Sunday, August 31, 2014

Folk Mass

Because royalty are just ordinary people with extraordinary perks, they've felt the need to have something that makes them seem special, more special than they really are. Something that sets them apart from the hoi polloi. Typically, this involves finery. Gold crowns. Jewelry. Ostentatious attire. There's nothing about a naked king to distinguish him from a naked peasant. The externals must make the difference. The externals confer artificial importance on royalty. The illusion of that these are a breed apart from ordinary mortals. They dress like demigods to disguise how average they are underneath. 

Traditionally, the Mass employs the same psychology. Allegedly, the consecrated communion elements are the True Body and Blood of Christ. The trick is how to make something essentially mundane seem magical. So you fancy it up with ritual and glittery trappings. Archbishop Sheen once teamed up with  Yousuf Karsh to produce an illustrated guide to the Tridentine Mass. It's an elaborate exercise in how to make something intrinsically unimpressive impressive. How to elevate something made from water and flour, or fermented grape juice, to an object of reverence and adoration. High Mass at St. Peter's is another example. The choir. The visuals. The incense. Same thing with a Russian Orthodox service. Glorious Hocus Pocus. A priest strumming a guitar just doesn't have the same effect. 

This is why the folk mass was so disastrous. It's like stripping royalty of their gold, ermine, gemstones, and putting them in overalls. There's the sudden shock of recognition. When you peel back the layers, what's left is banal. The Tridentine Mass is a Christmas present with fancy wrappings. But what's inside the box doesn't compare with what's outside the box. Removing the wrappings, peek inside, and it's just an empty box. Jesus isn't there. The folk mass was very deflating. 

It's interesting to compare the Mass with Solomon's temple. By design, that was a very impressive building. Impressive interior. Some top-quality furnishings.

The floor plan is concentric. Space within space. Progressively holier, progressively smaller. 

Imagine when Jerusalem finally fell to Nebuchadnezzar. I assume he was curious to see the temple. See inside the temple. Walking into the sanctuary must have taken his breath away. The inner sanctum would be the high point. Yet, when he pulled the curtain aside, it must have been a bit unprepossessing. Just a box. Albeit a gilt box. 

I imagine he was trembling with suspense. There must be something pretty important inside the box to justify the build-up. What could be that important in such a small space? 

He lifts the lid. What a letdown! The Decalogue. Aaron's rod. A pot of manna. And that's it!

Solomon's temple is deliberately anticlimactic, because it's only an emblem of God's presence. God didn't live there. When you peer around the veil, you don't see God on the other side. Nebuchadnezzar was lucky that God wasn't waiting for him. Had it been the Shekinah or the Angel of the Lord, that would be a fatal encounter for the impudent king. 

Unlike the Mass, Solomon's temple never pretended to be more than it was. A symbolic structure. A pointer. A memorial. God wasn't really there. At least, no more or less than God is anywhere or everywhere. That's not where you find God, because that's not how you find God.


  1. As an aside, the Catholic mass bit reminds me of the first few minutes of this interview with Richard Feynman.