The Liturgy: A Ladder Between Heaven and Earth, By Dom Hugues Bohineust

The following is the text of a conference given by R.P. Dom Bohineust, O.S.B., on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the Association Pro Liturgia last month, the original French of which appeared on the Pro Liturgia website.

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Jacob had a dream: Behold, a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it! Jacob awoke from his dream and said, “Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. How terrible is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven!”

Terribilis est: this place is terrible. So we sing during the dedication of a Church. But the whole liturgy is this “terrible place” where God meets man. It is a “gate of heaven”, a “ladder” set up between heaven and earth. Liturgy is the place where earth and heaven meet.

At a certain period, this truth was called into question, and some tried to oppose the spiritual life and the liturgical life.

Dom Guéranger, Abbot of Solesmes, tells this story: “A good Jesuit, while giving a retreat in a house of our order, asked that the superior halt the Divine Office in order that he might not be distracted from the exercises of St. Ignatius!”

In contrast to the Spiritual Exercises, where everything is controlled and calculated, “The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life, and allows the soul to wander about in it at will and to develop itself there,” wrote Romano Guardini.

In the opening of The Liturgical Year, Dom Guéranger says, “Prayer is man’s richest boon. It is his light, his nourishment, and his very life, for it brings him into communication with God, who is light, nourishment, and life.”

If prayer in general is man’s “very life”, what are we to say about the prayer of the Church, the liturgy! The Church is truly the dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost, of the one who teaches us to pray.

During the waning of the Middle Ages, however, a spiritual current dubbed devotio moderna forsook the solemn celebration of the Hours of the Office for the sake of a more individual form of piety. Private prayer and spiritual exercises began to be preferred to solemn celebration. This was a divorce between theology and spirituality, between asceticism and mysticism, and a decisive break from the practice of the the ancients. For it was not so in St. Benedict’s Rule. For him, the time of greatest dedication to the spiritual life, the time for retreat, was the liturgical season of Lent.

Dom Guéranger castigated this view of things very severely. Against it, he had recourse to the liturgical mystics, especially St. Gertrude.

For St Gertrude, the mystery of God is lived in the liturgy. The liturgy is not merely preparatory; it was during the course of the liturgy that she received her mystical graces. All of her prayer prolonged in private the mystery she lived in the liturgy.

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Illuminated initial from the Weissenau Passionary, beginning a Life of St Gertrude

The Liturgical Movement continued Dom Guéranger’s work. Finally, Vatican II declared in Sacrosanctum concilium 13:

But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.

Obviously, the liturgy is not the only activity of the Church, but it is “the source and summit of the life of the Church” (ibid., ch. 1).

But here we encounter a paradox. We must explain the liturgy, but it is the liturgy that should teach us in a living manner.

Our intention is to show that the liturgy is the gate of heaven, the spiritual life in its highest degree.

Life is a communication and an exchange. The spiritual life is a commerce with God through the medium of knowledge and love, an admirable commerce (admirabile commercium), as an antiphon of 1st January says about the Incarnation: “O admirable exchange! The creator of mankind, taking on a living body, willed to be born of the Virgin, and becoming man without man’s seed, bestowed his divinity upon us”.[1]

Indeed, the liturgy itself is an “admirable commerce” between God and men. It is a ladder between heaven and earth, a “hole in heaven”, as Leon Bloy said. It allows God to send down his gifts to men and men to send up their prayers towards God, perhaps by the ministry of angels!

Following the Fathers of the Church, we might describe the liturgy in two words: celebration and solemnity. To “celebrate” is to proclaim something to many people. “Solemnity” is that quality that expresses the fact that something important is going on, that a bit of heaven is touching the earth.

But the Fathers insisted further: the liturgy is a celebration of faith. It is a solemnity of love, sollemnitas amoris, as St Gregory the Great said, he who was a Father of the liturgy and a Father for Benedictine monks.

The liturgy is a celebration of faith and solemnity of love. The spirit of the liturgy is nothing less than the Spirit of holiness, truth, and love.

The Liturgy is a Life of Faith and Love  

God gives himself because he is Love. Man receives the gift of God in faith and responds in love through prayer.

As in every friendship, the love of God for man demands a response. Thus we can discern a two-fold movement: of God toward man (the gift of grace) and of man toward God (thanksgiving): and this is the liturgy.

