Summary: The essence of the Christian liturgy goes beyond the synagogue service and has as its essential feature universality of time, place and people.

Feast of St. Cecilia

Nov 22 2010

Spirit of the Liturgy

On this Celebration of St. Cecilia’s Day, it is most fitting that the Book of Revelations opens up to us the vision of the Lamb on His throne. From heaven comes the voice of God–not thunder and lightning–but a sweet and melodious word that reminded John of the most beautiful harp music. The response to this Word is a wonderful and unique song of praise from Cecilia and all the virgin men and women who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

The vision fits perfectly with what the Holy Father has been teaching us in The Spirit of the Liturgy. The Lamb of God is the perfect sacrifice. He is the embodiment of obedience, the only thing we can really offer God as humans. St. Cecilia and the many martyrs of the Church in two millennia follow the Lamb wherever he goes–even to the cross.

There are ample OT precedents. Israel went into exile, and “stood before God with empty hands” because of the destruction of the Temple. No more holocausts on the broken altar. “In this crisis the conviction became ever clearer that Israel’s sufferings, through God and for God. . .had to count in his sight as . . .offerings.” (45) Later, when the Greeks tried to destroy the Jewish culture and religion, these ideas, “as set forth in the book of Daniel, acquired a new power and profundity.” Ultimately it was seen that the ultimate sacrifice would be the sacrificial death of the innocent Messiah, Jesus. Christian worship grew up around this realization, and around the idea that the word of prayer is itself sacrifice. Our word to God is our sacrificial offering.

But that, of course, is not enough. We cannot of our own will and plan make expiation for sin, or provide a path for union with God. The Word of God is made flesh and “draws ‘all flesh’ into the glorification of God.” (47) Jesus, through the Incarnation, “takes up into himself our sufferings and hopes, all the yearning of creation, and bears it to God. . . .In Jesus’ self-surrender on the Cross, the Word is united with the entire reality of human life and suffering. There is no longer a replacement cult. Now the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us into that likeness with God, that transformation into love, which is the only true adoration.”

The Eucharist is the presentation today of that one sacrifice of Calvary. Eucharist is the “meeting point of all the lines that lead from the Old Covenant, indeed from the whole of man’s religious history. Here at last is right worship. . .adoration “in spirit and truth.” Eucharist is not our action, although it is a human action. When the priest offers up the Body and Blood of Christ, he stands in persona Christi capite, in and as Jesus Christ making the offering. Eucharist is the action of Jesus Christ offering Himself to the Father.

“In the pierced heart of the Crucified, God’s own heart is opened up–here we see who God is and what he is like.” The veil of the Temple is torn so that man can look upon the face of God, a face of total and self-sacrificing Love. That is why Jesus could promise the repentant thief, who had done nothing to deserve God’s mercy, “this day you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Holy Father then makes four conclusions to this long exposition called “the essence of the liturgy.” First, Christian worship is something different from the synagogue service, which faithful Jews keep in view of their belief that Temple worship will someday be restored. Christian worship–the Eucharist–is the “ever-open door of adoration and the true Sacrifice,” one with the liturgy of heaven. Second, “universality is an essential feature of Christian worship.” It is never just the worship of this community in this time and place. It is the merging of the horizontal and the vertical, and always must have a transcendent and universal character. That, for instance, is why at morning prayer every weekend we sing the Lord’s Prayer in Latin–to make visible the universal character of the Church by using the language of the universal Church. Third, divine worship in accordance with the logos, the Word, is “the most appropriate way of expressing the essential form of Christian liturgy.” Here we proclaim the Word made flesh that dwelt among us and offers the perfect sacrifice. Fourth, what we do here is still incomplete. “The new Temple, not made by human hands, does exist, but it is also still under construction.” That means our worship must always point toward the divine fulfillment in the bosom of God, but it also means we must make it so attractive to human beings that it fits into our missionary purpose given by Christ–to draw all that is human into Him so that He may offer all that is human to the Father.

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