VATICAN CITY, OCT. 12, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Monsignor Bruno Forte, rector of the Pontifical School of Theology of Southern Italy and a member of the International Theological Commission, spoke on the liturgy as part of a recent videoconference organized by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy. Here is an adapted text of that talk.
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The Theological Sense of Liturgy
By Bruno Forte, Rome
The encounter between time and the Eternal, achieved in the wonders of the history of salvation, becomes real in continuously new ways in the liturgy of the Church: In it the Trinity becomes anchored in time, and time sees itself received by the vivifying love of the Trinity.
In the liturgy the Trinity offers itself as an “abode” and as a “homeland” for the redeemed existence: Here the believer does not stand in front of the Eternal as a stranger facing the inaccessible transcendence, but instead enters the profoundness of God, allowing himself to be enveloped by the mystery of divine relations in the communion of the Church, the real “icon of the Trinity.”
The specific characteristic of liturgical prayer, which distinguishes it from any other form of prayer, is therefore [its] being a Trinitarian prayer: In the Spirit, for the Son, the celebrating community goes to the Father, and it is from the Father, for the Son, that every perfect gift is received in the Holy Spirit. Therefore liturgical prayers end with the Trinitarian formula, which moves toward God the Father, for Christ, in the Spirit, or welcomes the gift of the Spirit from the Father through the Son.
Hence the celebration of the Eucharist, the summit and the source of the liturgy and of all ecclesial life, consists precisely in this movement from the Trinity to the Trinity, within the Trinity: It blesses the “Really saintly Father,” invoking him to send the gift of the Spirit and so that this gift may make Christ present for those who commemorate his passion and his resurrection.
After the gift has been invoked from the Father through the action of grace and made present through the epiclesis of the Spirit and the memory of the Son, believers return to the Father for the same Son in the same Spirit, participating in the bread and the wine transformed by the Spirit into the flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus, so that all may rise toward God the Father for Christ, with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to praise his glory.
The essence of the liturgy consists therefore in praying to God in his own mystery, united in Christ, who becomes present in the fullness of his paschal mystery, thanks to the acts of the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself, moreover, introduced his followers to the Trinitarian mystery when he taught them to pray: “Thus therefore you shall pray: Our Father …” (Matthew 6:9; see Luke 11:2).
In the liturgical prayer the Christian experiences the mystery of divine origin: The Christian does not face God as if facing someone who is absent or an adorable and terrible stranger, but abodes in him in the Spirit, for the Son, as a son, in the mystery of the Father. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying: Abba — Father!” (Galatians 4:6; see Romans 8:15).
Therefore the liturgy is the site of the coming of the trinity in history, the place of the alliance between God’s eternal history and the history of mankind: In it, history is welcomed by the womb of the Trinity and the Trinity comes to abode in the hearts of mankind. And in the Trinity the sanctification of time is totally fulfilled. One could state that the mystery of the encounter between eternity and time — which takes place in the liturgy — consists in the celebrating community’s entrance in the Holy Trinity: Praying for Christians does not mean praying to a God, but praying in God; in the Spirit, for the Son, liturgy speaks to God the Father, from whom for Christ and in the Spirit all good is bestowed upon us.
From the Father to the Father
The liturgy above all places the community and each of the baptized in relation with the Father. The relationship with the Father consists in a dual relationship: from the Father to mankind and from mankind to the Father. God the Father is the source of all perfect gifts (see John 1:17), he who takes the initiative of love and sends his Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Father is the irradiant gratuitousness of love, the eternal Loving One, who has always loved and always will, and will never tire of loving. The liturgy is the place in which both the individual and the Church recognize this gift of faithful and eternally renewed love. Because everything comes from the Father, liturgical prayer is the receptiveness, the place of advent of God’s mystery in the heart of history: To pray means allowing God to love us; it means facing the Father’s resourceful gratuitousness, so that the heart and life itself may be filled with his overflowing generosity.
Praying liturgically therefore above all means receiving, waiting for the gift from above in the perseverance of the silence filled with the wonder and amazement of love. It is God who acts in the liturgy and mankind is called upon to stand humbly in front of the mystery allowing itself to be loved by the Eternal.
In this sense, the spirit of the liturgy is a nighttime experience of God, silence, in which one allows oneself to become filled with the mystery of the divine presence (here one perceives the importance of the moments of silence during celebrations and how important it is that each additional word should be sober!). Here the liturgical spirit appears above all in its passive nature, “passio” which prepares the “actio,” the receptiveness from which a gift is created.
If everything comes from the Father, everything returns to him: The liturgy, a place of advent, is also an answering movement, for bringing everything back to God. Liturgical prayer therefore becomes the vehicle of God’s nostalgia which is in the heart of mankind and in the heart of history, and as such it is a sacrifice of praise, an act of grace, of intercession, in which the whole world has the task of rediscovering itself in its real origins.
In this dynamism of the liturgy the moral life of Christians is deep-rooted alongside their commitment to faith and charity, their work in favor of justice and peace, their solidarity for the poor. It is by praying in the liturgy, and starting from it, that the Christian learns to see all things in the light of God, and consequently to denounce injustice and to proclaim the justice of the Kingdom that will come.
By praying, the Christian orientates his private matters, those of mankind and of the Church toward the Homeland, glimpsed at but not yet achieved, of God’s eternal mystery. From this viewpoint the liturgy educates Christians to become the voice of those with no voice, so that all may lead to the heart of the Father, and forming in those who experience it the sense of God’s things, so that the commitment for the liberation of mankind may be united to the hunger for another justice and another liberation, which only belong to the Kingdom of God that is still to come.
