One of the greatest liturgical shifts in the last sixty years has been in the area of language and the spoken word. Although the almost complete disappearance of Latin is lamentable, the use of the vernacular has arguably had some positive effects. To my mind, the augmentation of the Scriptures used has been notable and helpful. In addition, greater emphasis has been placed on preaching and preparing the clergy to be able to preach well.
The most recent debates concern a thirty-year struggle in English-speaking areas to get authentic translations of the Latin texts promulgated. The emphasis on and debate about the texts of the liturgy is necessary and has had good effects.
However, this focus on the texts has tended to reduce the liturgy to its texts alone, as if the intelligibility of the vernacular text ensures that the Mass is understood. Supposedly, people can now “understand” what is going on and what is being said. Other areas such as architectural and aesthetic beauty, music, the ars celebrandi (the manner in which the clergy and ministers conduct themselves during the liturgy), and deeper theological understanding and appreciation of the liturgy have all suffered as a result. It does matter whether the church building is awe-inspiring or ugly, whether the music is inspiring and teaches sound doctrine or is mundane and devoid of doctrine (or even contains faulty doctrine). There is more to focus on that just making sure that liturgical texts are intelligible and the Homily “meaningful.” God is worthy of our best and His people respond to more than just words.
Perhaps a quote from Rev. Uwe Michael Lang would be helpful:
The sacred liturgy speaks through a variety of “languages” other than language in the strict sense. [These are] non-verbal symbols which are capable of creating a structure of meanings in which individuals can relate one to another. … It is my conviction that these non-linguistic or symbolic expressions of the liturgy are, in fact, more important than language itself.
This would seem especially pertinent in today’s world where images are omnipresent: on TV, video and computer screens …. We live in a culture of images …. Today the image tends to make a more lasting impression on people’s minds than the spoken word.
The power of image has long been known in the Church’s liturgical tradition, which has used sacred art and architecture as a medium of expression and communication.
But, in more recent times [there is] observed a tendency to see liturgy only as text. And to limit participation to speaking roles .... It certainly applies to a broad stream of liturgical scholarship that has largely focused on liturgical texts that are contained in written sources from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. ... This approach is legitimate, at least to a large extent, because the Church’s public worship is ordered to the official texts she uses for it.
However, ... it is sometimes forgotten that the liturgy is not simply a series of texts to be read, but rather a series of sacred actions to be done ... words, music, and movement, together with other visual, even olfactory elements (Sacred Liturgy: The Proceedings of the International Conference on the Sacred Liturgy 2013, Ignatius Press, pp. 187-189).
Rev. Lang does not assert that the sacred texts are to be neglected but that things have gotten a bit out of balance and it is time to put more focus on other aspects of the liturgy for a while. Even a text translated authentically and well-delivered can fall flat in an atmosphere of sloppy liturgy, ugly and uninspiring architecture, and insipid music. Thus, we do well to spend some time now on visual and other non-verbal aspects.
However, we must be careful not to go too far and reduce the liturgy to merely an aesthetically pleasing action rather than an act of worship.
For example, almost no one asks at the end of a Mass, “Was God worshiped?” Instead, many other questions and concerns occur to clergy. Were the lectors good? Did the Homily go well? Were the servers well-trained? The laity will often rate the liturgy on such things as the perceived quality of the Homily, the use of their favorite songs, the style of worship, and the hospitality level. But almost no one asks the key question: Was God fittingly worshiped? (or more personally, “Did I worship God?”)
Sometimes the honest answer is no. People largely went through motions and focused more on themselves and what they were doing, or on others and what they were doing, or on whether they “liked it” or not. God was barely considered at all. He may have been spoken to and referenced, but he was not really worshiped.
Yes, the liturgy is more than a text. Those texts are to be cherished and proclaimed accurately, but other sacred actions and dispositions are important as well. Beauty, reverence, and a manifest joy and humility before God are also to be cultivated. Above all else we must be able to say that we worshiped God fittingly.