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Reverence In The Sacred Liturgy: A Matter Of Love

March 6, 2019 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


To have a sense of the sacred is to have a vivid and formative awareness of who God is, of His infinite goodness, His omnipotence, His holiness, and His transcendence, as well as a perception of the sacredness of man created in His likeness and image. Reverence is our response to the sacred. And it is a response of love.
In keeping with the sublime mystery that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that our God became incarnate, reverence has been “incarnated” in sacred words and actions, the words and actions of the sacred liturgy, words and actions that have developed and ripened across a wide span of centuries. And having been placed by God in a meticulously ordered universe, the Church has striven to express her reverence toward God in a well-ordered manner, with detailed rubrics and universally offered prayers. This order is likewise an expression of communion, that we all have “one Lord, one, faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).
All the above seems axiomatic enough, yet there continue to be those who seem to think that God prefers us to offer Him disorder, that divine worship should be about as casual, leisurely, and light-hearted as a summer barbecue.
Just recently I came across an article in a Catholic journal insisting that the liturgy needs to be “spontaneous” and cheery, that the sacred shouldn’t mean solemnity and seriousness, that Catholic worship needs to be purged of centuries of rigid formality and repetition, preoccupations with one’s sinfulness, the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the notion of God as a domineering and mean-spirited Judge, and that a liturgy that does not surprise us weekly with the unexpected, with the shock of the new, will wind up boring us to death.
Yet such an impromptu, boneless, happy-talk liturgy as that proposed above is a liturgy that is out of touch with reality, out of touch with where people really are in their own lives, out of touch with “the seriousness of the metaphysical situation of man,” as Dietrich von Hildebrand put it (The Devastated Vineyard, Harrison, NY, Roman Catholic Books, 1985, p. 23).
Such a liturgy trivializes the Gospel and makes it easy just to shrug one’s shoulders and walk away unmoved and unchanged. The advocates of such a vision of liturgy are in fact proffering a hermeneutic of weekly rupture that leaves the soul feeling homeless.
Why, then, is there so much “formality” in the sacred liturgy, why so much ceremonial detail? Because it is a matter of love. Reverence is a response of love to love. The rubrics and solemnity of the sacred liturgy are manifestations of the love of the Church for her Divine Bridegroom, the Church trembling to the core of her being at His arrival upon the altar, in His presence.
Regarding this, a passage from the Song of Songs can help us to understand — here I will use the Jerusalem Bible’s rendering of the text, because for this particular verse it captures the element of “the fear of the Lord” implied by the wording (a dimension of the passage likewise implied by the use of the Latin verb intremuit, i.e., “trembled, shivered,” in the Latin Vulgate):
“My beloved thrust his hand / through the hole in the door; / I trembled to the core of my being. / Then I rose / to open to my Beloved, / myrrh ran off my hands, / pure myrrh off my fingers, / on to the handle of the bolt” (Song 5:4-5 — Jerusalem Bible).
Each Mass returns us anew to the all-beautiful day of Good Friday. It is by the reverent actions of the Mass, the detailed, fastidious solemnities of its celebration, that the Church answers that haunting question of our Lord, “Do you know what I have done to you?” (John 13:12). It is her expression of breathless awe, the quivering of her enraptured heart, the trembling of her hands dripping with myrrh as she unlatches the gate to His Holy of Holies, in recalling and beholding anew His total gift of self-donation for her.
Our Lord, by His Incarnation, by His Passion and by giving Himself to us as nourishment in the Holy Eucharist has in His divine love practically “groveled” to us His creatures, as if He were the Prodigal Son rather than we. Our response to God humbling Himself to us is reverence, the Church as it were saying, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet” (Luke 15:22).
Reverence is our response to the Passion of Christ. It is our way of making reparation for what was done to our Lord in His Passion. The more He was bowed down under a torrent of scourges, under the battering of His blessed face with spittle, blows, and revilement, and beneath the cruel weight of His cross, the more we seek to raise Him up.
Reverence is also our response to the Resurrection. For if the people of Israel were awed by God descending upon Mount Sinai “in fire,” with “thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud…and a very loud trumpet blast” and the quaking of the Earth on “the morning of the third day” (Exodus 19:16-19), how much more should we be awed by the omnipotence of Christ rising from the dead “on the third day” (1 Cor. 15:4). And how much more ought we to respond with reverence as St. Thomas did when he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28), and as St. John did when in his apocalyptic visions, upon seeing the risen Christ walking amid the seven golden lampstands, “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).
Reverence is likewise our response to our Lord’s abasement of Himself in the Holy Eucharist. He condescends to come to us under the appearances of mere and lowly things, the appearances of bread and wine, to feed us with His very Self. It is right and just that we should respond to this incredible generosity of our loving God by lifting Him up and gratefully seating Him back upon His throne.
Gestures and actions of reverence form a sacral language all its own, a sort of silent universal language with which we speak to God — a wordless profession of faith in our unseen God. The Holy Eucharist is all about an infinitely glorious Reality that our senses unaided cannot perceive. Acts of reverence keep us conscious and aware of what we cannot see, alert to God’s gift of His very Self to us.
Reverence is an expression of thanksgiving, our grasping to offer a response of gratitude to God. Acts of reverence require an effort, to do more than the bare minimum, to do more than what is easiest; it requires us to sacrifice a bit of ourselves in time and effort. And thus it is a genuine gift of ourselves to God.
Reverence means the careful, gentle handling of what is given to us out of love. When a friend lends us a possession of his, we handle it carefully, gently, cautiously, out of reverence and respect for him. Should we not therefore handle the gifts God gives us in the sacraments with the utmost reverence?
Reverence actually fosters intimacy with God. For when by acts of reverence we humble ourselves before Him, the wall of our pride and arrogance is torn down so that we can come closer to Him. By properly orienting us toward God, it allows us to come as close as we can in this life to conversing with Him face-to-face.
There is a modern attitude that sees the fear of God as incompatible with the love of God, that we cannot really love a God we fear. But fearing God means taking Him seriously for who He truly is. And is it not part of the very nature of true love that we take those we love seriously? There cannot be genuine love without respect for the person who is loved. And is there any being who is more deserving of our respect than God? Are not reverence and the fear of the Lord the manifestations of our respect for God?