We might say therefore that the liturgy is a descent of God toward man, of heaven toward the earth; and an ascent of man toward God, of the earth toward heaven.

These two lines are not parallel, but they meet one another. Liturgy is the place of encounter between God and his People, the place of their Covenant. That is the meaning of liturgy: action for the people, public service and service of God.

Without an authentic encounter with God, there can be no liturgy, as is is the case with Islam. For the encounter to take place, God must come to us and we to him: God gives himself to us and we to him. The liturgy is a solemn celebration, in faith and love, of this reciprocal giving of God and man.

 I. The Gift of Grace and the Act of Thanksgiving: The Liturgy’s Twofold Movement

“The glory of God and the salvation of the world” are the two essential ends of the liturgy.

Before men praise God, and in order that they might praise him, God supplies them with the gifts of grace; he sanctifies them. The end of the liturgy is not merely to worship God, but first of all to confer on men the grace of God through the sacraments.

What would we have to offer God, if God had not first given himself to us? This is what is stated in the Offertory prayer: de tua largitate accepimus panem quem tibi offerimus; and in the Roman Canon: offerimus praeclarae maiestati tuae de tuis donis ac datis.

The Curé of Ars said very simply, “There are two things for uniting ourselves with Our Lord and obtaining his salvation: prayer and the sacraments. All those who have become saints frequented the sacraments and elevated their soul to God by prayer.”

My plan is therefore the following:

1st Part: The Descent down the Ladder: the gifts of God, the sacraments;

2nd Part: The Ascent up the Ladder: the prayer and the offering of the saints;

3rd Part: The Sacrifice, which is the central act of the liturgy, in which both of these elements find their most perfect expression, because it is simultaneously ascent and descent.

a. Sanctification: The Descending Movement of God toward man

1. The first gift of God to man is the Word of God

Sanctification begins with the proclamation of the Word of God. The Word of God is the first of God’s gifts.

“The word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword” (Heb 4:12). We cannot call Sacred Scripture a sacrament in the technical sense of the word, but the very words of Sacred Scripture bear a light and force that are divine.

Sacrosanctum Concilium says, regarding the presence of Christ in the liturgy: “Praesens adest in verbo suo, siquidem ipse loquitur dum sacrae Scripturae in Ecclesia leguntur.”

Liturgy is a place where, according to the Fathers, Scripture receives authentic interpretation, because there the Word of God is fully accomplished, there all the figures of the Old Testament are truly fulfilled.[2]

“Today” is realized for the faithful who receives what is read from Holy Writ into his heart with a living faith. This is the hodie about which Leo the Great spoke.

In the liturgy, says Dom Delatte, “one receives the thought of God from the lips and heart of the Church.”

The liturgy, in its entirety, is the living transmission of the truths of the Faith. It is the putting into living practice of these truths of the Christian faith. To the extent the Christian practices his faith, he manifests its truth.

This is especially true of liturgical chant. “It is impossible to sing the introit of Easter, Resurrexit, several times,” says Dom Gajard, “without better understanding the feast of Easter and redemption.” One might say the same of the Mass of the Dead.

The liturgy is, Dom Guéranger said, “Tradition in its highest degree of power and solemnity.” It is the “main instrument of Tradition”. It is more efficacious in its way than any encyclical!

Pius XI says as much in his great encyclical on what he called the “plague of anti-clericalism,” in which he proclaimed the new feast of Christ the King:

For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church [which few read]. […] The church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature.

Dom Gérard Calvet writes:

With the liturgy, I enter into the being of the Church, into its innermost sanctuary. […] And when I say the amen which concludes a liturgical prayer I subscribe to an objective thought which I make mine and which surpasses me infinitely. It is in this way that, little by little, we acquire a supernatural instinct which will quite naturally lead the faithful to sentire cum Ecclesia: that capacity of feel and think with the Church.[3]

No one can appreciate liturgical solemnity if his sense of the faith is spoiled or perverted. Correct faith is an integral part of the celebration. So much so that because of its doctrinal nature the liturgy has always been a great witness of faith. To understand a Church’s creed it is enough to hear the echo of its prayer: lex orandi, lex credendi.

We end with the words of St. Augustine: “When thou repeatest the Creed, thou dressest thy heart.”

b. The Gift of Grace in the Sacraments 

God’s first gift is the proclamation of the Word of God. For God does nothing without explaining what he does. The sanctification of man in the liturgy begins by listening to his Word.

