Chapter 1 – The Greatest Act on Earth

If we were to make a list of everything in the world that is truly priceless, what would that list look like?  A few things that come to my mind would be the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and the Teton Mountains.  These are spectacular and awe-inspiring gifts from Nature that are unmatched in beauty and majesty by any human endeavor.  If we were to expand the list to some of the most amazing accomplishments of humanity, the list may include the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, a Super Bowl halftime show, or a top notch Hollywood production.  The time, money and talent put into these events are astonishing to think about.  Perhaps you have other ideas that you can add to the “priceless” list.  What would that list look like?  Would it include something as familiar as the Catholic Liturgy?

The Liturgy, without a doubt, is THE most amazing event that has ever taken place in this world.  Don’t you agree?  Or is this a doubtful comment to make?  But if we understand the Liturgy, we’d realize that it will continue to be the greatest event until the end of time.  It is more than any mere human endeavor or gift of nature.  It is a divine reality that we are infinitely privileged to participate in.  Unfortunately, we often simply do not realize this truth.

Now before you dismiss this idea as some overly pious thought, or simply as a way to get you to read more of this book, I encourage you to commit yourself to an in-depth reflection on this amazing event of the Liturgy.  Try to take a look at it with new eyes.  Try to be open to new possibilities and a new understanding.  If you do, you may just find that you will make the greatest discovery you could ever make!

The Great Mysterium Fidei

So what is the Liturgy?  Is it just some dry set of actions we have to watch and participate in each Sunday out of an obligation?  Is it simply our “duty” toward God?  Or is it more?  The truth is that it is the greatest mystery on Earth.  It is the Mysterium Fidei, the great “Mystery of Faith.”  As a “mystery,” the Liturgy is something that we must strive to understand, while also realizing it is something we can never comprehend.  Let me say it this way: As a “mystery,” the Liturgy has unlimited potential to draw us in and change our lives.  But, as with any mystery, it is unimpressive if we look at it in a confused and puzzled way.  If we just see the externals we may be impressed to a small extent.  For example, if the music is extraordinary, the art in the Church is glorious or the homily is enthralling, we may walk away impressed.  But if we settle for these aspects of the Liturgy alone, and make them our barometer by which we measure its value, then we have misunderstood the Liturgy and have not begun to penetrate the great mystery that it is. 

Let me offer an analogy.  We can say that each person we encounter is a mystery.  Some may seem more mysterious than others but each of us is a mystery.  This must be properly understood.  By saying that each person is a “mystery” we mean that it’s impossible to ever say, in a definitive way, “I know everything about that person!”  No, that’s not possible.  It is possible to understand another person but only to a limited degree.  For example, a husband and wife who have had a wonderful marriage for 50+ years will be able to say they know each other exceptionally well.  But even in this case it’s never possible to say that they fully know each other.  Why?  Because the depth and complexity of who we are is something known only to God.  We cannot even understand ourselves completely!

With this understanding, we must also realize that if we cannot fully comprehend and “figure out” another person, then we will never be able to fully figure out God and His workings.  And among the things we will never fully figure out is His action we call the Sacred Liturgy!  But we must try to at least enter in as deeply as we can to an understanding of this great gift.  We must try to understand God as He is and as He makes Himself manifest to us through these sacred actions.

Liturgy 101

Let’s do some basic catechesis to get the big picture of the Liturgy.  Try to be extra attentive to these basic descriptions of the Liturgy so that you have a basis for the rest of this book.  No, this catechesis is not boring, but it does require some concentration, so ponder this catechesis extra hard.

The Liturgy is an action of both Christ and His Church.  In the previous book we reflected upon how the Scriptures were 100% the work of God as well as 100% the work of the human author.  We also acknowledged that Jesus was 100% God and 100% human.  The Liturgy is the same way.  The Liturgy is 100% the working of God and 100% a work of the Church.  It’s an action that is joined as if married together and united as one.  It’s a joint effort of God and His Church!

