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Made for the Mass: Secular and Sacred Liturgies

By Fr. Myles Hixson

Attending school graduations is a mandatory social duty for most of us. We (usually begrudgingly) dress up in our “Sunday best,” travel to some campus concert hall or amphitheater, and ready ourselves for one and a half or two hours that we will never get back. The payoff, however, is usually worth it: we get to witness a milestone in our loved one’s life and celebrate their academic achievement in joy, pomp, and circumstance. Sometimes, though, the payoff is even grander; sometimes, God speaks to us amidst the amphitheater.

This happened to me last spring at my brother-in-law’s graduation from medical school. Joking aside, I was genuinely glad to be present. He had endured four rigorous years of education, and his wife had endured life with a part-time husband throughout. We were all glad for them to enter a new season of life. Even still, as I sat in the school’s auditorium and waited for the graduates to process, I knew I needed to prepare myself for the next three hours of dull drudgery. I said a short prayer for my brother-in-law and for all the graduates, and then I skimmed through the program handed to me at the door. As I flipped through the beautifully designed booklet, a thought popped into my head: “This reminds me of a church bulletin.” It listed the various parts of the ceremony and provided the speakers, graduates, and audience with rubrics for their portions of the “liturgy.” It even gave the lyrics to the songs that were going to be performed and offered a welcome to visitors on the back page that explained the mission and vision of the school.

As I continued to flip through the program, the graduation began. The music started up and the graduates began making their way down the center aisle, fully decked out in caps and gowns. Leading the march was a student carrying a banner with the school’s name and crest embroidered upon it. It was at that moment the epiphany occurred: “The printed program is like a church bulletin, because this whole thing is a church service! It’s a secularized ordination service!”

I give God the credit for the insight. Despite having attended nearly 20 graduations in my life, the parallels between an ordination and a graduation never stood out to me until that moment. What I saw that day, though, was uncanny. The “ordinands” processed into the “sanctuary” wearing incomplete “vestments” yet carrying the article of clothing that would signify their authority (the doctoral hood). Once seated, someone from the “altar party” (those on the stage) offered an opening invocation and words of welcome. The “homilist” was introduced, and he “preached” about the seriousness of the high “calling” set before the “ordinands” that day. Afterwards, these “ordinands” stood and recited in unison their vow of “canonical obedience” to the medical code of ethics. The “ordination” proper began as each name was called, and the “bishop” of the institution “laid hands” upon each person as he fitted the hood over their shoulders. He concluded the ceremony by “blessing” the newly “ordained” with a raised hand and conferring authority for them to practice their craft. A final “hymn” (the school’s official anthem) was sung that honored the present institution and her continuing work throughout the decades. The ceremony then ended with a recession as the “ontologically changed” individuals (no longer “Mrs. Smith,” but “Dr. Smith”) processed to the “narthex” for snacks and coffee.

By the end of the graduation, I was speechless. Apart from going forward and receiving something equivalent to “the medicine of immortality” from the new doctors, this service paralleled an ordination Mass almost “to a T.” It felt like the administration of the school had picked the local bishop’s brain on how best to conduct the ceremony.

“What,” I thought to myself as I exited the building, “did I just witness?”

It’s all the rave in certain Christian circles these days to discuss mankind’s innate liturgical inclinations (see for example Desiring the Kingdom or You Are What You Love, both by J. K. A. Smith). We are, according to the movement, homo liturgicus. God has created us in a way that desires patterns, liturgy, and ritual. Left to our devices, we will create these features in our lives and society, which has deep implications for spiritual formation and Christian evangelism. I knew all of this going into that graduation. I even knew that graduations are one of the key examples given of such “secular” liturgical events in our day to day lives. And so, I wasn’t surprised to see ritual worked into the ceremony. What surprised me, though, was to see overtly Christian liturgical patterns present throughout.

Why were they there?

Someone could say that what happened was simply the product of a formerly Christian society producing a ceremony that naturally modeled itself after the Church’s worship. Perhaps. But that view fails to recognize the vehement attempts of secular institutions, particularly educational institutions, to rid themselves of any and all Christian vestiges. Plus, how many Christians in Virginia have ever witnessed a sacramental ordination ceremony?

I think a better explanation exists. “Deep,” says the Psalmist, “calleth unto deep” (Ps. 42:7). Could it be that the homo liturgicus school of thought hasn’t gone far enough? It’s one thing to say that people of all stripes, even the unreligious, innately hunger for ritual; but it’s another to say that this hunger isn’t simply for generic ritual action. We hunger, even unawares, for the only true liturgy and ritual of reality, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

This is why it makes sense that a graduation for medical students would mimic Christian ordination, where ministers of the Mass are created. The Church’s priesthood is an image of the vocation of all humanity. In it we see our destined goal to be eternal worshipers of God through Christ (Rev. 22:4-5), and from it is derived the significance of all other earthly vocations. The doctor is to be a “priest” in his career, offering up each appointment, surgery, or check-up as a sacrifice to God Almighty, just as the priest offers up the lives of the parish through prayer, bread, and wine.

To state it as plainly as I can: we were made for the Mass. We were created for intimate relationship with the Blessed Trinity, and divine worship is the primary vocation of every person. To worship is to express what it means to be human in the fullest way. In the Mass, God’s ordained means of worship, the wounds of our Fall into sin and death are conquered, and the intimate fellowship between Man and God is restored through the most precious Body and Blood of Jesus. When we worship as we ought, the true story of reality (the Gospel) breaks into our lives and ineffable eternity is set before us to ponder and praise.

We were made for the Mass, and deep within us we long for it — so much so, that we project our desire for it into the rest of our world. This undoubtedly is what I witnessed at that graduation. A school administration, desiring to give meaning to the vocation for which they exist, modeled their graduation after the sacramental life of the Church without, I’m sure, even realizing it. And this, I want to suggest, is a good thing.

The Mass isn’t in competition with the other spheres of our human lives. It is here to make us fully human and to invest meaning into all the other moments of life. All of reality is a unified whole through Christ Jesus (Col. 1:15-17), and his Mass expresses this unity by being the summation and perfection of all earthly activity, ceremony, and ritual. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to see shadows of the Mass at graduations, civil ceremonies, and Thanksgiving Dinner. These secular liturgies derive their significance from the Mass, and they point us back to it as their fulfillment.

We are indeed beings hungry for ritual and liturgy, but not just any ritual or liturgy will do. It is for the Holy Mass alone that souls hunger, with all of its processions, vestments, manual acts, prayers, sermons, exhortations, vows, blessings, and feasting. All of life is contained therein. And with the eyes of faith wide open, we can see it break through the walls of our parish and enliven each corner of this world.

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

Fr. Myles Hixson is Rector Elect of Holy Cross Anglican Church, Knoxville and co-host of The Sacramentalists podcast.


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