The sacred liturgy has an important place in our Christian life. It brings the Christian to very close participation in the prayer of Christ the Supreme High Priest and his Church. In our response to the call to follow Christ, the sacred liturgy guides us, helps us, leads us, educates us and accompanies us.
In response to a request, I shall strive each month to offer some reflections on one aspect of the sacred liturgy to the readers of Trinitas. These monthly reflections will cover aspects such as the nature of the sacred liturgy itself, its place in the life of the Christian, formation for and growth in the life of prayer, some of the Sacraments and their liturgical prominence, liturgical blessings, different roles for Christians in liturgical celebrations, and the wide field of participation in the liturgy.
We begin this month by examining what the sacred liturgy is.
WHAT IS THE SACRED LITURGY?
After Adam and Eve offended God by original sin, God promised a Saviour. In the fullness of time the Eternal Father sent his Only-begotten Son who took on human nature “for love of us and for our salvation” (Credo). Jesus Christ did the work of our redemption by his Incarnation and by his entire earthly life, especially by the paschal mystery of his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension.
Before and especially after his resurrection, Jesus sent the Church which he had founded to preach the good news of salvation in his name, to celebrate the paschal mystery in his name and to offer all humankind a chance to receive the graces of the redemption. This is the beginning of the sacred liturgy. The early Church “continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of the bread and in the prayers… praising God and being in favour with all the people” (Acts 2:41-47).
The celebration of the Sacraments began. People listened to the exhortation and witness by Saint Peter and the other Apostles, repented and got baptized (cf. Acts 2:41). They prayed together. Above all, they celebrated the Eucharistic Sacrifice because Jesus had commanded the Apostles: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). “As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which ‘Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7) is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on”, declares the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, 3). The early Church also kept up the best tradition from the Old Covenant of singing the Psalms in honour of God, of gathering to praise God, to thank him, to ask pardon for human offenses and to request God’s help in matters spiritual and temporal.
To make all this possible for the Church, Christ is always present in his Church especially in her liturgical worship. He is present at Mass not only in the celebrating priest, his minister who acts in his person, but more particularly in the Eucharistic species of bread and wine, because after the consecration the bread now becomes the Body of Christ and the wine becomes his Blood. Jesus is present in each Sacrament because he is the minister of each of them. He is present in his word when Holy Scripture is proclaimed in Church. And Jesus is present in the Christians gathered together as the liturgical assembly since he himself assured us: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20) (cf Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7).
The above considerations now enable us to see what the sacred liturgy is. It is an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ who associates his Church with himself in praying to his Eternal Father. The liturgy is the prayer of the Mystical Body of Christ, Head and members. The chief person acting in each liturgical celebration is Christ himself. “From this it follows that every liturgical celebration because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can match its claim to efficacy, nor equal the degree of it” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7).
The role of Christ in liturgical worship is of central importance. His unique role as God and man, as Creator and Head of the Church, is put beautifully by Saint Augustine in his commentary on Psalm 86: “One God with the Father, one Man with men; so that when we speak to God in prayer for mercy, we do not separate the Son from him; and when the Body of the Son prays, it separates not its Head from itself: and it is one Saviour of his Body, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who both prays for us, and prays in us, and is prayed to by us. He prays for us, as our Priest; he prays in us, as our Head; he is prayed to by us, as our God. Let us therefore recognize in him our words, and his words in us…Therefore we pray to him, through him, in him; and we speak with him, and he speaks with us” (St Augustine: Exposition on Psalm 86, translated by J.E.Tweed, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 8).
It follows that liturgical prayer is to be esteemed as greater than the other two forms of prayer, namely, community prayer (such as the Rosary, prayers of various associations in the Church, family prayers, etc.) and personal prayer, although, of course these other forms of prayer have their importance too. The Second Vatican Council warmly commends popular devotions provided that they are properly approved and are “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 the liturgy by its very nature surpasses any of them” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 13).
There are three major parts of the sacred liturgy: the Sacraments, the Sacramentals and the Liturgy of the Hours. The sacraments are the seven major rites instituted by Christ himself: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Holy Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The sacramentals are the rites instituted by the Church, such as the consecration of persons, the dedication of buildings and sacred objects and the blessing of persons and objects. The Liturgy of the Hours are the prayers of the Church for the different hours of day and night. Also called the Divine Office and the book containing them is sometimes called the Breviary, the Church officially deputizes monks and nuns, clerics and religious brothers and sisters to offer these prayers every day and recommends them to the lay faithful.
Although the sacred liturgy is consequently to be highly esteemed, it does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church. The Church also stresses the importance of conversion, catechesis, preaching, spiritual retreats, mortification, fasting, charity to the sick and needy and prayers to the Saints. “Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed, at the same time it is the fountain from which her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10). And the supreme liturgical act is the Eucharistic Sacrifice, as will be examined in a future article.
+ Francis Card. Arinze
Vatican City, 5 May, 2021.