Catechesis Week #1

As we begin our series of liturgical catechesis it will be helpful to begin with the most expansive, theological view possible.  Just as it is better to know how to fish than to simply be given a fish, so too it is far greater to understand the very nature of liturgy in all its forms (and there are actually many beyond the two currently found in the Western, or Latin Church) before exploring in-depth just one of them.

Let us begin with the premise that if we knew how to worship God properly, that we would already be on the threshold of heaven, which is nothing but its crown and consummation.  Proper worship, in fact, is the most perfect fulfillment of the first commandment to love the Lord Our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  It is the source and summit of the Christian life.  In fact, when the spirit of adoration, thanksgiving, propitiation, and petition permeates our whole being, the moral life that is lived on a daily basis and responsive to the second commandment, to love our neighbor, flows joyfully like water from that pure fountainhead which is the Sacred Liturgy.  It is just these four points that were traditionally identified as the “ends” or cardinal points of Holy Mass.

Our second premise is this – man, of his own power, and especially in his fallen, sinful state, is incapable of worshipping God properly.  The whole history of salvation from Creation, to the Fall of Adam, and, finally, to the future consummation of glory at the end of the ages, is the story of man’s constant divergence from proper worship and God’s continual interventions by which He not only corrects man, but finally takes him by the hand, as it were, and leads him to his heavenly homeland.

Heavenly Liturgy & The Most Holy Trinity

Beginning with the first, how is it that liturgy puts us on the threshold of heaven, leading us into the heart of the divinity?  Based on what God Himself has revealed to us, let us imagine what the life of the Most Holy Trinity must be like.  God is infinite goodness, truth, and beauty.  Since all other things that exist receive their goodness from, and are but faint reflections of God’s perfect goodness, it follows that 1) there is no good outside of God that can ultimately be loved beside or above Him, and 2) God cannot fail to superabundantly satisfy every desire beyond measure.  Now, since God is the only one who perfectly knows His own infinite goodness, only He can truly love it to a corresponding degree, which is to say, infinitely.  That awesome and rapturous vision begets the Son, and their ecstatic and blissful embrace breathes forth the Holy Spirit – a polyphonic canticle of adoration and thanksgiving.  We might here note the presence of “sacrifice” but one that is entirely transfigured in glory.  Each of the Divine Persons pours Himself out, making a complete and perfect gift of self without reserve, yet without any loss or suffering.  Every outpouring is already anticipated and filled by the other.  No love in any degree is unrequited, but rather, reciprocated without limit in such a way that it can only be described as ecstatic.  Thus perfect sacrifice, the offering of oneself, becomes ecstatic, a blissful going-out of oneself in union with another. 

Liturgy in the Plan of Creation

This is what all creation was meant to share in, and it is a plan that was already unfolding at the very dawn of creation.  It is striking how easily we miss the significance of the seven “days” of creation.  The seventh day is in fact the beginning of earthly liturgy, a sign that the purpose of mundane, earthly things is to lead us to sacred, heavenly things.  The command of keeping the Sabbath was already “hard-wired” into creation, such that the first six days, which signify all the goods of the universe, enable man to collect, sanctify, and offer to God a sacrifice of praise (adoration) by which he enters into God’s own blissful rest.  St Thomas teaches that even had the Fall not taken place, sacrifice would have been a natural part of man’s earthly interaction with God.  In addition to adoration and thanksgiving, earthly sacrifice would be the perpetual reminder of man’s creaturely status as completely dependent upon God, and thus a fitting way to petition Him for support in all man’s needs.  Had he remained untainted by sin, we can imagine that man’s offering of the first fruits of the earth in praise, thanksgiving, and petition to God would not have been experienced as something burdensome or distasteful.  Quite to the contrary, it would have been a faint reflection and anticipation of that heavenly ecstatic sacrifice.  The greatest joy of God’s sons would have been to be pleasing to their loving Father by doing His Will, while the Father, for His part, would never cease to shower His sons with every blessing. 

