Don't cage the sacred
by John Wijngaards
Published in the Tablet, 23rd September 2000
Recent instructions from Rome seem to be designed to separate priestly functions from those of the people. But a theologian who appreciates Rome's concern warns that a basic Christian reality which runs in the opposite direction is being ignored.
The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship has issued new rules for cele-brating the Eucharist. Already this revision of the so-called General Instruction on the Roman Missal has sparked alarm and protest. One expert, Fr John Gurrieri, former chief of staff for the United States bishops' committee on liturgy, finds the implications "disturbing".
One main feature that distinguishes this instruction from the previous version issued in 1975 is the renewed stress on the "sacred-ness" of places, things and people surrounding the Eucharist. "Remember this is a sacred rite", we are told. And such a reminder could strike a chord. As it does for me.
A deep respect for holy things was instilled in me from when I was young. I recall entering our parish church with awe. Signing myself with holy water, I would tiptoe into the semi-dark building, genuflect to the Presence in the tabernacle and slide into the pew with a strong awareness that I was in God's own home. And respect meant silence. That silence became tangible when the whole congregation knelt in rapt adoration at the time of the consecration. "I've talked in church" was one of the routine sins I would review for confession. And a wholesome respect for mystery, however imperfect, has never left me. I love the interior of Catholic churches because they reflect majesty as well as warmth, the flickering light of the sanctuary lamp no less than commuion with colourful saints. I understand the Congregation for Worship's desire to uphold the "sacredness" of the church building and the Eucharist, and yet, in this instruction, it seems to have lost the balance.
The word "sacred" occurs more often in this instruction than in any comparable document of its kind. A whole new section on "sacred things" has been added. Central to the Congregation for Worship's view on the Eucharist is the sanctuary: a sacred area within the church in which the altar stands and in which consecrated ministers exercise their offices. The altar itself is a sacred table and should be treated as such. The ambo, from which the Scripture is read, is a sacred lectern. The chalice and the paten that hold the consecrated bread and wine are called sacred vessels. The priest wears sacred vestments and is himself a consecrated person. Even the chair on which he sits in the sanctuary shares in his sacredness. It has to be "visibly distinguished from chairs used by others who are not clergy".
Making the sacred visibly distinct is obviously important to the Roman liturgists. The chalice and the paten are to be "clearly distinguished from vessels designed for everyday use". The priest's vestments should stand out from everyday dress. What the congregation considers sacred, it wants to be seen to be different from what is only secular.
In this an appeal is made to a symbolic separation that Hindus, Buddhists, Parsees, Jains and even African animists can understand. Cultural anthropologists established long ago that the distinction between the sacred and the profane forms the core of natural religion. A routine Monday is a profane day. A kitchen or a market place are profane areas. Ordinary people, who are themselves profane, cannot commune with the Divine on a Monday in their kitchen, but only by contact with sacred realities: places, times, objects or people in or through which or in whom Divinity breaks through. A housewife, anxious to placate the Deity, will take her chicken to a shrine at the New Moon festival, leaving it to the local holy man to offer the sacrifice in a sacred rite. We still find the emphasis on such sacred cultic realities in the Temple worship of the Old Testament (Lev. 21:1-22:33). But may it be called Christian?
Contrary to the accepted religious mould, the New Testament presents the Eucharist as embedded in the profane world. This shocking fact may never be forgotten. Jesus Christ did not come from a priestly family, nor did he receive the priestly ordination prescribed in Leviticus 8:1-36. He offered his sacrifice not in the hallowed Temple precincts, but on Golgotha, a contaminated mount of execution. He wore no priestly garments. His altar was a beam of ordinary wood. The author of the letter to the Hebrews explains at length that Christ thus abolished and replaced the cultic worship of the Temple. The curtain that shielded the Holy of Holies was rent in two (Mt. 27:51). The theological and spiritual significance of Christ's action cannot be overestimated. For in one stroke he made the whole world sacred and liberated the whole human race from distinctions based on a sacred status.
The early Christians were deeply conscious of the unusual situation they found themselves in. They celebrated the Lord's Supper in ordinary homes, breaking the bread and sharing the wine in vessels used in their households. Those who presided were dressed like everyone else. They grasped that Christ's words, "Do this in commemoration of me", implied also a commemoration of God becoming incarnate in ordinary everyday life, transforming the profane world by turning it upside down, ignoring temples because people themselves had become God's Temple.
In the light of this radical Christian interpretation of the meaning of the Eucharist, the Vatican instruction seems off-centre. Of course the articles used for Mass should be neat and decent, and should inspire respect. Equally, in our churches we want to preserve a sense of the numinous, of "the fascinating mystery in which perfect fullness flowers, the majesty that emanates an overwhelming superiority of power", to quote Rudolph Otto's famous book The Sacred (1917). Surely, this is the intention of the Congregation for Divine Worship. But this intention should not, and cannot responsibly, be expressed by focusing on a quasi-magical sacred quality. The real Christian focus should be on the indescribable mystery of God becoming present among us precisely in ordinary things and ordinary people.
