the Mass, and nor is there any attempt to engage in a false syncretism with a modern culture that can never be considered an absolute good in itself. Instead, man enters into mystery of the Trinity and encounters Truth. Because truth itself is stable and unchanging, the liturgical manifestation of that truth cannot be subject to any and every whim and fancy. True liturgy exists outside normal time; here, heaven and earth, the eternal and the temporal, meet.

In ancient Greek thought, so important for the diffusion of biblical faith into the world of the Gentiles, the concept of time was denoted by two words: Χρόνος (chronos) and καιρός (kairos). Chronos obviously signifies chronological time– the unstoppable flow of the temporal from past to future. It was depicted as ruthless and unarrestable: everything eventually dies and breaks, given enough time. Chronos devours all. On the other hand, kairos signifies a break in chronos, a pause or fortuitous event through which success enters the world. In the second letter to the Corinthians (6:1-2), Paul writes:

Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For [God] says: “In an acceptable time (καιρῷ δεκτῷ) I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, now is a very acceptable time (καιρὸς εὐπρόσδεκτος); behold, now is the day of salvation.

Even in the earliest ages of the Church, the Apostles and Fathers discerned the providence of God in kairos moments, such that the definition of “fortuitous or auspicious event” was transformed into the idea of “God’s time”. God himself enters the created order enslaved by chronos and acts upon creation for its redemption. He arrests the forward flow of time and bursts into the world through the Incarnation and Resurrection, which signify his mastery over time itself. In many Catholic high schools and colleges in the United States (including my two almae matres), a Kairos retreat is a common feature of the academic year. It is an academically-sponsored retreat in which small groups of students are excused from all obligations for a few days in order to facilitate a growth in faith and community with the other participants. The often-ruthless chronology of the school year is briefly arrested for the benefit of the students.

The sacred liturgy should be our supreme example of kairos. It is a true retreat from the mundane, the profane, the fleeting, and the worldly. In its authentic manifestation, God enters the created order in an efficacious manner. The fleeting and banal demands of the secular age have no place here. Faithful to the organic development of the liturgy, men enter into the liturgy not to bring their own idiosyncrasies, but to leave for a brief moment the banalities which mark the chronology of life. Mass is a break in chronos through which the Lord brings us a foretaste of eternity.

If the difference in liturgy from one place to another (or from week to week) is so different that the common elements are hardly discernible, how can one fittingly say that in each Mass, man enters the same mystery? When somebody imposes a personal idea on the liturgy, especially when such an idea has little or no basis in the received tradition of the Church, that person effectively breaks the communion of solidarity which unites each individual Mass with every other Mass in the world. Liturgy devolves into a personal production, when in fact the true and decisive actor in the liturgy is the Triune God himself.

Not only does liturgical stability foster the spiritual connection between a Mass in a mission land and the Pope’s Mass in Rome, it also fosters the spiritual connection with the saints who celebrated and participated in Mass in very much the same manner. This too is a manifestation of chronos thwarted by the action of the Lord. The two pictures above demonstrate this: not only does our shared liturgical heritage bind us with our brothers and sisters across the world, it also binds us with past and future generations across time. Mass should be as it is, not as the banal tastes of the world would have it. Through liturgical stability, we allow Christ to effect his mastery over time as we enter into his grace which purifies us from the mundane.

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