Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lessons from the Book of Exodus on the Centrality of the Liturgy and Orthopraxis

In the accounts of the Book of Exodus we read of the great and central importance which was attached to God's worship, and not merely the fact of His worship alone, but right worship at that.

It strikes me that this fact might well serve us today as a means to help explain the Church's teaching that "the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed." (CCC 1074) After all, what is the sacred liturgy but the formal, solemn public worship of God; "a participation in Christ's own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit." (CCC 1073) How could divine worship be anything but of central importance? As for the Israelites then, so too for us now.

Further, this reality may also help us to explain the importance of orthopraxis -- of right and fitting worship -- and why the sacred liturgy cannot be merely looked as some mere human creation that we can arbitrarily create or manipulate at will. That it is something we receive and whose proper and fitting expression has an aspect of divine offering. Further, that God is not indifferent to the worship offered to Him, and thus, neither is the Church indifferent -- and nor should we be.

Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in The Spirit of the Liturgy, summarizes it well, and indeed, it was through his observations that this catechetical point struck me. The former Cardinal and future Pope writes (my emphases):

In the accounts of the events leading up to Israel's flight from Egypt, as well as in those that describe the flight itself, the Exodus appears to have two distinct goals. The first, which is familiar to us all, is the reaching of the Promised Land, in which Israel will at last live on its own soil and territory... But we also hear repeatedly of another goal. God's original command to Pharaoh runs as follows: "Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness" (Ex 7:16). These words -- "Let my people go, that they me serve me" -- are repeated four times, with slight variations, in all the meetings of Pharaoh with Moses and Aaron (cf. Ex 8:1; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3) In the course of the negotiations with Pharaoh, the goal becomes more concrete. Pharaoh shows he is willing to compromise. For him the issue is the Israelites' freedom of worship, which he first of all concedes in the following form: "Go, sacrifice to your God within the Land" (Ex 8:25). But Moses insists -- in obedience to God's command -- that they must go out in order to worship. The proper place of worship is the wilderness: "We must go three days' journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as he will command us" (Ex 8:27). After the plagues that follow Pharaoh extends his compromise ... But Moses cannot negotiate about the liturgy with a foreign potentate, nor can he subject worship to any form of political compromise. The manner in which God is worshipped is not a question of political feasibility. It contains its measure within itself, that is, it can only be ordered by the measure of revelation, in dependency upon God. That is why the third and more far reaching compromise suggested by the earthly ruler is also rejected. Pharaoh now offers women and children permission to leave with the men: "Only let your flocks and your herds remain" (Ex 10:24). Moses objects: All the livestock must go too, for "we do not know with what we must serve the LORD until we arrive there" (10:26). In all this, the issue is not the Promised Land: the only goal of the Exodus is shown to be worship which can only take place according to God's measure...

Israel departs, not in order to be a people like all others; it departs in order to serve God...

Now the objection could be made that focusing on worship in the negotiations with Pharaoh was purely tactical. The real goal of the Exodus... was not worship but land... I do not think this does justice to the seriousness that pervades the texts. To oppose land and worship makes no sense. The land is given to the people to be a place for the worship of the true God.

-- Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 15-17

Again I say: as for the Israelites then, so too for us now. God and His worship, his right and fitting worship, must be of central and primary importance in our lives. From this all else flows and falls into place.