“It is a sad truth that in many places the Mass has
become something akin to a show or entertainment.”
by Rev. Stephen V. Hamilton, S.T.L.:
There is a value to mystery in human life. We naturally enjoy it as kids: telling tales and stories; kids love Easter egg hunts. But somehow as we age we treat these things as just games, even though most of us still enjoy watching children enjoy such things. Mystery sparks creativity and artistry. Mystery is also a value in the life of faith. After all, we walk by faith and not by sight (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7). Mystery means we do not delude ourselves into thinking that we first fully understand God and then we follow Him. We do not delude ourselves into thinking that obedience is authentic when we act as if God’s ways must first be submitted to our judgment. No, it is we who are under judgment, not God. Obedience is not obedience where we think God’s ways must first be understood by us.
The Mystery of Parables
Jesus teaches in parables. Parables engage the hearer differently than does the communication of mere facts as teaching. Parables cause the hearer to wrestle and to search and to learn more later after the parable is concluded. Parables begin to feed the heart and the mind, but they leave one hungry and thirsty enough that you keep searching and wrestling. This is because parables permit and engage mystery. The gospel says, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.” Was Jesus wanting to leave people in the dark? Why do the disciples get to hear everything explained clearly, but the average listener does not? Are those who are average listeners at a disadvantage when it comes to salvation? Is saving teaching being kept from them, from us?
God desires all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tm. 2:4). The Father sent His Son on that very mission. Thus, we need to reject at the start any notion that somehow God came and has withheld teaching that is necessary for our salvation. In ancient times, cults sprung up that would claim secret knowledge for only the insiders, knowledge that would mean the average person was on the outside, lacking in gifts of grace and lacking even in salvation. The Church has always rejected such ideas. It is true that the gospels show that Jesus spoke in parables and explained things plainly only to his most intimate band. Furthermore, we must recall, that even while speaking in parables, Jesus was in fact revealing, not hiding, the saving truths of God’s kingdom. Whatever may have remained hidden in parables was soon to be revealed.
The Catholic Church Proclaims Clearly What We Need to be Saved
Once the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, Jesus’ closest followers, the ones charged with teaching in his Name, received the gifts they needed to proclaim with clarity, conviction, and power the truths mankind needs to be saved. Thus, we need not labor under any false idea that somehow Jesus hides saving truth from his hearers or from us now centuries later. No, the apostolic Church went out – and still goes out – to proclaim clearly what we need to be saved. The Catholic Church has always held an appreciation both for intellect, the use of the mind, and for mystery, the humble admission that we cannot and will not understand all things of the universe and certainly not all things of God.
To be clear, our intellect is a gift from God mirroring His own intellect, and where our intellect can plumb the depths of the world around us and the revealed truths of salvation then, yes, we should seek to understand these things as best we can. In so doing, we honor our Creator who gave us this gift and who has made us in His image and likeness. However, we must also avoid the arrogance that acts as if we can understand everything, or that acts as if we are owed an explanation of all things, or that expects that the ways of God must first makes full sense to us before we will step forward and follow into His kingdom. Ours is a religion of the head, but not before it is a religion of the heart, for it is the love of God for us that has first established all we believe and seek to understand. Mystery is good for us. It is part of a natural and full human life. It engages our higher powers of thought, creativity, and artistry. Furthermore, mystery is part and parcel of being a person of faith. All the more, in a world that makes the error of thinking it must understand and control everything before it believes, we need to be comfortable with mystery. In fact, our permission of mystery in life can be a great service to draw others to an authentic faith.
2 Vital Ways Mystery Needs to be Put into Practice
There are two areas where mystery is important and needs to be appreciated in Christian life. The first is in our individual prayer. I hope you have had experience where God has done something unexpected in prayer. You come to prayer with things on your mind. You say prayers. You come before the Lord in adoration. You wait in silence. And some inspiration comes to you that you did not initiate and that you can only explain as a true religious experience. This is mystery. You can’t explain it rationally, but it is real. And it is perhaps most notable when the way God moves surprises you and answers your prayers in a way you did not foresee. In fact, His answer may often not be what you were asking, but the answer shows you a deeper need and a deeper request that you weren’t necessarily aware was even there. I find this type of experience with mystery most especially when I use the Scriptures to pray and when I observe silence in prayer. The Scriptures are God’s word, His communication to us. Those words are rich in meaning. And they have meaning beyond the literal written word on the page. Silence trains us to withstand distraction and to listen to how God speaks. Silence gives God room to act in ways that are deeper than we may expect. This is mystery and we need to cultivate an appreciation for mystery in prayer. Prayer is not simply saying my prayers and checking them off a list, as if prayer is only my activity. Rather, prayer is an encounter with God. We need to give Him silence and room to act.
The Mass has been Largely Stripped of Mystery
Finally, mystery needs to be cultivated in our corporate, public worship, the Sacred Liturgy, most especially in the Holy Mass. The Holy Mass is supposed to communicate mystery. We come to the Holy Mass to encounter God and His love. But we do not understand all of His ways nor can we anticipate all that His grace will do for us here when we listen to His word, when we worship reverently, and when we receive the Holy Eucharist worthily. In an entirely unique way the Sacred Liturgy immerses us in mystery to encounter God. One of the challenges resulting from the exercise of certain options in the Holy Mass these past several decades is that the Holy Mass has been largely stripped of mystery. Mass almost exclusively in the language of the people and
Mass said facing the people has created an expectation of the Mass that is not consistent with our history. The expectation is that we must understand everything going on if it is to be of value. Certainly, the Church doesn’t think this and never intended to communicate this. But you see this negative development frequently.
The Sad Truth. . .
It is a sad truth that in many places the Mass has become something akin to a show or entertainment. Decisions made in planning the Mass tend to show an excessive emphasis on what makes sense to us, what we can understand and appreciate. In this we are robbed of the proper place of mystery. I try mightily not to succumb to such pressures, which can be quite a challenge when the very set up of the sanctuary lends itself easily to considering the Mass as a stage where the priest faces out and gives a performance. In the face of this trend we must always seek to connect ourselves to what is beyond us, to our large liturgical history and practice, and ultimately we must seek to connect ourselves to God Himself who is the only reason for our common gatherings. It is He Who is addressed and Who is our focus when we worship at Holy Mass.
Mystery engages us and leaves us hungry for more. In this, we employ our gifts to seek the Lord ever more. God does not overwhelm us. Rather, He seeks to draw us to Him by love. Mystery permits this. Jesus employed the mystery of parables to reveal God’s kingdom. We need not fear that he is hiding salvation from us. Rather, in faith, we should permit mystery in life and in faith. It engages our higher powers. And in prayer and at Holy Mass, mystery sets the stage for a personal encounter with God that we cannot fully comprehend but that should inspire us to seek Him always more.