Circular Letter: Fall 2007

Understanding the Liturgy (1 of 3)

In our last Circular Letter, we meditated on Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas est, and the human response to God’s love. Love can only be repaid by love, and a perfect response to God’s love can be nothing less than a total gift of self. Of ourselves, we are incapable of offering such a gift as an adequate response to God’s love. Only in union with the self-offering of Christ on the Cross does our gift become acceptable to God. This self-offering of Christ at Calvary is made present and accessible to us at every Eucharist: “[B]y sharing in the sacrifice of the Cross, the Christian partakes of Christ’s self-giving love and is equipped and committed to live this same charity in all his thoughts and deeds” (Pope John Paul, II, Veritatis Splendor, 107). Since through the Eucharist we come into contact with the self-giving, divine love of Christ, with His Sacrifice on the Cross, when we make this Sacrifice our own it becomes for each Christian the principal source of authentic Christian love, the source of strength to live and love as Christ did.

Active, Interior Participation in the Eucharist

The Eucharist is not simply an hour of worship on Sundays; it should and must become the “form of Christian life” (cf. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis—hereafter, SacC—33). As our “daily bread”, it is meant to shape our lives, to be lived daily, to conform and unite us to Christ. “The Eucharist, since it embraces the concrete everyday existence of the believer, makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God (cf. Rom 8:29 ff.). There is nothing authentically human—our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds—that does not find in the Sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived to the full” (SacC, 71).

While charity is the form of all virtue (and therefore also of religion and worship), charity (grace) was lost by Original Sin. Man cannot regain charity on his own. He needs a redeemer. God chose not to restore man to grace by just generously forgiving him, but through the redemptive Sacrifice of the WORD-Incarnate. We must accept this Sacrifice offered for us by Christ and claim it as our own. We do so in a special way by participating in this very Sacrifice which is sacramentally renewed for us daily upon the altar. The Sacrifice of the Eucharist is Christ’s Sacrifice, entrusted by Him to the Church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Holy Church watches over and regulates the expression and celebration of these sacred mysteries.

But in order for our participation in the Eucharist to be “fruitful” and a transforming experience of grace, we must “be personally conformed to the mystery being celebrated, offering one’s life to God in unity with the Sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the whole world” (SacC, 64). But this “actuosa participatio”, active participation in the true, interior sense, cannot take place unless we “understand more deeply the mysteries being celebrated”, so that our interior dispositions may be made to correspond to our words and gestures (cf. ibid.). Through a deeper understanding of what is actually taking place at Mass and of the meaning behind our words and gestures, we will avoid simply “going through the motions” mechanically; rather, it will dispose us to become interiorly and consciously involved in the Holy Sacrifice, that we may attain union with Christ and bear this fruit of the Mass—Christ Himself!—into our daily lives.

Moreover, in the Liturgy we are most closely united with the holy angels and joined to their continual praise of God in heaven (cf. Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8). They can help us elevate our spirits, draw us apart from the world, and inflame us with the love for God. But they cannot do this unless we have a basic understanding of the mysteries we approach and celebrate at every Mass, unless we consciously enter into these mysteries and offer ourselves with the Sacrifice of Christ. In these next few Circular Letters, therefore, we wish to provide a fundamental catechesis on the Liturgy, the beginnings of a “mystagogical catechesis” which is intended “to help the faithful to enter more deeply into the mysteries being celebrated” (SacC, 64). Pope Benedict suggests in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist a basic approach to a mystagogical catechesis on the Eucharist, an approach which he himself had already taken up as a Cardinal in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy.1

Relying heavily on this source, therefore, and in accordance with the outline found in Sacramentum Caritatis (64), we want to explore in these next Circular Letters the Liturgy: first, in the light of salvation history, in particular, in relation to the history of the Old Testament; then, the meaning of the signs, symbols and gestures found in the sacred rites; and finally, the significance of the Liturgy and the rites for our personal lives, for every dimension of human life in general.

Worship of the Whole Man

Liturgy is, first of all, only a part of worship and can only be understood in relation to worship in the broader sense. Worship, the “service of God”, includes liturgy, the “public service” offered to God according to a particular form, but also the whole life of man in all its dimensions. In the story of the Exodus, God demands of Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (Ex 7:16). While, the Promised Land was surely one goal of Israel’s flight, God’s first intention in leading His people out of Egypt was that Israel might learn the true service (worship) of God. Though seemingly a tactical excuse before Pharaoh for fleeing the slavery of Egypt, this “service of God”, the freedom to worship according to God’s own directives, was the principal reason for the Exodus. “Israel departs, not in order to be a people like all the others; it departs in order to serve God” (Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 16).

