You may remember from last week’s reflection: the prayers and the readings are preparing us for the end times…for the arrival of Christ the King (and the end of the 2017 liturgical year). The first reading reminds us of how we are to treat one anther…looking out for each other…being an example to one another. St. Paul applauds the Thessalonians for their looking outside of themselves and creating circles of faithful individuals in other towns.
This image of expanding the faith is not of an upward flying arrow, but of a kind of circular movement, the two essential directions of which can be called: departure and return. This “paradigm” is common in the general history of religions as well as in Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages. For Christian thinkers, the circle is seen as the great movement of the cosmos. The nature religions and many non-Christian philosophies think of it as a movement of unceasing repetition (as we find in the modern Hinduism and Far Eastern religions). On closer inspection, these two points of view are not as mutually exclusive as at first sight they seem.
For in the Christian view of the world, the many small circles of the lives of individuals are inscribed within the one great circle of history as it moves from departure and return. You see this in the first reading as God reminds Israel…“I am not that far away…I have (and experience) compassion for those who call out to Me. And, I am watching and listening.”
The small circles carry within themselves the great rhythm of the whole, give it concrete forms that are ever new, and so provide it with the force of its movement. And in the one great circle there are also the many circles of the lives of the different cultures and communities of human history, in which the drama of: beginning, development, and end is played out. In these circles, the mystery of beginning is repeated again and again, but they are also the scene of the end of time, of a final collapse, which may in its own way prepare the ground for a new beginning. The totality of the small circles reflects the great circle. The two – the great circle and the small circles – are interconnected and interdependent. And so our worship is bound with all three dimensions of the circular movement: the personal, the social (love your neighbor as yourself), and the universal (above all things, loving God).
As we come closer and closer to the end of liturgical year…we also anticipate a new beginning, a new middle and a new ending. Unlike so many who have a dread of the end times. The Church and Its members actually: prepare, are preparing, and are prepared for Christ the King (all at the same time as we worship God at the Mass.)
The Church, in its liturgy now begins to wind down now (or maybe wind up)…depending on your perspective. You will begin to notice a movement to the end of the year of grace of 2017 as we look forward to the celebration of Christ the King! Jesus reminds us in our readings and prayers…He is the “all in all”…the Beginning and End…the A to Z…the Alpha and Omega.
For me the best way to reflect on this week’s readings: they remind me of fishing on the river. In the boat, everyone sees the surface of the water. Thanks to physics and buoyancy, we have the ability to travel on that liquid surface with little consideration of what is really around us (or, better, under us). It takes the scuba drivers and their cameras to bring to our reality what is really there: on, in and around the river.
Such is the case in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah this week as Isaiah (the scuba diver) has to give Cyrus the king a reality check. Cyrus is the kind of man who travels on the surface without even caring or taking into account the physics (or, if you like, the metaphysics) that keeps him afloat. The same goes with the Herodians who question Jesus about the trivial matter which actually goes to a deeper reality as to what is due to God. (A real Force that Star Wars movies attempts to bring into conceptual reality.)
A French scientist and philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin (and friends) in the early 20th century proposed a concept called: “Noosphere”. (He is kind of like the character Obi-Wan Kenobi [in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd movies]…the scuba diver). The idea behind “Noosphere” was that creation (or, if you like, evolution) can be explained by a metaphysical higher force (spirit and its understanding) embrace the physical whole and are blended into a kind of living organism. (Invoking the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, Teilhard looks on Christ as the energy that strives toward the Noosphere and finally incorporates everything in its “fullness’.) I know it is kind of deep water here…but…from here Teilhard went on to give a new meaning to Christian worship: the transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the Christological “fullness”. In his view, the Eucharist provides the movement of the cosmos with its direction…it anticipates its goal and at the same time urges it on.
Yes, even the modern scientist (and movie makers) attempt to grasp what is owed rightfully to this world…but at the same time…give honor and worship to God for His reality in our fundamental lives. They themselves move towards the ultimate evolutionary reality of Christ the King too.
Once again we face the question: What is worship? What happens when we worship? In all religions…sacrifice is at the heart of worship. But this is a concept that has been buried under the debris of endless misunderstandings. The common view is that sacrifice has something to do with destruction. It means handing over to God a reality that is in some way precious to man. Now this…handing over…presupposes that it is withdrawn from use by man, and that can only happen through its destruction…its definitive removal from the hands of man. But this immediately raises the question: What pleasure is God supposed to take in destruction? Is anything really surrendered to God through destruction?
One answer is that the destruction always conceals within itself the act of acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all things. But can such a mechanical act really serve God’s glory? Obviously not. True surrender to God looks very different. It consists – according to the early Church Fathers (in fidelity to biblical thought) – in the union of man and creation with God. Belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction or non-being: it is rather a way of being.
