By Uwe Michael Lang*
ROME, FEB. 22, 2012 (Zenit.org).- In the second part of the section on the liturgy as work of the Most Holy Trinity, dedicated to God the Son, the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents the essential elements of the sacramental doctrine. Christ, risen and glorified, pouring out the Holy Spirit upon his Body which is the Church, now acts in the sacraments and through them communicates his grace. The Catechism recalls the classic definition of the sacraments, which are: 1) “perceptible signs (words and actions)”; 2) instituted by Christ; 3) which “make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (n. 1084).
In the celebration of the sacraments, that is, in the sacred liturgy, Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, signifies and realizes the Paschal mystery of his Passion, Death on the Cross and Resurrection. This mystery does not consist simply in a series of events of the remote past (even if the historicity of those events cannot be overlooked!), but enters the dimension of eternity, because the “actor” – that is, He who acted and suffered in those events – was the Word incarnate. Because of this, the Paschal mystery of Christ “embraces all times and is being made present in them all” (n. 1085) through the sacraments that He himself entrusted to his Church, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice.
This singular gift was given first to the Apostles, when the Risen One, in the power of the Holy Spirit, conferred on them his power of sanctification. In turn, the Apostles conferred this power on their Successors, the Bishops, and in this way the goods of salvation are transmitted and actualized in the sacramental life of the people of God until the Parousia, when the Lord will come in glory to fulfill the Kingdom of God. Thus the apostolic succession ensures that, in the celebration of the sacraments, the faithful are immersed in communion with Christ, who blesses them with the gift of his salvific love, especially in the Eucharist where He offers himself under the appearance of bread and wine.
Sacramental participation in the life of Christ is a specific way, given in the “rite,” which, in 2004, the then Cardinal Ratzinger explained as “the form of celebration and prayer that matures in the faith and life of the Church.” The rite – or the family of rites that come from the Churches of apostolic origin – “is a condensed form of the living Tradition […], thus rendering experimental , at the same time, communion between the generations and communion with those who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is a gift made to the Church, a living form of paradosis [tradition]” (30 giorni, nr. 12 – 2004). Referring to the teaching of the conciliar Constitution on the sacred liturgy, the Catechismrecalls the various ways of the presence of Christ in the liturgical actions. In the first place, the Lord is present in the Eucharistic Sacrifice in the person of the ordained minister, because “having offered Himself once on the cross, He now offers himself through the ministry of priests” [Council of Trent], and especially under the Eucharistic species.
Moreover, Christ is present with his virtue in the sacraments, in his word when Sacred Scripture is proclaimed and, finally, when the members of the Church, beloved Bride of Christ, are gathered in his name for prayer and praise (cf. n. 1088; Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7).
In fact, the earthly celebration, whether in the splendor of one of the great cathedrals or in more simple but worthy places, participates in the heavenly liturgy of the New Jerusalem and gives a foretaste of the future glory in the presence of the living God. This dynamism confers on the liturgy its grandeur, it prevents the individual community from being enclosed within itself and opens it to the assembly of the Saints of the heavenly city, as evoked in the Letter to the Hebrews: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24).
It seems appropriate, therefore, to conclude these brief reflections with the happy words of Blessed Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, who described the liturgy as “a sacred poem, which heaven and earth have truly set about.”
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*Father Uwe Michael Lang, C.O., is an Official of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and Consultor of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.