What Does It mean to Be a Truly Loving Christian?
Liturgy: What Does It Mean?
by Fr. Christopher Maxwell-Stewart
Liturgy" is a technical sounding word, still unfamiliar to many ordinary Catholics, although they find it in their missals (ea. 'Liturgy of the Word') and hear it is used with increasing frequency from the pulpit and in discussions groups. The New Testament speaks of John the Baptist's father, Zechariah, fulfilling the time of his priestly "service" in the Temple. St. Luke uses the Greek word to describe this. Our word "liturgy" therefore means "service", in the sense of serving God with public and communal worship. We might then be tempted to think of liturgy simply meaning "ritual" or ceremony -some people preferring this more formal expression of faith and others a more spontaneous one. However, whilst liturgy certainly includes ritual it is something much deeper than mere ritualism or ceremonial, and it is more than just the communal expression of our personal feelings of devotion. Liturgy is not just a matter of taste, or churchmanship. Liturgy is central to Christianity and is an integral part of our family relationship with God. The signs, symbols and sacred actions which form our public prayer and worship spring from the language and events of God's own self- revelation to us. Our liturgical celebrations arise directly out of the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ and are part of the very means by which we enter into that mystery.
The new Catechism refers variously to the themes of the "Mystery" of God's eternal plan of love, the "economy" or work of Christ through the ages, the idea of God's "blessing" on the world through Christ, the "Paschal Mystery" and the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church, as paradigms for explaining the idea of liturgy and sacraments. However the precise relationship between these elements is not always as clear in the text as it might be. This is an attempt to clarify things a little.
At the heart of the Eucharistic Liturgy (the Mass) we join in the song of the angels: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory." This hymn in praise of the Blessed Trinity helps us to grasp why God created anything at all. It was an act of glory-to manifest the divine wisdom and majesty in the order and beauty of creation. We must not think of this as some sort of showing off, but as a gesture of total generosity by which God confers a share in His eternal blessedness on creatures and raises them up to experience His glorious Life - to bless them. "You fill your creatures with every blessing and lead all men to the joyful vision of your light." (Eucharistic Prayer IV) By the same token, if we ask what is the purpose of our existence, we can answer that we were created to return that glory to God - to bless His holy Name. This is not an act of grovelling subservience. Rather, in praising and blessing God with hearts, minds, and voices and with our whole lives, we are also blessed with the very blessedness and majesty which we acclaim. God gathers all creation around Himself like a court around its King to adore Him, but also o adore Him, but also like a loving family of which He is the like a loving family of which He is the Father. When we join in the joyful acclamation of His majesty we also bask in the sunshine of His love.
So to adore, worship and serve God is never an individualistic activity. Every creature in its own way and in its own order gives glory to God by its own existence. But all creation together forms a single cosmos to the glory of God. This cosmos of creatures was built up under God's creative plan from the explosion of light at the beginning of the universe to the vast interlocking variety of living forms which is nature around us today. This natural world is full of ritual, colour, signs, sound and song through which things minister physical life, meaning, control, direction and even bodily death to each other. The material creatures have no personal knowledge of God, nor any sense of the purpose of their existence-they give glory to God simply by being. But creation at last finds its voice to give free and conscious praise to the Creator with the creation of Man. We are made in His own image with souls as well as bodies. We sing praise to God "in the name of every creature under heaven."
From the very beginning we have sought relationship with the divine, both within the individual heart and as a family seeking to live and grow together under a rule of spiritual wisdom. Man is a religious animal. From the beginning humanity is a structured family with ministries of mutual life-giving and spiritual loving. From the outset mankind is a community of praise and service whose religion is marked by ritual and sign; sacred places, language and gestures; times and seasons rooted in the cycles of nature; sacrificial offerings of thanksgiving, sorrow and intercession; public prayer and canticle; priests, prophets and spiritual leaders. Of course we find all these things in "paganism", so some Christians feel that these religious elements ought to have been expunged from Christianity. But the various forms of what we call "paganism", whilst containing much error, also witness to the natural human yearning for God.