Liturgy After the Fall

So far, we have seen that in the heavenly liturgy, in the intimate life of the Most Holy Trinity, there is a ceaseless song of adoration and thanksgiving.  For all creatures on their pilgrim journey toward this heavenly life there is added the note of petition in which God’s unfailing goodness is invoked.  However, we know that there is an early and tragic turn in the drama of salvation history – the Fall and the entrance of sin into the world.  It is in response to this mortal wound that a salvific balm becomes incorporated into divine worship – propitiation, or the atonement for sin. 

These preceding points provide an illuminating way of viewing the process of salvation history.  Why does God institute such a lengthy economy of animal sacrifice that is accompanied by painstaking ceremonial laws that He Himself prescribes?  This whole period was to be a gradual pedagogy, or training, wherein man would not only be continually reminded of his need for atonement, but also be slowly induced by the symbolism of external, vicarious sacrifice to enter wholeheartedly into true, interior sacrifice, or the loving offering of oneself. 

Recall, however, the second premise that man cannot properly worship God.  Here, in fact, a twofold problem arises.  The first is that man, gravely wounded by sin, is unable to make a perfect offering of himself.  He is shackled by sin such that he is not the perfect master of even his own will and thus cannot fully offer what he does not fully possess.  But even supposing that man could surmount this difficulty, there is a second one.  The perfect self-offering of a creature is fitting if the end to be realized is to remain merely on the level of creature-to-Creator.  In other words, natural happiness.  Yet, as we saw, God’s plans go even further.  He intends to draw creatures into His own supernatural beatitude that goes beyond any natural capacity of creatures.  Some of the most striking words of Scripture - Ego dixi: Dii estis, et filii Excelsi omnes (I have said “you are gods and all sons of the Most High” Ps 81:6) express God’s plan to draw man into his own intimate life.  That means nothing less than divinization.  How then can man even hope to adore and thank God in a way commensurate with His own infinite goodness; with all the zeal, fervor, and intensity that is proper to a God who’s love is described as a consuming fire; with all the freedom and unreserved self-donation that could reciprocate the full outpouring of the Divine Persons?  The answer to that is already foreshadowed in one of the most poignant types (symbols) in the Old Testament, namely Abraham and Isaac.  “God will provide himself a victim for a holocaust, my son.” (Gn 22:8)  This, we know, was to be Our Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Our Savior & the Liturgy

Within this whole context, we can say that the Passion of Our Savior was a latreutic act.  The word is derived from the Latin latria which includes both the notions of sacrifice as well as praise and adoration.  In the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a human nature is joined to a Divine Person Who alone can adore, thank, petition, and atone to an infinite (divine) degree, and the door is finally opened for man to enter into that blessed life of the Holy Trinity.  The Passion was far more than just a ransom, the paying of a debt beyond man’s ability.  In that human-divine Heart of Jesus is the reconciliation of obedience and freedom, of sacrifice and ecstasy.  It is not only propitiation and petition, but finally, and most of all, perfect thanksgiving and adoration.

You may have noticed that certain prayers at various points during Holy Mass (which are known as collects because they gather together the four ends) conclude with per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum, through Our Lord Jesus Christ... That is, through the door of His humanity into which we are incorporated as His mystical body, into the life of the Most Holy Trinity. 

We can sum up by saying that earthly liturgy (which man could not even adequately perform after the Fall) has been transformed by the latreutic action of our Savior into nothing less than the gradual process of divinization – a process that is to be completed in the heavenly liturgy.  It will be a school wherein we learn to master our will and make a perfect offering of ourselves; to think, feel, and love as God Himself does.  All of this would be impossible if God Himself were not to take the lead - to be both the High Priest and sacrificial Lamb into which we ourselves become incorporated.  Divine Liturgy (as it is known in the East) or Holy Mass (as it is known in the West) is the greatest gift of God.  Above all other things on earth, it is to be reverenced, safeguarded, and ultimately, that to which we submit with loving and joyful affection so that its divinizing power may work upon us and come to fruition in heaven.


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