The Liturgy as Educator

“I have understood more than all my teachers: because thy testimonies are my meditation.” —Ps. 118:99

Mine is a familiar story. Having grown up Catholic in the 1980s, I was well into my twenties when I first encountered the concepts—not to mention the terms—transubstantiation, real presence, or holy sacrifice. Having fallen away from any semblance of belief in or practice of the faith, I became curious as to the meaning of what I had so casually rejected. A charitable friend sent me a copy of Marcel Lefebvre’s aptly titled Open Letter to Confused Catholics.

To say that the book opened my eyes would be an understatement. I was dumbfounded to learn that the central reality of the Church in which I had been baptized and confirmed, and whose Eucharist I had so thoughtlessly (and sacrilegiously) received week after week, had somehow escaped my notice.

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Looking back, I was able to recall three experiences that, had I been zealous for the truth, might have clued me in. One occurred around the time of my first holy communion: as the priest elevated the host, gazing upwards—and, just possibly, as a server rang the bells—I had the distinct impression that some sort of interchange was taking place between heaven and earth. Years later, another priest interrupted the usual order of Mass to inform us that, due to an inadvertent defect in the ceremony, the bread and wine prepared for distribution had not been consecrated, and so the congregation could not receive that day. Finally, I remembered having come across a beautiful hand missal, and wondering how its majestic illustrations and page after page of carefully ordered and prescribed prayers related to the often (though not always) spontaneous and folksy words and actions of our typical Sunday Mass.

In each case, something physical or actual touched my heart or struck my mind with the intimation of a mysterious and extramundane reality. In addition to my own sloth, however, two things prevented this divine seed from bearing fruit: first, the infrequency of the experience itself; and second, the absence of any understanding or explanation of what had happened. Years later, a combination of serious instruction in the faith, participation in traditional modes of worship, and private prayer rooted in the missal, the divine office, and the rosary, allowed my heart and mind to undergo the gradual transformation necessary to make me a real if unworthy member of the Mystical Body of Christ.

As Robert Cardinal Sarah has recently stressed (and more recently reiterated), the reinvigoration of Catholicism in modern times demands that we place God front and center in every part of our lives—beginning with the liturgy. Immersion in a theocentric liturgy best teaches us to look for God and listen to him in other times and places. Given the deformations so often encountered in contemporary worship, however, the Cardinal wisely stresses the need to turn to the more ancient or “Extraordinary” form of the Roman Rite as we seek to reform the liturgy so that it may better assist us in uniting ourselves body and soul to our Redeemer.

nothing-superfluous coverIn many cases, however, such a thing is easier said than done. The testimony of those who remember when the traditional liturgy was the only form going indicates that, despite the powerful impressions it left on their souls—impressions intimately connected to profound spiritual truths—the crucial task of cementing those impressions with adequate instruction on the meaning of immemorial customs was sometimes badly neglected. Today, even those blessed to find a traditional or especially reverent Mass nearby often find it daunting to adapt to rituals the language and symbolism of which seems incurably foreign and obscure.

Over two millennia the Church has built up an abundant treasury of resources for learning and growing in the faith, but knowing where to begin can be perplexing. Thanks to the loving labors of Father James Jackson, that task is now easier than ever before. Fr. Jackson’s Nothing Superfluous: An Explanation of the Symbolism of the Rite of St. Gregory the Great is steeped in centuries of reflection on the spiritual significance of each and every detail of the Mass as it developed over time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. From the Apostles and early Church Fathers to St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Fr. Jackson draws upon the perennial wisdom of the Church to show us how each moment of the traditional liturgy is an invitation and guide to deepening our relationship with the God who became man to save us from sin and death.

Though generally refraining from polemics, Nothing Superfluous is deftly designed for the reader formed under the influence of the newer Roman Rite with its associated beliefs and attitudes. Fr. Jackson dispels many misconceptions even as he demonstrates the value of gestures and rubrics that might strike the contemporary mind as pointless. With Fr. Romano Guardini and others, he emphasizes the difference between purpose understood in a modern, mechanical sense, and meaning. Since the true purpose of the Mass is nothing less than to bring us face to face with God our Savior, every detail that reminds us of him in one way or another is a source of joy and inspiration, nourishing the meditation and adoration—“the free and loving submission of the whole being to God”—which are the foundations of a genuinely apostolic life.