The problem with paganism is not its use of natural symbols, but that it uses them to worship nature itself instead of the God who made it; or that it posits many gods in place of the one transcendent Creator; or even that it uses religion and ritual to try to control the forces of nature, manipulate the spiritual realm, or assert magical power over others. These are abuses and aberrations arising from the distortions of human consciousness following from original sin. But the religious instinct of man is part of our nature as children of God on earth. From the beginning the one true God has revealed Himself in terms of these same religious instincts of the human spirit, correcting and purifying them where necessary. And so God raised up the one true religion from primitive beginnings, eventually building up the people and the faith of Israel through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and King David, through whom He inspired a religion of liturgical worship which looked forward to and prepared for His own Incarnation as Messiah.
The religion of Israel was centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. Here were held the great festivals which enacted and renewed the covenant between God and his chosen people. Everything about the temple liturgies celebrated and reinforced this identity as a holy nation set apart by their stringent laws of ritual purity, and lifted the minds and hearts of the participants collectively towards God. But above all this rich religious life of priestly chant, endless sacrifices, processions, incense, and the turning circle of feast days through the year, was designed to embody the hope of the coming of the Messiah, spoken of in the unique Hebrew tradition of divine prophecy. The Christ would gather a universal people, bring in a perfect worship, joining the people's praise with the eternal worship of the angelic choirs, and finally liberate humanity from the power of sin by engendering inner purity of mind and heart, instead of mere conformity to ritual law. He would bring about lasting peace and communion between heaven and earth.
When Jesus came He went to all the key feast days in the temple and publicly claimed to be, in person, the fulfilment and real meaning of the liturgies which were being celebrated. During the new year festival of lights he said: "I am the Light of the world", In the middle 0 the feast of the purification of the temple, when the altar and sanctuary were awash with water, he cried out: "If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink." Around the Passover feast of unleavened bread one year he taught: "I am the Bread of Life." He even proclaimed that His own Body is the new temple, the holy of holies, where God dwells among men and we enter into communion with Him.
The Samaritan woman at the well asked where she should go to worship God and offer sacrifice in accordance with His will. Jesus told her that until His coming it had been the temple at Jerusalem (as opposed to Mount Gerzim where her own Samaritan community still worship to this day), but from now on it would be anywhere around the world where a new and universal people belonged to Him, accepted His truth and were filled with His Holy Spirit. This universal Church and new Covenant would not have a single geographical centre, but would everywhere have the living, incarnate presence of God the Son for its centre. He would preside at all its liturgies. He would be the principle of its worship. He himself would be its High Priest, its one all sufficient Sacrifice. The meaning of its celebrations would be the various aspects of our living, growing and coming to fulfilment in Him.
Jesus Christ is the very heart of our familial relationship with God. He both brings about heavenly communion in us, and is Himself the focus and goal of our belonging to God. He is both the author and the object of all true adoration and praise, all grace and blessing, all growing in divine life and of all celebration and thanksgiving. Jesus is not only the fulfilment of the religion of Israel, as God the Word Incarnate He is the source and summit of the whole of the liturgy of creation. In him every created thing and every interlocking law and relationship in the cosmos finds its true purpose, meaning, and beauty. In Him too all the religious instincts of humanity find their completion and correction.
So what must we expect of the religion of the New Covenant-the religion of the Incarnation-in terms of its public expression ? Of course it will be Christ-centred in every facet. And it will also be ecclesial that is communal and familial, shaped within and enacted by an interlocking hierarchy of ministries - for it is the worship of the new People of God, who are the Body of Christ acting in, through and together with Christ their head. It will be liturgical, drawing in and drawing on all that is human-sign and symbol, drama, ritual, music and festival. But it must also be fully divine, acting in His name and power, breathing with His personality, leading to the contemplation of His presence. That is why the New Testament Liturgy is no longer just symbolic and prophetic as in the Old Testament, but is fundamentally sacramental-the conferring and nourishing of divine life through what is human. The concept of liturgy refers to the whole fabric of the Church's public prayer, including, for example, the Divine Office-so it is not confined to the seven sacraments. But the sacraments-which are the saving actions of Christ in and through His Church - are the core of the liturgical life.
Most obviously in the case of the Eucharist, the whole of the Church's sacramental liturgy is marked by the Passover or "Paschal" Mystery of our Lord's death and resurrection . This is the whole character of our belonging to God in Christ. This is the transformation that is being worked in us though the celebration of the sacraments. This is the shape and movement inherent in all liturgical celebration, as indeed in the whole of the spiritual life. We are enlightened by the Word of God, purified by the grace of Christ, and brought into union with the Father in the Holy Spirit - from the joy of revelation, through the sorrow of redemption, to the glory of the Kingdom.
