Circular Letter: Advent 2007

Understanding the Liturgy (2 of 3): Signs & Symbols

Advent is the season of hope, the season of longing and expectation for the coming of Christ in Bethlehem, for His new birth in our hearts and for His Second Coming on the Last Day. Because it is a season hope, Advent is also a season of signs and images, which sustain and give life to our hope for things as yet not seen. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25). The candlelight, Advent Rorate Masses celebrated before dawn in Europe, call to mind the darkness of the world which lies in sin, the darkness of our own hearts when deprived of grace, but also, the hopeful expectation of Christ, the Light of the world. The Advent wreath, while representing penance and conversion by the color purple, also points to the approaching birth of Christ as Light, reconciliation and truth as each week the number of candles lit increases. In fact, the entire liturgical calendar is a symbolic “making present” of the major events of the life of Christ through the course of a year. The Liturgy of the Eucharist itself is also rich in signs and symbols which direct our minds and hearts to the mysteries being celebrated, to realities truly present yet hidden.

In this second of a three part series on the Sacred Liturgy, we wish to consider the sacred signs and symbols, times and places, words and gestures involved in the proper celebration of the Liturgy. It seems that modern times, the age of technology, has been estranged from the “archaic” use of signs or symbols, and modern man can no longer “read the signs of the times” or anything at all that is not immediately evident to the senses or scientifically analyzed. Gestures, such as genuflections before the tabernacle, seem artificial and, therefore, unnecessary. After all, if God is everywhere, why should I kneel before Him in the tabernacle? If we have been redeemed by Christ and now enabled to worship “in spirit and in truth”, if God sees us always and everywhere, why do we need to pray at a church or on a particular day? If God is present in my neighbor, can’t I serve Him by simply loving my neighbor? Why do we need a ritual? In short, the question is, if the reality of God’s Kingdom foreshadowed in the Old Testament has arrived with Christ, why do we still need images or mediating symbols? We want to answer this question in general, before going on to discuss particular signs used in the Liturgy.

The Use of Signs in General in the Historical Age of the Church

Precisely because man of the age of technology is so averse to what cannot be plainly understood and seen, Pope Benedict has requested a renewal of “mystagogical catechesis” particularly in regard to the Liturgy, so that through a greater sensitivity for signs and symbols, which point to an otherwise unapproachable, transcendent reality—God and the world of angels and saints—man may again aspire to “what is above” (cf. Col 1:3) and penetrate into this world through a more conscious participation in the Sacred Mysteries. Yes, the Kingdom of God has arrived in Christ. Nevertheless, as the Fathers explain, there are three stages in the economy of salvation. In the Old Testament, we have the shadow of God’s union with man in the first covenant and the Temple offerings. With the coming of Christ and through His redemptive Sacrifice on the Cross—the beginning of the time of the Church—the reality is present invisibly by grace, yet in image, that is, hiddenly. “As St. Gregory the Great puts it, it is still only the time of dawn, when darkness and light are intermingled. The sun is rising, but it has still not reached its zenith. Thus the time of the New Testament is a peculiar kind of ‘in-between’, a mixture of ‘already and not yet’” (Cardinal Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy—hereafter, only the page is given—p. 54). Only when we reach heaven, the time of fulfillment, will the veil be dropped and we shall “see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2). We shall enjoy the reality of union with God and with one another in God forever in the Beatific Vision.

The Three Levels of Liturgy

As in the economy of salvation, Cardinal Ratzinger explains, so too in the Liturgy there are three levels. We are all familiar with the strictly liturgical level, the celebration of the Liturgy as we experience it today and which was first revealed at the Last Supper. But the celebration of the Liturgy presupposes an underlying “reality that is substantially present” and distinguishes it from a simple game of words. “The Lord could say that His Body was ‘given’ only because He had in fact given it; He could present His Blood in the new chalice as shed for many only because He really had shed it” (p. 55). The sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrection is the “foundation of reality that undergirds Christian Liturgy”; this reality is made present every time the Mass is celebrated.

The Passion happened “once and for all” on Calvary in 33 A.D. Yet, through the liturgical celebration, men of every age are made contemporaries with this historical action. For the Sacrifice of the Cross, though a single act which happened at a specific time in history, is nevertheless an eternal act. Jesus suffered death only once, but His death was actively accepted and offered to the Father as an interior act of love, an act of the whole person, of a divine Person. Therefore, it is an eternal act of the divine Son, by which “time is drawn into what reaches beyond time. The real interior act, though it does not exist without the exterior [the bodily sacrifice on the Cross], transcends time; but since it comes from time, time can again and again be brought into it” (p. 56). In other words, since Christ is God, His interior act of love and obedience on the Cross transcends time—it is eternal; yet since he suffered bodily as a man, this act has a dimension which exists in time and can therefore be brought again into the “present” of every age, through the liturgical celebration.

