The Smells and Bells of Mass
8 Ways Senses Matter When We Worship
Worldly Smells and Bells
We are “fearfully and wonderfully” made by God and His crafting of us is undeniably intricate. Our five senses give us a plethora of experiences with which to enjoy all of His creation. Our immediate surroundings provide much in the way of sensory pleasure – to the point that we often take them for granted. Similarly, our senses can also propel us back in time, where we are able experience past pleasures anew. Take a favorite song, for instance. A few musical notes transport us back in time – to our first love, senior prom, or a delightful vacation. We also relate to the memories evoked by the smell of a freshly baked apple pie or a favorite recipe – like Mom used to make. Even realtors have been known to employ this tendency to lure prospective buyers into a feeling of having ‘come home’.
In the same vein courting, celebrating special occasions or getting married, finds us taking great pains to entertain our senses . And what potential boss would we impress if we appeared for an interview in tattered jeans and a stained tee-shirt? Would a suitor give us a second glance if we had unkempt hair and bad breath? Meanwhile we powder, lotion, and dress our babies in adorable outfits in an effort to enhance the velvet touch of their skin, intoxicating scent, and cherub’s form.
The Smells and Bells of Liturgy
As sensory creatures, the gift of our senses helps us experience the fullness of God’s creation. Therefore, our senses also come into play in our worship of God. We have at our disposal, many ways that we can both compliment our understanding of our ancient Liturgy and to show honor to God. Traditionally, this is sometimes called the ‘smells and bells’ of liturgy.
- The architectural beauty of our churches illustrates that we have entered a sacred place. The formality of the edifice and the orderly ranks of pews speak to a certain structure and discipline.
- Ornate statuary and the Stations of the Cross call to mind the faithful lives of saints, the virtues of the Blessed Mother, and the God Man, Jesus – who came to take away the sins of the world. And we see the crucifix as a poignant reminder of the ultimate price paid for our sins – both past and future.
- The various colors of the priestly vestments give us a clue as to the season and the tone of our worship. White, red, green, violet, black, rose, and gold all denote differing liturgical seasons, purposes or intents.
- The Rubrics or General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) are a written manual that thoroughly choreographs postures, words, and actions during Holy Mass. In addition, the Roman Missal itself provides the details of the words and actions of the celebrant (priest) during Mass by allowing him to simply ‘say the black, do the red’, as Fr. Zuhlsdorf of blogdom fame is fond of asserting.
- The hymns, composed and chosen, illustrate what we believe, that we should do our best to raise our voices in His glory, and that we are there to sing His praises – not our own. If it becomes a concert or a prideful show of talent, we diminish this God-given gift that we are offering back to Him in song. It becomes about us and not about true worship. Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI has written some enlightening words concerning the Liturgy and Sacred Music in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy.
“Whenever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a king of religious entertainment. Such attraction fades quickly – it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation.”
- Although they are an option (according to the priest’s preference), when used the bells at Mass gloriously appeal to our ears as a signal that something very special is happening. They announce that we should be still and turn our rapt attention to the greatest sacrifice ever made – Jesus giving His life for our sins and Himself to us as food. That we are once again at the foot of the cross – with Him!
- Used frequently in the Latin Mass or during special times in the Novus Ordo, incense tickles our noses and captures our attention, both through smell and sight. As the smoke rises, our minds are drawn to the prayers ascending to Heaven in praise, petition, penitence, and worship.
- The clothing with which we choose to cover ourselves speaks to our recognition of appearing before our King, the Lord of Lords. As in the parable about the wedding garment, dressing for the occasion speaks to the reverence we feel, the homage we pay, and the respect that is demanded by merely existing in His presence. Veiling is also an optional, special acknowledgement of a woman’s humility and the gift of femininity. These efforts are not about finery but about putting our best foot forward to the best of our ability.
Acknowledging their Importance
These smells and bells, in addition to other manifestations of our senses, are of greater importance in our worship than we sometimes acknowledge. Yet we have been given a perfect example, both in scripture and Tradition. Reverence for the House of His Father, certainly mattered to Jesus. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that,
“Jesus went up to the Temple as the privileged place of encounter with God” because “for him, the Temple was the dwelling of his Father, a house of prayer”. When he saw the lack of decorum shown by the sellers and money changers, “he was angered that its outer court had become a place of commerce”. As He drove the merchants out He said, “You shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade”. We are further told that his apostles retained their reverence for the Temple even after the Resurrection.
Of all of our actions in life, prayer, and pleasing God our Creator should stand above any other pursuit. How much more important than any other quest is our approach to the sacrificial altar? What are our actions – the smells and bells – saying when we take the glory and worship of our God in vain? Do we present ourselves grudgingly or carelessly for that brief hour each week? Or are our efforts fitting and pure?
How will we appropriately resolve to show our respect and honor for Jesus in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to the best of our ability? Will we inspire a new outward sign of reverence that will carry over to others? Do you see any actions in particular that speak to you in relation to the dignity given to our Sacrificial Lord? Share your thoughts and experiences with us so that we may learn from one another.
The Ripple Effect
Of course, good example, also gives a ripple effect to those around us. Once the ripple covers our own little pond, it moves on to other ponds, rivers, and lakes. Good behavior, as well as bad, has been known to be contagious! Why, you might ask, are all of these things so darned important? The answer? Obedience, humility, and most importantly R-E-S-P-E-C-T. For more insight, it might be helpful to read this most informative post, Save the Liturgy, Save the World, by Fr. Zuhlsdorf for an explanation much better than my own. Fr. Richard Heilman also has a recent post on this subject. God bless and Catholic on!