An Action of God: As an action of God, the Liturgy is especially an action of Christ, the High Priest offering His life for the salvation of the world.  This is a key concept to understand!  Jesus offered His life on the Cross for the salvation of the world once and for all almost 2000 years ago.  That one saving act was His priestly act of atoning for our sins by offering Himself both as the High Priest AND as the Victim.  He is the one offering the sacrifice and He IS the sacrifice He offers. 

Role of Jesus the Son: The key to understanding the Liturgy is to realize that the action Jesus did, so long ago, was not just a onetime historical event that we now look back at and are grateful for.  Yes, it was a “onetime” historical event, but it is also a perpetual event.  That sacrifice of Jesus long ago is an action that transcends all time and permeates all things.  This is a deep concept but it must be understood if we are to understand the Liturgy.  You see, with God there is no time.  This means that He is able to take this one event that took place within time and apply it to people of every time.  And this is accomplished first and foremost within the Sacred Liturgy.

It’s as if the Liturgy allows us to enter into a time machine every time we participate.  And that time machine transports us to the moments of Christ’s Incarnation, His preaching, His death on the Cross and His resurrection all at once!  So the Liturgy is, strictly speaking, a “timeless” reality.  It transcends all of time bringing Jesus’ saving actions to meet us here and now.  The Liturgy, as an action of Christ, is the perpetual “making present” to us His work of salvation: His incarnation, death and resurrection.  The Liturgy becomes the vehicle through which all that Jesus accomplished is now transmitted to us.  It’s the channel of that grace in every day and age.  It’s the instrument by which we receive that action of Jesus.  And, in fact, it IS that one action of Jesus!  This Liturgy is God’s living action of salvation.  Again, this is a great mystery, but we must do all we can to comprehend it as fully as we can.  Even if it stretches our brain a bit!

We also want to acknowledge the role of the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy.  And to understand this, all we have to do is understand the role of the Father and the Holy Spirit in the original act of salvation that Jesus accomplished. 

Role of the Father in the Perpetual Liturgy: Jesus was Incarnate in accord with the will of the Father.  He lived in perfect union with, and in obedience to, the Father’s will.  It was the Father’s will that Jesus live His life, embrace the Cross and offer His life for the salvation of the world.  It is this perfect cooperation with the will of the Father that gives the greatest glory to God the Father.  Thus, Jesus’ act on the Cross was an act that gave perfect honor and glory to the Father.  And so it is with the Liturgy.  The Liturgy, as a continual re-presentation of the one act of Christ on the Cross, is, therefore, an act that gives perfect honor to the Father!  Since the action of the Cross and the Liturgy are one act, all that the Cross accomplishes is also applied to the Liturgy.  Therefore, the Liturgy is an act of perfect obedience to the will of the Father thus giving Him perfect glory and honor.  And when we participate in the Liturgy, we share in this honoring and glorifying of the Father.

Are you still following?  This is a very deep and mysterious concept to understand.  But it’s all true and it is worth reading and re-reading so that we understand.  Well, understand at least as much as is possible!  It still remains a mystery which means that, even though we can understand, we will never fully comprehend.

Role of the Holy Spirit in the Perpetual Liturgy: The Holy Spirit is also an actor in the Liturgy.  The Holy Spirit’s role in the Liturgy is exactly the same as it was for the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  Again, this onetime historical act of Christ and the perpetual Liturgy are one and the same act.  For that reason, the role of the Holy Spirit also plays one and the same role in each.

We will remember that it was by the Holy Spirit that the eternal Son became man in the womb of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:31).  It was the Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus at His baptism.  The Holy Spirit was present with Jesus through His betrayal, suffering and death.  And at that last moment on the Cross Jesus “gave up His Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit was also promised by Jesus after His resurrection and descended upon the Church at Pentecost.  Thus, the Holy Spirit was integrally involved in all aspects of the onetime act of salvation and is, therefore, integrally involved in all aspects of the perpetual Liturgy.  Christ gave the Holy Spirit to the Church and the Holy Spirit now continues to keep this saving sacrifice of Christ alive in every day and age in the Liturgy.

