“You cleanse the outside of cup and dish”

Every priest, I have learned, is a unique creature with his own liturgical predilections that he inflicts on his congregation. As the years pass, I find I pay more attention to what priests bring in and throw out, keeping score and offering a running commentary.

When my long-time pastor retired, his successor began reforming us immediately. Some of it I liked. We began singing the Gloria every weekend. We began taking Communion under both kinds every weekend. Before then, the Easter Vigil was the only time you could depend on it.

Other developments I endured less amiably. Originally, if we as lectors and Eucharistic ministers ever had a dress code, it was limited to “neat” and “appropriate.” But now, if the unwary appeared in something other than slacks, or sported a pair of sneakers, they got a tongue-lashing from Father.

I thought often of Jesus’ words: “What did you go out to the desert to see?…Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out?” (Matthew 11:7-9).

If you weren’t dressed up, you weren’t even supposed to minister as an emergency replacement. However, Father needed so many emergency replacements that this proved unenforceable. I took puckish enjoyment in filling in for AWOLs while dressed in my usual church outfit: hoodie, jeans, and New Balance sneakers.

Eventually, all parishioners were exhorted to upgrade their wardrobes. Before every Mass, the lector had to mount the ambo and proclaim: “Thank you for wearing clothes respectful of the Eucharist.” Father encouraged us to dress as if for a beloved relative; for example, one who died and was being waked. I did not like thinking of Mass as a wake.

A couple of years ago, Father decided the liturgical ministers did not properly bow to the altar as they processed in. So we attended a meeting where he showed us how to bow. He demonstrated with the aid of volunteers. We were emailed a worksheet about it.

After he recently moved on to another parish, his successor implemented his own list. He abruptly canceled the sung Gloria during his second week. Word came down that no one was to touch his personal chalice. He did not like the Eucharistic ministers flanking both sides of the altar when they came up to receive. He said we would be on one side only, like at his old church.

But we didn’t randomly line up on both sides. We had work-flow reasons, to make it easier for the priest. Parish council members explained this to Father. He said things were different now. We lined up on one side.

The purifying of the chalices, previously done after Mass in the sacristy, now entered the rite. Mass got longer with a new and awkward silent interlude as Father stood over the altar, slowly swishing water around the cups.

When Father left for World Youth Day, this new and awkward silent interlude temporarily expanded. For our substitute priest, taking Father even more literally than Father took himself, carefully rinsed and dried each bread dish before starting on the cups.

In a way I understand the fixations, or at least the idea behind having them. Liturgically I tend conservative. I occasionally pray in Latin, and I like bells and smells. I am fond of the gilded iconography of Russian Orthodoxy (my grandmother’s heritage) and the formal Divine Service of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (my dad’s faith). I feel clueless at evangelical/charismatic praise-and-worship, where swaying congregations sing with eyes closed and palms up and tears falling.

My tolerance for improvised, “kitchen-table” liturgies varies. About a month ago, I could barely conceal my astonishment when, during a free-form litany of the saints, congregants asked Roy Bourgeois and Barack Obama to pray for us. Since these men were still alive, I looked around to see if they were in church. Nope.

That said, I neither universalize my predilections nor aspire to micromanage the finer points. But I increasingly encounter priests who do, and who consult no one before implementing. Overall, it seems to be part of an attitude that not only can’t see the forest for the trees, but chatters incessantly about the leaves. Jesus warned that enthusiastically focusing on the externals, like (ahem) the correct ritual washing of cups and dishes, was a symptom of misplaced priorities (Matthew 23:25). He knew that when cultic observance waxes, justice and love can wane.

Sometimes I hear that Jesus wouldn’t recognize a thing if he physically walked into a church today, and that this is a problem. Actually, I think he’d recognize a lot if he walked into a church today, and that is the problem.

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