The sacred liturgy is the best and most perfect way to draw near to God
July 19, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – It’s no secret to Catholics today that the liturgy is a veritable battlefield of conflicting opinions, practices, experiments, improvisations, and abuses. It hardly seems that a day passes when we don’t hear about how the Mass somewhere or other has been harnessed into the service of the latest fad or trend, which is a not-so-subtle way of saying that this divine service is just a means to some further end, usually a practical end like motivating teens to help immigrants.
But this is fundamentally the wrong way of looking at our highest act of worship. As given to us by the holy tradition of the Church who received it from her Lord, the sacred liturgy is the gateway to the mystery of Christ, the best and most perfect way He has left us for drawing near to Him in our pilgrimage. The liturgy is the pinnacle, the exemplar, of all human activity, and at the same time, the home where men open up their souls to God’s divine action.
Since all grace is given through Christ, and Christ gives Himself to us in the Eucharist, the Eucharist itself is the center of the created cosmos, and therefore the entire supernatural life of the Christian can be accurately described as Eucharistic, as the giving of thanks and worship to the Father. If one removed the liturgy, one would remove the action and passion of Christ from our midst. And this would be to strip the Christian life of its fundamental purpose: to make us knowers and lovers of God.
The good of anything is its perfection. The perfection of a thing whose end is outside of itself consists in the attainment of that end. The end of man is God, and the activity by which we are united to God is loving, on the part of the will, and knowing, on the part of the intellect. On earth as in heaven, the expression of our relationship to God is the act of worship, which perfects both the will and the intellect. For this reason, holy contemplation—understood as union with and adoration of God—is the good activity that corresponds to our attainment of the ultimate good.
Everything in human life is to be judged by the contribution it makes to the activity of adoring God and reaching union with Him. Since liturgy is the mode in which this activity is carried out and perfected—so much so that many of the Fathers of the Church, the Eastern ones in particular, describe heaven as an eternal liturgy—it follows that all human perfections are ordered to our liturgical participation in divine mysteries. If human life culminates in the enrapturing vision of the Trinity and the Incarnate Word, and if to us pilgrims these realities are manifested and made present to us most of all in the sacred liturgy, then the ultimate end of everything that man is and does on earth is the adoration of God through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Everything God gives to us is for the sake of adoring the one true God, the all-holy Trinity, through, with, and in Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
It must be remembered that theology and spirituality are about one thing and have only one purpose: God, the gradual ascent to God, hearing His revealed word, sharing His divine life through the sacraments. The liturgy is the privileged setting of Scripture not just by having readings but, infinitely more, by containing the essence of the entire revelation of Christ, the highest wisdom, the greatest power, the all-conquering love, in the mystical, sacrificial banquet.
The Fathers of the Church teach that if you want to understand Scripture, you must live a holy life in imitation of Christ, the Word whom the words of Scripture teach about and point to. The Bible was given for those striving to be holy, and that is why its pages can be so obscure—as St. Augustine says, they discourage all but the unwearying laborer, the tireless seeker of God. Without Scripture, you can have no theology, which is the highest wisdom attainable by the human mind; but without participation in the living Christ, you cannot understand Scripture or interiorize its meaning; and without the liturgy there is no participation in the mystery, since the liturgy contains the mysterium fidei in its living, breathing reality, as the center from which all the radii of the Church’s mission in the world flow outwards.
Like the monastic life, the liturgy too has been called “the school of sanctity.” Liturgy educates by presenting the mysterious truths of Faith to each faculty of the human person and demanding some response from us. The very language of the liturgy in all its dimensions is a continual exegesis of Scripture, a living and penetrating presentation of the mysteries of faith to the eyes of the soul. The many-layered symbolism in the ceremonies, gestures, vestments, and sacred objects is, as the Eastern Fathers call it, a “mystagogy,” a leading of the soul into the realm of divine truth, a guiding of our senses and our intellect to what is beyond them. The meaning of these symbols is easily discerned (though never exhausted) by a soul fully awake, and this helps us to see that a successful “reform” of liturgy would have the effect of helping people to wake up and stay awake, rather than dumbing things down so that they might remain asleep in their worldly or conventional ideas.
The liturgy must be a spacious home to the divine symbols and the realities they convey, letting them shine through words and chants, gestures and ceremonies, indeed all the appearances. If there is going to be singing and speaking during Mass, all of it ought to be focused entirely on the mystery—as it is in the Byzantine liturgies, with their escalating waves of sung prayers, or in the Solemn Latin Mass, when Gregorian chant and dignified ceremonial combine to place the soul outside of time, outside of place, into the very Heart of Christ, the one Teacher, Shepherd, and Savior.