The Paschal Mystery is not confined to Easter alone. It is recapitulated throughout the whole liturgical year. Creation, Revelation, the Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of the eternal Word and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, until He appears again and hands all creation back to the Father as a glorious work, signed, sealed and delivered - this is the full work of Christ and this is the full dimension of the Mystery which we name our Passover in Him. The liturgical year forms one unfolding celebration of this Mystery of our life and identity in Christ. (Somehow the blocks of "Ordinary Time" which form a separate and discontinuous cycle in between the Christmas and Easter/Pentecost Mysteries in our present liturgical year seem inelegant and unsynthetic in this light.) The full meaning of the Christian Passover is therefore incorporation into the Trinitarian Life. In Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen and glorified, we have been adopted into the Godhead, and we are called to become "co-sharers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1.4) We are in a certain real sense already "divinised" by being filled with the Holy Spirit through the sacramental life. This is also why everything in our liturgy is marked by the invocation of the name of the Blessed Trinity.
This sacramental, paschal, Trinitarian liturgy of the Church is therefore more than mere expressive drama. It is the living out as well as the acting out of our relationship with Christ to the Father and of our mutual relationships and vocations to one another in His Holy Spirit. It is the administering and celebration throughout time and space of The Great Mystery. And the word "mystery" for a Catholic does not mean something thin, distant and ethereal, but rather signifies the Reality of realities. It is we who are as yet incomplete, not fully "real- iced". It is precisely in our approaching and being adopted into the Divine Nature that we are saved from everlasting futility. Liturgy is our participation already in this earthly and temporal existence through sacramental signs, in the mysterious life of the Trinity. The source of power and effectiveness in the sacraments is the Holy Spirit of God who unites heaven and earth in one communion of love. The Holy Spirit animating and empowering the actions of the Church on earth applies through out history the fruits of Christ's victory already fully experienced by the blessed in heaven. This is the basis of the liturgical life of the Church, which is the true New Testament worship in Spirit and in Truth.
Some Christians of the Reformation have taken this command to worship "in Spirit and truth" to mean that liturgical and priestly actions ought to have been left behind now, and only individual, spontaneous, inspiration is authentic "spiritual" Christian worship. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the work of Christ and the sending of the Spirit. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit from heaven at Pentecost did not somehow bypass the material, religious and liturgical realm. That would be to bypass the Incarnation itself, which fulfils creation, rather than abolishes it, and perfects it by uniting all that is human with the sacred Humanity of Jesus. Redemption in Christ is not a matter of escaping from the material order into the purely spiritual. Rather it means the sanctification and eventual glorification of humanity by our being incorporated into Christ and filled with the Spirit. The order of flesh and blood is now the very means of ministering divine life to the world. So the New Covenant is not just a personal response to the message of salvation, it is an objective relationship of grace ministered to us by Christ through his Body which is the Church. The Church is the sacrament of the Incarnation - the vehicle of the continuing work of Christ in the Spirit. The sacramental economy of the New Testament invites, requires and enables us to respond to God with personal faith and love, but does not simply consist in the shared enthusiasm of believers. The primary purpose of the Church's liturgical worship is not to express our feelings towards God, but to express and impress the Personality of Christ upon us.
The Spirit makes effective the bond between the Church on earth and the risen and ascended body of the Lord in heaven. So it is the Holy Spirit who fills earthly realities with heavenly power in the sacraments, so that the world of matter is no longer a veil hiding us from God, but a window opening onto eternity; so that the flesh is no longer a bar between us and our creator but the very sign and instrument of our communion with Him. It is the Holy Spirit who brings about the Holy Eucharist as the true Body and Blood of Christ so that we may offer the Sacrifice of the New Covenant for the living and the dead throughout history, and so that we may all be in full human and divine communion with Him. It is the Holy Spirit who anoints the humanity of the apostles and their successors to forgive sins, to guide, rule and sanctify the Church in the person of Christ. It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our own bodies and souls through Baptism, Confirmation and the Blessed Eucharist that makes us the priestly people of God - the holy nation set apart to sing His praises.