Actually, the proclamation of the Word of God and the dispensing of the sacraments are two facets of the same mystery of the active presence of the Holy Spirit in his Church.

They brighten and reflect one another. The proclamation of the Word of God always precedes the celebration of the sacramental rite. The sacrament completes the spiritual work that the act of hearing the Word of God brought slowly to maturity.

The liturgy is the enactment of all the sacraments that confer upon Christ’s faithful the power of his saving mysteries.

St. Thomas says: “They obtain their effect through the power of Christ’s Passion; and Christ’s Passion is, so to say, applied to man through the sacraments”[4]

They come from God; by the sacraments, God communicates his grace to man, which is to say his own Life. They are the means chosen by God for man’s sanctification.

It is in order that that we may fully profit from this sanctification that the Church—in the liturgy of the Word, in its teaching, its chants—stimulates, clarifies, and develops our faith.

The celebration of the sacraments is itself an act of worship offered to God. It is always an act of prayer. Grace elicits gratitude, gift elicits thanksgiving.

God’s descent toward man calls for man’s ascent toward God. This ascension takes place through prayer.

2. Man’s Ascent to God: Prayer and Worship Offered to God.

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Worship is the collection of acts by which the community honors God, carries out, “manages” its relations with God, cultivates its friendship with him. It is the debt of honor and glory that man gives to God.

Worship is man’s response to God and his gifts, wherein he offers himself, his intelligence and will, along with his whole body.

Its principal acts are thanksgiving, prayer, praise, adoration, and offering.

Thanksgiving corresponds to the gift of grace.

“Prayer is an elevation of the soul towards God,” says St. John Damascene. Through prayer, man offers his intelligence, desires, and projects to God. Prayer is the “interpretation of our desires,” according to St. Augustine.

Praise and thanksgiving do not mean the same thing. The difference consists in this: praise is made for a good, even if the good is not ours. We thank God for a gift that is ours, that we have received. On both counts, praise and thanksgiving, we go out of ourselves. Praise and thanksgiving are necessarily the heart of prayer, because to pray we must go out of ourselves. Redeemed man must offer praise for the salvation that he shares with others, and thank God for the salvation he has received. Through his acts of praise and thanksgiving, we can recognize a man who has been saved.

In adoration, a person offers his whole self, including his body.

We know that Our Lord prayed on his knees, and that Stephen, Peter, and Paul prayed on their knees. The hymn to Christ in the Letter to the Philippians represents the cosmic liturgy as the act of bending the knee at the name of Jesus (2:10). When the Church bends her knee at the name of Jesus she takes the attitude of him who “was equal to God” but “lowered himself even to death.” This gesture is a confession of Jesus Christ that no word can replace.[5]“The body must be trained, so to speak, for the resurrection”, as Cardinal Ratzinger beautifully puts it.

Man is not truly himself except when he adores. Adoration is the sign by which the creature receives his identity and summation, setting itself before God’s face.

Silence itself, when it follows choral chant, is a form of adoration: every created word effaces itself before the Creator.

Adoration is the creature’s homage to its Creator. It is the offering of itself to God, of everything it possesses.

Guéranger explains (Institutions liturgiques, Preface):

Liturgy is the highest and holiest expression of the Church’s thought and understanding, for the sole reason that it is carried out by the Church in direct communication with God through Confession, Prayer, and Praise […]

Through Prayer, the Church expresses her love for God and desire to be please Him and be united to Him. This desire is at once humble and strong, because she is the beloved, and the lover is God.

Hence the ravishing unction, the ineffable melancholy, and the inexpressible tenderness of her formulas. Some are simple, others solemn; in them them one senses sometimes the gentle and tender sollicitude of a royal spouse towards the king who chose and crowned her; at other times the ardent sollicitude of a mother’s heart alarmed for her beloved children. Always, however, one senses this knowledge of the things of another life, so profound and so distinct—whether by confessing their truth or yearning to taste its fruits—that no other sentiment can be compared to it, nor any other expression approach its expression.

