The word ‘liturgy’ is a fairly common word among Catholics. We have probably heard the word often; perhaps we have even used the word ourselves on a few occasions. But if we were asked to define what the word ‘liturgy’ actually meant, many (perhaps most) of us would be stumped.
One reason for this is because liturgy has to do with God and God is mysterious. The liturgy has to do with mystery. Mystery is not something that we can’t know anything about, rather mystery is something that we can’t know everything about. It means that there will always be much more beyond what we can say or even understand and this is certainly the case with liturgy.
When attempting to define liturgy, many begin with the origin of the word itself. The word ‘liturgy’ comes from the Greek word ‘leitourgia’ which means ‘public work’ or ‘work on behalf of someone else’.
This origin of the word is indeed helpful in understanding what liturgy means in the Church. We see that liturgy then has to do with work. But of course, not all work is liturgy. Liturgy is a certain kind of work, namely: the work of salvation.
Liturgy also has to do with prayer. Liturgy is a certain kind of prayer. It has to do with ‘Church prayer’. Church prayer does not refer to a building, but rather to the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’. Prayer is intimately connected with the Sacraments, which are the normal means by which God dispenses his grace. Liturgy then is both Sacramental work and Sacramental prayer.
Up until this point there seems to be a general agreement among Catholics about the liturgy. But precisely at this point we often find a certain divergence in the understanding of liturgy where we can find ourselves in two very different and even opposing camps concerning liturgy.
This short article is certainly not an attempt to exhaust all aspects of the great mystery of the liturgy, but rather an attempt to identify and shed some much needed light on that very point of divergence in the understanding of liturgy.
It is important to return to this precise point of departure if we are to understand the different views on the liturgy and strive for reconciliation. The point to which I am referring has to do with the deepest meaning of the liturgy. Perhaps we could frame the argument with the following questions:
1. Is the liturgy simply a matter of gathering as a community and offering worship to God as we best see !t? If this is the case, then the liturgy is a purely human event in which we might be encouraged to maximize our own creativity as individuals and even as a community.
2. Or, is the liturgy, first and foremost, God’s own work, in which we are called to participate? If the liturgy is, first and foremost, God’s own work, that is, the very ‘work’ of salvation, in which we are called to “fully and actively participate”, then the liturgy we enter into is something much greater than ourselves as individuals and even much greater than ourselves collectively as community.
In fact, the Church, teaches that the liturgy is indeed far greater than any of us as individuals, or even all of us together. As the philosopher from Boston College, Peter Kreeft, puts it in his book, Catholic Christianity: “The liturgy is far greater than the entire universe!” This is because the liturgy is the ‘Work of God’. For us, it is the “participation in Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit, it is therefore the work of the Holy Trinity” (CCC1073).
This is precisely the greatness of the liturgy: that we are caught up in, and participate in, Christ’s own prayer, his work of redemption, his sacrifice. All this is made our own through participation. He is the head, we are the body, and our prayer is one in the Spirit.
“If the sacred liturgy holds first place in the life of the Church, then the Eucharistic Mystery stands at the heart and center of the liturgy, since it is the font of life that cleanses us and strengthens us” (Mysterium Fidei).
The Eucharistic mystery, which takes place within the liturgy of the Mass, is sacrificial. In the Old Testament we hear of many sacrifices that were offered to God. By the time of Christ thousands and thousands of lambs were being sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Jewish Passover each year. This feast was a celebration of the Jews that commemorated their liberation by God through Moses from the slavery of Egypt and in which the first born of each Jewish household was spared from death.
It was during this time of celebration that Christ celebrated the Last Supper with his Apostles and instituted the New and Everlasting covenant of his own Body and Blood in the Eucharist. The very next day Jesus himself was sacrificed upon the altar of the cross. Jesus has become the true Lamb, which all the sacrificial lambs of the Jewish Passover symbolized. Jesus is the Lamb of God and through his sacrifice he liberates us from the slavery of sin and saves us from eternal death.
We see in the liturgy of the Mass that God is not only the one to whom sacrifice is offered, but is also the one offering the sacrifice, and at the same time, in the sacred humanity of Christ, he is the sacrifice. Christ offers the sacrifice to the Father as both priest and victim and we Christians, who through our baptism share in his priesthood and victimhood, participate in this offering. In the liturgy of the Mass we unite ourselves with the perfect offering upon the altar, and we, united to Christ as his Body, are offered together to the Father.
During the Mass, and especially during the consecration, Jesus Christ truly becomes present in the offerings of what were formally, bread and wine. Left to our own human powers we are obviously utterly incapable of bringing about such a presence. In some way our human actions must “step back and make way for God’s action. At this point in the liturgy, the priest changes from third person to first person with the “I” of the Lord – “"is is my Body”, “"is is my Blood”, he has become the voice of Someone Else, who is now speaking and acting” (Cf. Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger).
The words of consecration found within the Eucharistic prayer that the priest says during the Mass is the climax of the liturgy. Everything before this moment during the Mass should in some way prepare us for this high point; everything should point us to this central part of the Mass. Each one of us is invited to enter fully into this moment of the sacrifice being offered. It is through this sacrifice that we come into a deep communion with the Lord and through him, with each other. We experience this in a profound way when we individually approach the altar, and receive the Body of Christ into the temple of our own bodies. It is the same Christ that is received by all. We are united in a way that surpasses any mere human unity. We are united ‘in Christ’. We become ‘one in Him’. The next step is an interior one of allowing him to be enthroned in our hearts and so transform every aspect of our lives.
This is the meaning of the ‘full and active participation’ that the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium called for. This means that each of us carries out with the fullest consciousness and devotion, our particular role in the Body of Christ.
The Church, acting as the Body of Christ, gives us the words and the actions (rubrics) that should be carried out during the liturgy of the Mass. The rubrics are found in the new translation of the Roman Missal. These words and actions that take place in the liturgy have grown organically within the Church over centuries. Some can be traced back to the very mouth of our Lord and to the Apostles themselves. The words and actions have deep meaning that reveal the depths of our Faith and through them God himself acts. It is for this reason that changes in the words and actions of the liturgy require the authority of the Church herself. When we depart from the liturgy and begin adding our own novelties or innovations, we begin to separate ourselves from the Body of Christ and we do not enrich the liturgy but at best we impoverish it and in worse case scenarios, we block God’s work and render the liturgy invalid.
We are also reminded in the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, that the Priest “is the servant of the sacred liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of the Mass”; this statement is repeated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
Because the liturgy belongs to the Church as the Body of Christ, it is the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit and never separated from Christ her head, which determines the way the Mass is to be celebrated.
Once we understand the greatness of the liturgy of the Mass, it becomes evident why we as the people of God, as clergy or laity, who share in this great action of God, should closely follow the rubrics set out for us. An analogy could be made between a great musical masterpiece of Bach or Beethoven. The great beauty of these masterpieces emerges when each note is played exactly on key and exactly at the right time. Here we can grasp the meaning of Pope Benedict’s words: “The beauty of the liturgy is in its unspontaneity” (The Spirit of the Liturgy). In the great musical masterpieces, the beauty reaches is fullest manifestation when the great genius of these musicians is made present though the pianist or the orchestra. How much more so when the in!nite genius of God is allowed to be made manifest though his masterpiece, the liturgy of the Mass, carried out faithfully by the Body.
It is when we enter deeply into God’s prayer that the fullness of its beauty is manifested. We could say that the closer our earthly liturgy reflects the heavenly liturgy the fullness of the mystery is ever more clearly revealed.
This is not some rigid legalistic oppression of our individual and collective creativity, but rather is an entering into the realm of the divine. It is precisely a divine beauty that is revealed in the liturgy.
