Catechesis Week #2

In this installment of our Liturgy series, we will explore just one very deep and fascinating theological principle - the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God - and then see how this is reflected in the Liturgy.  What does it mean to say that God is entirely transcendent?  By this one word we indicate that God is not a part of creation but entirely above and outside of it, that He cannot be “moved” by anything outside Himself.  For Him there is no time, all is an eternal “now”.  He never changes nor reacts in response to creation but rather is the very source of it.  We might say in one neat phrase that “God plus the world never yields a sum any greater than just God Himself.”  We might at first be alarmed if we perceive that this seems to entirely remove God from worldly affairs, but in fact, the very opposite is the case.  Because God is not just one more agent within the drama of creation, but entirely outside of it, He can also enter into each and every part, no matter how small.  When we realize that God does not simply dwell “in” us, as a guest in a house or even a lord in his manor, but that at each and every moment He unfolds and sustains our very being, we can exclaim with St Augustine “You are more intimate to me than I am to myself!”  Another way of saying this is that it is precisely because God is infinitely big that He can also be infinitely small, that He who holds the whole universe in His hand may also be entirely present to even just one individual soul. 

This all may seem rather abstract but it comes to an immediate and startling point in the case of the Liturgy.   What happens when God chooses to pull back the veil ever so slightly, allowing creatures to glimpse something of His glory.  What wondrous and terrible things might be expected when Mount Horeb or the altar of the Temple become a threshold that brings together the finite and the infinite?  Throughout Scripture, we have plentiful descriptions of fire, smoke, and peals of thunder.  We read that the voice of the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon and strips the forest bare and that His mere approach melts the mountains like wax.  We even find that on more than one occasion, the lackadaisical worshipper is struck dead (see below Lv 10 & 2 Sam).  At the same time, the entire Old Testament serves as one long, drawn-out period of preparation for that moment when the infinite would be dwindled even unto infancy and wrapped in swaddling clothes.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, showing all the warmth and affection that might be expected from the closest of human friendships.  These two images of God, reflecting both His transcendence and immanence, are part of His own self-revelation.  Neither can be set aside.  But in that case, how are we to reconcile them?

The tension is perhaps most strikingly seen in the figure of John the evangelist, the “disciple whom Jesus loved”.  Two particularly poignant moments recounted in the Scriptures are when John reclines on the breast of his beloved Master at the Last Supper, and when Our Lord entrusts His very own mother to John -“behold your mother”.  In light of the deep friendship and intimacy between Our Lord and John, it is staggering to read of John’s mystical vision in which he encounters the Lord in the fullness of His glory.  Recall that prior to this, John had already been a privileged witness to the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor that left him, his brother James, and Peter in fear and awe, and thus already with some preview of the divine glory residing within the one that many thought to be merely a rabbi or a prophet.  Let us see what John himself says of this encounter “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast; his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters; in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”  (Rv  1:12-17)  This tension between the intimacy of a beloved friend and the Lord of glory is paradigmatic of the tension that exists in the liturgy wherein we too draw close to God who is both Lover and Lord.  As Catholics immersed in the sacramental life, we should have a regular and very personal experience of this tension.  Every time we approach Holy Communion, where even the angels fall down in adoration of the Word made flesh, we can appropriate the words of Elizabeth to her cousin Mary “how is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  (Lk 1:43)  Yet not just the mother, but the Lord Himself!  

In response to our earlier question, how we are to reconcile this tension, a helpful clue is given in Exodus 33 in which Moses asks to see God.  God responds that no one can see His face (the fullness of His glory) but that He will place Moses in a cleft in the rock, shielding it with His hand until He finally allows a glimpse of His back (a mere foretaste of beatific vision).  Like Moses, or James and John, who did not know what they were asking when seeking a share in the Lord’s glory (see Mt 20:22), we must wait for God to stoop down and support His feeble creatures as He draws near, to shield us in the cleft while still granting us the glimpse for which we long.   From this we can draw several principles that will be explored more in coming weeks.  The first is that God must set the terms of the encounter.  In other words, the liturgy is not a product of our making, but something that is specified by God in great detail and to which we must submit.  The second is that formality is not a barrier to intimacy but rather the door to it!  Since we are all made for intimacy with God, anything that impedes it is rightly to be rejected.  The modern tendency, however, is to attempt to draw God down to our level instead of patiently allowing Him to raise us up to His.  We must first bend the knee before His transcendence so that we might then be consoled by the experience of his immanence.  Third, all of our earthly resources should truly reflect the divine glory they are meant to herald.  Our Lord did indeed dine with prostitutes and tax collectors, but at the same time, in continuity with the solemnity of the Old Testament, He drove money-changers out of the temple and rebuked the attempt to diminish divine worship in the name of humanitarian service (see Mt 26:6).       

Here is a comparison that places this great theme of transcendence and immanence in greater relief and indicates how these two facets are reflected in the liturgy.  Precisely because God embraces both, they must be held together, and an excessive emphasis on one at the expense of the other can only be harmful.  


Catechesis on the Liturgy

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