An elegant Italian lady strode up to me. 'Look at this!' she commanded. I obeyed and surveyed the scene. It was the folk Mass, best described as guitars and free-range children. 'This is hideous!' 'Yes,' I replied. 'It truly is.' I suppose she hadn't bargained on an immediate capitulation. Slightly flummoxed she continued, 'But why do you tolerate it?'
Why indeed? People often fight over the liturgy, and it is not surprising because liturgy is something felt so deeply, so personally. Quarrelling over the liturgy is a little like quarrelling over what to have at Christmas dinner; the only apparent solution is to serve everything everyone could possibly want.
We see the same 'types' in most parishes when it comes to liturgy. There is the stiff, humourless tweed-toting young man who wants a slavish rubricism. There are the McLiberals with their iconoclastic bent, driven by a good old-fashioned mixture of good-will and ignorance, trying to propagate crass banalities. And there is Father Trendy (or worse, Bishop Trendy) whose self-devised changes to the liturgy are designed to show the laity how wonderful and pastoral he is (cue cheesy grin with sparkle on teeth).
For all these 'types', including the types we ourselves may fall into, there remains a temptation to make the liturgy into a game. It is as though liturgy is something we do; after all it does mean 'work of the laity'. But Christian liturgy is shorn from its civic Greek sense. Instead it is primarily the work of God -- something heavenly. This heavenly liturgy breaks through to us, making our own worship possible.
In the first reading we glimpse the heavenly liturgy, with saints worshipping and angels prostrating. In our own liturgy, we join in this same ceaseless eternal worship of God by the Thrones, Powers and Dominations, by Seraphim and Cherubim, singing the trisagion with them: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of Hosts!
All of this is made possible by one 'Angel' in particular, the same who -- in the Roman Canon -- we ask to carry our gifts to the heavenly altar, that our sharing at the earthly altar may fill us with heavenly grace. The 'Angel' we mean is Christ, because
no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven (John 3.13)
he who descended is the same one who ascended far above the heavens, so that he might fill all things (Ephesians 4.10).
Jesus is our one High Priest, our one altar and our one sacrifice -- our only mediator who 'fills all things'. There are therefore no such things as 'private' prayers because all prayers are prayers of the members of the Body of Christ, uttered in and through its Head, Jesus, uttered by the interceding Spirit 'with sighs too deep for words' (Romans 8.26), uttered to the Father who has lavished us with his love and made us his children.
That is why liturgy is so important: because it is simply the best prayer we have. It is the prayer and offering of Christ himself, and should never be tampered with by individuals because some things are so deep that we need the sighs and groans of the Spirit to express them. What we have come to through the liturgy is
the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven the spirits of just men made perfect (Hebrews 12.22-23).
We are part of something much greater, something that makes us much greater: the children of God. United with all the saints in the one Body, we -- including the McLiberals, the serious young man clad in tweed, and even Father Trendy -- form a myriad of beauty in heaven reflecting God's own inexhaustible beauty. Even the free-range children will learn to kneel and adore. As Phyllis McGinley wrote
It takes all kinds
To make a heaven.
In the meantime, as the hymn says, 'We feebly struggle, they in glory shine'. When we die we hope to be prayed for in tomorrow's commemoration (All Souls). But our great hope is one day to join the eternal liturgy of those whom we commemorate today!