I waited in silence, trying to be alert to the message and trying to understand, then as I lifted the host and chalice and said the words, “Behold the Lamb of God — Behold him who takes away the sins of the world” it was as if the unspoken words were spoken. The message was communicated and understood.
But here is the strange and (I think) wonderful thing: the message was given, but I cannot now articulate that message. Oh, I can try. It was all wrapped up with concepts like forgiveness and providential love and redemption and expiation. It was tied up with concepts having to do with reconciliation and the summary and end of all things. These theological concepts were not articulated, but the were communicated within and through the words, “Behold the Lamb of God–Behold him who takes away the sins of the world”
And there was more. It was as if the theological concepts which I can name well enough, were not, in themselves adequate for the message, for the message was at once universal and particular. That is to say, the message was about the sins of the whole world and the fallen ness of the entire created cosmos, but it was also about me and my needs. Connections were made with my own problems, concerns, worries and fears. Reconciliation was offered for my own unresolved conflicts, inner darkness, sins, selfishness and the gaping wound of my own heart.
This message was communicated very clear, but it was not articulated in words that we might use to communicate. Instead it was communicated through the sacred words, “Behold the Lamb of God–Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world”. It was communicated through those words, but also through the action of the Mass, and my own actions of lifting the host and chalice as countless priests have done before me in countless Masses in chapels and churches of every kind down the ages.
I knew it before, but it was given again–that this is the way liturgy functions. This is the language of liturgy–that it is through the ceremony; through the ritual words and gestures; through the “same old thing” that the “great old truth” is given, and it is given in a way that is deeper than words. And this is the way a symbol works. What I see and hear connects with something greater and deeper and more mysterious than the simple sight and the literal words.
This meaning is given at the deepest level of the burning heart. It is given at that level where the particular meets the universal–where my life merges with the collective life–the level where a transaction takes place: my little concerns become great concerns, and I–small as I am–help to bear the great concerns.
And this is why liturgy that is impoverished, puerile and shallow can only accomplish a transformation at the most superficial of levels. This is why all the attempts to make liturgy ‘relevant’ will never be anything more than relevant, but where the liturgy celebrated with solemnity and dignity and seeming ‘irrelevance’ will do far greater things than we can ever ask or imagine.