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A-Z of the Mass - He Placed Himself in the Order of Signs

Thursday, July 01, 2010
During the summer months we will be offering an A-Z of the Mass, a series of reflections on different aspects and moments of the Mass. Here we give a general introduction to the sacramental system which is at the heart of the Catholic faith.

Poetry, symbol and ritual are essential parts of the celebration of Catholic faith. If our gatherings involved just words and ideas they would become tedious and boring, a kind of committee meeting—and this happens sometimes when liturgies get overloaded with explanations and commentaries on what is going on. A good symbol needs little commentary. Where a lot of explaining is required, the symbol is a weak one.

Poetry, symbol and ritual are parts of human culture everywhere. These are ways in which human beings communicate with each other, celebrate and share life together, express their convictions and values, mark the fact of belonging to one another. Go to Old Trafford or White Hart Lane on a Saturday and you will see a powerful human gathering involving poetry, symbol and ritual. Part of the delicacy of God’s love is that God adapted himself to our needs, revealing the mystery of his life in ways that would reach us. The Welsh poet David Jones speaks of this by saying that our Lord ‘placed himself in the order of signs’, not for his own sake but for ours, since these are the ways in which we share meaning, hope, conviction and life.

The history of Israel is a series of events and words. The exodus from Egypt, entry into the promised land, exile to Babylon, return to Palestine ... all these great events are moments in the story of God’s relationship with Israel. The significance of each moment is interpreted by teachers and prophets. The life shared between God and God’s people is celebrated and renewed in the rituals and liturgies which recall those events and make their power effective again. When a Jewish family gathers to celebrate the Passover it is not just to recall a historical moment but to experience anew its meaning and power for believers today.

Christians have made their own this Jewish understanding of rituals which re-enact great historical events. For Christians the great event now is of course the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The meaning and power of ‘the mysteries of Christ’ are not only recalled but are made present for us in the rituals of the Church, especially in the great central liturgies which we call the sacraments. Sacraments are signs or symbols, ‘outward signs of inward grace’ in the classical definition going back to Saint Augustine. But the sacraments are not just ‘things’—the consecrated bread and wine, the blessed water, the hallowed oil. It is better to think in terms of ‘sacramental liturgies’, the events of baptism, confirmation, the Mass, anointing, marriage and so on. Each of these involves words, ideas, symbols, silences, gestures, songs, physical elements, an agreed order in which things happen when the people of God come together.

When David Jones spoke of our Lord ‘placing himself in the order of signs’ he took it to mean a further emptying of himself by the Son of God. Not only did he become human like us, not only did he accept death on the cross, but he put himself, his life and teaching, at our disposal. He placed himself in our hands. It may seem scandalous that we should think this way but it is true that he has handed himself over completely to the disciples making us the ministers of his teaching and life.

This is all ‘for us and for our salvation’. Thomas Aquinas says that the sacraments of the Church mark the most significant moments and relationships in our spiritual lives in a way that parallels the moments and relationships of our physical lives. Just as we are brought to birth, grow to maturity and are daily nourished in order to live physically, so we are baptised, confirmed and fed with the Eucharist in order to live spiritually. Just as we take remedies against illness and the threat of death, so the sacraments of penance and anointing restore us to health and strengthen us for dying. Just as there is marriage and government in any human community, so there are the sacraments of marriage and holy orders to structure the life of the Church.

There is a sense, of course, in which Christ remains hidden in the sacraments, ‘beneath’ or ‘within’ the signs. For the moment this is how he is available to us, this is where we encounter him. But in the kingdom of heaven it will not be so. When we are face to face with Him, enabled to see him as He really is, there will then be no need for sacraments. For now, though, God’s kindness and wisdom have established this ‘order of signs’, simple and ordinary symbolic rituals, through which we are in touch with God and God with us.


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