An Action of the Church: In addition to the Liturgy being an action of God, it is also an action of the Church.  It is both for the Church and by the Church.  It is by the Church in the sense that the Church Herself is the visible presence of Christ in our world.  What does this mean?  The Church itself can be called a “Sacrament.”  The Church is a sacrament in the sense that Christ is fully present through the Church and we, the members of the Body of Christ, are wedded to Him.  Thus, His actions in our world come through His body according to their various roles and ministries.  His Incarnation and saving act continues to be made present through the ministry of the Church.  Therefore, when the Liturgy is celebrated it is an action of Christ done by the Church, through the action of the Church’s ministers in which the laity participates. 

The Liturgy is also for the Church in the sense that it is the food of His Word and grace that is communicated to all the members.  The Church (specifically all of us who are members of the Church) is given Christ Himself in the Liturgy and is, therefore, made holy through participation in the Liturgy.  So, that which Christ accomplishes and presents through the Church is also for those members of that very Church.  The grace given is for us and by us according to our various roles.  Hopefully this makes sense, at least a little.  And hopefully it is truly an inspiring and exciting reality to consider. 

To sum it up, the Liturgy is both an action of Christ and His Church, acting as one, to communicate all that Jesus did for us by His life, death and resurrection.  This is the gift of salvation.  And this gift of salvation is an ongoing gift which we receive to a greater and greater degree, in time and space, each time we participate in the Liturgy.  For it is there, in the Liturgy, that we meet our God and are transformed by Him.  The Liturgy is the most excellent means by which this happens and is, therefore, the greatest form of prayer there is.

Is the Liturgy Boring?

Let’s be honest.  Some may feel that the Liturgies they have participated in are boring.  Be it the Mass itself, any other sacrament, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, or any other form of liturgical worship, it’s possible for us to be bored.  Sure, the priest may lack devotion and even faith.  His homily may not connect with us.  But if we truly understood the Liturgy we would not let any of that bother us!  If we understood the divine reality taking place, we would truly meet Christ in every liturgical action and grow in daily grace.  This is harder when the Liturgy is celebrated poorly for sure.  But it’s never impossible and must be our constant goal.

The priest, on his part, has a sacred duty to enter into the Liturgy and offer it well.  His faith-filled celebration will also encourage others participating to offer their participation well.  But strictly speaking, a “poor” celebration of the Liturgy by a priest (meaning a poor homily or lack of sincere devotion), is, in some ways, actually an invitation to us to enter in more deeply.  Yes, a poor celebration on the part of the priest can actually be cause for those participating to celebrate with even greater faith and devotion.  Why is this the case?  Because it requires the participant to see beyond the more superficial aspects of the Liturgy, and engage this worship on a deeper level.  It means entering in with a more purified faith believing not so much because we are drawn in by the celebrant, or by the music, or by the environment, but because we are drawn by faith into what is happening.  We believe despite any lacking on the part of those around us.  This is hard to do, but it’s right and good that we strive for this level of faith every time we participate in various liturgical celebrations.

To celebrate the Liturgy, specifically the Sacraments, we need to understand that they accomplish their purpose whether we are paying attention or not.  There is an old Latin phrase used to communicate this idea.  The phrase is that the Sacraments work: ex opere operato (by the very fact of the actions being performed).  In other words, when a sacrament is celebrated, the mystery spoken of above takes place whether we are engaged in it or not.  The mystery is made present even if the priest is not that engaged or engaging!  So, again, it’s not a matter of how entertaining the priest and the choir are, it’s a matter of knowing, with a deep and certain faith, that the Sacraments do what the Church says they do.  If we believe this, it will make our participation in every sacrament more effective in our lives.

