torsdag 16 juni 2016

What does Matthew 6 say about liturgy?

Yesterday's Gospel reading was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Beware of performing religious acts for people to see “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


The priest, who has views on the subject, used it as a cue for a brief sermon about liturgy and the need for simplicity and understandability of the texts. However, this passage has nothing to do with the liturgy. Liturgy is the public prayer of the church. All religions have some form of prayer in public.

The performance of the liturgy, like the performance of the ancient Temple ceremonies from which they are derived, is governed by the regulations set out in the relevant official documents of the church - the General Instructions and rubrics of the Missal and supporting guidelines such as Sacrosanctum Concilium and Summorum Pontificum.

The liturgy is prayer, but it is also sacred theatre. It is a set of actions and not a mere recital of texts. Its function is both to raise the hearts and minds of the people to God, and to convey the beliefs of the church in a way that the people can understand. The texts have a part to play, and of course people should know what is being said, but the liturgy engages all the senses; the text is part of an overall experience involving ceremonial, music and art, smell and taste, all within an appropriate architectural setting.

It is true that some people can become over-particular about the way the liturgy is performed. This applies both to those who wish to preserve tradition and those who would cast it aside. On the other hand, care should be taken to exclude that which gets in the way of the liturgy's function - whether it be unsuitable music or sloppy reading or an architectural setting which draws attention away from, or interferes with, the action.

The aim of the liturgy is nothing less than the transformation of the participants. A focus on just the text can lead to an intellectualisation of the faith, which then becomes a set of theoretical ideas rather than a change in state of being. Could this be one reason why we are failing to radicalise our young people?

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