Each of us has a particular degree of self-centered pride—and sometimes that pride reaches the dizzying heights of hubris. Often in the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare, for instance, the tragic hero is afflicted with a particularly acute case of hubris which leads to his downfall. “Human” and “hubris” are unrelated etymologically (the former has Latin roots while the latter has Greek roots), but they are clearly associated in life. In fact, we need not look at the example of Oedipus or Othello to know how hubris works in our own lives. Every time we sin, we choose hubris over a true good, our own will over God’s will.
On the other hand, humans also have the capacity for great humility. As St. John the Baptist foretold and our Lord made clear in his passion and death, humanity will find its true grounding not in the overweening pride of hubris but in the lowly virtue of humility (and “humility” does share a common etymological root with “human”—both relating to the Latin word for “earth” or “dirt”—humus).
But if hubris and humility are the poles by which we navigate our everyday life, these two concepts are also essential in how we approach the liturgy, which contains the source and summit of eternal life. The relationship between our fallen nature—do we choose hubris or humility, or some hybrid of both?—and the Church’s divine liturgy makes or breaks how efficacious and fruitful the liturgy may be for us.
Our Fill of Hubris
First, let’s look at what happens when we choose hubris as our polestar to celebrating the liturgy. Our hubris plays a rather powerful role in the soul’s intercourse with God: even while Christ wishes to nourish us with his grace through the proverbial firehose, we weaklings can withstand his saving power. “Here’s my grace,” says God, but we close our mouths and hearts, and in general proclaim, “Not thy will, but mine be done.”
Consider, for example, recent stories of two young priests who discovered to their horror that they were not actually ordained at all (see here and here)—since their baptisms as infants were invalid. At the time they were to be received into the Church at the baptismal font, the minister, through either ignorance (although this is hard to imagine) or thinking he knew better than the Church (a form of pride), had changed the words of the baptismal formula to “We baptize you….” (The valid form must use the first person singular: “I baptize you….”) This minister, serving his own will rather than God’s, denied these young members of his flock the divine power otherwise bestowed by baptism.
But even when it is not a question of sacramental validity, liturgical ministers may step to the fore and raise questions of liturgical liceity. What does it mean for an element in the liturgy to be illicit but still valid? “Validity” means that each essential element of a sacrament is present in the celebration: correct material (e.g., water—not beer or KoolAid—for baptism), right words (e.g., “This is my body” at Mass), and a correct minister (e.g., a bishop at ordination rather than the cathedral janitor), who has the right intention (i.e., of doing what the Church does when celebrating a sacrament).
But what is valid can still be illicit. For, even when each of these essential elements is present, the minister must follow the Church’s laws when celebrating. If this adherence to the norms is present, the celebration is said to be “licit”; if not, it is “illicit.” A priest who wears his stole over his chasuble, for example, breaks liturgical law. The lector who changes words of the reading renders his or her proclamation illicit. The sacristan who sets out a French Baguette as the material to be confected as the Eucharist at Mass in the Western Church may be setting up for disaster, since the law requires that the bread used at Mass in the Roman Rite is to be made solely from wheat (no yeast). And while these illicit adaptations don’t render Christ’s presence and action null and void, they weaken the liturgy’s transformative power among God’s people and, ultimately, deny God the full adoration owed him.
All liturgical laws—whether we deem them essential or ancillary—must be followed in the liturgy. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy put down as its very first norm: “no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (n.22). Since we are not the authors of the liturgy, we have no authorization to change it, not even by one “jot or tittle.” Let St. Paul be the model in handing on what has been given: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Cor 11:23).
But priests and ministers are not the only liturgical participants tempted to make unauthorized, illicit, or even invalid changes to our celebrations. The liturgy is, by its nature, objective, transcendent, and universal in character. Since it is impossible for it to account for each person’s particular preferences, the liturgy offers what is common to us all. But this liturgical feature can make the liturgy feel frigid, aloof, and impersonal—characteristics especially disliked by many today. But the liturgy loses more than it gains when it is adjusted to personal and particular needs and likes. The minister might want to make the liturgical experience more appealing to the assembly—and the assembly often welcomes and encourages its ministers to tailor the liturgy to them. But in this way, the assembly and its members seek a liturgy that looks like them, rather than one that reflects Christ. Through hubris, we get our own way in the liturgy but lose our way to God in the process.
Give Humility a Chance
The true dynamism of the liturgy is just the opposite—and St. John the Baptist is our patron in this regard. “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). He’s also a timely saint right now. We in the western Church celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24, just as the summer solstice passes and the light begins to decrease (until the winter solstice just prior to December 25 when the light increases). His conception, a feast observed in the East, was recently observed on September 23, just after the autumnal equinox, when the daylight hours grow fewer than the nighttime hours. Even nature knows that John “was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (John 1:8).
John the Baptist’s humility ought to inspire liturgical ministers to “step back” and let Christ radiate through them. He should likewise impart to the faithful the truth that the liturgy is not dependent upon the personality, adaptations, and human qualities of the priest (even though these are not irrelevant). As liturgist and Benedictine Father Aidan Kavanagh once observed: “The minister at the liturgy should be as ‘uninteresting’ as a glass of cold, clear, nourishing water”—translucent enough for the Light of the World to illuminate a minister’s people. And even within the hearts of the faithful, any hubris which distorts our redeemed humanity must be expunged. Only God can save us, but he cannot do it unless we allow him to do so. We have to get out of our own way, in other words, so that we can rise to heaven.
Humanity’s hubris was our first sin; it is the basis of subsequent sins; it is, at core, the vice most in need of eradicating. To this end, Christ is our model: “Christ Jesus humbled himself, and God exalted him forever.” John the Baptist gives the same testimony, one that each of us should hear in the liturgy.
Photo Caption and Credit: The Great Decreaser, John the Baptist, is a liturgical role model. (AB/Wikimedia. Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra, 1616-1668, St. John the Baptist)
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.