What makes a wonderful Mass?
I’d love to take a straw poll after Mass on any given Sunday, and ask people at random this question. I’m quite sure that these could be some of the answers that I could get:
“When the choir blends its voices so beautifully like angels”, or
“When the Lectors proclaim the Word with great clarity”, or
“When preachers give great insights at a well prepared, crafted and delivered homily”, or
“When the servers execute their duties with great pomp and alertness”, or
“When the celebrant sings everything with heartfelt meaning and is on pitch”.
While I am sure that if all of the above happen together at a Mass, it may send some into ecstatic celestial heights, these, unfortunately, do not a wonderful liturgy make. What separates good liturgy from awe-inspiring liturgy literally lies in the mouths of the congregation.
In all that we do, what gives us great delight is when there is a positive response to our actions and overtures. We could be putting up a concert, writing of a book, producing a movie, or inviting friends over for a meal. It makes little sense to act or sing to an empty hall, to write a book which no one will read, let alone buy, make a movie which people simply will not watch, or get a meal ready for friends who will not turn up.
What happens at each Mass has a gravitas of far more import than any of the examples that I just listed. God is coming into our lives in a concrete way. God is offering himself to us over and over again. What God requires of us is to respond adequately and appropriately to this great grace (which saves us), which we do not deserve at all.
When properly understood and celebrated, the entire liturgy becomes a great offer and response flow - of love offered, and love received; of loved received, and love returned. That is what happens between the persons of the Holy Trinity, and our liturgy then becomes a mirroring of that great exchange of love.
Once we see how deep the Mass goes, then we will begin to understand that each gesture, each response, each action well executed and mindfully carried out becomes our return of gratitude and love to the one who is love. And when we are loath to respond with mindfulness, when our response is more timid than throaty, when we prefer to let the choir “perform” than to blend our voices with theirs, we are showing a lukewarm response to God’s offer of love and life.
When I am aware of this as a priest, then I will want to lead my people to as great a response as possible, because that marks fantastic liturgy. I’ll want the choir to be one that is giving their all to God, I’ll hope that the lectors really know how to proclaim and not just read, and I want to ensure that each altar server truly becomes the model participant at each Mass by his singing, opened mouth response and deliberate and mindful gestures.
Sadly, the world today seems to have become far too self-centered for this meaning to take place on a large scale in a church congregation. Dare I hope that an entire congregation deeply understands this? I’m not sure, because there will be many who will say that Mass for them is a ‘me and God’ moment, so “let me speak to God in my heart”. The understanding of the Church’s liturgy, which is public worship, has sadly seemed to be reduced to something personal and private – something that it never was, and never will be.
I used to get very upset as a celebrant to see Catholics who refuse to sing, who won’t respond to prayers, and who are very reticent and withdrawn and cold at Mass. Yet, these could well be the same people who go to rock concerts and show far greater enthusiasm with their response when the singer says “somebody scream!” or “I want to see you jump on the floor!” God, it seems deserves far less response and warmth than a mere mortal who demanded an entrance fee of hundreds of dollars and who thrills albeit momentarily.
Why do I say, “Used to get upset”? Perhaps I am beginning to see that being upset doesn’t make things better. It doesn’t help me to operate out of a mellow space and a compassionate heart. I just hope that I am able to impart, in a lucid and gentle way that we need to adjust our collective response to God’s offer of love and mercy.
Because when we do, heaven happens.