Last of all, it is also important to look at some of the consequences of accepting the other of these two diverging paths, namely the anthropocentric, or man-centered liturgy that has become prominent today. One of the resulting consequences is the crisis among Catholics in the understanding of the Eucharist itself. The true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is called into question. "is is truly alarming because “the Eucharist is the very source and summit of our Christian life” (Lumen Gentium).
If on the one hand, the liturgy is a merely human event in which we strive to worship God, then to think that Jesus Christ is actually present in the Eucharist is absurd, for what man could have such power of his own to make the Almighty God present in what was formally simple bread and wine?
If on the other hand, liturgy is the work of the same God who made heaven and earth and continues to hold all things in existence, then the possibility of the true presence in the Eucharist becomes real. It is God’s power that makes it so, even though he chooses to work through simple and sinful man on whom He has bestowed that power in the ministerial priesthood.
Another negative consequence of an anthropocentric liturgy has been the confusing of the central theme in the liturgy with secondary themes. For example, some have advanced the idea that the central theme of the Eucharist is the gathering of people to share a common meal, to celebrate our oneness with each other, and grow in fellowship with one another. Some of the effects of this idea have brought about certain peculiarities into the liturgy such as the holding of hands during the Our Father, introducing yourself to all the people sitting around you before Mass and the priest who wanders around the entire church to shake every parishioner’s hand at the kiss of peace.
The celebrating of the meal at the Mass is indeed an important aspect, but it is part of a whole and should never eclipse the essential core. This core is the sacrifice of the Lamb and the offering of that perfect sacrifice to the Father. Again, it is what God is doing that always takes precedence. The main focus of the Mass is not on us, but rather on God. We are at Mass to focus on Jesus Christ and to unite ourselves to him in the perfect sacrifice offered to the Father. In the end it is only God who can truly unite us. All the backslapping and handshaking end up being hollow niceties and even distractions if we miss the true communion brought about by God.
It must be said that without our active and conscious participation in the liturgy, the effects of God’s grace is limited in us. We need to open our minds and our hearts to the full power of the liturgy. The power in the liturgy is God’s power. The greatest power in the universe, the power which brought all things into being which no other power can surpass, this power manifested so perfectly from the Cross, is the power of God’s infinite love.
This love is precisely what the liturgy invites us to fully enter into. Do we have the courage to step into this realm, this Divine realm; this realm of the great power of God’s love? God himself has invited us to take this step; or rather he takes the step into the depths of our hearts with his transforming power of love if we allow him to. It is this transforming power that we so badly need today. This power is the immediate remedy for so many of the evils we see today such as social injustice, violence, drug abuse, murder, and the entire culture of death, as Blessed Pope John Paul II prophetically named it many years ago.
When we place other things, no matter what they are, in the place of God, all our relationships become disordered. The liturgy has the power to help restore the lost order in our world today. Let us no longer fear God’s transforming love, rather let us enter fully into its beauty and be transformed. This is the invitation extended to us. This is the reality that unfolds before us in the great and glorious liturgy. Humanity has entered into Divinity; Heaven and Earth truly meet at every Mass; we are invited to fully and actively participate in this great mystery at every Mass. This is no fairy tale but rather the very height of reality. Are we willing to enter fully into God’s great work of salvation that takes place in the liturgy? Do we have the courage to actively and fully participate in this amazing power of God’s love? Will we allow ourselves to be transformed, divinized, becoming truly one with and in Jesus Christ? Or must we banalize the liturgy because of our lack of faith and our fear to enter into something greater than ourselves? This is the challenge that the Lord places before us. This is the invitation he extends to us in the liturgy. Our last two popes have echoed this call in two of their most famous quotes. John Paul the Great laid before us this challenge at the beginning of his Papacy in his call to: “Be not afraid.” Pope Benedict calls on us to “Open wide our hearts to God, let yourselves be surprised by Christ!”... God awaits our answer.