In this series on the liturgy I want to explain why we do things–not only how. It seems to me that many Catholics go through the motions and don’t really understand why they do what they do. Consequently what they do is often automatic and done without thinking. How they do it therefore reflects the lack of thought or ignorance on their part. The result is a liturgy that is celebrated without due reflection or understanding. On the other hand, some liturgists have thought it through carefully, but they began with an incorrect understanding of the liturgy to start with, or they had incorrect emphases or priorities so what they ended up doing was well meaning, but counter productive.
Why do we process into church anyway? Why not just start out with everybody up front and the priest starting with the introductory rite? You could say we process in because the rubrics tell us to. OK. But why? Here’s why. The procession links us back to the Jewish worship of the Old Testament in which the people would all gather and process up the holy mountain to the temple. These processions are recorded in the psalms. It was like a little holy parade with instruments and singing and dancing. Our procession to the altar of God reflects back to this same tradition. I say to our altar servers, “When you process to the altar of God you are doing a liturgical action. It means something. It does something for everyone else present.”
In fact, as they process forward to the altar of God they are symbolically leading the whole congregation to the altar. As the congregation sees them move forward everyone visually and therefore mentally and spiritually transitions from their everyday lives into “worship mode”. This happens whether they are conscious of it or not. As a result, I tell my servers, “Your posture, your body language, the way you are dressed and the way you walk matters.” The way you process in helps the people to move into the presence of God.
The body language of the procession should reflect what we believe the procession is all about. It is a solemn progress into the presence of God. Therefore, we move more slowly. A slow pace for the crucifer, and he “lifts high the cross” There should be an almost royal, stately bearing as the servers and clergy process. Their posture is upright and their hands together in front of them in a posture of prayer. Their genuflection before the altar is together and synchronized. God’s time is slower than our time. The procession reflects the divine dance of the cosmos where everything is commodious and moves together decently and in order.
Who processes? Altar servers and clergy. The custom of integrating everyone from the cub scouts to the lectors and special eucharistic ministers and the chairperson of the Women’s Club and the youth group…not good. I understand why people do it. They want to be inclusive. They want everyone to participate. They want the procession to be democratic and representative of ‘the whole church’. It’s a cute idea, but not necessary. The servers and the clergy already do represent the whole church in their appropriate functions. When everybody wearing street clothes comes galumphing down the aisle the whole purpose of a liturgical procession is destroyed. Why do ‘liturgists’ do stuff like this? Because they didn’t understand the true reason for the liturgy and the proper reason for the procession to start with, or if they did, they didn’t like it and wanted to change it.
I’m convinced that worship begins with the procession, and a little bit of effort to improve this beginning of worship will begin all the rest of worship as well. Because of a solemn and dignified procession the people will participate visually and symbolically and therefore their hearts and minds will be drawn more faithfully further up and further in to the solemn and beautiful celebration of the Holy Mysteries.