On Praise: the Church cannot contain in silent contemplation the transports of love and admiration that the sight of the divine mysteries cause within her. Like Mary, at the sight of the great things that He that is mighty has wrought within her, she rejoices in Him, and doth magnify him […]

These three principal parts—Confession, Prayer, and Praise—become a source of inexhaustible poetry in the liturgy. It is a poetry inspired by the same spirit that dictated the canticles of David, Isaias, and Solomon. It is a poetry as charming in its images as it is profound and unlimited in its sentiment. God owed His Church a language worthy of serving such lofty thoughts and such ardent desires.

a. Worship given to God encompasses all human life

Cardinal Ratzinger speaks in this way: “Cult, liturgy in the proper sense, is part of this worship, but so too is life according to the will of God; such a life is an indispensable part of true worship. ‘The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God,’ says St. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 4, 20, 7), getting to the heart of what happens when man meets God, but life becomes real life only when it receives its form from looking towards God. Cult exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.”[6]

b. Worship is Filial

Christ reveals the secrets of God’s life. We dare to say “Our Father” to him. The grace he gives us is filial.

Through Revelation God makes himself known and brings himself close to us: worship in spirit and truth is faith and charity.

Through him, with him, and in him, we adore, we glorify, we give thanks to the Father.

Fr. Bouyer said that the liturgy is “a resumption of all things in the immense flood of divine love, flowing back finally in filial love towards its source, the Father.”[7]

c. The Liturgy is the Prayer of Christ and His Church

The Principle from which all these acts of worship derive is ultimately the Holy Trinity:

This is what D. Guéranger says (Institutions liturgiques, I, 16):

The liturgy is something so excellent that, to discover its principle, one must go all the way up to God. God, in His contemplation of His infinitive perfections, praises and glorifies Himself ceaselessly, as if He loved with an everlasting love.

Nevertheless, these various acts carried out in the divine essence only acquired a visible and truly liturgical expression when one of the three Persons took up human nature and was able thenceforth to carry out the duties of religion towards the glorious Trinity.

Cardinal Journet (The Church of the Word Incarnate, vol. 2, p. 202) puts it in another way:

1. Thus the Savior’s human nature, within which the entirety of creation found itself represented and summed up, has been able to implore the heavens marvellously, with one stroke crossing the depths of heaven and penetrating the regions of eternal silence, sinking like an arrow cast into God’s heart. […]

This imploration infinitely surpasses our acts of adoration, offering, and supplication, rising upwards whither none of these acts can reach, and opening above them the very abyss of the divine infinity. Nevertheless, it does not seek to dispel of annihilate these acts. Rather, it seeks to provoke them, arouse them, and draw them into its wake. […] The supreme supplication of Christ carries with it the supreme supplication of the entire Church, who is his body and his Spouse.

2. As a result, the whole Church constitutes, with Christ, a single mystical person worshipping, offering, and supplicating.

Thus also D. Guéranger, who puts it lyrically (The Liturgical Year, General Preface):

Ever since that day of Pentecost, [the Holy Ghost] has dwelt in this His favoured bride. He is the principle of everything at is in her. He it is that prompts her prayers, her desires, her canticles of praise, her enthusiasm, and even her mourning. Hence her prayer is as uninterrupted as her existence. Day and night is her voice sounding sweetly in the ear of her divine Spouse, and her words are ever finding a welcome in His heart.

And Charles Péguy, in a poetic manner (the Paterin The Mystery of the Holy Innocents):

In the same way that the wake of a great ship goes on widening till it disappears and is lost,
But begins with a point which is the point of the ship itself,
So the immense wake of sinners widens till it disappears and is lost.
But begins with a point and it is the point which comes towards me, which is turned towards me.
It begins with a point which is the point of the ship itself.
And the ship is my own Son, loaded with all the sins of the world.
And the point of the ship is the point of my Son’s hands joined in supplication.

3. There is a direct connection between these two movements of the sanctification of man and the glory of God.

When God gives man being and grace, he renders him capable of returning to him freely. The ascending line has its source in the descending line. God gives himself to man and thus enables man to give himself back to him.

The return to God is provoked by God himself. The descending line is the most important because it is necessarily first. The gift of grace is primary. There is a primacy of divine initiative in the liturgical encounter. Man does not take the initiative.[8]

These two movements which we can and must distinguish, of men toward God and of God toward men, are strictly related: worship is for the sanctification of man. But these two ends are subordinated: sanctification is for the sake of worship.[9]

There is an inter-penetration: the opposition is apparent. There is an intimate co-penetration of the divine action and man’s response in the work of sanctification and worship. It is not magic, but collaboration with man. Christian worship is impossible without the gift of grace.