The service of God entails three dimensions: worship (cult), ethics and law. In the desert, God established the covenant with His People, which contained not only minute instructions on how to offer sacrifice and worship, but also, the Law and the Ten Commandments, as a moral code. These three, Cardinal Ratzinger argues, worship, ethics and law, cannot be separated from one another. “Law without a foundation in morality becomes injustice. When morality and law do not originate in a God-ward perspective, they degrade man, because they rob him of his highest measure and his highest capacity, deprive him of any vision of the infinite and eternal” (ibid. pp.18-19). Law and ethics, therefore, cannot subsist without a foundation of faith in God. This vision of God which comes from faith is confirmed and strengthened by worship, cult or liturgy in the proper sense. A secular state without the influence of faith and authentic worship can only but decline in terms of justice and morality.

Cult, however, must also extend beyond liturgy, for as St. Irenaeus says, “The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God” (Adv. Haer. 4, 20, 7). Commenting on this text, Cardinal Ratzinger says, “Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God” (Spirit ofthe Liturgy, p. 18). Man can only live righteously and give glory to God if he lives the charity he owes to God as his Lord and Creator. He owes charity to his neighbor as well, as fellow creatures of the same God. This attitude of love and adoration towards God will inspire sacred worship (liturgy) “in spirit and in truth”. And together these are the prerequisites for every moral code and just legal system, for the goodness of every human action and law must be measured by its effectiveness in promoting the common good and advancing man towards his final end, beatitude in God.

Worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours. (ibid. p. 21)

All three, therefore, cult, ethics and law, express and manifest the true worship of God, the worship of the whole man in every dimension of his existence. Without all three, the Promised Land would only bring another form of slavery.

Liturgy as Revelation

It follows from what was said that “liturgy implies a real relationship with Another, who reveals Himself to us and gives our existence a new direction” (ibid. p. 21). It is this “relationship with Another”, our faith and love for God, which will orientate the Eucharistic Liturgy: lex credendi, lex orandi. Moses had a living relationship with God and spoke with Him as to a friend. God chose Moses to lead His People and to regulate their worship in a manner pleasing to Himself. In Exodus and Leviticus, He gave Moses minute details for the setting up of the tabernacle and the offering of sacrifices. In the passage where Moses set up the tabernacle, seven times it is recorded that Moses did precisely “as the Lord had commanded” (Ex 40:16-33). Yet all of these rubrics and ceremonies was but a type and shadow of the worship to come.

In the New Covenant, the supernatural High Priest of all mankind is Jesus Christ. And so the worship which He offers is the supreme form of sacrifice to God. This mystery of worship “in spirit and truth” He perpetuates in His Church, which regulates according to time and cultures the fitting and proper articulation of the essentially identical Sacrifice of Christ. This is why the expression and rite of liturgy—the highest form of public worship offered by the Church in union with Christ—is not subject to individual whim and fancy, but needs to be regulated and harmonized so as to be a fitting expression of the Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic. As Pope Benedict writes in Sacramentum Caritatis 37: “Since the Eucharistic Liturgy is essentially an actio Dei which draws us into Christ through the Holy Spirit, its basic structure is not something within our power to change, nor can it be held hostage by the latest trends.” In order to grow in reverence for the form (rite) of the Eucharistic Liturgy without falling into the trap of legalism or “rubricism”, however, we must first understand the true worship of God and the love that the Eucharist lifts up to God.

The Essence of Worship, from the Old Testament to the New

In the history of religions, sacrifice has always been an essential element of worship. In the Old Testament as well, the worship of God always entailed a form of sacrifice. God created the world and placed man therein that He might establish a covenant of love with him. Man comes forth from God and is called to return to God by a free act of love, whereby he responds to the love of the Creator. This free response of love of the creature to the Creator is the theological virtue of charity, which motivates us to surrender our entire being to God in a holy “sacrifice”; offering ourselves with Christ in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we achieve  “divinization” through union with God (cf. Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 28).

Since the Fall of man, sacrifice has taken on further dimensions of meaning. Man broke the covenant and became enslaved to sin, to the power of the lower passions within himself, so that he was no longer capable of freely giving himself to God in an act of worship. He tangled himself in a knot from which he could no longer free himself. He found and finds himself in need of a redeemer. Sacrifice, that expiation by which man returns to God Who reconciles us to Himself, now “assumes the aspect of healing, the loving transformation of broken freedom, of painful expiation” (ibid. p. 33).

