Friday, December 07, 2007

The Nature and Social Implications of the Liturgical Act

Our discussion of the place of beauty in relation to the sacred liturgy and how that might relate to questions such as the social implications of the Gospel put me to mind to write about some further aspects of this issue. It would seem not uncommon to view the liturgical act as of lesser importance than many other things in the Church's life and I believe this is representative of a fundamental lack of formation and deeper consideration of the nature and order of Catholic life.

There are two streams of thought in this regard that I would like to summarize by two representative statements.

The first, rooted in a deep Eucharistic piety, goes as follows: "As long as Christ is present in the Eucharist, these other liturgical issues really do not matter so much and we shouldn't focus upon them / we don’t need to worry about them."

A second stream of thought attempts to prioritize the relative importance of social and liturgical issues. It may go as follows: "It is more important that we work toward meeting the needs of the poor / toward working to make our society pro-life / etc. than focusing on matters of ritual, music and so forth."

In common to both is the idea that such liturgical matters are window dressing or ultimately inconsequent frills; they are in no way seen as substantive.

Let us analyze these thoughts.

The Argument from Eucharistic Piety

The idea behind this sentiment is that Christ's real presence in the Sacrament, and our reception of that as well as adoration of Christ in the Eucharist, is what really matters and is substantial in the liturgy; provided that is there, questions like rubrics, liturgical law, or issues like translations, the matter of the form of the liturgy and so on, pale by comparison or even distract us from what really matters. One might even suggest that it is legalistic and focusing upon the wrong things because, so the thinking goes, externals are the point of focus and not the internal dimension of Christ’s real presence.

What must be first noted about this way of thinking is that found within it is a fundamental misperception of the substantial nature of the Mass. The Mass is not first and foremost a tool for Eucharistic piety or adoration. Eucharistic piety is a noble thing of course, and one of the most solemn moments of the Mass finds us adoring the Body and Blood of Christ, but that is not the primary end of the liturgical act. Neither is the Mass primarily a vehicle for the reception of the Eucharist -- though frequent and worthy reception of the Eucharist brings with it many important graces of course. The Mass is not even primarily about our own sanctification. To comprehend the essential nature of the Christian liturgy bears minding the nature of the Jewish Temple liturgies and their sacrificial offerings and how that imperfectly foreshadowed the Christian liturgy and Sacrifice of Christ. The Christian liturgy is first and foremost an act of rendering due worship to God the Father through the perpetuated sacrifice and offering of God the Son. It is this sacrificial nature of the liturgy and the worship of God the Father that particularly drives the liturgical act. It is important that we have this proper understanding of the primary end of the Mass for all else flows from this. This is also why we should not make Eucharistic piety to be the be-all and end-all of the liturgy. In point of fact, worship and sacrifice are the be-all and end-all of the liturgy.

Evidently there is a truth in the fact that the objective accomplishment of the sacrifice of the Mass is itself what is first and foremost, but even with this proper understanding of the primary end of the Mass, we still do not have cause to think all else is unimportant or inconsequent. What such a sentiment fails to fully consider are the import of the secondary ends of the liturgy: this is where our sanctification enters in, as well as the didactic (or teaching) aspect of the Mass.

The actions and words of the Mass teach something, which is why the Church treats seriously the issue of liturgical form and liturgical abuse. Redemptionis Sacramentum pointed out how the pouring of the Precious Blood is not to occur, not only because of the possibility of spillage, but also because it speaks in an irreverential way as regards the consecrated species. This is likewise why the Church has spoken of issues such as the laity standing around the altar in the sanctuary, which it has noted blurs the important sacramental distinction between those with Holy Orders and those not.

It is not legalistic to be concerned with such matters. Legalism is ultimately narcissistic in nature because it is concerned with rules or traditions for their own sake. But the sort of concern we are speaking of is precisely rooted in a consideration and awareness of the relationship of liturgical form to spiritual and theological realities. It is therefore precisely the opposite of legalism.

What can we take from this? In each of these cases, the reality is that a practice brings with it a set of underlying principles that teach something. In these cases, what comes with it is not consonant with Catholic principles and so the Church speaks against them. The opposite is also true as regards those which are right practices.

Closely tied to this is the matter of our sanctification. Assuredly, the reception of the Eucharist and our adoration of it contribute to sanctification, but there is more which precedes it. As right practice is tied to right teaching and belief, this in turn is tied to our sanctification. Good liturgical form draws us into the depths of the mysteries celebrated -- and let us note, it also affects our understanding and approach to the Eucharistic sacrament itself -- and draws us into awe of God and into prayer. By contrast, wrong, dubious or ill-considered practices lead us away from where God would have us be -- or at very least does not lead us deep enough into where we need to be. Thus, while the presence of the Eucharist is indeed a good and sanctifying thing, poor liturgical praxis is not, and can form a stumbling block to sanctification, just as it can hinder right belief and our approach to God.

For these reasons it is not in keeping with the mind of the Church to suggest that these things do not matter, matter but little, or that only the presence of the Eucharist – or even the objective accomplishment of the sacrifice -- matters. Obviously they do matter, but this does not change the reality that matters of liturgical form can and do have a deeper impact and gravity. They should therefore not be shuffled aside.

II. The Social/Moral Argument

The second argument is tied to the idea of the importance of social causes such as working to advance the pro-life movement; or working to feed and clothe the poor as per Christ's teaching. Both, which are simply used as examples, are obviously related to important commandments and Gospel principles. The thinking would go that these things deal with fundamentals of human existence and as such, seem far more important to pursue than mere liturgical concerns which might seem simply “aesthete” by comparison.

In the first instance, there is a need to recall that man has both material needs as well as spiritual needs of course, but speaking more generally, the problem here is that there is too much of a divorce being placed between these things, and further, there is a short-sightedness as regards how these matters precisely interrelate.

In the case of social and moral issues, it is important that there be a realization that the sacred liturgy is the fount from which Christian social action often flows and that from which the deeper cultural resolution is more likely to happen. Rather than being a diversion from these social issues, the act of the right worship of God, with all the sanctifying and didactic import of the liturgy that goes alongside it, brings us into contact with many graces and forms us. It brings us into prayer and communion with the Lord and puts us into a greater disposition to move forward into acts of Christian witness and charity.

If we wish, for example, to address attitudes that are contrary to the Gospel of Life, we need to consider our parishes and particularly the liturgy that occurs within them. How are they forming people? Are they affecting deep personal relationships with God? Those liturgies are the primary contact of most of the faithful with both God and the Church and they both dispose people and form them in particular ways. If there is a lack there, this will certainly have a domino effect that will extend to other areas, including social matters. By contrast, right worship -- being tied with right belief -- is a fount from which right Christian action flows. Ultimately we are speaking about personal conversion to God's will and conversion lends itself to proper Christian action. (It is worth considering that the saints of the Church were amongst the greatest of those who worked to address social problems and they were also people of profound prayer who adored God through the liturgy and the sacraments. The latter nourished the former.)

The promotion of right worship then sets the foundation and springboard from which the social principles of the Gospel spring and flourish. If we fail to consider this fount and source, or even denigrate it, then we end up only treating the symptoms at very best -- and we are likely to not even accomplish that very well for we will not be building upon a strong foundation.

In the end, if we wish to work against poverty or anti-life ideals, we need to work to bring the people and the culture generally into conversion by means of contact and formation in God's will. That means being drawn into prayer and that means being formed; it means, as I say, conversion. The first and primary means in which to foster and continue to nurture this is the sacred liturgy. From there, we receive our conviction and strength to go out and be apostles to all the world, ministering to both spiritual and material needs.

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