Monday, August 08, 2005

The Liturgy and the Moral Life

Recent comments on my last post and looking at various posts, comments etc on the Liturgy have moved me to post the following essay on Morality and the Liturgy, which I first offered in seminary over 2 years ago.

It is important to consider the effect the Liturgy and especially the Eucharist has on our life, for in the classical understanding of Liturgy, it is for the "glory of God and the sanctification of His people". The two go hand in hand. Sometimes, amidst all our polemics and obsession for the nitty-gritty of hand-candles, copes, mitres etc (and I am not here saying that ceremonial and rubrics are unimportant!) but our general neglect of the moral life and growth in holiness, I wonder if we're going a little off kilter and losing perspective of the role of Liturgy in our lives and in the cosmos...

But I share this piece of writing in humility. Please don't take it as a personal judgment on anyone, for I too am a grievous sinner.

The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’”. This quotation, echoing the teaching of the Council Fathers in Lumen Gentium is perhaps one of the most familiar of Vatican II maxims. It is mirrored by the ancient axiom lex orandi, lex credendi which refers to the liturgy as an expression of authentic Christian belief. The phrase, lex vivendi may be appended to complete the circle reflecting the Christian understanding that how we pray and what we believe has to affect the way we live our life. Only in this way can the Eucharist be said to be the fons et culmens of our baptismal vocation, which is essentially a call to respond in love. This interaction between orthodoxy and orthopraxis is a prominent concern following the renewal of Vatican II but it is in essence a notion as old as Christianity itself, if not older still. In this essay, we shall examine this renewed appreciation of the dialogue that has to exist between the liturgy, in particular the Eucharist, and the moral life and the intrinsic link between the two. We shall assess how the Eucharist as the exceptional source of “every grace and blessing” can truly bear fruit in our lives through a vital participation in the Paschal Mystery on our part, thus enabling the Eucharist to be an effective “pledge of future glory”.

Of those who still attend Mass regularly and particularly those who celebrate the Eucharist daily, there is clearly some appreciation of the necessity of the Eucharist as source of grace, strength and consolation. Yet there may be a tendency to see liturgy and even the Eucharist as an ‘obligation’ that has to be fulfilled on a Sunday or, in a religious house like a seminary, daily. The liturgy, with its defined pattern and structure can easily become routine; a ritual to be performed. For those who are poorly catechised or who do not understand why we gather for the Mass, the Eucharistic celebration becomes at best paying one’s dues and at worst an empty and mystifying ritual or superstition. Even for the devout, there is the danger that although we gather communally for liturgical prayer, one can see the Eucharist as one’s private commune with God; we can be in a crowded church only in body but not in spirit. All these pitfalls point toward the divorce between genuine liturgy and life. Unsurprisingly, if the Eucharist is set apart from our ‘real’ lives, it can bear little influence on our lives. Thus Anthony M Buono says: “The Eucharist remains for them simply a kind of object whose validity rests entirely on itself, and absorbs religious activity instead of making it work as a leaven in their lives for the salvation of everything in the universe. It is kept in an artificial world of ritualism which is completely cut off from the true reality of their lives.” The Church clearly urges us to convert ourselves from this attitude to more authentically Christian way of thinking. The Eucharist is not the veiled Holy of Holies of our lives, to be entered into only at appointed times and then left behind until the next encounter. Neither is it a mere opiate to the conscience and troubled psyche. It is to be “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed… [and] the fount from which all her power flows” ; the battery that recharges us and energizes us and enables us to be ‘little Christs’ in the world, for that is our baptismal dignity and calling.

