From a Priest at the Altar

From a Priest at the Altar May 29, 2014

Sometimes in the midst of my incredibly busy life the door opens and I have a glimpse of what it is really all about.

Quite often this happens on a Wednesday. On Wednesday evening I hear confessions and then say Mass. I celebrate the Mass ad orientem. It is the only time in the week I do so.

I celebrate facing the same way as the people because I actually feel closer to them that way. I also feel closer to God.

I celebrate most masses facing the people, but I have to admit that whenever I do, try as I might, I feel like I am on show–kind of like I am in entertainment mode. When I stand at the other side of the altar and face the Lord with the people I find that my own celebration of Mass is more intimate and mystical. I feel like I am able to focus more on the Lord and what is happening. If I need to weep I can do so without people seeing me. If I need to pause and pray I can do so without worrying what people are thinking.

So this week on Wednesday evening as I celebrated Mass a strange awareness came over me. As I read the words from the missal it was as if the words themselves were alive and vivid. I cannot explain what I was seeing except to say that the words were thronged with the meaning of the words. The words on the page were distinct and that made every doctrine and truth distinct. It was as if each word and even each letter stood out with cosmic significance–not that the words themselves were so alive, but that the eternal meaning and truths that the words communicated were alive and throbbing with the meaning–meaning that was alive as far above me as the stars, and as close to me as my own breath.

Then I thought of the mysterious meaning of “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

It was as if this eternal mystery of the incarnation was coming true again within the simple speaking of the words. Something happened. A transaction was made between this world and eternity. The words and the actions of the liturgy came alive as I know they always come alive even though I do not always realize it.

Then coming away after Mass the thunderstruck realization of why it is so important (as Fr Z says) to “say the black and do the red”. The priest is servant to the liturgy. The liturgy is not servant to the priest. It is only as I submit to the liturgy and live the liturgy and let it live through me that it comes to it’s fullest meaning.

This is why it is such a travesty and mistake for a priest to try to make the liturgy “meaningful” by adding his own emphasis, his own comment and his own frightful personality. Instead, the formality of the actions, the simplicity of the gestures and the dignity of the words stand alone and communicate the mystery.

For the mystery of the incarnation, of course, is alive again on the altar of God. Not now in human flesh, but yes in human flesh under the appearance of bread and wine, and it is this echo of the incarnation that brings the whole world to its knees and keeps the whole world going for without it God would be more distant from the world, but with it God is present here, and the one who became man in Palestine, lives today in bread and wine.

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