There is hardly anything quite as exciting as reading liturgical instructions.
Some might think that attention to liturgical details is of no concern to ordinary Catholics. This apparent pickiness might even be an impediment to faith, recalling Jesus’ stern criticism of the Pharisees who were more concerned about liturgical minutiae than the weightier matters of justice and mercy (Matthew 23:24). Jesus goes on to say in the same passage, “These (liturgical details) you should have done without neglecting the others (justice and mercy).”
It isn’t that rubrics aren’t important. It’s that they aren’t the most important. But, they’re still important.
Fidelity to the rubrics keeps us humble. We subordinate our own desires and personal opinions to something greater than ourselves. As Jesus said, “Unless you become like a child you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The liturgy is a gift from God and belongs to the Church—it is not the personal plaything of an individual priest or anyone else. As a matter of justice and charity, the faithful have a right to the liturgy as it is given. Winging it liturgically shifts the people’s focus away from God and onto the priest, and the priest’s focus onto himself. For the good of all, the priest has a duty to be faithful to the rubrics.
Even more importantly, fidelity to the rubrics allows us to see God, and experience his presence. God makes himself known in the proclamation of the Word and in the breaking of the bread. The Word prepares us to see Christ, while the proper celebration of the liturgy—the breaking of the bread—actualizes it. As Catholics, we believe that both scripture and tradition are inspired by God. Liturgical instructions are part of the Church’s tradition, the deposit of faith. Distortions obscure the real presence of our Lord. The closer we adhere to the rubrics, the clearer his presence becomes. We see him not with our physical eyes, but with the eyes of faith. As St. Paul said, faith is awakened by hearing.
An example from scripture illustrates my point. Moses gave the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-24) to the Israelites, and sealed the covenant with a solemn sacrifice. Next, Moses returned to the summit of Mt. Sinai to receive further instructions from the Lord. God spoke to Moses at length about liturgical matters, including the design of the tabernacle, the making of furnishings and vessels for worship, the design and creation of the priest’s vestments, and the ordination ritual for the sons of Aaron.
Why the meticulous detail?
Why was God so concerned that worship be so exact? Was it for his sake? Hardly. Precise instructions were for the benefit of the people—so they could experience the presence of the invisible God whose very nature is to be known and loved by his people.
The faithful observance of liturgical precepts enables us to perceive God’s love for us. When the Mass is celebrated faithfully, God’s love shines forth most brightly. The literal meaning of orthodoxy is “right glory.” As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God’s infinite love for every man and woman” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 1). Commitment to liturgical correctness aims to make God’s love visible in a world darkened by sin.
The ancient maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, gets to the heart of the matter (the law of worship = the law of belief). If the liturgy is distorted, the content of the faith will be deformed. If doctrine is deformed, then the moral content of the faith will be undermined, and civilization starts to come unglued. The Bible portrays, repeatedly, how the moral degradation and collapse of Israel always began with idolatry and apostasy among its leaders. It was only when both rulers and people re-discovered the true law of worship that the nation recovered, a prime example being the liturgical reforms instituted by King Josiah (2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicle 34).
The purpose of the Mass is to make God’s love present, so that those who partake of this most wondrous sacrament may be transformed by the power of God’s grace and conformed to the likeness of his son. The purpose of the rubrics is to guide us in the proper celebration of Holy Eucharist, so that we may know the love of God in Christ Jesus, live it, and share it with others.