For the past 10-15 years, I’ve had the annual habit of carefully reading through the rubrics for the ordinary of the Mass. Well, it’s that time of year again, and so I’ve been reading through Fr John Mangels' well written manual "How to Celebrate Low Mass."
When I was a Lutheran and read the rubrics, without much thought or attention I would skip over or edit those rubrics which I determined did not apply to the Lutheran liturgy. Among other things, that means I skipped nearly everything having to do with the canon of the Mass, and all the “ostentatious” rubrics about tones of voice, types of bows, etc. Of course, I would do the same with the liturgy itself. If I lifted some particular feast or text from the Roman or Anglican Missal, I would edit these to fit what I determined was the “Lutheran ethos.” (Honestly, I also did the same when reading the church fathers, aloud or privately.) It was only after I determined that I was not smart enough to correct or edit the church’s liturgy and tradition that I truly began to become Orthodox. The same applies to the rubrics. I’m simply not smart enough to know what to omit or change; and, frankly, the more I follow the rubrics as received within the Western tradition, the more I see not only the practical but also theological wisdom which they contain.
That is what previous reflections on the rubrics have led me to. This year’s reading of the rubrics, however, has reminded me of one of the key principles in liturgy; namely, that since the tradition (i.e., the liturgy) is a living tradition, it is not learned from a book. Rather, the book merely reminds one of what one has seen or witnessed from other celebrants.
But what if, like me, one did not grow up witnessing the traditional Mass? All the bows, tones of voice, movements of the hands, etc seem so foreign and like so much unnecessary (and, at times, overly showy) “folderol.” They certainly don’t seem to fit our modern mindset. So one is tempted to jettison them.
Yet my three year old has taught me something else. All he knows liturgically is the Mass that he’s seen me celebrate. So, from time to time when he’s in the mood to “play church,” I’ll catch him speaking nonsense while conscientiously mimicking all the bows and gestures. He’s begun to learn the tradition—and simply by watching! I envy him that. At the same time, his mimickings are urging me to be ever much more careful in how I celebrate the Mass. For, like it or not, I’m passing on the tradition to him in a way that I never received; and I’d hate for him to have to relearn something because I was careless in my teaching when I was at the altar. Worse yet, I’m not sure I could stand the judgment in his tone when, later, he would either say, “Why didn’t you follow the tradition” or “If you can omit that gesture, why can’t we also omit this or that teaching”?
You see, that’s where “cafeteria Christianity” begins. Not in the philosophy of religion; that is, not when one is taught or determines that certain dogmas or morals don’t apply. Rather, the notion to adopt “cafeteria Christianity” (“which we used to call heresy”—Peter Kreeft) begins when three year olds mimic the priest celebrating Mass, and then later learn that the priest had the hubris to edit the traditional bows or gestures or tones of voice. And then these three year olds, when older, begin to ask themselves “Why didn’t the priest follow the tradition” and “If he can omit that gesture, why can’t we also omit this or that teaching”?