The Liturgy: How God Reaches Us
Last month, I began a twelve-part series on the liturgy. In part, it is meant to help us all prepare for the new translations of the Roman Missal which will begin to be used in Advent 2011. Even if the newly translated Missal weren't on the horizon, however, there is always a need for us to prayerfully study and reflect on what the liturgy really is. This month's column and next month's are a general introduction to the liturgy and sacramental life of the Church. In the months that follow, we will study the various parts of the Mass. The sacraments, most especially the Eucharist, are the means by which the wealth of Christ's saving love is dispensed throughout God's "household", the Church.
Let's begin with the word "liturgy". It comes from an ancient Greek word meaning "public service". In general, it refers to the public prayer of the Church, that is, the Mass and the Sacraments, as well as Eucharistic Adoration and the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. Delving into the Church's tradition, however, the Venerable Pope Pius XII and the II Vatican Council gave us a deeper understanding of the word liturgy. The liturgy is first of all the celebration of the Mystery of Christ, above all, his Death, Resurrection and Exaltation (the Paschal Mystery). It is the highest and best means by which Christ, our great High Priest, continues to act on our behalf to sanctify us, that is, to redeem us from our sins and to enable us to share in the life of God, both as individuals and as members joined together in the Church, the Body of Christ. The liturgy and its symbols or "outward signs" show us how Christ sanctifies us and are also the effective means by which He does so. By sharing in the holiness of Christ, the Head of His Church, we are united as members of His Body in offering God fitting and acceptable worship, a true "sacrifice of praise."
Thus, we can readily understand why the liturgy is at the heart of the Church's life and mission. The Second Vatican Council calls it, 'the source and summit' of the Church's life. This means that the liturgy is the font where the Church continually receives Christ's saving power, so utterly necessary for her mission to proclaim the Gospel and to lead all people to salvation in Christ. The liturgy is the summit of the Church's life not only because it is her highest and most efficacious activity but also because the aim of all that the Church does is to give honor and glory to God by gathering people everywhere to share in what Christ has done to save us in and through the liturgy.
Hand in hand with the liturgy is the phrase "sacramental economy." We are familiar with the word "sacrament" and the word "economy" but perhaps many are not familiar with the combination of the two. For now, recall that a sacrament is an effective sign of God's grace entrusted to the Church by Christ. We are also familiar with the word "economy". Among other things, it refers to how wealth, the fruit of human labor, is distributed nationally and globally. The sacraments, most especially the Eucharist, are the means by which the wealth of Christ's saving love is dispensed throughout God's "household", the Church. In God's saving plan the Church's sacramental liturgy is a most effective means by which the fruits or merits of Christ's saving words and deeds are extended and distributed among God's Holy People until He returns in glory. Upon reflection, we easily see that the liturgy and the sacramental economy are interrelated. We might say that the sacramental economy dispenses among the faithful the fruit of the saving events which the liturgy celebrates and makes present.
Often we may think of the liturgy as something we do for God. First and foremost, however, the liturgy is the work of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We see the role of each Person of the Trinity by considering the prayers of the liturgy itself:
Most liturgical prayers are addressed to God the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Church begs the Father that we might share, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in what Christ has done to save us. Through the liturgy, the Father fills us with His blessings in the Word made flesh who died and rose for us and pours the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Filled with these blessings from above, the Church ascends in worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God the Father of life and love.
The Second Person of the Trinity, Christ the Son of God made man, is our great High Priest who acts on our behalf in and through the liturgy. The "work" which Christ accomplishes in the Mass and the Sacraments is the re-presentation of his Paschal Mystery. The hyphenated word, "re-presentation" means signifying and making present again the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. The words and gestures of the liturgy not only remind us of Christ's saving deeds but also make them present and active in our midst. Thus we pray to the Father 'through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ'.
How does this happen? It happens because Christ gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles and entrusted to them their successors (the bishops) the power to make present His saving work, through the Eucharistic sacrifice and, indeed, all the sacraments. In the power of the Holy Spirit Christ acts through sacramental signs to give grace, a sharing in divine life, to his people of every time and place.
Finally, we should have the highest appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy and the Church's sacramental life. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church and thus her living memory. The Spirit prompts the Church to ponder Christ in her heart, recalls and re-presents Christ to the members of the Church and unites the Church to Christ and his mission. Indeed, through the Holy Spirit, the Church's union with Christ bears abundant fruit in our lives and in the world. Thus, we pray to the Father, through Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
May Advent and Christmas be a time when we allow the Holy Spirit to deepen in us the new life Christ won for us by his Incarnation, his teaching and miracles, and, above all, his Death and Resurrection, so that we may truly worship the Father "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:21).