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What’s Right with the Liturgy? I AM.

It’s true that the logic of “professional liturgists” (among which I am numbered) isn’t universally appreciated. On account of this fact, liturgists have even merited their own corner on the joke circuit. Many are familiar with the gag that suggests liturgists and terrorists are equally unreasonable. I heard a good one the other day that described a liturgist as one who doesn’t care how many persons of the Trinity there are, as long as they stand in the right place during Mass! 

With the above stigma for liturgical illogic in mind, I’m nevertheless confident to assert that “I am” what is right with the liturgy. I understand the claim sounds egotistical and self-assured. And given that my July editorial confessed that “I am” what’s wrong with the liturgy, I fear I may be perpetuating the stereotype of the obtuse liturgist. But let me explain. 

A famous optical illusion presents to the viewer two women in a single image, one young and beautiful, the other old and ugly. Both images are present within the lines and shades of the single sketch, but depending on how the eyes see the image, only one possibility shows up at a time. A similar phenomenon has presented itself to me. When I asked last issue, “What’s wrong with the liturgy?” I responded “I am,” by which I meant the individual Catholic liturgical participant. But as any scripturally-informed Catholic is aware, “I am” can name someone far greater than Joe Pew Catholic. 

Immediately before being sent to Pharaoh to command the release of the Chosen People, Moses asks God who he should say gave this command, were any to inquire. “God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). Some 1,400 years later, I AM would come himself, in the flesh, to ransom his people. 

In the Gospel account of the apostles’ boat being tossed upon the Sea of Galilee by the wind and waves, Jesus walks upon the water to them, telling them, “I AM, do not be afraid.” (Mark 6:50, Matthew 14:27, John 6:20). When teaching in the Temple area, Jesus announces that “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me” (John 8:28). And later, when the soldiers seek to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells them that he himself, Jesus the Nazorean, is “I AM,” the one they look for (John 18:4-8). 

Less explicitly, yet nonetheless really, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7), “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), and “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). Finally, St. John hears the victorious Lamb say, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). 

In the prefigurement of the Old Covenant, in the incarnate work of the Son of God, and in the future feast of heaven, I AM is at the center. The same is true today: I AM is what is right with the liturgy. 

That Jesus is at the center of the sacred liturgy may seem an obvious point, especially to regular readers of Adoremus Bulletin. But this most basic of liturgical truths (Is there any truth more fundamental than this?) is too often forgotten, or at least not appreciated as clearly as it ought. 

Consider again the Chosen People after their miraculous escape from Egypt: they had just witnessed God passing over their homes and striking down each of the first-born in the land, then passed through the Red Sea unscathed, and then felt Mount Sinai shake when the Lord spoke to Moses. Yet they soon displaced I AM and made themselves another god. Pope Benedict sees a liturgical lesson in the episode: “When Moses stays away for too long, and God himself becomes inaccessible, the people just fetch him back. Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry.  

“The dance around the golden calf is an image of this self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. The narrative of the golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. The liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 23). Like the Chosen People nearly 3,500 years ago, we today can be tempted to forget the “I AM” at the center of our liturgical lives. 

Cardinal Sarah, in fact, speaks regularly these days about restoring God to the heart of the liturgy, calling us to step asides and give I AM his rightful place in the liturgy: “Hence it is necessary to recognize that the serious, profound crisis that has affected the liturgy and the Church itself since the Council is due to the fact that its CENTER is no longer God and the adoration of Him, but rather men and their alleged ability to ‘do’ something to keep themselves busy during the Eucharistic celebrations” (March 29 address on the 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum). The “profound crisis”—what’s wrong—with the liturgy is that too often its substance has been replaced by substitutes. 

The cure for what’s ailing the liturgy is, in part, two-fold. First, it requires constant commitment to seeing God as the liturgy’s reality. However deficient “I am,” the plenitude of I AM encountered in the Mass, sacraments, sacramentals, and Divine Office gives meaning, healing, and salvation. Parishes and institutions with God-centered liturgy brim with life; those that rely on the ephemeral and fickle moods and fashions of man sooner or later “become pointless,” as Pope Benedict explains. 

But beyond a consistent awareness that God is at the liturgical center, a second antidote to a man-centered celebration includes a sacramental and mystagogical approach to liturgical understanding and participation. Related to the “profound crisis that has affected the liturgy,” as Cardinal Sarah puts it, is the “crisis of the sacramental idea in modern consciousness,” spoken of by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. A geometrician cannot comprehend his field without understanding the essence of angles and lines, or a writer cannot succeed without a proper understanding of grammar and syntax; so a Catholic cannot fully understand or participate in the Church’s ritual celebrations ignorant of the sacramental idea: Jesus is the content of everything liturgical. 

The most laconic expression of the sacramental idea comes from St. Leo the Great: “What was visible in our Savior, has passed over into his sacraments.” Part Two of the Catechism of the Catholic Church develops this idea further: “In this age of the Church, Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church, in a new way appropriate to this new age. He acts through the sacraments…” (1076). The sacramental principle finds Jesus in all things liturgical, obviously in the Sacraments but also in every ritual element, from the vestibule of the church to the vestments of the priest, from the words of the Eucharistic Prayer to the windows adorning the side aisles. True, Christ’s presence is not the same in each case (the tabernacle is not itself the Blessed Sacrament), but I AM is the reality of each of these ritual elements. 

The present issue of Adoremus Bulletin highlights three artists, each of whom let I AM animate their work and radiate his beauty to liturgical participants. Illustrator Daniel Mitsui of Chicago knows the meaning of the maxim, “God is in the details,” and his finely drawn pen-and-ink renderings burst with divine beauty. Leah Sedlacek of Denver’s Fellowship of Catholic University Students, known as FOCUS, manages the youth apostolate’s liturgical music program, which places I AM’s beauty at the source and fount of missionary evangelization on today’s college campuses. A team of artists, architects, and craftsmen collaborate in Father Douglas Martis’s story on the magnificent renovation of St. Turibius Chapel at the Pontifical College of the Josephinum in Columbus, OH. The building shaped by the Josephinum team will shape seminarians. And since St. Turibius Chapel is an image of the Heavenly Church, the glorified Mystical Body of I AM, each of those praying within its gates is formed to serve as alter Christus. 

While “I am” what’s wrong with the liturgy, I AM is what is right with the liturgy. But fear not: until the former adequately decreases so that the latter may increase, we have the professional liturgist to fix what’s wrong in the meantime. And that’s a joke worth laughing at. 

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens is Director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, instructor at Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute, editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and a voice on The Liturgy Guys Podcast.