We had a question come up last week in one of our parish workshops:
“Jesus was very simple and humble in his preaching…in his attire…why do our
priests don themselves in glamorous attire during the Mass…when did this begin
It’s an irksome question that belies a deeper antagonistic attitude towards the perceived wealth of the Church if not the Church itself. But it’s irksome also because at first blush the antagonist seems to have a point, if not the higher ground: certainly Jesus was in fact simple, humble, wore no special vestments or fancy hats, and, in great contrast to the grand affair the celebration of the Mass eventually became, conducted the first Mass with a small group, reclining at table, with probably the simplest of vessels.
I’ve never heard the challenge satisfactorily answered. There are the usual references to giving honor, glory, respect, etc., but the accusation seems to stick and most are left wondering if somehow the Catholic Church got on the wrong track with this.
Certainly there are many who thought that to be the case which is why for the last 40 years or so we’ve done everything possible to simplify our liturgical celebrations, to bring it down to earth, to make it more relatable to the common man. Vestments were made more plain, architecture dulled, and sacred vessels downsized and downgraded to earthenware (in many cases).
The Mass itself was stripped of all “non-essentials”, simplified, translated into the vernacular, and made to hearken back to the supposed “Mass of the early Christians”. The people followed suit…or should I say…got rid of the suit. No more dressing up like before, no need for all the pomp and fuss. Jeans, t-shirts, and sandals became Sunday attire. After all, Jesus didn’t wear a suit and tie.
Music…? Well no need for any of these fancy choirs. Things are “simple” now, back to basics. Away with chant, polyphony, the organ and the likes of Palestrina! Now all one needs is a guitar and a heart for Jesus. After all, Jesus doesn’t care what we sing or how we sound. Jesus loves me, yes he does…
In addition ecclesial communities and movements continue to sprout up clamoring for a return to the ways of the “early Church”, some even forsaking the Mass of the whole community for small intimate affairs in private “cata-homes”. It’s hard to argue with these folks for they point to the example of the early Church and indeed to the First Mass itself.
I do not need to go through the litany of things that have been done in the name of “getting back to basics”, but obviously we have witnessed radical change with all things liturgical over the last four decades.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s all wrong! Actually, I’m here to tell you that the Catholic Church itself says that it’s all wrong. It’s in the Catechism. But before I tell you where, let’s take a look at this from a “phenomenological” perspective.
Since this is my blog and not an article that I have to keep to a certain length I’d like to ramble just a bit. First, we need, for the sake of those of us who are new to this word, define “phenomenological”
I’ve been fascinated with the word ever since I learned that John Paul II was a phenomenologist. His revolutionary Theology of the Body is not only an exercise in phenomenology but the very reason why said Theology is revolutionary...and a "phenomenon".
Phenomenology, at least how John Paul II uses it is “an approach to philosophy that begins with an exploration of phenomena (what presents itself to us in conscious experience) as a means to finally grasp the absolute, logical, ontological and metaphysical Spirit that is behind phenomena.“ (Wikipedia
In other words it’s an approach to understanding the essence of something by beginning with what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like... That's the attraction of JP's Thelology of the Body. It basically says: “Look, here’s what a man looks like naked and here’s what a woman looks like naked. Now, putting everything else aside, let’s try to understand, just from what these two creatures look like, their reason for being made that way.” It cuts to the quick. There’s no arguing with it. It’s like your mouth. “Look it opens, has teeth, a tongue, saliva glands. Huh! Wonder what it’s for?”
Now phenomenonologically speaking, the one thing we can say about the externals of divine worship, the vestments, the vessels, the places of worship, the music, and all that stuff is that there has been a consistent trend towards the more ornate, the more beautiful, the more expansive, the more massive ever since the Church came out of the catacombs.
There was the occasional revamping, refining, & renewing of liturgical worship and all that surrounded it over the course of almost 20 centuries, but in general things always progressed toward the “more is better” and away from sandals and pottery.
