A few weeks ago I attended two of the Friday [final] morning lectures at the annual Sacra Liturgia conference which this year was held at the prestigious campus of Imperial College, London.
Both presentations, one by Professor Michael Cullinan on the Ethical Character of the Mysteries [of the liturgy] and the other by Professor David Fagerberg on the way the liturgy can inspire us to stewardship of creation and service of the poor, were fascinating, highly informative and most edifying, as was the Q & A which followed them. As someone with a longstanding professional interest and applied theological expertise in moral theology and ethics, I was particularly interested in what Fr. Cullinan had to share. And I have to say, I was not disappointed.
Drawing on some deep, one might say, almost mystical insights from the Eastern Orthodox tradition about how the Divine Mysteries [the public worship of the Church] should and can actively influence us to act more virtuously in our daily Christian lives, Fr. Cullinan emphasised the point that in fact the aspect of daily Christian life that ought to be most affected and impacted by the reverent and dignified celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is the life of the domestic church, the place where one first learns the Gospel of life. And it is spouses in particular, the primary agents of evangelisation, whose moral and ethical living ought to derive the most energy and spiritual empowerment from the Holy Mass. Well….at least that is the ideal. And as Pope Francis has declared in Amoris Laetitia, not achieving the optimum “never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to human beings.”
So does that mean we should settle for mediocre style worship? Not one bit. Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church, His Bride who worships Him ought to have the best and only the best form of liturgy to display in public the depth of love and affection for Him.
So as I reflected on the words of these two scholars, both of whom complemented one another in their papers [one a priest, the other a married layman] I realised that in fact the poverty of the quality of most of our liturgies doesn’t always deepen the sacramental witness of spouses to one another and to their families; it suddenly dawned on me that in fact we have come [for the most part] to expect so little of our parochial Sunday worship that we can end up settling for second best. And as I was musing to myself about this phenomenon in our ecclesial life a sign on the wall caught my eye. It was a graphic, or emblem I guess you’d call it, of a couple [in this case a male and female- thank God, but for how long?] locked in an intimate embrace in a red circle with a diagonal red line right through the middle of them. You can see an example here.
And I kept thinking why on earth that sign is posted inside a university lecture theatre where one is supposed to be learning and studying and listening to the expert speaker at the podium on any given day. And it dawned on me of course that the “NO PDA” motif (No Public Displays of Affection) was posted on the walls of the lecture theatre precisely because students obviously had been and were guilty [in the past and present] of far too many public displays of physical intimacy during lectures, to the point that the University authorities of Imperial College were forced to put up such warning signs.
A wave of momentary despair came over me when I realised that this in fact was symbolic of just how low and undignified certain aspects of our culture have become where what Pope Benedict called “the commodification of sex” is all around us to the extent that, even in the confines of a university lecture hall, two people who can’t exercise enough self-control and decorum to keep their hands off each other and not risk embarrassing themselves and others, actually have to be told by sign and image how to behave properly in public.
And then I think, how bizarre that in our culture that is obsessed with sexual orientation of so many and varied “persuasions” the one orientation that’s needed is the one we must adopt interiorly to the Living and Eternal God in the worship of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This in turn of course [because we are human and we need outward signs and gestures to help us] can only happen if what is exterior about the way we worship and pray to God [as the two professors were proposing] orientates us interiorly in the correct manner away from self and how we think we are viewed by others, to the loving service of others in and only in and through Jesus Christ.
The family founded on marriage is [as Pope Francis states] an icon of the Blessed Trinity. When we pray and worship [especially publicly] we adore Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Three Wise Men we are told came from the East to bow down in humility before the Infant King flanked by his Mother and Guardian, a living triptych of celestial grace. And that, in the end, is the ONLY PDA [public display of affection] ever worth showing; the one that allows us to be oriented to the Spotless Lamb of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit to the Heavenly Father.
If the liturgy [for whatever reason] does not stir in us that depth of devotion and love for Christ, so that we in turn love Him in our neighbour, beginning with our nearest and dearest, then we should think carefully about the liturgies we regularly participate in and the effect it is supposed to be having upon us.