The Liturgy, however, has a third level which involves the eschatological goal of the Liturgy: through partaking in the Passion of Christ we are meant to become assimilated unto God. As we saw in the last Circular, the Sacrifice of Christ is no longer a replacement sacrifice like those of the Old Testament animal sacrifices; Christ’s offering is a representative, vicarious Sacrifice which is meant to “take up into itself those whom it represents” (p. 57). By participating in the Liturgy, Christ’s “self-giving is meant to become mine” (p. 58). We are meant to be taken up by His Sacrifice and to be transformed by it, until no longer I but Christ lives in me (cf. Gal 2:20), that is, until we become a “living sacrifice” united to the Sacrifice of Christ (cf. Rom 12:1). “And now the challenge is to allow ourselves to be taken up into His being ‘for’ mankind, to let ourselves be embraced by His opened arms, which draw us to Himself… We are incorporated into the great historical process by which the world moves toward the fulfillment of God being ‘all in all’” (p. 59). As St. Augustine says, the Sacrifice of Christ is never complete until the world becomes a place of love (City of God, cited on p. 58). That is to say, the Cross of Christ reaches fulfillment only when every man is transformed by it into another Christ and loves with the same love of Christ.

Just as we saw that there are three stages in the history of salvation—the shadow of the Old Testament, the image in the time of the Church and the reality in heaven—so too, the liturgy involves these three levels, the historical institution in the Passion, the celebration today which makes present the historical event, and the final goal of the transformation of men into Christ. Just as now we live in the intermediary stage in the history of salvation, where union with God is really present but mediated by images, sacraments and signs, until we reach the full vision of God, so too, as we celebrate the Liturgy today, we are in this “between time” which depends upon signs or symbols to point to the reality towards which we are journeying, our transformation into Christ. “The theology of the Liturgy is in a special way ‘symbolic theology’, a theology of symbols, which connects us to what is present but hidden… Yes, we do need them [i.e., symbols], precisely so that, through the image, through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified” (pp. 60-61). We can not see God directly now, but through the sign, we can see a reflection of His love and goodness, of His wisdom and power. Christ Himself, in His humanity, is the first image or sign of the invisible God. The Sacraments also are all outward signs which transmit sanctifying grace, giving us the power to know God by faith. Until we reach the Beatific Vision, therefore, we will always be dependent upon signs and symbols to understand the mysteries of God. In fact, all human communication is in essence by signs, whether in words or gestures, for we depend on our body and its senses to communicate things of the immaterial, invisible spirit.

Particular Signs in the Liturgy: The Church Building

The church buildings of Christianity developed from both the Jewish Temple and the synagogues. The Temple was considered the Shekinah, the “place of God’s presence” on earth, and hence sacrifice could only be offered in the Temple. But in order to have a weekly religious celebration in towns distant from the Temple, synagogues developed with what is roughly equivalent to our Liturgy of the Word, with readings and commentaries from the Torah. The Torah was enshrined in a special corner of the synagogue in a manner representing the lost Ark of the Covenant, and became the Shekinah of each synagogue. It was situated such that in looking towards the shrine, one would look past it towards the Temple, the place of the original lost Ark and the place of sacrifice.

Christian Liturgy takes up the Liturgy of the Word from the synagogues (the shrine of the Torah being replaced by the tabernacle, the true place of God’s presence) and the sacrificial liturgies of the Temple (with the altar of animal sacrifice being replaced by the altar of Christ’s Sacrifice). It is of apostolic tradition that Christian liturgy was orientated towards the east in contrast to the synagogue’s orientation towards the Temple. The rising sun has always been a biblical and cosmic symbol of Christ, the light of the world, and of His Resurrection and Second Coming: “He has set a tent for the sun, which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and there is nothing hid from its heat” (Ps 97:6). Many churches are still orientated eastward. In modern Churches and where the priest celebrates now facing the people (which, incidentally, was never mentioned in Vatican II), the cosmic symbol of the rising sun is replaced by the Crucifix, which should always stand between priest and people so that the worship is not orientated towards one another, but always towards Christ, who is the true Shekinah, the “place of God’s presence”. If these images are properly understood and preserved, they help us to rise above a simply “horizontal” liturgy of priest meeting people, and direct our worship upwards to God, such that He, not the priest, is the focus of our Liturgy.