There is in this dynamic a reliance on us to utilize the graces which God is offering us. It is true that the liturgy does not require our ratification or validation. However, the same is true of God. Sinful humanity could deny his existence but that would not make him any less “I am” nor the ground of our very existence. Neither would our lack of receptivity to his love and grace prevent or stop him from continually offering his grace. However, our hearts need to be open to receive God’s gifts and to allow God to transform our lives. This transformation is life-long as we gradually allow ourselves to be formed by the Holy Spirit in love, through faith in Christ and hope in his promises. This is the core of the Christian moral life, to allow God’s Spirit to dwell within our hearts, so that as we decrease and God’s very presence increases, our lives become not just mere reflections but windows to the divine life of eternal love lived in relationship with God and one another. The dynamic of grace has a two-fold dimension: God offers his divine help and we have to co-operate with our human freedom. Thus it is that Pope John Paul II reminds us that “it is in the saving cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments which flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer, that believers find the grace and strength always to keep God’s holy law” and so to grow in love.

Of all the sacraments, the Eucharist plays a central role in helping the baptised to reach this ideal, for that is what liturgy is about: “the glorification of God and the sanctification of man” and the former is quite simply humankind fully alive, as St Irenaeus proposed . Hence the Council Fathers teach that “the liturgy… involves the presentation of man’s sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs.” Chief among those signs is the Eucharistic species for it is here that Jesus Christ, true God and true Man is present and encountered sacramentally. It is also here that the Christian is united with Christ through Communion and participates in the Paschal Mystery which is re-presented in the Mass. However, Jesus is also truly present in the proclaimed Word and in the assembly, gathered as Christ’s Body. Thus it is that as early as c57 AD, St Paul writes to the Christian community at Corinth and reminds them that “a person who eats and drinks without recognising the Body of the Lord is eating and drinking his own condemnation” (1 Cor 11:29). This is understood as meaning not primarily a failure to discern the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist but the presence of Christ in the community of the Church, his Body. Hence, we should be mindful that “the whole purpose of the sacred breaking of the bread is koinonia.” A strong justice issue is raised by Paul who is scandalised that the Corinthian rich should ignore their poorer fellow Christians when they come together for the Eucharist. Thus it is that the Lord tells us that the commandments may be summed up as love of God and love of neighbour (Mt 22:34-40). If we profess the former, it should be borne out in the latter. Building upon this, St John Chrysostom would say that it is wrong and un-Christian to adorn the altars of God with fine silks and then ignore the beggar outside who is unclothed. Thus, the Eucharist is the impetus that challenges the status quo and calls us to put into action in our lives what we hear and enact in the liturgical action. In addition, St Paul highlights to the Corinthians the integrity between the Christian moral life and reception of the Eucharist by warning that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). This has been taken to mean that “anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without having previously gone to sacramental confession” thus there is a clear indication that reception of the Eucharist actually says something positive about our communion with God and the community, a union that is injured or severed by grave sin.

Moreover, in the Mass, we listen to the Word of God being proclaimed and we encounter Christ, the eternal Word as something that is alive and active. Just as we receive Christ’s very life and essence under the species of bread and wine, we should receive him into our hearts and minds in the living Word of the Gospels and the Scriptures. Thus during Mass, we sign ourselves immediately before the Gospel is proclaimed as an indication that we desire the Gospel to live in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts. There is an onus upon us to put into action his teaching and live according to his example. Hence St James exhorts: “But you must do what the Word tells you and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves. Anyone who listens to the Word and takes no action is like someone who looks at his own features in the mirror and, once he has seen what he looks like, goes off and immediately forgets it. But anyone who looks steadily at the perfect law of freedom and keeps to it – not listening and forgetting, but putting it into practice – will be blessed in every undertaking” (James 1:22-24). There is a clear concern that what we hear and celebrate in the Eucharist, we actually put into practice, such that this blessedness St James refers to is what we call a holy life, a life of prayer. Like Jesus, we are called to put into action what we receive in prayer so that our lives are ones of “active prayer and prayerful action… a continual self-offering in love and obedience to the Father.” Only in this way can one understand Paul’s exhortation to pray constantly. Thus John Paul II said: “our full participation in the Eucharist is the real source of the Christian spirit that we wish to see in our personal lives and in all aspects of society. Whether we serve in politics, in the economic, cultural, social, or scientific field – no matter what our occupation is – the Eucharist is a challenge to our daily lives…