It means emerging from the state of separation, of apparent autonomy, of existing only for oneself and in oneself. It means losing oneself as the only possible way of finding oneself (cf. Mk 8:35; Mt 10:39). That is why St. Augustine could say that the true “sacrifice” is the civitas Dei (the City of God)…that is…a love-transformed mankind (the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God): God all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28). That is the purpose of the world. That is the essence of sacrifice and worship.
And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building, a stationary container in which history may…by chance…take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense…creation is history.
In a previous reflection, I wrote about gratitude. Of all the passions man has … the passion of gratitude lasts only about two hours … then is diminishes almost out of existence. (Now … contrast gratitude’s passion with the passion of anger … anger can last a lifetime … and rarely goes out of existence.) We get an idea of what God’s sees from man far too often when it comes to showing Him gratitude … and because gratitude is so short lived … it kind of explains why we do what we do during weekend Sunday Mass.
What does worship really mean? How is it different from the circle of giving and receiving that characterized the pre-Christian world of worship? Before turning to this question, I should like to refer to the text that concludes the giving of the ceremonial law in the book of Exodus. It is constructed in close parallel to the account of creation. Seven times it says, “Moses did as the Lord had commanded him” (words that suggest that the seven-day work on the tabernacle replicates the seven-day work on creation). The account of the construction of the tabernacle ends with a kind of vision of the Sabbath. “So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the Glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (cf. Ex 40:33). The completion of the tent anticipates the completion of creation. God makes His dwelling in the world. Heaven and earth are united.
(In this connection (speaking of “creation”) allow me a side note to add: that in the Old Testament, the verb “bara” has two, and only two, meanings. First, it denotes the process of the world’s creation, the separation of the elements, through which the cosmos emerges out of chaos. Secondly, it denotes the fundamental process of salvation history … the election and separation of pure from impure, and therefore the inauguration of the history of God’s dealings with men. (How we are to worship Him … pure and perfect.) Thus begins the spiritual creation, the creation of the covenant, without which the created cosmos would be an empty shell.)
Creation and history, creation, history and worship are in a relationship of reciprocity. (All three interlinked and mutually working together for a mutual benefit.) Creation looks toward the covenant, but the covenant completes creation and does not simply exist along with it. Now if worship (rightly understood) is the soul of the covenant, then it not only saves mankind but is also meant to draw the whole of reality (all of creation) into communion with God. Unlike the tenants of the vineyard in this week’s Gospel … we cannot separate creation, history and worship without harming the others.)
Man himself cannot simply “make” worship. If God does not reveal Himself, man is clutching empty space. If you remember a few weeks ago…Moses says to Pharaoh: “We do not know with what we must serve the Lord” (cf. Ex 10:26). These words display a fundamental law of all liturgy. When God does not reveal Himself, man can, of course, from the sense of God within him, build altars “to the unknown god” (cf. Acts 17:23). He can reach out toward God in his thinking and try to feel his way toward Him. But real liturgy (the liturgy God wants…in other words… perfect liturgy) implies that God responds and reveals how we can worship Him. In any form, liturgy includes some kind of “institution”. It cannot spring from imagination, our own creativity—then it would remain just a cry in the dark or mere self-affirmation. Liturgy implies a real (perfect) relationship with Another, Who reveals Himself to us and gives our existence a new direction.
In the Old Testament there is a series of very impressive testimonies to the truth that the liturgy is not a matter of “what you please”. Nowhere is this more dramatically evident than in the narrative of the golden calf (by the way…for the farmers and ranchers out there that know the significant difference…strictly speaking, a “bull calf”). The misdirected worship conducted by the high priest Aaron is not meant to serve any of the false gods of the heathen. The apostasy is more subtle. There is no obvious turning away from God to the false gods.
Outwardly, the people remain completely attached to the same God. They want to glorify the God Who led Israel out of Egypt and believe that they may very properly represent his mysterious power in the image of a bull calf. Everything seems to be in order. Presumably even the ritual is in complete conformity to the rubrics. And yet it is a falling away from the worship of God…to idolatry. This apostasy, which outwardly is scarcely perceptible, has two causes.
First, there is a violation of the prohibition of images. The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote and mysterious God. They want to bring Him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world. He must be there when He is needed…and He must be the kind of God that is needed. Man is using God, and in reality, even if it is not outwardly discernible, he is placing himself above God.
This gives us a clue to the second point. The worship of the golden calf is a self-generated worship. When Moses stays away for too long…and God himself becomes inaccessible…the people just fetch Him back. Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation.
