Catechesis Week #3

Last we explored the theme of the transcendence and immanence of God and concluded on three points.  We will now attempt to unpack the first of these points in more detail – that God must set the terms of our encounter with Him.

It is not uncommon these days to hear someone claiming to be a “spiritual” person, but nonetheless skeptical of organized religion.  It will suffice for now to say that for anyone who would claim even the most vague grounding in Scripture, this position is impossible.  Scripture, from the very first book of Genesis until Revelation, is a continuous, interconnected story about God forming His own organized religion.  The sequence of expanding covenants that passes through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and is then finally and definitively established in Jesus Christ make abundantly clear that God is intent upon personally forming a tightly-knit, visible, organized, and governed society; or even more simply, His own family.  All of this points towards the 4 marks that characterize the culmination of this process – One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  The ark of Noah has been universally viewed as a type, or foreshadowing of the Church, which is the ark of salvation.  To eschew God’s organization is tantamount to trying to build one’s own ark in the rain. 

All of this is rather straightforward for any Christian acquainted with the Scriptures.  Less understood, however, is the intimate connection this theme has with the liturgy.  Recall from our first lesson that earthly worship (which encompasses the elements of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and propitiation) is the highest fulfillment of the first and greatest commandment to love God, and is that upon which is founded all of the law and the prophets (and thus even the possibility for genuine love of neighbor).  We must have worship in order before all else, and it will be God to show us how.  Let us now look at a few significant episodes in salvation history.

The first takes us to the garden of Eden.  Here, everything was a place of natural delight, perfect tranquility and order, and above all, friendship with God.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was indeed a test, but not a temptation in the sense that Adam would have suffered by his patience and abstinence, as if he were pining for something that he lacked, for he was already perfectly provided for.  It was a test that would allow Adam the greatest exercise of his dignity – to freely embrace the offer to be a son of God.  The Father had said, in effect, “I have a great inheritance to give you, just wait, and you shall see.”  God gives Adam the chance to take his own first steps, to join with creation and sing those notes of adoration (manifested by his obedience) and thanksgiving (manifested by his patience and trust that God would fulfill him even superabundantly).  Tragically, instead of that joyful symphony, we see the outstretched hand seizing at the fruit, attempting to make off with the Father’s inheritance.  In other words, a rejection of sonship.     

The next is the construction of the Tower of Babel.  This is something that could have been a work pleasing to God if it had been undertaken with the right intention.  By its very size and grandeur, it could have served as a monument to God’s transcendence, a humble acknowledgment of man’s finitude, and a petition that He would condescend to make Himself present among men.  Instead, as a work of man’s pride, it was just the next iteration of the hand outstretched to the forbidden fruit; an attempt to pull God down to man’s level through his own efforts.  In this case, literally, a stairway to heaven.  It must be noted that the result of pride is always division rather than communion.  Just as the builders of Babel were scattered, so those who seek to be tied to God on their own (the word religion comes from the latin ligare, which means ‘to tie’ or ‘to bind’) can only contribute to division rather than the peaceful ‘co-existence’ the modern world fancies.  Pentecost marks the un-doing of Babel; the confusion of many languages was reversed by the comprehension of each according to his own tongue, and the outpouring of the Spirit initiates the time foretold by Christ when all would worship “in Spirit and in Truth.”  Notice that this is a work of reorganizing religion, drawing the elect together in a unity of both worship and doctrine.

The episode of the golden calf remains one of the most instructive in the Old Testament because of its subtlety.  Examining the whole context of Exodus, we see that the Israelites had personally witnessed the plagues of Egypt, the deliverance through the Red Sea, and had subsequently begged Moses to ascend Mount Sinai as their mediator because they feared the signs of God’s approach.  It would be a gross caricature to imagine that while smoke and thunder were still pouring from Sinai, the Israelites were standing in its shadow constructing an alternate deity.  The truth is far more human and strikes uncomfortably close to home.  The Israelites were naturally in a state of fear and confusion, trying to make sense of what was taking place and restore some order to the dizzying succession of recent events.  They would have liked to speak to God directly, but they were rightfully intimidated and it was clear that only those designated by God (such as Moses) would be permitted to draw near.  Once again, the primordial temptation will return to wreak havoc.  Why wait for Moses to return after his prolonged absence?  Why not attempt to translate the bewildering self-revelation of God into a more understandable language or mode of thought, or, even, an image (which in itself is perfectly acceptable if God sanctions it – ex. the crucifix).  Man is always loathe to leave his comfort zone, and the very thought of something that was concrete and well defined, both visible and tangible, must have seemed consoling.  The golden calf could serve as man’s image of God – the same God who was revealing Himself on Sinai above.  The consequences were dire.  Moses commanded that a great part of the Israelites be put to death, lest the even more (spiritually) deadly temptation ever regain credibility – that God need not be worshipped on His own terms.  In primitive times, paganism showed that man was not above even the worship of charms and talismans, which is to say, false gods.  As the Israelites showed, the more insidious and persistent form of idolatry is to try and worship the true God on our own.

