On the Mass

Pictured above: A crazy man

One of the few nice things about our current era is how, despite its explicit rejection of family, religious, and political traditions, the realities these traditions so jealously guarded continue to be objects of desire for everyone. All still want to fall in love, experience the transcendent, and live a fulfilled life. Loyalty, duty, courage, honor, and the sacred – who would authentically deride these and praise cowardice, selfishness, and treachery? Thus, despite having abandoned said traditions, and consequently losing what the traditions protected, they strive in ignorance to replicate them somehow. An excellent example of this can be found in the 20th century classical music of Anton Scriabin, a Russian. He did groundbreaking work in atonal music for the piano in particular, and for those who love harmony and beauty, despising dissonance, hearing his White Mass and Black Mass sonatas might feel like losing one’s soul. But he was never satisfied, and kept trying to go further in music. But where can you go after rejecting all boundaries and rules? He was not to be deterred by such puny obstacles and began to plan for the end of the world. Yes, that is true (look him up if you suspect I spout lies!) and yes, one could argue this makes him insane.

This plan for the end of the world involved, reasonably enough, a work of music entitled Mysterium. In his own words, “There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium.” This work, the performance of which would take a week, was planned for production in the Indian Himalayas in a temple which would have to be built. It would also usher the end of the world and replace humanity with a “nobler race of beings.” Needless to say, Mysterium was never finished and the temple was never built.

One of the key facets of Mysterium was completeness – Scriabin wished for a work of art which affected all five of the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. There were to be costumes, choirs, instruments, incense, etc. Compared to this, a small piano sonata would be comparatively meaningless.

This is just a guess, but I’d wager that most of us hearing about Mysterium would be rather curious to see what it would look like, and this curiosity would be more than ordinary: a work of art which would change your life if not the world, one in which each sense was involved? One in which there are no spectators, only participants? One requiring a completely new culture? I would have to see this if it were created! Sadly, there does not seem to be much progress on the Temple of Scriabin, so this desire seems destined to be frustrated.

…Unless, of course, such a work already exists. Prefigured in Greek Tragedy and the Old Testament sacrifices, the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, put in secular terms, is precisely this! It fits so suspiciously well to Scriabin’s intentions for his Mysterium (even the name fits!) that one suspects him of plagiarizing Holy Mother Church! That it engages all the senses is evident: the church building itself, with its majestic architecture, beautiful statues, icons, and stained glass; the splendid vestments of the priest; the beautifully orchestrated ritual itself; the chanting of Latin, and the clouds of incense swirling about the altar. All this culminates at the moment where one eats the flesh of the Son of Man and drinks His blood. Thus the entire man is involved at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; it is the result of Greek Tragedy (where the spectators were not idle watchers, but participants) meeting divine revelation; where the human mysteries of evil and suffering are answered in the equally staggering mystery of the Crucified God.

According to the Catechism, the Mass is the source and summit of the Christian life (the term ‘Eucharist’ is used, quoting Lumen Gentium, but the Catechism also uses this term to refer to the Rite itself), but even without this declaration of Church doctrine, we can already see how it answers the insatiable longing of the human heart. Only the mystery of Christ, culminating in His Passion, is enough for our souls, and the Mass is nothing but the re-presentation of His divine Sacrifice.

For these reasons, how can we ever attend Mass again in the same way? Even the word ‘attend’ fails – this is no film or football game, but a foretaste of heaven, where we are ushered into immaterial realities by way of the material, and even if it is just for a moment, we can touch Divinity Itself.

The reality behind our Sunday Obligation.

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