For Christ, the eternal Son
The liturgy takes place for the Son, in unity with Christ, the supreme and eternal Priest of the new alliance, in becoming present in his paschal mystery. If the Father is the pure source of life and of love, the Son is he who eternally accepts love, the eternally Beloved, who allows himself to be sent into the world and to be consigned to death on the cross, to be filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of resurrection.
To pray for the Son means entering the mystery of his welcoming, and in this grateful acceptance in front of God, thereby becoming accepting regards to the Church and the world in the company of life. These are the two aspects that liturgical prayer, with regards to Christ, allows to shine brightly in the redeemed existence: the imitation of Christ and the company of faith and of life.
Liturgy provokes the imitation of Christ (“imitatio Christi”); it does not copy a distant model that one is forced to reproduce. According to the great spiritual tradition, “imitation” means “representation.” The liturgical ethos means representing Christ within ourselves, through the grace of his sacramental representation, to the point of being able to say as Paul does: “Now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
To imitate Christ means to open oneself so profoundly to listening to the Word of God and to the coming of the living Christ in the sacramental event, that it is he who lives in us. The prayer for the Son is therefore the place in which Christ comes to live in our hearts (see Ephesians 3:14).
The liturgy is the event in which the Son places himself in history, in the flesh and the life of mankind. And because he is united inseparably with the resurrected crucifix, the liturgical ethos, as it is the “imitation of Christ,” will mean experiencing his cross and his resurrection. To imitate the crucifix means knowing the aridity of the spiritual experience, which is not only the result of human resistance, motivated by sin or the effort of sensitivity that allows itself to become the prisoner of the invisible, but it is also profoundly “a dark night” (the “noche oscura” of St. John of the Cross), a time that allows the believer to enter the mystery of the Cross of the Lord. Therefore one may say of this night: “Oh night more lovable than the dawn, oh night that has united the loved one with the beloved, and transformed the loved one with the beloved!”
The liturgical ethos also leads to the imitation of the glorified Christ: Here the liturgy offers itself as a source of peace, lively participation in the power of he who has overcome death. The moral life of a Christian is simply “knowing him, the power of his resurrection, the participation in his suffering, conforming to him in death, with the hope of achieving the resurrection of the dead” (see Philippians 3:10f).
The joy of the resurrected is experienced in the paschal victory, in which the whole of mankind and each individual is welcomed in God with Christ. And it is through this allowing oneself to be received in the welcoming of the Son that the liturgy educates us to welcome others in him. The liturgy generates the company of faith and of life: In the liturgy, many become the only Body of the Lord, living in time.
The sense of the Church nourishes itself therefore at the sources of the experiencing of the mystery, which is the liturgy, the event that marked eternity’s entrance in time: Those who live the liturgy love the Church, and those who love the Church really live the liturgy! In addition to the company of faith, however, the company of life is deep-rooted in the reality of being received by Christ (see the story of the washing of the feet in John 13, which in the fourth Gospel corresponds to the “liturgy” of the Last Supper). The company of life is shared bread (from “cum” and “panis”), the solidarity of “being with,” before “being for”: In this sense solidarity comes from the liturgy; it is in the liturgy that we learn to carry each other’s burdens.
The liturgy finally is fulfilled in the Holy Spirit: In the Trinity’s womb, Western theology thinks of the Spirit as the link with eternal love. Between the One who Loves and the Beloved, the Spirit is Love, the “vinculum caritatis aeternae” (St. Augustine), the divine communion that brings about communion and peace in the hearts of men.
Alongside this tradition, which is intensely paschal, Eastern theology considers the Spirit in the event of the Lord’s cross. According to this theological thought the Spirit is the One thanks to whom Jesus entered the solidarity of sinners, of the godless, and is therefore the “ecstasy of God,” the gift thanks to which God can leave himself.
The Spirit is he who provokes all that is new, and who opens to the future: He is freedom within love. The liturgy teaches one to pray “in unitate Spiritus Sancti”: Because the Spirit is the source of unity, prayer in the Spirit allows one to experience the unity of mystery. The ethos that follows is that of dialogue and communion, which induces one to recognize the other as a gift, a gift that is not competitive and does not cause fear.
And together, because the Spirit is aperture and freedom, the ethos that comes from the liturgy opens to the imagination of the Eternal, it makes one docile and sensitive to prophecies, disposed to all that is “new” in God and “ancient” in mankind. Those who pray in the Spirit will be incapable of not being open to hope, because the Spirit is always alive in history. In the liturgy celebrated in the Spirit, faithfulness and novelty, far from opposing each other, offer themselves as aspects of the same experience, in which the future of God takes its place in the present time of mankind.
The liturgy is therefore the place in which the Trinity — eternal event of Love — enters the humble and daily stories of the human exodus, and these in turn, freely and more and more profoundly, enter the mystery of divine relations.
In the liturgy, the anthropology of the identity which is its own prisoner is overcome thanks to the acceptance of the divine gift, while the nihilist anthropology of incommunicability is defeated through the experience of the transcendent and redeeming Otherness. The liturgical ethos is therefore that of life that corresponds to the good novella in the Gospel, in which man has time for God, because God found time for mankind, and time enters eternity, because eternity has entered time: the ethos of those renewed by a love that comes from above, singing with life the new canticle of love in an eternal liturgy of praise and gratefulness. “Novi novum canamus canticum!” (St. Augustine).