I went to my first Latin Mass today.
It was a bit like crashing a secret club, partly because it was so hard to find, down a street that wasn’t a street. And there wasn’t a single sign saying, “Come this way!” or “Sure, it’s looks like you’re trespassing but don’t worry, you’re not. Oh, and welcome to mass!”
Besides the esoteric location, the whole church itself had a run-down glamour, a quiet fading beauty. Very 1950s chic, which may or may not have been deliberate. Here’s a picture (I didn’t take):
And of course, it was in Latin. That’s the point of the Latin Mass. Latin. We didn’t pick up any translations or guides on our way in and so spent the whole two hours blissfully confused. I have the barest, miserliest smattering of Latin. I could pick up “Domine” (Lord), Asperges me (Sprinkle me), Angus Dei (Lamb of God) and that was about it. But by the end I figured out that whenever the priest sung “Saecula Saeculorum”, we’d all sing back “Aaaaaah-me-en”.
It was all very, well, Da-Vinci-Code-equese. It was kinda intimidating, and had less of an easy-breezy-come-right-on-in feel, and more of a THIS IS THE LORD SO GET THEE ON THY KNEES, PEASANT.
Half way between this…
Which I guess makes sense. The Latin Mass is the stereotypical, archetypal mass: all bells, smells, and terrifying priests. With plenty of dark corners for guilt-ridden tears, Goddess-worship or child molestation.
In some ways, I left quite disoriented. A disorientation that didn’t just come from the fact I was freezing and didn’t know what was going on.
But I think that is kind of the point. (The disorientation that is, not the coldness or confusion. That’s just unnecessary.)
The mass isn’t (just) about Jesus getting down on our level. It’s (also) about lifting us up to worship the Risen Lord in ways we wouldn’t usually do. It’s supposed to be a little strange and other-worldly, precisely because it is out of this world.
After the Mass, I did some reading and it turns out that my disorientation may have been deliberate. (Those sneaky bastards.) One of the most notable things about the Latin Mass (besides the Latin of course) is that the priest faces away from the people, and toward the Altar. This is called ad orientem, meaning “toward the east” and represents the Resurrection, and Jerusalem, and all this nifty cosmic stuff. Our very word “orientation” comes from the fact that to figure out where you were, you would find east. You would orient yourself.
Apparently, some people really don’t like this. I think it’s awesome. Because it’s not that the priest is facing away from us, he is symbolically leading us – forward and upward – to our ultimate destination: the Blessed Trinity.
He’s kind of like our own Gandalf.
But even after I read more about the Latin Mass, it was still weird. Really weird.
But it also made me think. Maybe one of the reasons I felt so disoriented (notwithstanding all the ad orientem) was because my worship was so oriented on my myself. What am I feeling? Am I comfortable? Do I know what’s going? Why don’t I know what’s going on? And why is it soooo cold??
But when we come to the Altar of the Lord, our orientation isn’t toward ourselves. We are the people who have
Turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thess 1:9)
And so we wrench our gaze and our pleasures away from ourselves. We re-orient. We turn eastward to the Risen Lord and upward to the Throne of Heaven.
And maybe we need a little Latin weirdness to disorient us enough, to swing us back round to find True North. (Just to mess with my geographical metaphors.)
Even if it’s FREEZING.