In my last reflection for the Year of Faith, I spoke of the creed as the first of the four “pillars” of faith to be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now I would like to say something about the second “pillar,” namely, what we Christians call liturgy, the celebration of the sacraments. If we believe our creed to be true, then we are led to worship in the liturgy. The one flows into the other.
So the second “pillar” (Part Two) of the Catechism is titled, “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery.” This title gives us an important indication of what true worship is. The dictionary says that worship is “the reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power.” This is true as far as it goes, but Christian worship, properly understood, is far deeper and truly magnificent! Listen to what the Catechism (n. 1070) cites from the Second Vatican Council (SC 7):
"The liturgy … is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ ... In it full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members. From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.”
Worship does not mean that we puny human beings come into God’s presence to offer our pinch of incense out of awe or fear, or in order to wrest some favor from Him like Dorothy and her companions trembling before the Wizard of Oz.
Christian worship (“in spirit and truth” as the Gospel says) is our participation in God’s wonderful work on our behalf, his gift of redemption and sanctification. Liturgical worship is what Christ accomplishes for us by his death and resurrection. This “work” of Christ was offered “once for all,” but it is made present and actualized in the church’s sacred liturgy until the end of time, precisely so that believers may derive its effects.
Put simply, worship is not something we do for God. It is what He does for us. Worship is only secondarily the gift of ourselves to God. First, it is God’s gift of Himself to us. Remember what the Apostle John says: “God has loved us first!” That is why in divine worship we speak of “receiving” the Christian sacraments. We only “offer” to the extent that we are united by faith to Christ our High Priest, who first offered Himself in a way that we could never do.
Far from being passive, this kind of participation constitutes our deepest fulfillment as creatures made in the image and likeness of God for eternal life. Tradition does not hesitate to speak of this as our “divinization.” In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, cited in the Catechism (n. 460): “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” This is what happens in and through the liturgy.
Since the worship that pleases God was instituted by Christ, its essential form is not to be trifled with or distorted into an expression of our own subjectivity. There is certainly a human and subjective element to worship, but that is not primary. Worship, liturgy, the sacraments make present the mysteries of faith professed in the creed, mysteries that transcend us. They only be perceived by faith and fruitfully received in faith.
As you know, during the Year of Faith in our diocese various Sundays have been designated for preaching and teaching on each of the seven sacraments as mysteries of faith. As the glossary of the Catechism says, a sacrament is “an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.” This is the way that Christ manifests, makes present and communicates His work of salvation to us until the end of time.
The Catechism presents the sacraments in the following way:
Baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist are called the “sacraments of Christian initiation” because they “lay the foundations of every Christian life…. The faithful are born anew by baptism, strengthened by … confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life.” (n. 1212) They ground the common Christian vocation “to holiness and to the mission of evangelizing the world.” (n. 1533)
Penance/reconciliation and anointing of the sick are called the two “sacraments of healing” because Jesus the Redeemer is the physician of our souls and bodies (n. 1420f). When we fall into sin He forgives us in the confessional; when we suffer illness He strengthens us and raises us up spiritually and physically.
Holy orders and matrimony are called “sacraments at the service of Communion” because they are “directed toward the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the church and serve to build up the People of God.” (n. 1534)
Today we are confronted with an astounding indifference to the worship of God in countries and cultures that were once profoundly shaped by Christianity. In a previous article I spoke of the emergence of the idea of “an undemanding, nonjudgmental god who is on duty to make us happy whenever we need him.” Such a false god fails to stir the deepest impulse and need of the human heart to worship, and as a result people wind up worshiping, either directly or indirectly, the idols of sex, power and money instead of God. And let’s remember that idol worship is the work of the devil.
It is also now fashionable for people to claim that they are “spiritual, but not religious,” and thus free of the commitments and obligations of religious membership and practice, including worship. This is a totally incoherent, indeed irrational, statement for a Christian. Such a claim contradicts the core of Christian faith by denying that there is a divine revelation with a sure and knowable content; that faith in Christ leads to incorporation into His body, the church; and that the sacraments were instituted by Christ to give divine life. For such persons, Christian religion — its teaching and worship in particular — are only empty forms, and therefore unnecessary, or worse, a source of evil.
The truth is that only by uniting ourselves to Jesus Christ can we fulfill the purpose of our existence. And by “uniting” I do not mean simply heeding Him as great teacher or imitating Him as a heroic figure or superlative human being. In order to possess eternal life now and for eternity, we must participate in the Risen Christ’s own divine life by becoming a member of His body so as to be nourished and transformed by Him in sacramental worship. The church acknowledges the possibility of salvation by Christ for people of upright conscience who do not know Him, but in the New Testament Christ Himself, and those who preach Him, speak gravely and with sadness about the fate of those who have seen and heard, yet refuse to enter the fold of belief and practice.
As for those “in the fold,” on a recent Saturday afternoon someone told me with a sigh that they had to get ready for church so that they wouldn’t miss Mass; otherwise they would feel guilty. The person in question is obviously a practicing Catholic with good intentions. However, I could not help but be saddened at hearing this comment, because I know that for many Catholics, the sacramental worship of God is often perceived as a dreary obligation, to be fulfilled only out of duty to avoid a sense of guilt and sin. For many, Mass is something to attend to as quickly, conveniently and painlessly as possible.
We all have to admit that there are times when only a sense of obligation rouses us to the duties of life, religious or otherwise. However, if it is only an unrelieved sense of duty, without joy or enthusiasm, that habitually motivates us, then something is spiritually lacking. Forgive me if I am expressing a harsh judgment, but if we come to Mass spiritually empty-handed and distracted, with a consumer mentality that expects to get something entertaining, stimulating or useful, then eventually we will be bored and disappointed. But then I suppose even a person’s favorite rock concert would become tedious if he or she was obliged to attend the same concert each and every Sunday for the rest of their life.
Worship can only transform what we bring to it. The Catechism (cf. n. 1098) says we must strive for an awakening of faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will in order to be well disposed to receive what God wants to give. Only to the extent that we seek and pray for the gift of faith, and meditate on what we receive in the liturgy, can we hope to have the eyes of our mind opened to what is set before us. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, the challenge is “conscious, active and fruitful participation” of everyone (SC, 11). We must ask ourselves how much thought, prayer, study and recollection we give to our participation before, during and after Mass and the other sacraments.
What we perceive at the liturgy through our five senses — especially hearing and seeing — is important. We are bodily creatures, and our bodies are destined to rise in glory. However, what remains unperceived by our bodily senses is what is truly real and can only be apprehended by faith. If I believe Christ’s words that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54), then however humdrum the externals may seem, nothing will keep me away from Mass. If I believe Christ’s warning that sin is deadly and his words to the apostles: “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23), then no one will have to force me to go to confession. And something similar could be said of all the sacraments.
Worship straddles heaven and earth. It is the work of an all-loving, all-merciful God, who invites us into the trinitarian communion of His own divine life. This is captured by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his classic work on Sacred Worship, “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” where he writes:
“Worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours…. It lays hold in advance of a more perfect life and, in so doing, gives our present life its proper measure.” ( p. 21)
May the beautiful truth of our former pope’s words lay hold of us, and may the words of our diocesan Year of Faith Prayer be fulfilled: “Make fruitful in us, O Lord, the celebration of the sacraments as mysteries of faith, so that we may be transformed from glory to glory as sons and daughters destined for heaven.”