The culture of rushing, either of getting a rush, or of zipping frantically around – perhaps the two are interconnected – means a lot more Martha and a lot less Mary in life. Martha and Mary were, as you know, the two sisters who entertained Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus identified the “better part” as Mary’s contemplation of Jesus rather than Martha’s fussing over preparations for their meal. Jesus’ meeting with the two sisters sounds like a scenario from another age.
At present, however, meeting Christ involves activities like celebrating the Eucharist, or Confession, or Marriage. And they are liturgical. They are fabrics of words and signs and actions constructed in time. Botch the considerations of time – garble the words, leave out the silences – and you botch the meaning of the experience.
The simple words and actions have a certain potency that reaches down into the depths of our souls, if the words and actions are given their due portion of our attention, the right savoring of the words and the fullness of our love of the Lord. Liturgies are not so much signs from a different age as signs of authentic meaning regardless of the era. They manifest what it is to be human right here, in front of our eyes.
In a society with almost no formal moments that stand apart from the jeans-and-track-shoes culture, liturgy is the last bastion of the authentic meaning of human posture and gesture, speaking and silence. It should be where we recover the core meaning of life again. We can learn how to stand respectfully, to kneel devoutly, to put our heart and soul into our words, to be silent and open our hearts to what we are hearing and seeing, and how to dress to show that we are genuinely conscious of who is with us.
In liturgy, we are exposed and vulnerable with no electronic devices that erect digital barriers to God and others. We, of course, still put up some social barriers to attempt to diminish our presence in the community as much as we can. We are sinners so we should not expect any less. We avoid joining in the singing or the responses. But even then some little ray of light gets through, a word sticks, a feeling stays with us as we leave.
Liturgies let us taste the proper unfolding of time. When done correctly, they show us how authentic language works – no expletives, no insults, no derogatory terms. The language of liturgy is noble and respectful as all true communication should be. Imagine what it might mean if 50 million Catholic were speaking respectfully!
Then there are complete sentences, which people are entitled to. And the content – there is such majestic content about our place in the plan of the loving and generous God. All is done in the hope that exposure to this wonder will orient us, heal us, and lift us up. There is content for the rest of the day. Football is good but this is better. It can be mulled over, and unlike football it saves.
The sense of time in liturgy contrasts dramatically with the usual sense of time as starkly divided into leisure and work. There is much more to life. Liturgy shows us that. At a wedding, especially when more time has been spent on the dress and seating arrangements than anything spiritual, the liturgy still manages to bring people face to face with the union of a man and a woman, embodying the union of Christ and his Church. Everyone present who’s been properly instructed knows what to expect from them for the rest of their lives – living out Christ’s union with his Church.
It’s worth saying: liturgy is not commercial. The swarms of pressures turning us into passive consumers of values and time-filling products are switched off once we enter the church building. And we can leave all idle questions behind, unless, of course, we carry them in with us in our heads, like a virus that attacks us even in the blessed precincts. What emails have I received since I last looked an hour ago? Did I switch off the stove? Why is she wearing that hat?
Most important, liturgies remind us of our part in the salvation that is always unfolding, inside us and around us. We participate and, for a short while, we know what is truly important. We see with the light of grace where we fit into the great drama. If I am getting married, then this is what it means, forget what I saw on Oprah or the Kardashians. If I am the godmother at a baptism, then I know from the liturgy what I have to do, because I am not a potted plant at the ceremony or indeed after. At Mass we learn our path for the rest of life.
Liturgy is the benchmark of life.