Nobility And Inner Worth

It is instructive to consider how our Lord reacted to the many acts of reverence directed to Him.
On a whole series of occasions we find supplicants and others throwing themselves down at His feet: a leper begging to be healed, Mark 1:40; St. Peter awed by the miraculous catch of fish, Luke 5:8; the woman healed of a hemorrhage, Mark 5:33; the Syro-Phoenician woman begging for the exorcism of her possessed daughter, Mark 7:25; the apostles in the boat after having seen Christ walk on the water, Matt. 14:33; the synagogue ruler Jairus pleading for the cure of his dying daughter, Luke 8:41-42; the rich young man, Mark 10:17; the three apostles at the Transfiguration, Matt. 17:6; the father of an epileptic boy, Matt. 17:14; the one leper out of ten who returned to thank Christ for his healing, Luke 17:15-16; Mary the sister of Lazarus mourning the death of her brother, John 11:32; the women who saw Christ following His Resurrection, Matt. 28:9.
On not one of these occasions does He rebuke anyone for doing so.
And when as He entered Jerusalem riding a colt the disciples went so far as to spread their garments before Him, hailing Him as “the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” His reply to the Pharisees who exhorted Him to rebuke His disciples for this was, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:36-40). Dr. Alice von Hildebrand has defined reverence as “a respect for things that, because of their nobility and inner worth, call for awe” (Man and Woman: A Divine Invention, Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2010, p. 89).
Dietrich von Hildebrand warned of what a world and a liturgy without reverence would mean: “Without a fundamental attitude of reverence, no true love, no justice, no kindliness, no self-development, no purity, no truthfulness, are possible; above all, without reverence, the dimension of depth is completely excluded” (The Art of Living, Steubenville, OH, Hildebrand Project, 2017, p. 8).
In the sacred liturgy reverence is the passageway to communion with God, the expressive incarnation of what it means to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength. So “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28).

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