The Sacred Drama of the Traditional Liturgical Rites Compared with Their Modern Counterparts

Traditional Catholic liturgical rites have the benefit of having been formed over the course of centuries, even millenia, and with that has come the seasoned maturity of a very finely aged wine whose recipe has been honed over a long period of time. The contemporary liturgical reforms do not, of course, share this same benefit, having instead been formulated over a matter of months and years (and sometimes not even that). I mention this because over the years I have had the opportunity to witness liturgical ceremonies in various rites and forms, including some of the very most traditionally oriented expressions of the modern rites one could possibly imagine -- complete with baroque vestments, chant and Renaissance polyphony, ad orientem and "all the fixings" so to speak. Yet for all this I was nonetheless left with the impression of a rite that was "forced," lacking in fluidity and sacred drama by comparison with its traditional counterpart. 

This notion of "sacred drama" may well cause some to pause; the liturgy is not theatre they might proclaim. They are right in one sense; the liturgy is not "theatre" in the sense of play acting, this is entirely true. However, the sacred liturgy does indeed employ theatricality to powerful effect such that it stirs the soul and moves the heart and mind. This is the sacred drama of which I speak. 

Very often we talk of how the sacred liturgy combines the various senses: sight (through the beauty of the vestments, architecture and other ornaments), sound (through sacred music), smell (though the sweet scent of the incense), touch (in the ritual gestures) and even taste (through holy communion). These elements all contribute in their own way toward this sacred drama of which I speak, however there is an additional aspect to this which is found in the fluid interaction of these elements with one another.

In considering why even the very most traditional liturgical expressions of the modern liturgical books can come off as lacking in this regard, I have come to the conclusion that it is because of a deficiency in this fluid, dramatic liturgical quality that has been created by a lack of ceremonial integration and interaction (put another way, a deficiency in its ceremoniousness) which in turn is the result of some of the principles of the liturgical reformers; namely the importance they gave to the horizontal-communal dimension of priest and people being united in shared liturgical actions, as well as the desire to de-emphasize the distinction between the ministerial and common priesthood. An example of this is how, in the modern rites, the priest says or sings along with the faithful the Kyrie or Gloria at the same time or how the priest rarely prays any prayers that are not communally dialogic or verbally proclamatory.

On paper this idea might sound reasonable enough of course, however the net result of this principle put into the liturgical action leads to the problem which I am describing, seemingly stopping the liturgical action in its tracks, dramatically reducing the fluidity of the sacred liturgy and this sense of sacred drama. Here is an example of what I mean in practice:

I have purposefully chosen a clip of a papal liturgy under Benedict XVI which includes Renaissance polyphony precisely so that there can be no accusation of not comparing apples to apples. The architecture is one of the most beautiful settings in the world; the sacred music comes from one of the highest periods and expressions of sacred music that the Church has to offer; however, for all these artistic strengths this inherent weakness of the contemporary liturgical form glaringly shines through as one is left with the impression of an anti-climactic pause in the sacred liturgy that disrupts its fluidity, focus and dramatic power.

Now I am more than aware that the idea the reformers had was that all be joined together at one and the same time in praying this, but from a ceremonial point of view, this abstract intellectual notion is hard pressed to combat the very real impression of a period of liturgical inactivity and pause which dramatically reduces the power and impact of the liturgy on the heart and mind. In fact, we are left with a sense of simply getting over this part so that we can "get on" with things.

By contrast, let's compare this same liturgical moment as it is expressed in the traditional liturgical form. In this form we see the interaction and overlap of these various ceremonial and liturgical parts (the incensation of the altar, the sacred ministers prayers and ceremonial gestures, the singing of the Kyrie, etc.) which fosters a sense of fluidity, sacred drama and also liturgical objectivity:

The net result of this intersection is a sacred drama that sees each actor playing his or her own respective part. It lends a sense of objectivity to the liturgical rites, makes clear its primary nature as divine worship and further emphasizes the especial importance of the priestly role within the sacred liturgy. 

To be fair, there are some moments in the contemporary liturgical rites where we can see this same sort of ceremonial interaction, but such moments are certainly much fewer and farther between by comparison with its traditional counterpart. There are likewise moments in the sung forms of the traditional liturgical rites where we also see the sacred ministers pause -- for example, as the Gloria finishes. However, here too, these are much few and farther between by comparison -- and typically much shorter in length. So even while we might acknowledge these exceptions, the point nonetheless stands. 

To my mind, much of this can be attributed to the fact that the traditional liturgical forms are the cumulative experience of centuries of liturgical practice -- experience which was able to hone this sense of sacred drama over the centuries and which informed the arts and ceremonies attached to the liturgical rites, each powerfully contributing to the whole. By comparison, the later 20th century liturgical reforms were the byproduct of the particular ideas and preoccupations of a particular moment in time -- a moment in time which was, regrettably, not afraid to take the entirety of the liturgical tradition into its own hands and re-shape it according to its own image. Often these came either without sufficient consideration of these matters, or in some cases with ideological objections to the liturgical tradition itself based upon a populist vision of the liturgy. At the end of the day, it seems to me that when we do an apples to apples comparison of these two liturgical forms, one can see that the problem is not solely aesthetic; it is also structural. 

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