If the order of these two movements is reversed, then worship devolves into magic. If we drag God down to our level, it devolves into idolatry; if we exult transcendence without the gift of grace, the result is Islam which has no liturgy. If we forget transcendence, the result is self-celebration of the community centered on itself, about which Ratzinger warns us so often:

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 alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then the liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around.[10]

The Church is the subject of the liturgy

Pope Paul VI published the conciliar constitution on the liturgy Sacrosanctum Conciliumon 4th December 1963:

Sacrosanctum Conciliumn. 7 says:

Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man [descending line] is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs [the sacraments]; in the liturgy the whole public worship [ascending line] is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.

These definition summarizes, with slight modification, the one given by Pius XII in Mediator Dei 16 years earlier. But whereas Mediator Dei places the emphasis on the public cult rendered by Christ the Head and his Body as a basic principle or as a self-evident notion, Sacrosanctum Concilium focuses on the exercise of the Christ’s exercise of his priestly functions and explains what this consists in: representing and effecting the sanctification of man. Sacrosanctum Concilium thus explicitly marks the importance of the sacraments in the liturgy.

It is the priesthood of Christ, of which the liturgy is the exercise, that explains the unity of this two-fold movement and the fact that every rite makes reference to the adoration and glorification of God.[11] Sacrosanctum Concilium thereby invites us to consider the central place of sacrifice in the liturgy.

II. The Central Place of Sacrifice in the Liturgy

1. Ritual permits us to enter into contact with the sacred

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Pontifical Mass in the Abbey of Le Barroux

To understand what a sacrifice is, we must reflect on the notion of rite.

The liturgical rite is where the encounter between God and man receives its expression. It is the act in which the reciprocal gift of God to man and man to God is effected.

Rite is a shared action of God and man, a collaboration of God and man, in which God’s action is primary. Through rites, man imitates God, acts like him, acts with him. For the Christian, rite is the prolongation and imitation of the salvific acts of Christ.

Rite is rich in meaning. It puts men symbolically (and really, if it is a sacrament) in contact with what is beyond the scope of the creature, with what is sacred. Man attains the divine. As part of the cosmos, man enters, at least symbolically, into relation with the Creator of the cosmos.

Today the word “ritual” often has a negative connotation. It evokes rigidity and attachment to pre-established forms. It is often contrasted with creativity, which is thought to be the only safeguard of a genuine living liturgy.

Rite has nothing to do with creativity or a “fabricated” liturgy.

Rite is received. “Rites are rites because it is believed that if they were instituted by anyone, it would have had to have been the gods themselves”[12], says Fr. Bouyer. Thus, the sacraments have been instituted by Christ.

“The life of the liturgy does not consist in ‘pleasant’ surprises and ‘attractive’ ideas but in solemn repetitions,” says Cardinal Ratzinger.[13]Novelties are always suspect. St. John Chrysostom had to give a sermon in order to justify the introduction of the new feast of Christmas at Antioch.

Rite is solemn. Every sacred liturgy tends by means of a ritual to lift us out of the banal and quotidian, not for mere aesthetic reasons, but to help the faithful see that the action that is taking place comes from God. The majesty of the liturgical ceremony signifies that something celestial is taking place on earth.

St. Gregory the Great wrote as much in his Dialogues (IV, 58): “For what right believing Christian can doubt, that in the very hour of the sacrifice, at the words of the Priest, the heavens be opened, and the quires of Angels are present in that mystery of Jesus Christ; that high things are accompanied with low, and earthly joined to heavenly, and that one thing is made of visible and invisible?”. Solemnity is an integral part of the Catholic liturgy, and must be fostered as an indispensable part of its message, as long as it does not fall into pomposity or mannerism.

Romano Guardini insists in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “We are not concerned here with the question of powerfully symbolic gestures, as if we were in a spiritual theater, but we have to see that our real souls should approach a little nearer to the real God, for the sake of all our most personal, profoundly serious affairs.”

“I like the rule that corrects emotion,” says Georges Braque, “I like the emotion that corrects the rule.”

And Joseph Ratzinger says that “rite” consists in the “practical arrangements” for praise.[14]

Rite is opposed neither to emotion or to praise, nor to life. On the contrary, it permits us to enter into contact with the Holy and Living One.

Every life has its rites, because life spontaneously knows that it is the most sacred thing.

It is true that modern society has tried to desacralize life at all costs!

