Liturgy, Part 5

Pope (emeritus) Benedict XVI is widely considered to be one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the past 100 years.  One of his most famous books is entitled The Spirit of the Liturgy, which he published in the year 2000 as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, five years prior to his election to the papacy.  Among the topics that Ratzinger examines in that book is the relationship of the liturgy to time and space.  As Catholics, we are familiar with liturgical worship, especially at Mass.  But many other Christian traditions eschew intricate rituals and formal prayers that take place in an ornately-decorated buildings, in favor of simpler gatherings that emphasize sermons and singing as well as trying to imitate Christ in the world by loving people in our daily lives (something we’re supposed to do too).  The reason for the stark difference in the form of worship, however, is that they view the sacrifice of Christ as a completed event that took place 2000 years ago, and the world as the “new Temple” where we worship the Lord and live our lives with Him.  The Mass, rather than something sacred, could thus be interpreted as play-acting (at best) or even (at worst) a sacrilegious attempt to re-sacrifice Christ by returning to Old Testament Temple rituals.   

In his consideration of Catholic liturgy, Ratzinger tries to explain why Catholic liturgy is neither of these things.  The key, of course, is Christ Jesus.  As Catholics, we believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God.  As God, Christ transcends time and space, which are part of His creation.  At the same time, we believe that Our Lord has a human nature, which means that He entered time and space and truly experienced them as a man.  Christ is the bridge between heaven and earth, the One who brings together God and humanity in Himself.  He makes it possible for us, who live in space and time, to enter into the eternal relationship of Father and Son that transcends space and time.  Ratzinger explains that, through liturgy, “time is drawn into what reaches beyond time.”  

When Jesus, at the Last Supper, instructs His disciples to “do this in memory of Me,” He establishes the means by which His one sacrifice is extended forward in time and space.  The Mass is the way you and I, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ (the Church), are brought into Christ’s eternal offering of Himself to God the Father.  Ratzinger explains that, at the Mass and other liturgical actions, “we do indeed participate in the heavenly liturgy, but this participation is mediated to us through earthly signs, which the Redeemer has shown to us as the place where His reality is to be found.”  The liturgy is where “the Shepherd takes the lost sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home.” 

The Mass, therefore, is not a historical re-enactment.  That’s why we do not try to make everything look like it did at the Last Supper 2000 years ago.  It is, rather, the way the Church enters into the event that transcends time and space.  The Mass is the unveiling of the heavenly liturgy in the midst of the world.  It “makes present” an event that took place 2000 years ago and which continues for all eternity in Heaven.  That event is the Incarnation, the sacrifice, the resurrection, and eternal glorification of Christ Jesus.  And it’s possible because He is both God and man, both transcending and present in time and space. 

posted 12/15/20

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