Now why is that? That’s the phenomenological question. Did the Church lose its marbles right from the beginning? Why didn’t it keep the model of the Last Supper, the simple table, the small group, the “sandals and pottery”? Why did the Church, as soon as it was able, build bigger and bigger churches? Why the massive Cathedrals instead of some sort of recreation of the "Upper Room" (with brown shag carpet)”? Why the ornate vestments and vessels and polyphonic grandeur instead of sandals, pottery, and "If I Had a Hammer"? Is all this just more evidence that man is fallen and will always try to re-erect the tower of Babylon?
This question is more than just a curious inquiry. It’s at the root of all that has gone afoul in the liturgical life of the Church in the last 4 decades and the cause of immeasurable damage to the faith life of many. The stripping of the altars was but a metaphor for the stripping that occurred at all levels in the Church. Seemingly, “not one stone was left upon another”. The Faith of many Catholics, simple, humble, and molded to follow the directions of “Father” or “Sister” was severely damaged when the Church of their fathers was ripped from them in the name of “a return to the early Church” and the ubiquitous lie of “in the Spirit of Vatican II”.
Before we go on we must once again examine the phenomenological fact that for the better part of two millennia, the Church, for the most part, saw nothing wrong with building Her places of worship ever larger, ever more ornate, ever more massive, and adorning both it and its ministers with that which was ever more precious and beautiful.
To say that this was wrong and a departure from a simplicity that Christ supposedly intended is to tread on the likes of everyone from Augustine to Aquinas and every Pope to ever wear the “sequined shoes of the fisherman”. I mean, here’s the deal, they had 2000 years to figure out that something was wrong and revert back to “sandals and pottery”…but they didn’t
So here’s the easy answer: the model for our liturgy is not the First Mass, it's the Last Mass - the heavenly liturgy found in the Book of Revelations, not some "birkenstock" replay of the events of the upper room, but a participation in the “wedding feast of the Lamb”.
1090 “In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy
which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as
pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the
sanctuary and of the true tabernacle. With all the warriors of the heavenly army
we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we
hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, our
Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life shall appear and we too will appear with
him in glory.”-Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoted from Sacrosanctum
“Foretaste” is the word! A foretaste of the "wedding feast of the Lamb, not an “aftertaste” of the Last Supper: Paragraphs 1136-1139 go on to explain more fully how it is that the earthly celebration of the sacraments is in fact a participation in the eternal liturgy found in Revelations. (Of course the Church is not negating anything about the Last Supper, She is telling us that the First Mass and the Last Mass are the same...a participation in the heavenly liturgy.)
This is a fascinating discovery for me personally because I can’t even begin to explain the “decimation” (that’s the only word I can find for it) I have felt for as long as I can remember (and still feel) whenever I encounter liturgical worship that seems aimed at me.
Remember, it was John who was taken up to heaven (“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day”) not Jesus who was brought down to earth. And what did John do upon arrival? He “fell at His (Jesus) feet as though dead”. Most of us don’t even bother to genuflect anymore. Perhaps one of these days God will remind us of where we really are (in His Presence) and we will be made to fall at his feet, but NOT as though dead, but dead - just a small reminder. Has happened before!
Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper
develops this truth further and offers a list of scripture references from Revelations where we find the elements of the Catholic Mass. I’ve listed them for you here with the scripture quotes from the Douay Rheims version.Sunday worship
10I was in the spirit on the Lord's day…(Note: We know this is Sunday because the early Christians met on the first day of the week to break bread – Acts 20:7)A High Priest
13And in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, one like to the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the feet, and girt about the paps (chest) with a golden girdle.An Altar
3And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. 4And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.11:1
1And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and it was said to me: Arise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar and them that adore therein.14:18
18And another angel came out from the altar, who had power over fire; and he cried with a loud voice to him that had the sharp sickle, saying: Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vineyard of the earth; because the grapes thereof are ripe.Priests (presbyteroi)
4And round about the throne were four and twenty seats; and upon the seats, four and twenty ancients sitting, clothed in white garments, and on their heads were crowns of gold11:16
16And the four and twenty ancients, who sit on their seats in the sight of God, fell on their faces and adored God, saying:19:4
4And the four and twenty ancients, and the four living creatures fell down and adored God that sitteth upon the throne, saying: Amen; Alleluia.
