When one studies the prayers and rubrics of the Mass (especially in the Extraordinary Form and ancient Eastern Rites), there is a striking aspect about all of them: just how Jewish they are. While Christianity developed in various cultures through thousands of years, the worship of God is still firmly rooted in Jewish customs and concepts. To attempt to understand the Christian liturgy without recourse to Judaism and especially the Old Testament is an exercise in folly. There are two truths in Catholicism today: a lot of people don’t have a proper appreciation for the liturgy, and a lot of people don’t know their Old Testament. The two are related.
This dynamic of the liturgy is on display in the Extraordinary Form with the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. Before worship begins, the priest (and everyone present) remind themselves of what they are doing (I will go unto the altar of God) and why they are doing it. (To the God who gives joy to my youth.) In 50 years of liturgical controversies, we sometimes forget why we are celebrating or assisting at the Latin Mass. We aren’t doing it because we are better Catholics. Nor should we be doing it because of some concept of one rite/form of mass being “superior” to the other.
We worship because deep down, we want to feel joy. We’ve experienced a lot of the world, and we see that it is ultimately a miserable place. How can one be happy with the state of the world? Due to our fallen human natures, mankind must valiantly struggle against them for any kind of progress, and even then such progress is only fleeting. In today’s society, progress can ultimately hinge upon the standards of a few judges. Thanks to an increasingly class-based society, entire groups of people find themselves increasingly isolated from the modern economy and to most of the benefits of said economy.
Some might read this and think of going to Church as a way to escape the world. While some may indeed look at things that way, we shouldn’t. The liturgy provides joy because it gives us strength by directing our thoughts towards God. We are reminded that even though we must be here in the world (and should feel blessed to be doing God’s work), this isn’t our destination. Our destination is a society where there is no need of progress, since we will have found fulfillment. Our destination isn’t a world where more and more people are prohibited from participating, but all are invited to eat and drink without price. (Is 55:1) Yet in order to reach that destination, we have to live faithfully in the world and do our best to bring God’s peace to everyone.
That this comes from the God who brings joy to my youth is another fascinating aspect of this prayer, especially in light of modern times. It has long been the belief of a certain type of Church leader that the Latin Mass is a relic of the past, and something only old people would celebrate. What we have instead found is that as the Latin Mass has celebrated, traditionalism was transformed from God’s waiting room to a youth movement. Most Latin Mass parishes are full of young couples and children. In the Latin Mass they find joy in the fact that God wants to redeem them and give them peace. One of the dangers of old age (especially living through tumultuous times) is the temptation to believe that God doesn’t want to give us joy. We are simply meant to suffer through the present crisis until some date in the future when God decides to end it. Anyone who has attended a Latin Mass long enough will face this temptation. It is hard not to, the traditionalist community has suffered much throughout the past 40 years, and many of those sufferings are self-inflicted. As a result, cynicism and a bitter zeal set in.
I think this is why the Extraordinary Form starts off with an appeal to joy. The Church is reminding us that as we approach the altar, we must leave behind all cynicism and bitter zeal. This isn’t a time for lamentation. Within 60 minutes, we will be encountering the divine love which purifies our souls and brings us one step closer to eternal bliss. Faced with such prospects, bitter zeal and cynicism are not just wrong, they are scandalously so.