Another area to look at is the effect that the Liturgy has on our faith.  There is another old Latin saying in the Church which points to the relationship between our faith and our worship.  The phrase is: lex orandi, lex credenda. This literally means, “The law of prayer is the law of faith.”  This happens on the universal level as well as a personal level.  We are taught objective truths about the faith through the Liturgy and grow personally in faith by our participation in the Liturgy.   For example, the Mass is passed down as a very clear and set liturgical rite.  As a result, matters of faith are also communicated to us through it.  We come to discover the meaning of the Mass and grow in faith as a result.  The way we worship in the Mass teaches us our faith, forms us in faith and enables us to live that faith.  For example, when the priest genuflects, after he consecrates the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, we are taught a lesson of faith through this action.  We are taught that Christ is truly present.  That He deserves our adoration in that moment.  So we learn our faith from the actions of the Liturgy.  The same is true with every other liturgical action.  The Liturgy teaches us our faith, AND it contains our faith.  To understand the Liturgy, therefore, is to understand our faith.  Understanding what we do in the Liturgy enables us to know what we, as a Church, believe.

Who Celebrates the Liturgy?

The Liturgy is a celebration of all the members of the Church.  It is therefore a celebration of Jesus, the choir, presider, lector, servers, and all the faithful attending.  It is an action of the whole Church from head to heart to toe!  The entire Body of Christ is celebrating. 

One of the most common phrases from Vatican II, regarding the Liturgy, is that there must be a “conscious, active, and fruitful participation” of everyone (See Catechism #1071).  This means that the Liturgy is not just something people attend, it’s something they do.  It’s an action of the whole Church, with each person exercising his or her unique role.  And, above all, the role common to every person is an authentic interior participation (not just exterior) in the worship.

After Vatican II, the phrase “conscious, active, and fruitful participation” was commonly misunderstood to mean that everyone had to have an official or formal part in the Liturgy.  And if you did have an official part, you were somehow fulfilling your baptismal calling more completely.  The problem with this is that, if you didn’t have an official part, were you participating less?  Certainly not.  Participation is first and foremost interior or active engagement in the worship of God taking place in the Liturgy.  Certainly there are some roles that need to be filled (lectors or choir for example).  And these roles are integral to the Liturgy.  But don’t let yourself be misled into thinking that fulfilling one of these roles makes you a more “conscious, active and fruitful” participant.  Active and fruitful participation is achieved when your heart is engaged and you participate with faith.  This is the primary goal of our worship.

Among the roles within the Liturgy there is certainly one that is essential.  This is the role of the ordained minister.  The ordained minister, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, acts in Persona Christi, in the Person of Christ.  This doesn’t mean that the priest, for example, has attained some special height of holiness.  Hopefully that’s the case also.  What it means is that, in the person of the priest, Christ Himself is present offering the sacrament.  This happens by virtue of his ordination.  And this is essential since the Liturgy is an action of both Christ and His Church.  So Christ is there, in the person of the priest, and He is also there, in the grace that is given.

How the Liturgy is Celebrated

Prayer, in and of itself, is something internal.  It’s an encounter with the living God in our soul.  It requires no special exterior help since God can communicate to us any way He chooses.  But the Liturgy, being both an interior act of each participating member and a public act of the Church, requires a certain external aspect.  This is especially seen in the various signs and symbols we use in our celebrations.  The signs and symbols used within the liturgical celebrations are many.  More will be said on them in the chapters on each particular sacrament.  But as a brief illustration, here are a few of the ways we use signs and symbols in the Liturgy:

