Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Time and Liturgy

As we enter 'Ordinary Time', it may we worthwhile to think about Liturgical time and seasons. We have already seen that this is the season when we learn to flourish together and also the season to rejoice in the ordinary where the holy is hid. But there is yet another hidden aspect of the Holy One that we may consider: Time itself. Let us turn our minds and hearts to Thomas Merton's reflections on the matter:

"Time is transformed by the Church's blessing and prayer.

History itself acquired a new meaning, or rather its hidden meaning was revealed, when the Word of God became incarnate and entered into history. Time itself was now an Epiphany of the Creator and of the Redeemer, the 'Lord of Ages'. And yet time also acquired a new solemnity, a new urgency, since the Lord Himself declared that time would have an end.

Time, which is now enclosed between the two advents of Christ - His first coming in humility and obscurity, and His second coming in majesty and power - has been claimed by God for His own. Time is to be sanctified like everything else, by the presence and action of Christ.

The redemption is not simply a past historical fact with a juridical effect on individual souls. It is an ever present reality, living and efficacious, penetrating the inmost depths of our being by the word of salvation and the mystery of faith. The redemption is Christ himself... living and sharing His divine life with His elect... To say that the redemption is an ever present spiritual reality is to say that Christ has laid hold upon time and sanctified it, giving it a sacramental character, making it an efficacious sign of our union with God in Him. So 'time' is a medium which makes the fact of redemption present to all men.

Christ has given a special meaning and power to the cycle of the seasons, which of themselves are 'good' and by their very nature have a capacity to signify our life in God: for the seasons express the rhythm of natural life... For fallen and unredeemed man, the cycle of seasons, the wheel of time itself, is only a spiritual prison... the cycle of seasons reminds us, by its perpetual renewal and perpetual death, that death is the end of all.

For man in Christ, the cycle of seasons is something entirely new. It has become a cycle of salvation. The year is not just another year, it is the year of the Lord - a year in which the passage of time itself brings us not only the natural renewal of spring and the fruitfulness of an earthly summer, but also the spiritual and interior fruitfulness of grace... the Word of God having entered into time by His birth of a Virgin Mother, has changed the cycle of the seasons from an imprisonment to a liberation.

The liturgy makes the very passage of time sanctify our lives, for each new season renews an aspect of the great Mystery of Christ living and present in His Church. Each recurring season shows us some new way in which we live in Him, in which He acts in the world. Each new feast draws our attention to the great truth of His presence in the midst of us, and shows us a different aspect of the Paschal Mystery in our world, now in the temporal cycle, and again in His saints, now in His sacraments, and again in the hallowed building of His churches, in His altars, and in the relics of His saints.

The liturgical cycle renews our redemption in Christ, delivers us from the servitude of sin and from the corruption of a 'fleshly' mode of being. The liturgical cycle shows us that though we are caught in a struggle between flesh and spirit, though we are indeed the 'fighting Church' - the Church Militant - yet the victory is already ours. We possess the grace of Christ, who alone can deliver us from the 'body of this death'. He who is in us is stronger than the world. He has 'overcome the world.' In the cycle of the holy year, the Church rhythmically breathes the life-giving atmosphere of the Spirit, and her blood-stream is cleansed of the elements of death. She lives in Christ, and with Him praises the Father.

And so, while the cycle of time is a prison without escape for the natural man, living 'in the flesh', and doomed to disappear with all the rest of his world that passes away, and while time is for the man of our cities only a linear flight from God, for the believer who lives in Christ each new day renews his participation in the mystery of Christ. Each day is a new dawn of that 'lumen Christi', the light of Christ which knows no setting.

The liturgical year renews the mysteries of our redemption each day in the Mass and Divine Office. It renews our participation in particular mysteries of the life of Christ. It teaches us the way of the saints and renews our union with them in the charity of the Spirit. It is a year of salvation, but also a year of enlightenment and of transformation.

The mysteries of the liturgical cycle not only bring new outpourings of the salvific waters of grace: they also enlighten our minds with insights into the ways of God, ever ancient and ever new. They teach us more of Christ, they show us more of the meaning of our life in Him, they make us grow in Him, they transform us in Him. Indeed, the liturgy is the great school of Christian living and the transforming force which reshapes our souls and characters in the likeness of Christ.

Dom Odo Casel compared the liturgical year to a ring which the Church, the virgin bride of Christ, triumphantly displays as the sign of her union with the incarnate Word. This holy ring is the gift of Christ to his Church as a pledge of His love and of His fidelity to His promises. The 'cycle' or 'circle' of the liturgy, which eternally returns to its beginning is a symbol of the unity of God who is eternally the same yet ever new...

In the liturgical year, the Church sees and acclaims this action of the Father who so loved the world that He have His only begotten Son for the salvation of men. It is a dialogue between mankind and the Father, in which the Father manifests Himself in His Word, and in which the Church, filled with the Spirit of the Father and the Son, praises and magnifies the glory of the Father, together with the Son.

To enter into the liturgical cycle is to participate in the great work of redemption effected by the Son. 'Liturgy' is 'common work' - a sacred work in which the Church co-operates with the divine Redeemer in re-living His mysteries and applying their fruits to all mankind... it is a work in which the Church collaborates with the divine Redeemer, renewing on her altars the sacred mysteries which are the life and salvation of man, uttering again the life-saving words that are capable of saving and transforming our souls, blessing again the sick and the possessed, and preaching His Gospel to the poor.

The Christian 'present' of the liturgy has something of the character of eternity, in which all reality is present at once. The past and future are therefore made present in the mysteries of the liturgy... In every liturgical mystery the Church embraces the whole history of man's salvation, while concentrating her attention, for the time being, on one particular moment of that history... In every liturgical mystery we have this telescoping of time and eternity, of the universal and the personal, what is common to all ages, what is above and beyond all time and place, and what is most particular and most immediate to our own time and place. Christ in His infinite greatness embraces all things, the divine and the human, the spiritual and the material, the old and the new, the great and the small, and in the liturgy He makes Himself all things to all men and becomes all in all.

Liturgy respects the flow of time and of history and yet, because it is in the 'fulness of time', it anticipates the final accomplishment of all that time means to the Church. Time is 'baptized' and sanctified by the infusion of the divine light hidden in the liturgical mysteries, a light which flows forth to penetrate our living and our actions and to fill them with the presence of the Lord Christ, the 'Kyrios Christos'."

- from 'Meditations on Liturgy', pp28ff.

This has also been cross-posted to Contemplata aliis tradere.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: