Summary: Liturgy is play of a special kind, the play of a child dependent on God; the purpose of being led out of slavery is right worship as God wants it, for our good.

September 13, 2010

The Spirit of the Liturgy

Memorial of S. John Chrysostom

Jesus came to gather together the dispersed tribes of Israel, and not Israel only, but the whole world. This is why St. Paul was so insistent that there be no factions at the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, we are brought together by our commonalities: personal sin and need for healing in body, mind and spirit. It is providential that you can still see in Capernaum the foundation stones of the synagogue built by this faithful centurion. And it is one of the great gifts of the bishops and Vatican that we will restore his words in full to our moment of approaching communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word

and my soul shall be healed.” In the confiteor, we will admit: I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” The beauty of this personal & corporate admission is not so much that it is faithful to the original Latin. The real beauty is that it is more faithful to reality. Despite my many sins, my unworthiness, the Son of God has chosen me to take Him into my body and soul. And to realize that he has gifted me with holy orders–eight years today-- is almost too much to contemplate. All is gift.

The Holy Father’s Spirit of the Liturgy asks us to reflect on what our liturgical celebration is. When I MC for one of the bishops, part of my responsibility is to spend time with the servers and get them to relax. So I ask them, if life is divided into work and play, what are we doing here? They usually furrow their brows and, if they answer at all, say “work.” So I correct them. On the continuum between work and play, what we do in the presence of God and each other is more like play. But it’s not that our purpose is “to have fun.” In most play games, there are winners and losers. There are only winners here, saved by the grace of Christ. No, the play here is the play of the book of Wisdom, where Wisdom plays in the presence of God. The play here is what we do as God’s children, where we more than any other time of the week have the spirit of a child without which we cannot enter the kingdom. We have the spirit of a child playing under the protection of her father, knowing our complete dependency on God, knowing His inexhaustible love for us. It’s play, but it’s not a game.

To understand this kind of play, we need to consider that each Eucharist is a kind of representation of the twin exodus–the coming out from Egypt of the Hebrews and the exodus of Jesus accomplished in Jerusalem. What is the purpose of the original exodus from Egypt? Certainly God had in mind the fulfillment of the promise of land to Abraham, land where the Hebrews would be free and independent. But even before that, God prophesies to the slavedriver Pharaoh: Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness. (Ex 7:16) Four times does Moses tell this command to Pharaoh.

The primary goal of the departure from Egypt is not economic–land to grow crops and raise sheep. The primary objective, indeed the only end of the liberation from slavery, is worship, “which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise” suggested by Pharaoh. “Israel departs, not in order to be a people like all the others; it departs in order to serve God” as God wants to be served.

Please remember that God doesn’t get anything out of our worship. God is self-sufficient and needs nothing. You can’t make God better than He is, happier than He is. He wants us to serve Him in worship because it makes us better than we are, happier than we are. The land that God promised Abraham was only important because it gave the Hebrews the freedom to “worship Him without fear, holy and righteous before Him all the days of our lives.” The land, the city of Jerusalem, the meeting tent, all were ordered toward right worship, orthodoxy in the Greek. They were set up to attract all the nations, all peoples, to true worship. That is why the gift was given to the Jews, and that–when they betrayed their part of the covenant–is why it was taken away from them and given to the Church, the new Israel. As we move toward the reform of the reform, we must keep that objective in mind. We must be a light on the hill, offering true worship, right worship, in holiness and truth, attracting all nations to the One True God.