The altar has also carried over its significance from the Temple worship. Now no longer a place of replacement sacrifice, the altar is, as we have seen above, where the eternal act of love of the Son on the Cross enters our present time, and where we are lifted up and transformed with Christ by His vicarious Sacrifice, entering into the eternal worship of God in and through Christ with the angels and saints in heaven. “Thus it brings heaven into the community assembled on earth, or rather it takes that community beyond itself into the communion of saints of all times and places. We might put it this way: the altar is the place where heaven is opened up. It does not close off the church, but opens it up—and leads it into the eternal Liturgy” (p. 71).

The Lord’s Day and Sacred Time

The fixing of the Lord’s Day and the various feasts of the liturgical calendar were not arbitrary determinations, but developed over centuries under the influence of both historical and cosmic factors. Sunday was chosen as the “Lord’s Day” from apostolic times. In the Old Testament, the keeping of the Sabbath, the seventh day of creation as the day of rest for both God and man, brought the concept of time, a weekly rhythm, into the old covenant. In the new covenant, Sunday, the first day of creation, came to be the day on which Christians gathered as the day of the Resurrection, the day of the Lord Jesus. Significantly, in early Christian times, this day was associated with the sun, while other days were named after various planets. Thus again, the day of the Lord Jesus is connected with the sun. “The sun proclaims Christ. Cosmos and history speak together of Him” (p. 96).

Moreover, in Genesis the first day of the week is the beginning of creation. The Christian Sunday is also a celebration of creation, a day of thanksgiving for God’s wonderful creation. The weekly celebration of God’s rest from the work of creation puts our own work in perspective: work is for the man, not man for the work! But Sunday is also the day of a “new creation”. In Genesis, creation was completed in seven days. The eighth day, the day of the Resurrection, symbolizes the beginning of a new creation. Christ says, “Behold, I make all things new!” (Rev 21:5), through His Passion, death and Resurrection. The eighth day also points forward to the Second Coming of Christ. “With the Day of the Resurrection coming after the Sabbath, Christ, as it were, strode across time and lifted it up above itself. The Fathers connected with this the idea that the history of the world as a whole can be seen as one great week of seven days corresponding to the ages of a man’s life. The eighth day, therefore, signifies the new time that has dawned with the Resurrection” (p. 97). This is the time we live in now. “But at the same time, it is ahead of us. It is the sign of God’s definitive world, in which shadow and image are superseded in the final mutual indwelling of God and His creatures” (p. 97). Card. Ratzinger sums up, “Sunday is thus, for the Christian, time’s proper measure, the temporal measure of his life. It is not based on an arbitrary convention that could be exchanged for another, but contains a unique synthesis of the remembrance of history, the recalling of creation, and the theology of hope” (pp. 98-99).

Active Participation and Bodily Gestures

As we noted in the first part of this series, the “active participation” of the faithful in the Liturgy does not refer to the multiplication of functions of the laity in the Mass, but to the conscious, interior union of the individual with the Sacred Mysteries being offered, the self-offering in union with Sacrifice of Christ. What is, after all, the real actio in which all are to participate? The real actio of the Liturgy is the divine actio, by which Christ, through the mouth of the priest, brings about the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into His Body and Blood, and makes present the Sacrifice of Calvary. In this action we are all called to “participate”, to have a part, by interiorly praying “for it to become our sacrifice, that we ourselves, as we said, may be transformed into the Logos, conformed to the Logos, and so be made the true Body of Christ” (p. 173). Here there is no distinction between priest and laity. Each must make the action of Christ his own by becoming “one spirit with Him” (1 Cor 6:17). “The uniqueness of the Liturgy lies precisely in the fact that God Himself is acting and that we are drawn into that action of God. Everything else is, therefore, secondary…. If the various external actions…become the essential in the Liturgy, if the Liturgy degenerates into general activity, then we have radically misunderstood the ‘theo-drama’ of the Liturgy and lapsed almost into parody…. Instead one must be led toward the essential actio that makes the Liturgy what it is, toward the transforming power of God, who wants, through what happens in the Liturgy, to transform us and the world” (pp. 174-175).