(Note: The word “ancients” is used interchangeably with “elder”, the Greek word being “presbyteroi”.)Vestments
13And in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, one like to the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the feet, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.4:4
4And round about the throne were four and twenty seats; and upon the seats, four and twenty ancients sitting, clothed in white garments, and on their heads were crowns of gold.6:11
11And white robes were given to every one of them one; and it was said to them, that they should rest for a little time, till their fellow servants, and their brethren, who are to be slain, even as they, should be filled up.7:9
9After this I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands:15:6
6And the seven angels came out of the temple, having the seven plagues, clothed with clean and white linen, and girt about the breasts with golden girdles.19:13-14
13And he was clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood; and his name is called, THE WORD OF GOD. 14And the armies that are in heaven followed him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.Consecrated Celibacy
4These are they who were not defiled with women: for they are virgins. These follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were purchased from among men, the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb:Lamp Stands, or Menorah
12And I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks:2:5
5Be mindful therefore from whence thou art fallen: and do penance, and do the first works. Or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou do penance.Penitence
Chapters 2 and 3
(Here’s one excerpt from 2:5)
5Be mindful therefore from whence thou art fallen: and do penance, and do the first works. Or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou do penance.Incense
8And when he had opened the book, the four living creatures, and the four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints:8:3-5
3And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. 4And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel. 5And the angel took the censer, and filled it with the fire of the altar, and cast it on the earth, and there were thunders and voices and lightnings, and a great earthquake.The Book or Scroll
1And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne, a book written within and without, sealed with seven seals.The Eucharistic Host
17He, that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches: To him that overcometh, I will give the hidden manna, and will give him a white counter (stone), and in the counter, a new name written, which no man knoweth, but he that receiveth it.
(Note: The white counter or stone is a reference to the custom of showing a little stone, with some appropriate mark on it, to gain entrance to a feast or banquet. The name inscribed on the stone referred to here shows that the Christian has a right to partake of the good things which the Lord reserves for those who win the victory. – Navarre Bible Commentary)Chalices
7And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden vials, full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.
16 (several references, here’s one)
1And I heard a great voice out of the temple, saying to the seven angels: Go, and pour out the seven vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.21:9
9And there came one of the seven angels, who had the vials full of the seven last plagues, and spoke with me, saying: Come, and I will shew thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb.Sign of the Cross
3Saying: Hurt not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees, till we sign the servants of our God in their foreheads.14:1
1And I beheld, and lo a lamb stood upon mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty-four thousand, having his name, and the name of his Father, written on their foreheads.22:44
And they shall see his face: and his name shall be on their foreheads.The Gloria
3And singing the canticle of Moses, the servant of God, and the canticle of the Lamb, saying: Great and wonderful are thy works, O Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, O King of ages. 4Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and magnify thy name? For thou only art holy: for all nations shall come, and shall adore in thy sight, because thy judgments are manifest.The Alleluia
1After these things I heard as it were the voice of much people in heaven, saying: Alleluia. Salvation, and glory, and power is to our God.
3And again they said: Alleluia. And her smoke ascendeth for ever and ever.
4And the four and twenty ancients, and the four living creatures fell down and adored God that sitteth upon the throne, saying: Amen; Alleluia.
