Why the Liturgy? What Does 'Liturgy' Mean?

Commentary on Nos. 1066-1070 of the Catechism

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By Juan José Silvestre

ROME, JAN. 11, 2012 (Zenit.org).- For this contribution to Don Mauro Gagliardi’s «Spirit of the Liturgy» column, Juan José Silvestre reflects on the meaning of liturgy. 

Silvestre is a professor of liturgy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and a Consultor of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, as well as of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff. 

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In Part One of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the profession of faith is followed by the explanation of the sacramental life, in which Christ is present and acts, and continues building his Church. In fact, if the figure of Christ did not stand out in the liturgy, who is its principle and is really present to make it valid, we would not have the Christian liturgy, which depends completely on the Lord and is sustained by his presence. 

Hence, there is an intrinsic relationship between faith and liturgy; both are intimately united. In reality, without the liturgy and the sacraments, the profession of faith would not be efficacious, as it would lack the grace that sustains Christians’ witness. «On the other hand, the liturgical action can never be considered generically, prescinding from the mystery of faith. Our faith and the eucharistic liturgy both have their source in the same event: Christ’s gift of himself in the Paschal Mystery.» (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 34). 

If we open Part Two of the Catechism we read that the word «liturgy» originally meant «service in the name of/on behalf of the people.» In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in «the work of God» (CCC, 1069).

What is this work of God in which we participate? The Catechism’s answer is clear and enables us to discover the profound connection that exists between faith and liturgy: «In the Symbol of the faith the Church confesses the mystery of the Holy Trinity and of the plan of God’s good pleasure (Ephesians 1:9) for all creation: the Father accomplishes the ‘mystery of his will’ by giving his beloved Son and his Holy Spirit for the salvation of the world and for the glory of his name» (CCC, 1066).

In fact, «in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God,» Christ the Lord «accomplished this work principally by the Paschal mystery of his blessed Passion, Resurrection from the dead and glorious Ascension» (CCC, 1067). It is the Mystery of Christ that the Church «proclaims and celebrates in her liturgy so that the faithful may live from it and bear witness to it in the world» (CCC, 1068).

The «work of our redemption is accomplished» through the liturgy (Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2). As he was sent by the Father, so Christ sent the Apostles to proclaim the redemption and «to carry out the work of salvation they were proclaiming, through the sacrifice and the sacraments, around which the whole of liturgical life turns» (ibidem, 6).

We see, thus, that the Catechism synthesizes the work of Christ, in the Paschal mystery, which is its essential nucleus. And the nexus with the liturgy is obvious as, «[t]hrough the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with and through his Church» (CCC, 1069).Thus, this «work of Jesus Christ,» the perfect glorification of God and sanctification of men, is the true content of the liturgy.

This is an important point as, although the expression and theological-liturgical content of the Paschal mystery should inspire theological study and liturgical celebration, this has not always been the case. In fact, «the greater part of the problems linked to the concrete applications of the liturgical reform have to do with the fact that it has not been kept sufficiently in mind that the Council’s point of departure is Easter […]. And Easter means inseparability from the Cross and Resurrection […] The Cross, with all its seriousness, is at the center of the Christian liturgy: a trivial optimism, which denies the suffering and injustice of the world and reduces being Christians to being educated, has nothing to do with the liturgy of the Cross. Redemption cost God the suffering and death of his Son. Hence its «exercitium,» which according to the conciliar text is the liturgy, cannot take place without the purification and maturation that come from following the cross» (J. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Teologia della Liturgia, LEV, Vatican City, 2010, pp. 775-776; English translation of citation by ZENIT). 

This language clashes with the mentality that is incapable of accepting the possibility of a real divine intervention in this world in aid of man. That is why, «those who share a deist vision consider fundamentalist the confession of a redeeming intervention of God to change the situation of alienation and sin, and the same judgment is made in regard to a sacramental sign which renders the redeeming sacrifice present. More acceptable, in their eyes, would be the celebration of a sign that would correspond to a vague feeling of community. However, worship cannot stem from our imagination; it would be a cry in the darkness or simple self-affirmation. True liturgy implies that God responds and shows us how we can adore Him. ‘The Church can celebrate and adore the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist precisely because Christ himself gave himself first to her in the sacrifice of the cross’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, 14). The Church lives from this presence and has, as her raison d’etre and existence, the spread of this presence in the whole world» (Benedict XVI, Address of 15.04.2010). 

This is the marvel of the liturgy that, as the Catechism recalls, is divine worship, proclamation of the Gospel and active charity (CCC, 1070). It is God himself who acts and we feel attracted to his action, thus to be transformed in Him.

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