  • Certain colors are used for each liturgical season.  Each color has a specific symbolic meaning:
    • White is used in the seasons of Christmas and Easter as well as other special celebrations within the Church: Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, feasts of our Lord, feasts of our Blessed Mother, feasts of the saints (unless they are martyrs), feasts of the angels, weddings and funerals.  White symbolizes purity, holiness, rejoicing, triumph, glory and new life.
    • Red is used for feasts of the Holy Spirit, feasts of the precious blood, the passion and feasts of martyrs.  Red symbolizes blood and fire.
    • Violet is used in Advent and Lent and is a symbol of penance, sorrow and mortification.
    • Green is used in Ordinary Time and is a symbol of ongoing hope and conversion in our daily life.
    • Black can be used for funerals and other Masses for the dead and symbolizes mourning.
    • Rose is used the third Sunday of Advent and the fourth Sunday of Lent and is a form of violet with the added emphasis of joy.  Therefore, it symbolizes the end of the penitential season is in sight.
    • Gold can be used whenever white is used, especially for very special feasts.  It symbolizes great joy.
  • We use incense which is an offering of reverence as well as a sign of our prayers rising to Heaven.
  • The ambo (pulpit) is fixed and prominent to give dignity to the Word of God.
  • The altar is also fixed and central to show the centrality of the Eucharist.
  • Sacred art points us to the Heavenly realities.
  • Sacred music is the highest form of art since it uses the human voice.
  • Bread and wine are signs of what they actually become, namely, the Body and Blood of Christ.  The use of bread symbolizes that Christ’s Body provides our basic sustenance.  The use of wine for His Blood symbolizes that the Eucharist draws us to a life of superabundance.
  • Oil is a sign of what it actually does – anoints with the Holy Spirit.
  • Genuflection – When we come into church we genuflect (go down on one knee) as a sign of reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament present in the tabernacle.
  • The sign of the Cross is made and symbolizes the sacrifice of Christ.  It also symbolizes the fact that we are signed with that Cross and covered in His Blood and is made with a Trinitarian response (In the name of the Father…) uniting the Crucifixion with the Trinity.
These are only a few among the many signs and symbols we use in the various liturgies of our Church.  Signs and symbols are used because we live in a material world.  And by the fact that God entered this material world, creation is able to reflect and share in His redeeming activity.  We are physical people with five senses.  Those five senses enable the use of signs and symbols for divine purposes.  And this is what is accomplished in the Liturgy!

Signs and symbols were used by God throughout the history of the world.  We see in the Scriptures many examples:

  • The dove that returned to Noah;
  • The Burning Bush encountered by Moses;
  • The pillar of fire and clouds leading Israel to freedom;
  • The anointing of the Old Testament Kings;
  • The act of circumcision;
  • The Temple and the Old Testament liturgical rites;
  • The water used by John the Baptist;
  • The dove that descended on Jesus;
  • The light radiating from Jesus at the Transfiguration, etc.

So it is with the Liturgy.  There are countless ways we use the material world of signs and symbols, as well as words and actions, to cooperate with the divine action of God.  It is through these signs, symbols, words and actions that God is made present to us and we receive His gift of grace and salvation.

With the above brief reflection on the many signs and symbols used in liturgical worship, we must make one more very important point.  The signs and symbols used in the Liturgy, especially the Sacraments, actually bring about what they signify.  In other words, the liturgy is not just symbolic.  Rather, the reality of worship takes place and God is made present through these signs and symbols. The oil actually brings the Holy Spirit, the water actually cleanses sins, the bread and wine actually become Christ Jesus, etc.  This reveals the beauty and power of the Liturgy!

When Do We Celebrate?

It would be easy to miss the great meaning of the liturgical year and, what we may call, the “liturgical week.”  By “liturgical year” we point to the fact that our Church commemorates every aspect of Jesus’ work of salvation over the course of an entire year.  We begin with Advent, focusing on the Incarnation and birth of Christ at Christmas.  We celebrate the suffering and death of Christ in Lent.  And we rejoice in His Resurrection at Easter.  Ordinary time is an opportunity to enter into the daily life of Christ, His teachings and His ministry.

Though this is not an official phrase used in the Church, we could also speak of the “liturgical week” insofar as we set aside Sunday as the Lord’s Day and as a holy day of obligation.  Friday is traditionally used as a day of fast and a day to ponder the mystery of Christ’s death.  And Saturday is often dedicated to the honor of our Blessed Mother.

In addition to these set celebrations there are many other solemnities, feasts, memorials and days in which we honor specific saints or articles of our faith.  It’s all there, each and every year, within the glorious life of our Church’s worship!