6And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of great thunders, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord our God the Almighty hath reigned.Sursum Corda (Lift up your hearts)
12And they heard a great voice from heaven, saying to them: Come up hither. And they went up to heaven in a cloud: and their enemies saw them.The Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy)
8And the four living creatures had each of them six wings; and round about and within they are full of eyes. And they rested not day and night, saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.The Amen
4And the four and twenty ancients, and the four living creatures fell down and adored God that sitteth upon the throne, saying: Amen; Alleluia.22:21
21The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)
5:6 and throughout
6And I saw: and behold in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the ancients, a Lamb standing as it were slain, having seven horns and seven eyes: which are the seven Spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth.The Prominence of the Virgin Mary
1And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: 2And being with child, she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered. 3And there was seen another sign in heaven: and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads, and ten horns: and on his head seven diadems: 4And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered; that, when she should be delivered, he might devour her son. 5And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne. 6And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, that there they should feed her a thousand two hundred sixty days.
13And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman, who brought forth the man child: 14And there were given to the woman two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the desert unto her place, where she is nourished for a time and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. 15And the serpent cast out of his mouth after the woman, water as it were a river; that he might cause her to be carried away by the river. 16And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the river, which the dragon cast out of his mouth. 17And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.Intercession of Angels and Saints
8And when he had opened the book, the four living creatures, and the four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints:6:9-10
9And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. 10And they cried with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Lord (holy and true) dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
3And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. 4And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.Devotion to St. Michael
7And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels:Antiphonal Chant
8And the four living creatures had each of them six wings; and round about and within they are full of eyes. And they rested not day and night, saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come. 9And when those living creatures gave glory, and honour, and benediction to him that sitteth on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever; 10The four and twenty ancients fell down before him that sitteth on the throne, and adored him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: 11Thou art worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory, and honour, and power: because thou hast created all things; and for thy will they were, and have been created.5:9-14
9And they sung a new canticle, saying: Thou art worthy, O Lord, to take the book, and to open the seals thereof; because thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God, in thy blood, out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation. 10And hast made us to our God a kingdom and priests, and we shall reign on the earth. 11And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the living creatures, and the ancients; and the number of them was thousands of thousands, 12Saying with a loud voice: The Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and benediction. 13And every creature, which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them: I heard all saying: To him that sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb, benediction, and honour, and glory, and power, for ever and ever. 14And the four living creatures said: Amen. And the four and twenty ancients fell down on their faces, and adored him that liveth for ever and ever.7:10-12
10And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb. 11And all the angels stood round about the throne, and the ancients, and the four living creatures; and they fell down before the throne upon their faces, and adored God, 12Saying: Amen. Benediction, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, honour, and power, and strength to our God for ever and ever. Amen.18:1-8
1And after these things, I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power: and the earth was enlightened with his glory. 2And he cried out with a strong voice, saying: Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen; and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every unclean spirit, and the hold of every unclean and hateful bird: 3Because all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication; and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her; and the merchants of the earth have been made rich by the power of her delicacies. 4And I heard another voice from heaven, saying: Go out from her, my people; that you be not partakers of her sins, and that you receive not of her plagues. 5For her sins have reached unto heaven, and the Lord hath remembered her iniquities. 6Render to her as she also hath rendered to you; and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup wherein she hath mingled, mingle ye double unto her. 7As much as she hath glorified herself, and lived in delicacies, so much torment and sorrow give ye to her; because she saith in her heart: I sit a queen, and am no widow; and sorrow I shall not see. 8Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine, and she shall be burnt with the fire; because God is strong, who shall judge her.Readings from Scripture
Ch. 2, 3, & 5
8:2-11Priesthood of the Faithful
6And hath made us a kingdom, and priests to God and his Father, to him be glory and empire for ever and ever. Amen.
6Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection. In these the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ; and shall reign with him a thousand years.Catholicity or Universality
9After this I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands:Silent Contemplation
1And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven, as it were for half an hour.Marriage Supper of the Lamb
9And he said to me: Write: Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith to me: These words of God are true.17 (whole Chapter)