Every so often someone approaches me after I have celebrated a Mass to inform me what I have done wrong in the ritual. It is in those moments that I have great empathy for the physician who resigns themselves to listen to a patient reveal their self diagnosis based on what they have discovered on WebMD. Given the ubiquity of the internet I suspect every profession has similar moments. On one hand it is good that patients and clients inform and educate themselves; on the other hand there is a reason medical school, internship, residency, and specialty fellowships take a bit more time than an internet search. As a doctor/friend once offered, “There is a reason it is called the ‘Art of Medicine,’ – the human body is beyond complicated in all its possible reactions.”Maybe a better comparison would be the practice of law. Simply reading a book about law does not one a lawyer make… but then again, in the Navy we had the expression “sea lawyer” to describe a self-proclaimed expert willing to hold forth and opine on matters a good bit beyond their formal training and perhaps competency. The parallel would be, reading the General Instruction on the Roman Missal a liturgist does not one make. Reading the Code of Canon Law does not make someone a canonist. But there are a few “sea lawyers” out there willing to offer their dogmatic interpretation of what is or is not to be done.
To be fair, I am “going on” about something that has rarely happened – not that I am a perfect celebrant of the Mass – but more likely people are forgiving of my flaws. So, what brought about this train of thought? It was today’s gospel where the host of the dinner (a Pharisee) is totally focused on the external conformance to the Pharisaic understanding of the what is/is not to be done. My experience is that when being informed of the flaws in my celebration of Mass the standard by which I am being judged is “what Monsignor used to do.” Occasionally it actually has a reference to the General Instruction. As near as I can remember, in those cases, the questioner was incorrect. I also remember being saddened that this person has spent time and energy recording and brooding about some detail of the celebration – and missed the deeper meaning of the celebration itself. It made my wonder about the emphasis on the external elements to the point of missing the deepest meaning of the Eucharistic celebration.
Don’t get me wrong. The majority of my adult life was spent “in the pews” and I have seen my share of “creative celebration” that was a distraction. About 10 years ago after a Mass, a person approached me (I was pastor) and asked “why Father X was so disrespectful of the Eucharist in his celebration of Mass.” When I inquired about the details, the reply was that Father X elevated the host with only one hand “like they were doing a basketball layup.” The person was clearly agitated in the moment and remained so even after Mass.
What is true is that most priests elevate the host with both hands. What is not true is that the instructions in the Missal requires both hands, it simply directs “He shows the consecrated host to the people, places it again on the paten, and genuflects in adoration.” When I asked the person why they thought both hands were required, the response was they had watched the Pope celebrate a public mass (online) and that is what he did.
When I inquired as to why they had not simply approached Father X and inquired about why he only uses one hand, the response was it never occurred to them – perhaps this was egregious enough that it must at once be raised up to the pastor’s attention! If they has asked Father X he likely would have told them that before he entered the Franciscans he had stopped on a wintry night to help a stranded motorist and was struck by another vehicle. After 2 months in the hospital, several more in rehab, the following years of developing arthritis, he simply is no longer able to use both hands to elevate the host. What he can do is reverently celebrate the Eucharist.
A Pharisee observes Jesus not washing his hands and misses the opportunity to see more deeply into the One who is the promised Way, Truth, and Life. Instead of having an amazing opportunity to ask questions, he judges. The Pharisee maintains his own observance of the Law and misses meeting the One who is the fulfillment of the Law – the Lawgiver.