This is not to say, however, that the body and bodily gestures have no place in the Liturgy. The very purpose of the Incarnation was for God to reach out to us in our humanity, with body and soul. We are not angels who know and praise God in a purely spiritual manner; no, we are called to worship as human persons. “The body has a place within the divine worship of the Word made flesh, and it is expressed liturgically in a certain discipline of the body, in gestures that have developed out of the Liturgy’s inner demands and that make the essence of the Liturgy as it were, bodily visible” (p. 177). Although these gestures may differ from culture to culture in certain details, nevertheless, they “are part of that culture of faith which has grown out of Christian cult… [and form] a common language that crosses the borders of the different cultures” (ibid.). Often it is heard that such gestures are not fitting in modern culture; the point is, Christianity is meant to form culture, not culture Christianity.

Christian Symbols in the Liturgy

The first and most important Christian symbol is the sign of the Cross. Interestingly, archeologists found this symbol on Jewish tombstones around the time just preceding Christ! The sign of the Tau (T or + or X), was already recognized and used by the Jews in reference to the book of Ezekiel 9:4, which spoke of the just who suffered for God’s sake. The early Church Fathers, especially St. Justin, martyr, also found in the writings of the pre-Christian philosopher, Plato, mention of a cross formed by the apparent crossing of the Sun’s rotational path with the orbit of the earth. Thus even the cosmos foretell the Cross of Christ. For Christians, to sign oneself with the Cross is to confess our faith in the Son of God who died for us, our faith in the weakness of God which is stronger than men. When we name the Trinity, especially with the use of holy water, we also are reminded of our Baptism. Further, we bless ourselves, our children and even material things with the sign of the Cross of Christ, in whom all creation has been blessed.

Another important, strictly Christian gesture is to genuflect or kneel. Jesus prayed on His knees in His agony. By this gesture, He lays His human will into the will of the Father: “Not My will but Thine be done.” Since ancient times, to kneel before another man was rightly considered a sign of degradation and humiliation. Only from the Bible, and the knowledge of God it teaches us, does kneeling become an appropriate sign of adoration, of supplication, of humble submission to Him who is our origin and final end, the First and the Last. Kneeling before the tabernacle is a profession of faith in the presence of God. Prostration—lying with one’s face to the ground—is also a liturgical posture used by the priest on Good Friday and at priestly and episcopal ordinations. Cardinal Ratzinger recalls His own ordination to the episcopacy and the interior feeling of utter inadequacy before such an office, which was so harmoniously expressed by his physical prostration. Pope Benedict XVI expresses the importance especially of postures and gestures “…such as kneeling at important moments of the Eucharistic prayer. Amid the legitimate diversity of signs used in the context of different cultures, everyone should be able to experience and express the awareness that at each celebration we stand before the infinite majesty of God, who comes to us in the lowliness of the sacramental signs” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 65).

One last mention we wish to make of the sacred vestments. The overall purpose of the vestment is to signify that the priest is not just a man who stands before us, but someone who has “put on Christ”. The white alb is the symbol of purity, of Baptism, and also of the faith we confess at Baptism. The cincture is the symbol of discipline, of Confirmation, and also of the hope we have, not for things of this world, but for eternal joys. The amice, which the priest puts first on his head, then ties around the shoulders, is the helmet of faith and shield of the word of God. The stole is the symbol of ecclesial authority principally of the Bishop and in which the priest participates. Finally, the chasuble or “little house”, is the symbol of putting on Christ, of acting in persona Christi, of Holy Orders, and lastly, of charity which covers a multitude of sins.

Through all these symbols and signs which are proper to the Liturgy, we see that the history of salvation and the material creation itself converge to confirm our faith and lift our minds and hearts to God. “The heavens proclaim the glory of God!” (Ps 19:1). Especially the “cosmic images enabled Christians to see, in an unprecedented way, the world-embracing meaning of Christ and so to understand the grandeur of the hope inscribed in Christian faith… It seems clear to me that we have to recapture this cosmic vision if we want once again to understand and live Christianity in its full breadth” (p. 101). Above all, our gestures should express our love, devotion and reverence before the infinite majesty of God who is present. They should serve and foster our interior, active participation and transformation. The angels have this vision and understand the meaning behind our human gestures. St. John once tried to prostrate himself before an angel, who reprimanded him, “Get up! I am a fellow servant. Worship God!” (cf. Rev 22:9). From them, and especially from Mary, the humble handmaid of the Lord at the stable in Bethlehem and “Woman of the Eucharist”, we want to learn the due reverence and fitting appreciation of the signs and symbols of the Liturgy.

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