November 3rd, 2013

Week Three

The Liturgy as a Wealth of Sacramentality

In any Catholic church one will invariably notice how the material world is harnessed to help reveal the immaterial or spiritual world.  The use of images, windows, statues, Stations of the Cross and more are clear examples.  Theologically these are referred to as sacramentals.  The church’s practice of sacramentality mirrors the remarkable event of the incarnation.  This is to say that the practice of making visible invisible realities arises from the simple fact that the invisible God became visible.  In deed more than visible he became flesh and dwelt among us.  Therefore it is rightly said that the church’s practice of sacramentality is an incarnational one. 

Sacramentals are also intentionally formative.  That they serve to shape the faith of believers is a basic liturgical principal.  For example, the candles on the altar are more than mere embellishments or adornments.  They are material realities at the service of the spiritual, that is to say they communicate by revealing the invisible.  In the Latin Church the candles in the liturgy are intended to be a reflection of the seven lamp stands that adorn the altar of God in the Book of Revelation.  This helps form the believer to see that the mystery that one engages at Mass is nothing less than the heavenly sacrifice of the Lamb.  It further indicates that at each Mass the church in heaven is invisibly present around the same altar.  Heaven and earth come together in adoration.  In keeping with this well thought out meaning, a seventh candle can be added to the altar when the bishop celebrates.  This represents that the fullness of the church on earth is assembled around the altar just as it is in heaven.  

Another example is the presence of an altar cross.  As a sacramental it serves to communicate at least two invisible realities that helps form the faith of the believer.  First pertains to the direction of our prayers.  The prayers of the Mass are not directed to the faithful in the pews.  Given the modern arrangement of the priest and people on opposite sides of the altar, some might be led to believe that throughout the Eucharistic Prayer the priest is speaking to the faithful, or simply reenacting the Last Supper with them.  This is not the case.  Rather the prayers are directed to God the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit.  The altar cross helps serve the faithful by reflecting the one they are approaching, mainly the living God through Christ made possible by his sacrifice.  Therefore the image of the crucified on the altar is to assist the priest in these respects, while the large crucifix on the wall (not able to be seen by the priest) is to aid the faithful.  

Without sacramentals the liturgy and church buildings would be as barren as empty barns.  Unfortunately some Christians have fallen prey to this error.  The rejection of sacramentality is usually caught up with the error that the material world is either bad and/or must be transcended in order to engage in spiritual realities.  Extreme examples can be found in the Quaker and Shaker denominations.  As already noted, such an error does not properly account for the incarnation and the whole of divine revelation, whereby God not only engages the material world to reveal himself, but employs it first by becoming flesh and then by extending his grace-filled touch through time and space by way of the sacraments. 


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