The divorcing of orthopraxis from orthodoxy, of the Word from prayerful action, of the Eucharist from our way of living is perhaps all too easy for us to succumb to. We would do well to frequently examine our lives lest the Lord’s words may apply to us: “Hypocrites! How rightly Isaiah prophesied about you when he said: ‘This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. Their reverence of me is worthless; the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments.’” (Matt 15:7-9). Hence the Catechism teaches us that it “it is the heart that prays… [because] the heart is the dwelling-place where I am… our hidden centre… the place of decision… It is the place of encounter [and] covenant” with God. It is easy to be at Mass or recite the Liturgy of the Hours and later realise that one’s heart was not in it. No one but God can assess how much one’s heart is truly attendant on the mysteries but we might all have some indication from the fruit that is borne in one’s life.

Hence, we come back to lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The Eucharist as the place of encounter with Christ is “a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree”. In the Eucharist, God pre-eminently offers us his grace which enables us to live a moral life. More tangibly, the Mass is also a formative action for “when worship occurs, people are characterized… worship both forms and expresses persons in the beliefs, the emotions and the attitudes appropriate to the religious life. It shapes the Christian affections…” In recounting the mirabilia Dei and thankfully remembering Christ’s saving love, we express in words and actions our relationship to God and each other. Liturgy is firstly a communal celebration, reminding us that we are relational people destined for an eternal celebration and thus challenges individualism, selfishness and solidarity. Such liturgical details express an inner reality and are not just rubrical fussiness. Sadly we have often failed to realise their implications and have allowed injustice to flourish in the liturgy. For example St James says there are to be “no class distinctions” (cf James 2:1) in the church but the liturgical life of a community has been abused to perpetuate social prejudices and marginalise the poor and infirm.

The liturgy fails to be formative and have an impact on the moral life if it does not communicate gospel truths to the heart. Care and preparation and attention to detail are vital for good liturgy but the liturgy also needs our attention more literally. The Council Fathers placed participatio actuosa at the heart of liturgical reform because they wanted the rites to be more clearly apprehended so that “the faithful [might] derive the true Christian spirit” . To this end, the vernacular tongue was permitted and the altar was re-orientated and songs, acclamations, responses etc were introduced. It is true that the level of active participation during Mass has increased dramatically since 1970 but it is less clear if the participation is full and conscious. Is it actual participation? It seems that parishes still need to strive to enable true participatio actuosa which is vital in the dialogue between the Eucharist and the moral life. On our own part, we as individuals should pay attention to “one’s own spiritual interiority” since it is this which is “at the basis of true participation in the liturgy”.

At its core, the basis of the Eucharist is thanksgiving, our response to God’s love. Thankfulness is the source and summit of Christian living. Thus, it would be ludicrous and false gratitude if it were to end at the church door. Rather, we are told to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. This desire and effort to live the Christian moral life stems from our gratitude and thankfulness, the same thankfulness which initiates the Eucharist. The “fullness of Christian life… and the perfection of love” is that holy living that we are all called to, a call we celebrate in the Eucharist. Clearly then, the Eucharist and the moral life share an intimate relationship: “their common goal [is] the faithful service of God.” This dialogue is essential to the baptized. The Eucharist forms the believer and teaches us how to be Christian, the moral life is the fruit of that teaching and those graces truly internalised; both are part of the one and same fragrant offering to God for both partake of Christ’s sacrificial love in their own way. Thus, the Pope leaves us with these sobering thoughts: “Our union with Christ in the Eucharist must be expressed in the truth of our lives today – in our actions, in our behaviour, in our life style, and in our relationships with others. For each one of us the Eucharist is a call to ever greater effort, so that we may live as true followers of Jesus: truthful in our speech, generous in our deeds, concerned, respectful of the dignity and rights of all persons, whatever their rank or income, self-sacrificing, fair and just, kind, considerate, compassionate and self-controlled – looking to the well-being of our families, our young people, our country, Europe and the world… The truth of our union with Christ in the Eucharist is tested by whether or not we really love our fellow men and women… whether we practice in life what our faith teaches us.” Amen!

PS: The footnotes to the above essay did not copy to HTML but are available upon request/ comment!

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