2. But what is the sacred?

To answer that question, let us take an image by Gustave Thibon. Imagine a marine sponge at the bottom of the sea. If it were to become conscious, it would have a very clear idea of the sacred. For the sponge, the ocean would be the sacred. Its immensity surpasses the sponge entirely. The ocean penetrates into its pores, since it has holes, and so it is more interior to it that the sponge is to itself, intimior intimio meo, as St. Augustine would say. The ocean is immanent within her. And transcendence and immanence are the two divine qualities on which the notion of the sacred is founded.

The sacred is a thing that has become inviolable in virtue of its connection or contact with the divine.[15] It is the quality of a thing that is in contact or relationship with God.

The sacred has two dimensions: (1) everything that exists, insofar as it exists, comes from God and has a direct relation to him; (2) every being tends back to God.

1) There is the immanent sacred: at the depths of every creature, by reasons of a fundamental relation that exists between a creature and its Creator. From this point of view, every being is sacred.

2) There is a transcendent sacred: the sacred is beyond limited beings, in the divine sphere that one might reach through a series of separations and purifications. Here the point of view of transcendence is privileged. The divine is the Wholly Other who pulls us out of ourselves.[16]

In these two perspectives we can clearly discern our two motions, the descending and the ascending, always keeping the primacy that belongs to the immanent sacred: the limited creature cannot attain the divine if it does not first have its origin in God, in whom it really participates. Before being the end of creatures, God is their source. Everything comes from God, everything goes back to God. The two motions are concomitant, and we should not talk about a going out and returning between God and the creature. God does not cease to come to be with his rational creatures and give them the means to come back to him.

All of this becomes apparent from the notion of sacrifice.

  1. Sacrifice.[17]

Sacrifice is a rite par excellence, whose purpose is to “do the sacred.”

There are two ways to “do the sacred.”

In the ascending direction—the transcendent dimension of the sacred—it is a matter of “passing” into the divine domain. Man must overcome his limits in order to attain the sacred domain of God.

“To do the sacred,” in this perspective, means to celebrates certain rites of passage. Burning the victim causes it to pass into the other world; in this instance, the victim actually represents the one who offers it. By means of the sacrificed animal, man tries to approach God. Here, the type of sacrifice is the holocaust.

“It is the offering of a sweet savour which Scripture itself tells us is the prayers of the Saints” says Romano Guardini in his Sacred Signs. “Incense is the symbol of prayer. Like pure prayer it has in view no object of its own; it asks  nothing for itself. It rises like the Gloriaat the end of a  psalm in adoration and thanksgiving to God for his great glory.

Rites of purification by water are also a part of this passage of man toward God.[18]

In the descending direction of the immanent sacred, “to/\do the sacred” does not mean “to produce the sacred,” because that is not within the creature’s power. “To do the sacred” is to “consecrate,” and only God consecrates! It means to recognize the sacred character in the depths of every being and allow is to blossom. All beings are sacred in themselves because they have been created by God, but this quality only becomes manifest in “consecrated” beings.

“This altar is admirable” says St. John Chrysostom, “Being but a stone by nature, it becomes holy because it receives Christ’s Body”[19]

Every meal has a sacred dimension. We acknowledge this when we begin them with the Benedicite. To recognize the sacrality of the meal as foremost among human acts, is to recognize the total dependence of man in relation to the Living God their Creator.[20]

Yet a meal only takes on its entire religious significance in the act of sacrifice. Here the table is set by God. God and man are sit down convivially, in the strongest sense of the world: they are united in the same life. In this perspective of the immanent sacred, the sacrifice par excellence will be the sacrifice of communion: man sits at the table laid out by God, and God sits at the table of man.

The two lines of the sacred and of sacrifice that we have just presented are entirely complementary: the divine action is always primary, when it consacrates or attracts things to itself. In sacrifice, man receives from God what he offers and gives in order to receive once again.

This is the sense of the prayer over the oblations of the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: “Receive our oblation, O Lord, by which is brought about a glorious exchange [commercia], that, by offering what you have given, we may merit to receive your very self. Through Christ our Lord. ”

In sacrifice, man truly joins in the work of God. But what God loves in the sacrifice is the love that is offered him.

Interior, spiritual sacrifices the sign of this love. Ps 50:10: “The sacrifice pleasing and acceptable to God is a contrite heart.”

4. The Eucharistic Sacrifice

a. The Passion of Christ is a true sacrifice, not merely ritual but existential, which fulfills all the sacrifices of the law.

