Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nicola Bux: The Liturgy is the Manifestation of the Sacred Reality of God

Last week I mentioned the Holy Father's catechesis at the weekly general audience on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, pointing out its reference to the liturgy. In today's edition of the Osservatore Romano, Don Nicola Bux, a consultor to the Holy Office, Vice President of the Institute of Ecumenical Theology Saint Nicholas, Bari (Italy), and personal friend of pope Benedict, has an article on just this topic. It touches upon fundamental question of what liturgy is, but also on particular questions such as the individual reception of sacraments, the orientation of the liturgy and obedience to liturgical norms, establishing connections with the Eastern theological and liturgical tradition. While we may agree with much of what he says, some of his theses may be surprising or even invite contradiction, but it is certainly a piece worth reading and reflecting about. This is my translation of it:

The Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the Catechesis of Benedict XVI

The Liturgy is the Manifestation of the Sacred Reality of God

by Nicola Bux

The cosmic praise "ranging from the seraphs to the angels and archangels, to man and all creatures which together reflect the beauty of God and are praise to God" is the essential characteristic of the thought of a mysterious theologian of the sixth century who conceals himself under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite, the name of one of the listeners who opened himself to the Faith after the famous speech of St. Paul (Acts 17). It was recalled by the Holy Father in the catechesis of last Wednesday, noting that "The creature being a praise of God, the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius becomes a liturgical theology: God is found above all in praising Him, not only reflecting; and the liturgy is not something constructed by us, something invented to produce a religious experience during a certain period of time; it is singing with the choir of creatures and entering into the cosmic reality itself. And so the liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastical, becomes wide and large, becomes the union of ourselves with the language of all creatures."

This vision of the liturgy which is not only of the Byzantine East, as scholars know, but is really at the root of the Latin liturgies, especially the Roman and the Ambrosian ones, wants to be rediscovered. The catechesis of the Holy Father can be an opportunity for an exchange between those who see the liturgy as it were "from the below" and those who admire it above all "in the high", rather than chafing with mutual complaints.

But there is more: the cosmic and liturgical theology of Dionysius is also mystical, and hence personal and sacramental. God knows how much we need to recover this dimension after the emphasis on the communitarian dimension: people are asking ever more respect for the personal space of silence, the intimate participation of faith, even the celebration of the sacraments. Can it, for example, be disregarded that the rituals provide for the celebration of baptism for a single child just the way the rite of the funeral for a single person is provided for? Why should it not be possible for a single person to receive communion just as the confession of the individual is provided for? Why must everything be reduced to the communitarian? Jesus in the Gospel meets individually so many and gives Himself personally to each.

The transition which ocurred with Pseudo-Dionysius from the mystical as equivalent of sacramental to the mystical understood as personal and intimate "expresses the path of the soul towards God," stressed the Pope. The liturgy must in fact stimulate the search for God and the encounter with Him, the conversion to Him. It invites us to turn to the Lord averting the gaze from ourselves or from other creatures, even from the priest celebrant himself: this is what is being requested by the Sursum corda and we respond Habemus ad Dominum. One can say that the real art of celebrating is to help to turn oneself to the Lord. Hence, the liturgy of Dionysius is nothing but the manifestation of the sacred reality of God.

It is commonly said that life is sacred, one pauses in silence before the sacredness of death or again to think that good and evil play a rôle in our mind starting from what it knows about the sacred, from the idea that one has of the mysterious, fascinating and frightening, attractive and terrible. Which human being does not feel inside itself this mystery playing a rôle in the field of the experience of life? The sacred is precisely this area in which the possible answers are solely those of morality. And this [morality] is such only if based on a God who is totally other in relation to man. Thus in the liturgy of Baptism and of Easter, of the Eucharist and of death man touches the sacred. The liturgy is sacred because it descends from above, from God who is in heaven, and therefore it is "heaven on earth"; it is divine, says the East and also the "great" Popes such as Gregory and Leo, but also the council of Trent and Vatican II with the constitution De Sacra Liturgia.

So the liturgy is where heaven and earth touch each other, where God became incarnate and sacrifices Himself for me: He "loved me, and delivered Himself for me" (Galatians 2, 20). This phrase of St. Paul is the summit and source of participation in the liturgy: from listening to the word of the Lord comes communion with Him. The soul of man needs this and the liturgical movement of the last century had desired it: at the centre the Person of God before the rite, so that to Him the human person turns; from the rite to the mystery, to mysticism and morality, is the route which leads from Mediator Dei of Pius XII to Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II.

The Pope's catechesis on Dionysius helps to understand better the sacred, that is the present mystery that effects the moral elevation of man. Now, the sacred is the "fundamental law" of the liturgy, because it arises from the presence of God; accordingly, disobeying the norms which express this sacredness in the name of arbitrariness which leads to create for oneself a liturgy of one's own, means de-sacralizing the liturgy. In this way the liturgy is no longer receiving from above as at the Sinai the divine word that is the law for our our steps, but building down here the golden calf with our hands and dancing around it. How much responsibility have the priests! It means in practice falling into the temptation to take the place of God: a symptom of this is the seat of the priest which occupies the centre, in the place of or with its back to the tabernacle, and the relegation of this [the tabernacle] to a secondary place. If the signs are worth something!

The sacred liturgy needs our humility: "Humbly we beseech Thee." The humility is the true measure of the liturgy and consequently of ourselves, because we are creatures and in need of everything. Thus understood humility is truth. Is not the true adoration that one made in spirit and truth? It is to the truth that the intellect tends. The disobedience to the rules of the liturgy is immoral, because it attaches itself to the attempt of the dominant culture without rules and fixed points, which is also at the root of the collapse of public and private morality.

It is therefore urgent to continue the path of liturgical reform by restoring the sacred to the cult, that is to the relationship with the transcendent God who became incarnate. In fact, the revelation has become liturgy, as the Pope wrote in Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, the liturgy must imitate that one of the Apocalypse, descending from heaven to earth - this is the greatness of Dionysius - it cannot be a "do-it-yourself liturgy." If the liturgy were not sacred, if the cult were not divine, it would serve for nothing but to represent itself, and above all it would not save man and the world, would not transform it into holiness. Pseudo-Dionysius, an exponent of "negative theology", is recalling that the liturgy can not say and explain everything, because of God not everything can be known, but only what Jesus Christ has revealed and the Church proposes to believe. That is why the liturgy is also apophatic: "We can more easily say what God is not, than express what He really is - said the Pope - ... And although Dionysius shows us, following Proclus, the harmony of the celestial choirs, in such a way that it seems that all depend on each other, it remains true that our path toward God remains very far from Him; Pseudo-Dionysius shows that in the end, the road to God is God Himself, who makes himself close to us in Jesus Christ. In this way, a great and mysterious theology is also made very concrete, both in the interpretation of the liturgy and in the reflection on Jesus Christ." Kneeling down becomes the most eloquent expression of the creature before the present mystery. And for that reason obedience to the sacred liturgy is the measure of our humility. Of all this the priest is minister, servant and not master It becomes clear how ignorant the attempt is to accuse the Tridentine liturgy of being Dionysian: whereas just the comparative studies show how close it is to the Byzantine. Therefore, we must be grateful to the Holy Father that also with his catechesis he helps to rediscover ecumenically the influence that Dionisian theology had on the medieval, mystical and liturgical theology of the East and the West.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: