Pope Benedict XVI, our Holy Father, writing about the sacred liturgy, has said, "Throughout the years of the Liturgical Movement, as well as at the outset of the Second Vatican Council’s reform of the liturgy, it appeared to many as if striving for the correct liturgical form were a purely pragmatic matter, a search for the form of worship most accessible to the people of our time. Since then it has become increasingly clear that the liturgy involves our understanding of God and the world, our relationship to Christ, to the Church, and ourselves. How to attend to liturgy determines the fate of the faith and the Church. For this reason liturgical matters have acquired an importance today that we were unable to envision before."
In his very recent book-length interview with the German journalist, Peter Seewald, the Pope also commented in reply to various questions on liturgical matters: "The essential point is to avoid celebrating the liturgy as an occasion for the community to exhibit itself, under the pretext that it is important for everyone to involve himself, though in the end, then, only the "self" is really important. Rather, the decisive thing is that we enter into something much greater. That we can get out of ourselves, as it were, and into the wide open spaces. For that same reason, it is also important that the liturgy itself not be tinkered with in any way."
The Successor of Saint Peter went on to remark: "Liturgy in truth is an event by means of which we let ourselves be introduced into the expansive faith and prayer of the Church. This is the reason why the early Christians prayed facing east, in the direction of the rising sun, the symbol of the returning Christ. In so doing, they wanted to show that the whole world is on its way toward Christ and that He encompasses the whole world. This connection between heaven and earth is very important. It was no accident that ancient churches were built so that the sun would cast its light into the house of God at a very precise moment. Nowadays we are rediscovering the importance of the interactions between the earth and the rest of universe, and so it makes perfect sense that we should also relearn to recognize the cosmic character of the liturgy, as well as its historical character. This means recognizing that someone didn’t just one day invent the liturgy, but rather that it has been growing organically since the time of Abraham. There are various kinds of elements from the earliest times which are still present in the liturgy."
One of the most notable aspects of the sacred liturgy is that it sanctifies time, making holy not only each day and each week, but every time of the year. The liturgical year is marked by sacred seasons in which one finds a significant number of solemnities, feasts, and commemorations. The pivot and most important solemnity of the liturgical year is, and always has been, the celebration of Easter and its glorious aura of accompanying feasts. The liturgy of Christ’s resurrection is the highest and greatest feast of the year for Catholics. The forty days before Easter and the fifty days after that most important of all liturgical events help us to appropriately situate it in our own regular and annual journey through the calendar.
Second in importance is the Christmas cycle of the liturgical year. Pope Benedict XVI notes: "The cross and resurrection presuppose the incarnation. It is only because the Son, and in Him God Himself, came down from heaven and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary that Jesus’ death and resurrection are events that are contemporary with us all and touch us all, delivering us from a past marked by death and opening up the present and the future."
The liturgical year and its cycles and celebrations are all structured toward Christ and, hence, toward the one true God. The liturgical year also contains feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, "whose person is so closely interwoven with the mystery of Christ." Then, as the Pope says, "In addition there come the commemorations of the Apostles and martyrs, and finally the memorials of the saints of every century. One might say that the saints are, so to speak, new Christian constellations, in which the richness of God’s goodness is reflected. Their light, coming from God, enables us to know better the interior richness of God’s great light, which we cannot comprehend in the refulgence of its glory."
Not simply the general days, weeks, and years in which all of humanity is situated are made holy by the liturgy, but also the time of every Christian’s individual life is sanctified by the series of encounters with the risen Christ which are made real and efficacious through the sacramental system. Centered around and ordered to the most Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, the other six sacraments are arranged by God’s providence to sanctify Christ’s disciples at the significant stages of their lives. This means, at life’s beginning, a new and second birth in Baptism, a strengthening and spiritual growth toward maturity in Confirmation, a worshipping and constant nourishing in the sacred and sacrificial banquet of Holy Communion, a deepening of friendship with God and even a restoration of the adoption process of being a child of God in Penance and Reconciliation, an anointing at the time of physical decline and danger to prepare for the possible entrance into another and better world and readiness to appear before the throne of the divine Judge of the living and dead, in Extreme Unction or Anointing of the Sick. Sometimes too there is Matrimony, witnessing to the perpetual and life-giving union of Christ and the Catholic Church or Holy Orders enabling men to stand in the Person of Christ and to be the vehicles of His mercy and His grace.
As the Second Vatican Council indicates it is the Catholic Church which is the great sacrament ("an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace") into which the seven great and efficacious signs, called sacraments are inserted. Two are called "sacraments of the dead, which means they may licitly be received even when one is spiritually dead, that is, not in the state of grace. These are Baptism and Penance (The Anointing of the Sick can be in this category in certain circumstances). The other five require their recipients to be in the state of grace for liceity. Three are unrepeatable because they involve the indelible mark of Christ’s priesthood (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders). Two (Holy Orders and Matrimony) are called social sacraments since they have as their purposes things beyond individual lives, but pertain to the building up of the community of the Church. Three (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist, when received as First Holy Communion) are referred to as the sacraments of Christian Initiation, since they are the means by which a person enters the Catholic Church and thus finds the possibility of eternal salvation.
The sacraments in the sacred liturgy are the way that Christ chooses to come to us and to allow us to encounter Him. They are acts of our worship with Him of God the Father, but they are also His acts of love and tender pity for us who still live in a "valley of tears" touching us with what He won for us on the cross. As Pope Benedict XVI says, "With this particular human form Christ comes to us and precisely thus does He make us His brethren beyond all boundaries. Precisely thus do we recognize Him: It is the Lord (John 21:7)."
An Ordinary Viewpoint
Liturgical Cogitations - XV