Instead of being worship of God…it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry. The dance around the golden calf is an image of this self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. The narrative of the golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God…but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around.
Or, still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in pious disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God.
Do you remember taking Algebra (or Calculus)…a kind of dreading…going to class (or doing the homework from the book)? This was the case I had in the seminary when it came to the Liturgy class we all have to take.
One of the first books I read after starting was Romano Guardini’s first little book (printed 1918): The Spirit of the Liturgy (and from then until 1957 it was constantly reprinted). This slim volume may rightly be said to have started the Liturgical Movement in Germany (and the Vatican II changes). Yes, its contribution was significant. It helped us to rediscover the Liturgy in all its beauty…hidden wealth and time transcending grandeur…to see it as the animating center of the Church, the very center of Christian life. It led to a striving for a celebration of the Liturgy that would be “more substantial” (one of Guardini’s favorite words). We were now willing to see the Liturgy – in its inner demands and form – as the prayer of the Church, a prayer moved and guided by the Holy Spirit Himself, a prayer in which Christ unceasingly becomes contemporary with us, enters into our lives. (And…like my calculus class…I dreaded it when I had to study it.)
I should like to suggest a comparison. Like all comparisons, it is in many ways inadequate…and yet it may aid in understanding. We might say that in 1918 (the year that Guardini published his book) the Liturgy was rather like a fresco painting in a building somewhere. It had been preserved from damage…but it had been almost completely overlaid with whitewash by later generations.
In the Missal from which the priest celebrated the Mass, the form of the Liturgy that had grown from its earliest beginnings was still present; but…as far as the faithful were concerned…it was largely concealed beneath instructions and forms of private prayer. The Liturgical Movement (and in a definitive way…Vatican II) cleaned and cleared the fresco. For a moment its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions. In fact, it is threatened with destruction, if the necessary steps are not taken to stop these damaging influences. Of course, there must be no question of its being covered with whitewash again, but what is imperative is: a new reverence in the way we treat it…a new understanding of its message and its reality…so that rediscovery does not become the first stage of irreversible loss.
My purpose in writing these reflections for a while is to assist this renewal of understanding. Its basic intentions coincide with what Guardini wanted to achieve in his own time with The Spirit of the Liturgy. The only difference is that I have had to translate what Guardini did at the end of World War I (in a totally different historical situation) into the context of our present day questions, hopes and dangers. I am not attempting (any more than Guardini was) to involve myself with scholarly discussion and research (… I am not a dreaded Calculus professor). I am simply offering an aid to the understanding of the faith and to the right way to give the faith its central form of expression in the Liturgy. My hope is to encourage, in a new way, something like a “liturgical movement”, a movement toward the Liturgy and toward the right way of celebrating the Liturgy (inwardly and outwardly)…then the intention that inspires the coming reflections would be richly fulfilled.
All too often, we (as Catholics) will come to Mass or in a common prayer without understanding why. (How often do you hear from a non-Catholic: “Why do you, as Catholics do (blank)?” (Make the sign of the cross, say memorized prayers, use incense, stand, sit…you can fill in the “(blank)”. And our response is something like: “I don’t know…it’s just what we do.”
The “great prayer of the Church” the Mass (or the Liturgy of the Hours), I want to give the parish unique insights on many areas of the Liturgy to help everyone to rediscover the hidden spiritual wealth (and transcendent grandeur) of the Liturgy as the very center of our Christian life (our Catholic life). While other denominations express prayer in their own method, the Liturgy is distinctively ours (given to us over 2000 years). It is not to be seen as a museum piece that is viewed from a distance…or just walked by as painting on a wall done by a famous artist. Our Liturgy is something we touch, see, smell, hear…taste. It is ours to take and experience.
Among the many liturgical areas we are going to look at in the next few reflections, I hope we can discuss fundamental misunderstandings of the Second Vatican Council’s intentions for liturgical reforms (renewal), especially the focus of prayer at the Mass, the placement of the tabernacle, the posture of kneeling, etc.
Other areas of interest: the essence of worship • Jewish roots and (2000 years old) new elements of the Christian Liturgy • sacred times and places • the historic and cosmic dimensions of the Liturgy • the relationship of the Liturgy to time and space • art and music…and the Liturgy • (the often misunderstood concept even among religious and clergy) – “active participation” of all the faithful • gestures, posture, and vestments. I hope…in the reflections to come…when you are asked to fill in the “(blank)”, each of us will be so excited to explain the “(blank)” – others will want to learn the steps of the Dance with us and join the music and the excitement. And, even more important, when you are tempted to think (or worse … say out loud): “Does God really care? Does what we do at Mass only get in the way of worshipping God?” …you will have the knowledge to expel that demon.