Language in the liturgy

Posted by Jeffrey Pinyan at 9:58 AM

I just finished reading one of my Christmas gifts, Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy by Mark Galli.  The final chapter, "Words of Living W-A-T-E-R," discusses the use of a particular form of language in the liturgy.  I think these paragraphs are apropos to the conversations, debates, and arguments surrounding the new English translation of the Roman Missal:

In a media age, words come at us from all directions, like arrows from a thousand bows.  Most of these arrows are marketing words, advertising words, words designed to manipulate us, to sell us something. [...] For these reasons, among others, we distrust words, especially words that have been fashioned and shaped for the occasion by Madison or Pennsylvania Avenue.

So it's not surprising that many are put off by the words of the liturgy.  Surely, if we're trying to worship sincerely, praise a God who loves us as a father loves his children, we want to use language is "authentic."  What child uses formal speech to communicate with their "daddy"?  We want nothing to do with pretension, stuffiness, and any rhetoric that prevents us from being real.

In our desire to be real, we start thinking that authenticity is another word for spontaneity, as if everything we say at the spur of the moment is more true, more sincere than words we craft carefully.  For many, the Freudian slip is considered more authentic than the measured reply.

Indeed, sometimes what we blurt out thoughtlessly is actually what we mean and feel.  But more often than not, what we blurt out is ill-considered and something we either need to quality or apologize for.

The liturgy's answer to crafted language that deceives or manipulates is not to abandon crafted language but to shape it so that it reveals reality.  The most carefully crafted language in our culture tends to be poetry.  And poetry at its finest moments subverts our best attempts at hiding from reality. [...] The poetry of liturgy has just this power.  The liturgy contains words that have been shaped and crafted over the centuries.  It is formal speech.  It is public poetry.  As such it reaches into us to reveal not only the unnamed reality of our lives but the God who created us.  "In worship the voice of the Church calls up thoughts and feelings often far beyond us," wrote one liturgical theologian, "yet to which something in us faintly but firmly responds." (pp. 113-114)
I liked this book a great deal.  It's written by an Episcopalian, so it doesn't always portray a view of liturgy (and certain liturgical actions) that coincides with the Catholic view, but it is an excellent book about what the liturgy has that attracts us to it.

I might share a few other quotes from this book.  It will certainly be in the bibliography of Praying the Mass: The Prayers of the Priest.  (I'll need to read it again with a highlighter and a notepad handy, though!)