Friday, October 29, 2010

"Why So Serious?" - The Priest As Icon

I hear quasi-questions from people sometimes about how I celebrate Mass. The questions usually go something like this, "Gosh, Father, you don't smile a whole lot when you celebrate Mass" or "You seem pretty serious up there" or "What is with the overly-pious hand-folding?" I certainly understand these questions; on the way home from Masses when I was growing up my brothers and I used to rip into the people who were "overly-pious." I'd like to take this opportunity to share with you why I celebrate Mass the way I do.

An Icon is a special form of religious art that is rooted in the Eastern forms of Orthodox Christianity. Icons usually feature a yellowish background with a figure of Mary, Christ, or a saint "written" on top (Icons are not "painted" but "written" in a very elaborate way which gives the art form its special look). Those who are looking for realism will likely be disappointed as the figures in icons are almost always somewhat distorted or misshapen.

A key feature to icons is their two-dimensional nature. Icons never are "written" with the "depth" dimension; this feature also gives them their unique look. The reason that icons lack the dimension of depth is very important to their spiritual nature - meditating on and praying in front of an icon reminds a person that there is a deeper "reality" or "depth" than the image itself. The icon is never an end in itself (unlike most art in the West) - it serves as a big flashing arrow to the "beyond" and serves as an invitation to "go deeper."

What is the point of this? Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in a series of reflections on the priesthood, talks about how a priest is to be an icon of Christ (this is an ancient teaching, as Sheen acknowledges). What does that mean, then, for the priest? It means, quite clearly, that a priest is not to celebrate the Mass in a way that would get people to marvel at the priest HIMSELF - he is to celebrate Mass by "getting out of the way" of Christ; he is to be a priest in a way that people are not distracted by his actions and mannerisms but instead are encouraged to "look beyond." It is for this reason that St. John the Baptist says "He [Christ] must increase, I must decrease."

Many priests seem to celebrate Mass in a way that does interfere with peoples' ability to encounter Christ; many priests seem to celebrate Mass in a way that encourages people to stop and look at them; things are either done dramatically or sloppily or both, usually with the desire (usually sub-consciously) of getting attention. Many priests seem to think that they need to make the Mass more "digestible," but that usually involves making it more about them, whether they realize it or not.

I know most see me and think to themselves "relax" or "let your personality shine through," and I think priests that celebrate Mass the way I do are often viewed as unoriginal, stiff, lacking in personality, etc. To this I would say that it would be SO EASY to be up there as a priest cracking jokes, being smooth, having a good time, taking the spotlight for myself. That would be SUPER EASY, but it would also be hijacking the Mass for my own personal desire to be loved and worshipped.

I abhor the thought of celebrating Mass like Jay Leno or some other TV host for two reasons now. A) I would be using the Mass for myself instead of being an icon, instead of getting out of the way of Christ, instead of being someone who celebrates in such a way that Christ, the Great High Priest, is made more fully known. I also detest the "Mass is about me" style of worship because it turns the Catholic Church into "cults of personality." If one priest is smooth, polished, tells good jokes, smiles at everyone all the time, etc. what happens when a priest who, despite being a good person, lacks that "charm" comes to the parish? Everyone is going to say, "wow, this priest is terrible."

When people ask the question "why so serious?" I know what they are wanting and I don't think they are bad people for wanting more relatability and hospitality and so forth from their priest. However, if we think about the long term spiritual effects of encouraging our priests to be showmen, I think the dangers become much more apparent in fostering that attitude among our clergy.

Do you go to Mass to encounter "Christ the High Priest" or do you go to be entertained by your priest?