I recently ordered a piece of furniture, a little television stand for the rectory. It arrived requiring assembly. I’m not much of a handyman, so when I saw all of the pieces, with different-sized screws, and various other pieces of hardware, I was a bit worried about how it would come out. Fortunately, there were instructions that I could follow. It took about 90 minutes to assemble (with no leftover pieces), and it looked pretty good. But if I had tried to do it without those written instructions, it would have been a big mess – certainly not resembling anything like the stand was meant to look.
The experience led me to think about the sacred liturgy. Like the furniture manufacturer, the Church provides us with a set of instructions about how we are to celebrate the Mass. The Mass is something that has been handed down to us through the ages. Although it has looked different over the centuries, celebrated in different languages, with different rites, postures, and prayers, the liturgy of the Church is the way in which we on earth enter into the heavenly liturgy, and it is the perfect prayer of Christ to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. The instructions that the Church gives us to celebrate the Mass come in a big book called the Roman Missal, which is placed on the altar during Mass. Inside the Missal we find the prayers, written in black, and the instructions, which are written in red. The technical name for the instructions are “the rubrics,” a word that comes from the Latin word for red, and which is also related to the word ruby. Like rubies, the rubrics are precious because they help us to make the prayers we offer to God beautiful by the way that we offer them.
When a priest “says the black and does the red,” we can be sure that the Mass has been said correctly, and that the Eucharist has been confected validly. But simply following the instructions, while important and necessary, is not sufficient. The more we understand what we do at Mass, the more we realize that it is not good enough to merely say certain words in a certain order and move our bodies in a certain way at certain times. We are supposed to actually pray together with our voices, and worship together with the movements of our bodies. Through the prayers and the rubrics, we are being assembled into the Mystical Body of Christ. Joined together in Christ, we are participating in His re-ordering of Creation, which was thrown into disorder by sin. When we worship well as a congregation at Mass – actively offering ourselves, uniting our hearts and all of the intentions we carry within them to the perfect sacrifice of Christ offered by the priest on the altar – we make most clearly visible the invisible communion that exists among the members of the Mystical Body, united to Christ, who is the Head of the Body (cf: Eph 5, Col 1). Thus, the Roman Missal is not simply an instruction manual because the Church is not a lifeless object like a piece of furniture. The Church is a supernatural organism, made up of living members, each with our own proper role, united to Christ in both spirit and body. The Missal allows us to become and experience this through our act of worship. That’s why it is so important to celebrate Mass as the Church tells us, so that together we might resemble Christ through this greatest act of religion.