In the Old Testament, God ordained a replacement sacrifice which was made usually in the form of animal sacrifices. Abraham was called by God to sacrifice his dearly beloved son, as a type of the future Sacrifice of the Son of God. As he was about to slaughter his son, the angel told him to stop; God accepted his interior sacrifice; the external sacrifice was no longer necessary, all the more in that it was merely a type of things to come (cf. Gen 22). So Abraham took a ram (lamb) caught in the bush and offered it in the place of his son. The Temple was also the place for the sacrifice of atonement in the form of animal sacrifices. These were “replacement” sacrifices offered in the place of the first-born son or for Israel’s sin.

Yet it is clear from many passages in the prophets that God was not pleased with this form of exterior sacrifice: it did not express true worship which comes from the heart. “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon” (Amos 5:21-22). “To what purpose do you bring me frankincense from Saba, and the sweet smelling cane from a far country? Your holocausts are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to Me” (Jer 6:20). These offerings were but an inadequate shadow of things to come. During the Exile, when the Temple was destroyed and there was no longer any place to offer sacrifices, Israel keenly felt her poverty and realized the nature of true sacrifice, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Yet even so, man, enslaved by sin, was incapable of offering himself totally to God.

With the coming of Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant in His Blood, those inadequate replacement sacrifices of the Old Testament became obsolete. Christ did not come as a replacement sacrifice for man, He came as a man to offer sacrifice in the name of all humanity. For as Pope John Paul II wrote in his first Encyclical, “By His Incarnation, [Jesus], the Son of God, in a certain way united Himself with each man” (Redemptor hominis, 8). Man, who was no longer capable of offering himself in worship to God, finds in Christ a Redeemer, the Good Shepherd who places man on His shoulders and brings him back to the Father. When Jesus offers Himself on the Cross for all mankind, He does not “replace” man’s worship, but vicariously offers Himself, taking us up and into Himself, and offering Himself along with us to God. “Worship through types and shadows, worship with replacements, ends at the very moment when the real worship takes place: the self-offering of the Son, who has become man and “Lamb”, the “First-born”, who gathers up and into Himself all worship of God, takes it from the types and shadows into the reality of man’s union with the living God” (Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 43-44). In this sense, the Sacrifice of Christ made present in the Mass is a “new Exodus”, in which we are freed from sin and brought to the Promised Land of union with God. Through His Incarnation and self-offering on the Cross “the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us into that likeness with God, that transformation into love, which is the only true adoration… Here at last is right worship, ever longed for and yet surpassing our powers: adoration ‘in spirit and truth’” (ibid. p. 47).

The Eucharist and the Cross

This adoration of the Son, this obedience and self-offering of the Incarnate Word on the Cross, is made present in an unbloody manner at every Sacrifice of the Mass. The Sacrifice of the Son is perfect and pleasing to God; it is the adoration “in spirit and truth” demanded by God. But it is not enough. Christ is the Head and we are His members, His body, the Church. In order for this sacrifice to be complete, the whole Christ must offer Himself to the Father, Head and members. At every Mass, we are called to make the Sacrifice of Christ our sacrifice; to unite our daily struggles, joys and sorrows to the one Sacrifice of Christ, placing them on the paten at the offertory, that they be purified, transformed and lifted up to God as a pure sacrifice of love at the Consecration. Pope Pius XII taught, “In order that the oblation by which the faithful offer the divine Victim in this Sacrifice to the heavenly Father may have its full effect, it is necessary that the people add something else, namely, the offering of themselves as a victim” (Mediator Dei, 98). This is the active participation called for by Vatican II.

Mary is our model. Pope Benedict writes, Mary “stood at the Cross, in keeping with the divine plan (cf. Jn 19:25), suffering deeply with her only-begotten Son, associating herself with His sacrifice in her mother’s heart, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of the Victim who was born of her. …Consequently, every time we approach the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharistic Liturgy, we also turn to her who, by her complete fidelity, received Christ’s Sacrifice for the whole Church” (SacC, 33). Like her who “goes before us in the pilgrimage of faith”, we too must accept God’s will in all our suffering and sorrows, and unite them with the Sacrifice of Christ at the Mass, that they may be transformed into pure and loving adoration, that we ourselves may be transformed into an offering for God. Through the Eucharistic Liturgy, then, the world will slowly be transfigured, until God be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Though The Spirit of the Liturgy was written before Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope, nevertheless it reveals the mind of the current Pope. In order to distinguish it from the works of Pope Benedict XVI which bear the weight of magisterial authority, however, in referencing this work we will continue to refer to Pope Benedict as “Cardinal Ratzinger”.

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