Where Do We Celebrate?

The place of worship could be any place on Earth insofar as all of creation is a gift from God and a fitting place of worship.  But a church is a special place set aside solely for the purpose of divine worship.  And within the church building there are various dedicated structures that are used solely for the purpose of the Liturgy.  Here are a few examples:

  • The altar is to be used only for the Mass, and nothing else; 
  • The ambo is to be used only for the proclamation of the Word of God and prayers, but nothing else.  It is to be solid, prominent, immovable and in an elevated position. The actual word signifies a mountain or elevation.  It’s appropriate to see it as an elevated “mountain” where the Word of God is preached; 
  • The sanctuary is set aside as the “holy of holies” within the church building;
  • The presider’s chair is used only by the presider and enables the priest to sit in this prominent position to image Christ presiding as head of the Church. 
  • The tabernacle is to be in the church’s most worthy and prominent place to signify what it contains – Jesus Himself!

And there are other parts of a church set aside for a specific liturgical function.  Having a special place to celebrate the Liturgy adds dignity and clarity to the sacredness of the celebration.  We do not simply use an ordinary space since it is no ordinary action.  Furthermore, the entire church is set up to signify the Body of Christ, both body and head.  The gathering people are His body and the priest acts in the person of Christ the Head. 

Lastly, the church itself is a sign of the Heavenly reality.  When we enter the church this signifies our passage from the world to God and His sanctuary in Heaven.  We cross the threshold and leave sin behind.  So the church building itself is a sign of our journey and entrance into the glories of Heaven!

Diversity vs. Unity

The last general principle of the Liturgy we will focus on, before looking specifically at the Sacraments, is the fact that there are many liturgical rites that have developed over the centuries.  The older generation will remember that the Mass used to be celebrated according to the Tridentine Rite.  This is casually referred to by some as “the Mass celebrated in Latin with the priest’s back to the people.”  This is the way the Mass was celebrated for centuries. 

Additionally, there are numerous other liturgical rites within the Church which we call the “Eastern Catholic Rites.”  The rite that most Catholics celebrate in the United States and other countries is the Latin Rite.  But in addition to this rite there are the following within our Church: Byzantine, Alexandrian or Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean rites.  Some religious orders even have their own unique rites.  Each of these rites evolved over the centuries in certain places and cultures.  All of them are good and beautiful.  Each of them celebrates the same Mass and proclaims the same faith.  But they are each different in their expression. 

Each one of these rites may use a specific language, follow special liturgical norms, use unique symbols and words, etc.  Though the expression is diverse, the faith and worship is the same.  Therefore the unity is sustained.  And, in fact, the diversity experienced by the Church through the various liturgical rites actually has the effect of uniting us more closely.  Why?  Because our unity is not so much the result of uniformity but results from our common belief and its expression in the Liturgy.  This is unity on the deepest of levels!

Lastly, it should be noted that even within each specific rite, such as the Latin Rite, various cultural traditions are often introduced.  For example, the people of Mexico bring deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.  This is seen especially in the way they celebrate her feast day on December 12.  If you want a treat, try to attend this feast day celebration in a Catholic Church with a large Mexican population.  You will be inspired by their beautiful customs and devotion honoring Our Lady.  Or, within the Filipino culture there is a tradition of celebrating nine consecutive Masses leading up to Christmas.  This is called “Simbang Gabi.”  Often, excellent meals follow each Mass.  We also see contemporary culture enter into the Liturgy at times in an appropriate way.  For example, in the United States, contemporary Christian music is slowly becoming more common as an expression of our culture.

The bottom line is that diversity is good.  And diversity on one level actually has the effect of helping us become more deeply united on the more important level of faith.  We use different languages, different forms of music, differing devotions, various cultural emphases, and more to express our faith.  But all those various expressions point to the same faith in the same God and it is this faith and worship of the one God that unites us as one in our various liturgical celebrations.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2 – The Sacraments: A Personal Encounter


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