In light of these events, it is clear that God was going to use as much time as was necessary for man to learn these fundamental lessons.  In this case, when salvation history advances to a point where God deigns to provide more specific instructions regarding divine worship, we should be even more eager to discover their meaning and significance.  Amidst some of the lengthy social and legal commands that were appropriate to the time and place in which God was forming His universal family through the mediation of figures such as Moses and David, it is easy to lose sight of the veiled allusions contained in the parallel liturgical prescriptions.  The construction of the Tabernacle in Exodus reveals a dazzling connection to the story of creation of Genesis – repeated patterns of seven, matching verses (“behold it was good”), and the culmination in blessing.  The Tabernacle, in fact, symbolizes nothing less than a new creation.  This continues with the construction of the Temple – the basin for washing sacrificial gifts (called the “sea”) points to the division of the waters, the altar is linked to the foundation of the earth, the various adornments hearken back to things found in the garden of Eden, and the lampstand to the light of creation.  To linger on some of these fascinating points would require a dedicated Scripture study, and we must now turn to the important question of how ancient liturgy relates to Christian liturgy.  For our purposes, we can narrow it down to asking “does Christian liturgy do away entirely with the sort of detailed prescriptions that were so prevalent in the Old Testament?” 

It is due in no small part to the massive cultural shifts of the last half-century that many are under the impression that the answer is yes.  This is undoubtedly tied to much larger issues of religion in general.  Often the confession of Jesus Christ as the eternal, only-begotten Son, consubstantial with the Father, Who condescended to take up a human nature has been replaced by an image of a non-judgmental, doctrinally indifferent, itinerant do-gooder who demonstrated that brotherly love need not be grounded in any specific prescriptions regarding love of God (on this point, perhaps C.S. Lewis’ modern formulation of the argument “Lord, lunatic, or liar” remains the most accessible and expedient refutation).  The implications for the liturgy are immediate.  This second image naturally lends itself to a conception of liturgy in which a vague, spontaneous “spirit” replaces the letter of a cold, impersonal system of law (so it is often said).  This paradigm, however, completely undermines the continuity of God’s revelation in history as well as the interconnection of the Old and New Testaments in Scripture, as if God had somehow erred in His first attempts and subsequently drawn up a different plan.

While all of revelation teaches us to look for continuity rather than rupture, there is nonetheless a decisive turning point in divine worship signified by the rending of the Temple on Good Friday.  Given what we have studied so far, however, it should be easy to identify the essential points – symbol now gives way to reality, the blood of animals to the Blood of Christ, and outward, vicarious sacrifice to interior, personal sacrifice.  The Jewish temple, which was a sign and foreshadowing of the new creation is now being accomplished in the Redeemer, the doorway between heaven and earth Who said “Behold, I make all things new.”

Examining the specific ceremonial rites, gestures, and symbols of the Mass will be reserved for another time.  For now, it is important to grasp the fundamental implications of the principle that God sets the terms of our encounter.  He has not ceased to prescribe certain things in detail, yet now He does so through the mediation of the Church rather than the early patriarchs such as Moses.  Likewise, our reverence should not diminish, but rather increase before the realities that have now replaced the ancient signs.  Lastly, we must always be vigilant not to fall for the ever-present temptation to begin replacing God’s prescriptions with our own.  Our fallen nature constantly inclines us to impatience, distrust, and self-construction rather than to docility and trusting receptivity.


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