“Instead of material fire,” St. Thomas explains, “there was the spiritual fire of charity in Christ’s holocaust.”[21]

Death is the supreme act of love. It is the moment in which an entire life draws itself together to give itself.

1. Christ prays for the redemption of the world by giving his whole being in sacrifice. This is ascendant mediation. His offering gathers together the sacrifices of Abel and Abraham, and of all the martyrs and saints of later days, and unites them to his own.

2. At the same time, there is a response from on high, a descending mediation. The sacrifice of Christ pierces the heart of God, as is signified when when Christ’s heart is wounded by the lance. All the graces that had been withheld since the beginning of the world, St. Paul says, were poured out upon Christ to be spilled into the world.[22]

1. God descends to meet his people in the Incarnation, to the point of giving himself to them as food. He gives them his Spirit.

2. His humanity enters into Glory, something that no sacrificial rite had been able to obtain. It passes into the divine realm: “For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24).

What the holocausts and other “rites of passage” sought in vain, Christ’s Pasch has obtained for his humanity actually, and for all of us, in hope. By his sacrifice, he has passed entirely into the divine realm.[23]

And he draws mankind with him into the heavenly dwelling: “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32).

b) The Eucharist

The Eucharist is where this two-fold movement of the liturgy, which we have tried to explain, is most profoundly realized. A sacrifice offered to God, a supreme act of worship and adoration, it is the supreme gift of God to mankind. The victim presented to the Father is the same one we receive (de tuis donis ac datis) through the act of Transubstantiation. But after we have offered it to God, it is given to us as food. Communion is required for the integrity of the sacrifice. Thus the most disinterested act of worship, the “sacrifice of praise” to the glory of God, is at the same time the act by which we receive from God the very source of all grace.[24]

We find this truth expressed in the Canon, in the Supplices: “We humbly beseech Thee, Almighty God, command these to be carried by the hands of Thy holy Angel to Thine Altar on high, in the presence of Thy divine Majesty, that as many of us as shall, by partaking at this Altar, receive the most sacred Body and Blood of Thy Son, may be filled with all heavenly blessing and grace.”[25]

The Eucharist is a meeting between God and man. Divine agency is always primary. God gives himself to his People and the Church gives herself to her God in a joint action that celebrates the New Covenant sealed in the blood of the God-Man.[26]

The Eucharist is the gift of a benefactor and the thanks of the beneficiary, a gift of grace and a thanksgiving.

The two motions that meet in the liturgy achieve synergy through Christ, the collaboration of God and his People.

The Mass is a sacrament and a sacrifice. It is the sacrament of sacrifice.“The Mass is the bloody sacrifice swathed in the sweetness of the consecration of the species of bread and wine”, said Cardinal Journet.[27]

Meal and Sacrifice cannot be opposed. Because God is God, transcendent and immanent—remember the sponge!—the meal is an integral and inseparable part of the sacrifice. As Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “To speak of the Eucharist as the community meal is to cheapen it, for its price was the death of Christ. And as for the joy it heralds, it presupposes that we have entered into this mystery of death. Eucharist is ordered to eschatology, and hence it is at the heart of the theology of the Cross”[28].

The liturgy affects our daily life in its entirety.It integrates the offering of our individual lives into Christ’s own offering, making them “living sacrifices” in communion with the “sacrifice of Christ” (Rm. 12:1).[29]

Liturgy and the Feast of the Resurrection?

We are seated around the table of the Kingdom, because the glorified Christ gives himself to us as food. Each time, God joins us (immanent sacred) and draws us into his Glory (transcendant sacred). The Per ipsumat the end of the Canon is a good expression of the actualization of the two dimensions of the sacrifice offered on Calvary: we receive from God what we give back to him, until he comes again.

Ever since the New Covenant was sealed in the blood of the Son Incarnate, the liturgy of heaven is inaugurated on the earth. That is why the descending-ascending structure is progressively resolved into the eternal order of the Trinitarian life. Then, God will be all in all. The union will be consummated and there will be, so to speak, no more need for the liturgy.[30]This is truly the “solemnity of love”!

