Form and Faith

There’s a lot to be said for form and tradition. That strikes me every time I encounter a group of Christians from less liturgical denominations struggling to make something feel ceremonial, symbolic or liturgical. They have every good intention, and some idea of the necessary equipment. But somehow, the pieces just don’t seem to fit together right. Things often end up either overdone or out of balance, too regimented or too casual. The same awkwardness is evident when people who do not have a sense of tradition as a regular part of their lives plan an awards ceremony or dedication of some kind. They just don’t know what to do.

In our prevailing “whatever” culture, people seem to find anything formal uncomfortable by definition. Still, there are times when formality, grace and tradition are what people need and even want. Weddings, funerals, graduations and professional achievements just aren’t t-shirt and flip-flop events. But when they come up, it is clear that organizing a proper procession seems to have become a lost art.

The discomfort with what is formal and governed by tradition has seeped into our churches too. But we have managed to remain connected to what has gone before us, and what has been handed down to us. Nobody knows how to put together a procession like a good deacon does. Yet, we seem shy these days about having processions at all. We have become reluctant to make use of the pageantry and aesthetic that lies at the heart of our liturgy. 

While bishops continue to debate our new English translations, it is important to remember that liturgy is not just words. Liturgy is the confluence of word, image and symbolic action that draws our souls into the stream of prayer that flows across the ages. Liturgy is alive. It doesn’t just have form, but movement.

I am a Latin rite Catholic. So is an overwhelming number of Catholics throughout the world. But not everyone who is Catholic is Roman Catholic. In fact, our universal Church is actually a union of 22 separate churches that belong to a handful of rites. The core of our Latin rite is simplicity and seasons. We see the Mass as the gathering of the Body of Christ present in the world around the altar of his love. Our priests act ‘‘in persona Christi”--in the person of Christ--when they speak the words of consecration. We stress the importance of unity and community in discipleship. The sacrificial self-offering of Jesus is our hope and calling. We celebrate sacraments as God’s vehicles of grace.

Other rites emphasize different aspects of faith and discipleship. Sometimes, those things are precisely what I need to keep me going. Maybe that is why I think of myself as a Eastern rite refugee, or at least, an Eastern rite “wanna-be,” and attend Divine Liturgy at a Ukrainian Catholic parish when I am able. The Byzantine rite pulls out all the stops: It is not shy about the richness of its tradition. It seems to care less about being relevant to the prevailing secular culture. Everything has multiple layers of symbolic meaning. Prayers are often repeated three times in honor of the Trinity. Alternating between Ukrainian and English doesn’t really bother me--I’ve learned most of the responses in Ukrainian over time anyway, as well as making the sign of the cross from right to left, and opening my mouth for holy Communion. The role of the Holy Spirit is highlighted. The Virgin Mary, as well as all the saints and angels are much more prominent throughout the liturgy. (My favorite is the mention of the “Noble Joseph” of Arimathea.) The priest, facing the altar which is behind the iconostasis, or icon screen, leads the people in prayer as one of them. The reality of sin and our need for forgiveness is recalled from beginning to end. The liturgy is not so much an experience of the community of the Body of Christ here on Earth as it is a way for us to participate in the heavenly liturgy of the angels and saints.

The Divine Liturgy does not only re-present the sacrifice of the cross, but the entire life of Jesus including his incarnation, resurrection and ascension. Jesus is Master, Teacher and our hope for mercy. The sacramental life of Christian disciples is seen as a life-giving mystery that gives us a taste of heaven here on Earth in order to draw us wholly into the kingdom.

For me, liturgy is a leading grace. In my perhaps not-so-humble opinion, we Latin rite Catholics could reach more people more deeply if we really made a concerted effort to use all that Sacred Tradition has given to us. A little Latin wouldn’t hurt either--by the way--as long as everyone knew what it meant. (But that’s another column, isn’t it?)

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.