I have had the privilege of being present at, and even presiding over, so-called House Masses, and Masses for teenagers in their classrooms, as well as Masses for village communities in India which I celebrated seated on the floor surrounded by people in a thatched hut. I have always found that, provided the eucharistic rite is performed with devotion and respect, people are not scandalised by closeness to Mystery. Rather they are moved and inspired by seeing their home sanctified by Christ's presence, their own plate or bowl holding the sacred species. The same applies to the symbolism in a parish church. The setup should radiate Christ's love, making people feel at home. The presumed holiness of sacred paraphernalia should not become a barrier between God and his holy people.
The most "sacred" reality in a Christian assembly is God's people. Paul calls Christians "the holy ones" (Rom. 1:7,1 Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1), and he is not referring to ethical holiness, for in the same letters he chides them for imperfections. The faithful are "made sacred" by Christ (1 Cor, 6:11), a notion echoed in the Second Vatican Council's constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (11): "They are consecrated by the baptismal character to the exercise of the cult of the Christian religion." They are a "sacred priesthood" (1 Pet, 2:5). "Laity" originally meant "belonging to God's holy people" (laos is Greek for people).
If this is so, what then to make of those rules in the new instruction that seem to relegate the laity to a second-class profane status? The sanctuary, remember, is the area reserved by the Vatican congregation to the priest and his sacred ministry. The priest sits on his clergy-only sacred throne. He is told not to leave his holy area and mingle with ordinary people during the exchange of peace. Lay people called upon to help with distributing Communion may not enter the sanctuary before the priest has taken Communion himself. What separation is made visible here? Does it not contradict the New Testament teaching that Christ "has made his people sacred,... officiating in a sanctuary not made by human hands" (Heb. 2:11, 13:12, 8:2, 9:24)? Whereas in the old dispensation the ordinary people were kept far away from the Holy of Holies by being confined to the court of the Gentiles or the court of Israel, "we have confidence to enter the sanctuary. .. because by the will of God we have all been made sacred" (Heb. 10:9-10).
Even more astonishing is the instruction's admonition that lay helpers at Holy Communion must receive the "sacred vessels" from the priests and may not remove them from the tabernacle or pick them up from the altar themselves. They also may not place consecrated hosts from one ciborium into another. Neither may they assist in the cleansing of the "sacred vessels" after Mass. They are not to consume consecrated wine left over after Communion unless the priest administers it to them. Whatever the intention of the Congregation for Divine Worship here, the symbolism will bewilder and hurt eucharistic ministers. Or is this a covert reintroduction of the ancient rule, part of the Church's official code of law from its first collection by the monk Gratian in the twelfth century until the new code of 1984, that no women, "not even consecrated virgins", be allowed to touch the sacred vessels?
The Vatican congregation extols the virtues of the old sacrarium, a "sacred sink" in the sacristy exclusively reserved for pouring out the water used for cleansing the sacred vessels. But are eucharistic ministers not much more
sacred, as persons created in God's image and as lay people "made sacred by Christ for the Christian cult", than a sink in the sacristy? And if they can be trusted with placing consecrated hosts on people's hands or offering them the chalice, why can they not be trusted to cleanse the vessels afterwards? Which is more sacred - the objects or the people?
Perhaps the Roman authorities are worried about the decline in priestly vocations, which they attribute to a loss of status in the ordained ministers, and want to restore their dignity? What they may, in fact, be doing is to embarrass hard-pressed priests even more. For who in our present-day culture would invite people to a meal and then take and eat the main course himself before sharing the food with his guests? And yet the priest is supposed to take Communion first. And who in our present-day society would look down on a prime minister or president because they wear ordinary dress? Have people not become much more discerning? Is this how Jesus himself would have acted in our own day? What spirituality has informed the Roman document? Was it fear that a priest will no longer be recognised as a "man of God"?
It is instructive to reflect that Jesus saw himself not as a cultic priest, but as the "Son of Man" which, in Aramaic, translates as "an ordinary person, a man of the people". The Son of Man does not boost his self-image. His main concern is to be accessible to his people and serve them. "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.... He does not cry out or raise his voice. He does not break the crushed reed or snuff the faltering wick" (Is. 42:1-3). "The Lord has given me a disciple's tongue, so that I may know how to give a word of comfort to the weary" (Is. 50:4). Christ's distinguishing mark was love, not any visible sacred dignity (Jn. 13:35).
Yes, the sacred needs to be safeguarded, and we want the eucharistic rites to be surrounded by awe and respect. Not, however, at the expense of what is most sacred to us: God's people. Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, the whole church area becomes a sanctuary because it is the place of God's priesthood. After all, all the Christian faithful offer the sacrifice "not only through the hands of the priest, but also together with him", in their own right (Lumen Gentium 12). In each celebration of the Eucharist, the indescribable, overwhelming, otherworldly, transcendent Mystery that is God touches the reality of our life.
The Congregation for Divine Worship is right in wanting us to preserve our sense of awe in the encounter. But the outcome should remain an encounter: Christ lovingly identifying himself with the whole congregation and embracing each member of his sacred people. In our new Jerusalem there is no temple building in the traditional meaning of the term, "for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (Rev. 21:22). "Do you not realise that you yourselves are a temple of God with the Spirit of God living in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19). No physical structures, only God and us. Should our liturgy not, first and foremost, reflect that astonishing and comforting truth?
This website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.
The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.
You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.
Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.
The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.