“Man was created to contemplate his Creator,” wrote St Gregory the Great, “to be always seeking his face and to dwell in the solemnity of his love.”[31]

The liturgy is a feast

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote (The Feast of Faith, p. 63):

All civilizations have found that those who celebrate a feast need some external motive empowering them to do so. They cannot do it of themselves. There needs to be a reason for the feast, an objective reason prior to the individual’s will […]

In other words, when “celebration” is equated with the congregation’s group dynamics, when “creativity” and “ideas” are mistaken for freedom, the fact is that human nature is being soft-pedaled; its authentic reality is being bypassed. It does not take a prophet to predict that experiments of this kind will not last long; but they can result in a widespread destruction of liturgy.

Now let us turn to the positive side. We have said that liturgy is festal, and the feast is about freedom [… But where we speak of freedom], we also raise the question of death. Therefore the festal celebration, above all else, must address itself to the question of death. Conversely, the feast presupposes joy, but that is only possible if it is able to face up to death […]

The novel Christian reality is this: Christ’s Resurrection enables man genuinely to rejoice.

[…]

That is why the Christian liturgy—Eucharist—is, of its essence, the Feast of the Resurrection, Mysterium Paschae. As such it bears within it the mystery of the Cross, which is the inner presupposition of the Resurrection.”

“The most beautiful raiment” that the father gives the prodigal son symbolizes the robe of baptism. In the feast prepared by the father, the Fathers of the Church see an image of the feast of faith, of the celebration of the Eucharist that anticipates the eternal banquet. The ring they see the mark of the elect. The “symphony of the heavenly choirs” is an image of the symphony of faith, which makes of Christian life a joyful feast: the restoration of the Covenant by a sacrificial banquet[32].

St. Augustine comments, “His servants are the ministers of the Church. They owe a service, they perform a duty. […] He gave instructions for the fatted calf to be killed; that is, for his son to be admitted to the table at which Christ who was slain is fed upon. […] What is a symphony? A concord of voices. […] The only thing which gives pleasure in a choir is the voices of many singers, blending as one, achieving a unity out of them all, not breaking out into a discordant variety. […]”[33]It is meet to feast and rejoice, for Christ has died for the impious.

The Liturgy is Joy.

“Joy always announces the triumph of life”, said Bergson[34]. Where is this truer than in the liturgy? The liturgy is life with God, life in God, life at its maximum intensity.

God is Love. He gives Himself by creating man in His own image and by calling him to enter into His joy, the eternal joy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Intra in gaudium Domini tui.

“What is the liturgy?” Charlemagne once asked his learned minister Alcuin. “The liturgy is the joy of God.”

450px-charlemagne_and_alcuin_scriptor
Bl. Charlemagne with Bl. Alcuin

 

Notes

[1]O admirabile commercium : Creator generis humani, animatum corpus sumens, de Virgine nasci dignatus est : et procedens homo sine semine, largitus est nobis suam Deitatem.

[2]See P. M. HUMBERT, L’Écriture symphonique, p. 98.

[3]Dom Gérard Calvet, Four Benefits of the Liturgy, p. 28.

[4]Summa theologiae, III, 61, 1.

[5]Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 176

[6]Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 17-18

[7]Bouyer, The Meaning of the Monastic Life.

[8]Le Gall, Associés à l’œuvre de Dieu, p. 109s.

[9]Martimort, The Church at Prayer, vol. 2, p. 194 [?].

[10]Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 23.

[11]Martimort, ibid., p. 194 [?].

[12]Bouyer, ibid., p. 97.

[13]Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, p. 126

[14]Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy.

[15]Cf. D. Robert Le Gall, Revue Thomiste, 1982, III.

[16]L. Bouyer, Le rite et l’homme. Mysterium tremendum et mysterium fascinans.

[17]Le Gall, RT 1982 III.

[18]L. Bouyer, Rite and Man.

[19]St. John Chrysostom, Hom XX in II Co.

[20]Bouyer, Rite and Man.

[21]ST IIIa, q. 46, a. 4, 1.

[22]Journet, Entretiens sur l’eucharistie, p. 34.

[23]Le Gall, RT 82.

[24]Martimort.

[25]Martimort, ibid., p. 193.

[26]Le Gall, RT 82.

[27]Journet, Entretiens sur l’eucharistie, p. 44.

[28]Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, p. 65

[29]Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 49.

[30]Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 250.

[31]Morales in Job VIII, 18, 34.

[32]Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 250

[33]Sermon 112A, PLS 2, 435.

[34]Bergson, L’energie spirituelle, Ed. du Centenaire, p. 832.

One thought on “The Liturgy: A Ladder Between Heaven and Earth, By Dom Hugues Bohineust

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