The refers frequently to the first chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians to draw together these many interlocking themes which help us understand the nature of liturgy. That we are blessed by God in Christ, chosen to live through love in His presence, and that we bless His name in return, offering perfect praise through the same Lord who unites all things in heaven and on earth, who has made peace between us by the blood of His cross, and who fills us with the Spirit of holiness and raises us to divine communion: this is the Mystery of the Father's eternal purpose in Christ. The Holy Spirit now administers the economy or working out of that purpose through the ages in the Church. This is what is both celebrated and brought about in the liturgies of the Church, which are themselves the foretaste of things to come. The book of Revelation shows us that heaven itself is a "liturgy" - the whole Cosmos of angels and men united in Christ as a great consort of praise and perfect adoration, only no longer through sacramental signs, but finally face to face.
We may now understand a little more why the "language" of signs that we use in our earthly liturgies is not an arbitrary one, not ours to play with and re-invent as we will most particularly when it comes to the sacraments themselves. It is true there is a certain level at which liturgy interacts with culture. There is room for variation and richness as different aspects of human self expression are drawn into the work of Christ, thus refining and sanctifying the surrounding culture. There is also need for liturgical development through history which, like development in matters of doctrine, must be organic- not arbitrary change-and which should grow out of an ever deepening appreciation of the Mystery of Christ, eliciting a more complete and fulfilling contemplation of the creative and saving work of God.
The language and symbolism of the liturgy is not monophonic or monotonous in mood. It is at times the language of the joyful mysteries, incorporating all the beauty and simplicity of nature, expressions of uncomplicated love and joyous devotion, as well as the grandeur of human artistry in image and song. The liturgy is also marked throughout by the sign of the cross. The liturgical celebration of the sacraments administers the healing grace of our crucified Lord to a wounded people -people still sorrowing for sin and yearning for deeper purification, still in need of repentance and atonement, still seeking the consolation and of Christ overflowing to them from the cross. The centrality of the crucifix in our liturgy prevents it from becoming a cosy, self congratulatory gathering of the like-minded which simply contemplates itself and is implicitly open only to the respectable and the comfortable. Nonetheless liturgy is also a great rejoicing and celebration in the victory of Christ. Images of glory, hymns of praise, expressions of the power of grace, sincere and humble thanksgiving offered from lives redeemed and re-ordered again by Christ, are all found in the celebrations of the Church and can be enhanced by music, vestments, gestures and settings. The liturgy is too the foretaste of heaven where the saints and angels gaze on Him and are suffused with blessedness, which is why the liturgy refers frequently to this great cloud of witnesses who form the heavenly court. It is natural then that our liturgy also contains the language of silence, deep moments of contemplative prayer, loving adoration and awe.
There is a certain room in all this for pastoral flexibility and local tradition too - always aimed at greater reverence, clearer faith and more authentic love, and always within the discipline of the Church. It should not be the stamping of a single human personality, either priestly or that of a semi-professional lay minister, over the communal worship, nor the importing of the transient and the trendy simply for its own sake, or for instant mass appeal at the expense of truly raising the mind and heart to God. For there is a more fundamental level at which the language of the liturgy, even as a human language of signs, does not depend on any particular culture or historical period. It arises from a level of symbolic consciousness which is primal and therefore universal. In the liturgy we find much of this symbolism rooted in the history of divine revelation, which is simply to say that God knows best how to speak to us in the deepest language of our own psyches. But it also means that the basic outlines and elements of the liturgy acquire a certain sacral authority from the tradition of God's Word itself. In fact the liturgical life of the Church is one continuous development from the religious life of Israel, and from more ancient traditions than that, which is why the liturgy is where the words of Scripture come alive most fully as the living application and celebration of divine teaching and prophecy fulfilled. The liturgy is where the whole living tradition of God's word, including the creed and the catechism, finds its real meaning and purpose.
Not that liturgical celebration constitutes the whole life of the Church. It is preceded by preaching the gospel, conversion of heart and teaching the faith. In turn it nourishes and strengthens our faith so that we can go out to the world and carry on the mission of Christ in our daily lives, putting the commandments into action, deepening in a personal spiritual life and growing in charity for one another. But liturgy is the fulcrum, or centre point of the Christian life. As the embodiment and enactment of our identity as God's People; as a living encounter with Christ our Head and the high point of our communion together in Him, the liturgy is the source and summit of our life in Christ in this world.
This article was taken from the July 1996 issue of "Faith Magazine", published by The Faith-Keyway Trust, 16a off Coniston Way REIGATE Surrey RH2 OLN, Phone 01737-770016, email firstname.lastname@example.org.