I leave it to readers to explore this treasure trove of insights for themselves. Among my favorite gems are Fr. Jackson’s explanations of the silent canon, the purification of the priest’s fingers after communion, and the veiling of the chalice and tabernacle. The canon (stretching from the Preface to the Minor Elevation) represents the crucifixion, during which Christ prayed silently to the Father, speaking seven times—hence the priest speaks audibly seven times during this portion of the Mass. The priest “purifies” his hands after handling the Blessed Sacrament, not because they are unclean, but to return them to ordinary use after completing their sacred service. So too the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and churching of women signify, not a denigration of childbirth, but its sanctity. Similarly, the veiling of an object does not imply that it is unsightly or unworthy of attention, but rather that its spiritual significance far exceeds its outward beauty—hence the veiling of receptacles of the Blessed Sacrament and of women, who represent the Mother of God and our Holy Mother the Church.

Though grounded in a plethora of sound sources, Fr. Jackson’s presentation is anything but dry. Speaking of the meaning of incense, he remembers a seminary priest who directed his servers to dump “seven spoonfuls of incense onto … three coals,” until the altar was entirely obscured by the smoke. “Beware the poverty of Judas!” he warned his students. “It is said in the Scriptures that the Lamb was seated on His throne surrounded by multum incensum. Multum incensum, gentlemen!”

Explaining that the commixture of water and wine in the sacred chalice represents our collaboration with divine grace in the work of salvation, Fr. Jackson notes that Martin Luther, attributing salvation to “grace alone,” rejected this liturgical practice along with the doctrine it signifies. “Now he knows that he was wrong,” the good Father wryly concludes.

Towards the beginning of Nothing Superfluous, Fr. Jackson insists that the Mass is a vital part of our spiritual education precisely because it is not focused on teaching in a didactic manner. By facilitating an encounter with God and cultivating a desire to conform ourselves to him, the liturgy touches our souls in a way that mere argumentation never can. This is not to say, however, that reasoning and reflection are superfluous in our spiritual development. An invaluable aspect of Fr. Jacksons’ book is his careful parsing of the distinct stages of education and the different aspects of the true, the good, and the beautiful to which each corresponds.

One upshot of this treatment is the importance of utilizing different sources and methods at different times. In the early Church, Fr. Jackson notes, scriptural commentaries by the Church Fathers were sometimes included as Mass readings. In her wisdom the Church soon limited such readings to scripture itself, while retaining the Fathers’ insights in her divine office. Use of the office as well as the missal outside of Mass remains essential to the full appropriation and application of its fruits to our lives as a whole.

Likewise, Fr. Jackson notes that in the realm of liturgical music the Church has strongly favored Gregorian chant, whose melodies are bound so closely to the content of the prayers that they seem to represent the thing itself rather than a commentary upon it. At the same time, he notes, other forms of sacred music can be edifying, as are sound commentaries on scripture.

An example came to mind as I reflected on Fr. Jackson’s treatment of pulchritude—the kind of beauty emanating from what is both powerful and good. Consider the pulchritude packed into the following composition of Jan Dismas Zelenka, dramatizing a line from the Gloria: “For thou alone art holy, thou alone art Lord, thou alone art Most High: Jesus Christ!” Or Antonio Vivaldi’s powerful meditation on Psalm 112:5-6—“Who is as the Lord our God, who dwells on high: and looks down on the low things in heaven and in earth?”

How can we comprehend, much less imitate, the perfections of a God who alone is Most High, and for whom the glories of heaven itself are “low things”? In the Mass this God reaches out to us and makes such a union possible. “Centuries of meditation and prayer” are not enough to “unlock the wisdom and beauty of the Rite of St. Gregory,” but every minute we devote to doing so brings us one step closer to our Creator and Redeemer. Nothing Superfluous is a timely reminder and eloquent guide to making this practice a reality in our daily lives.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a Tridentine liturgy celebrated by Cardinal Brandmüller at the Vatican in November 2013 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter. 


  • L. Joseph Hebert

    L. Joseph Hebert is Professor of Political Science and Leadership Studies and Director of Pre-Law Studies at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA. He is former Editor in Chief of The Catholic Social Science Review published by the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. Dr. Hebert is the President of Una Voce Quad Cities and author of More Than Kings and Less Than Men (2010).

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