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The Sacraments as Liturgy

Sunday, May 27, 2012
Dominicans from the French Studentate on a guided tour at Chevetogne

Some years ago, the Studentate of Lille in France went for a week’s retreat at Chevetogne Abbey, which is a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Christian unity. The monastery has both a Western (Latin) Rite and Eastern (Byzantine) rite. The monks share meals and community life, but those entering this monastery must chose which rite they want to belong to, and the liturgy is parallely celebrated under both rites. During a guided tour in the Byzantine Church, the monk showing us the sanctuary said: ‘there are three axes crossing this church room: There is one cosmic axis, there is one temporal axis, and one axis that we may call an axis of drama. And they all converge over the altar!’ This description of the liturgical celebration refers to the existential dimension of the liturgy, including space, time and the perpetual effect of the salvation. This might be good to bear in mind as we will now examine the relation between the sacraments and their celebration.

During the last month we have studied the different sacraments of the Church, naturally starting with baptism where the faithful are initiated into the body of Christ, the Church, and fittingly ending with marriage which, in addition to establishing the union of the groom and bride in Christ, is also a symbol of the love of Christ for the Church. All the sacraments have in common that they are celebrated by the whole of the Church, and without the celebration, we could not talk about an effect of any of the sacraments in the first place. This is worth mentioning as a correction against a tendency where the sacraments sometimes seem to be detached from the liturgical event, as if the liturgy was there only in order to ‘validate’ the sacrament. Far from this functionalistic and reductionist approach, we are called to actively take part in the liturgy and enter the depths of the sacramental celebration, as the Second Vatican constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium insist on: ‘all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy’ (SC 14). The liturgical celebration is a meeting point between God and his people; it is a celebration of the intimate relationship re-established between God and humanity through the salvation in Christ, where friendship and love is the ultimate motive and goal. It is on this ground that the Church is constituted, with its organisation and its structure. Throughout the centuries, the understanding and the celebration of the Church’s sacraments are consolidated, leading up to the practice that we have today. Each of the sacraments is celebrated in a specific way, each according to their nature and purpose.

We may ask who is celebrating the liturgy. The answer is manifold. The source and the goal of the liturgy is God the Father, as he grants the whole creation his blessing in every moment (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) § 1079). The liturgical actions are realised through and in Christ, in his head and in his body, the Church (CCC § 1136). The catechism affirms that 'a sacramental celebration is a meeting of God's children with their Father, in Christ and the Holy Spirit; this meeting takes the form of a dialogue, through actions and words' (CCC § 1153). It is only through Christ that the Church exists, as she is Christ’s body. And when this body is gathered, the purpose is ‘to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning’, as Alexander Schmemann puts it in his excellent work ‘For the life of the World’. The presence of the Son is realised through the work of the Holy Spirit, uniting the Church to the life and mission of Christ (CCC § 1092). St Paul summons up this dynamic between the Trinity and the Church as he gives praise saying: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 1:3).

We may note that the word ‘liturgy’, coming ultimately from two Greek words 'laos' (people) and 'ergon' (work), can be translated ‘the work of the people’. Being gathered in Christ is both a gift and a commitment for all Christians, and the ‘work’ of God’s people is to praise and give thanks to God for His gifts bestowed upon us. Here we see how the liturgy has a double movement: there is one descending movement through which the sacraments are given us. ‘By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they (the sacraments) signify’ (CCC § 1084). The ascending movement is our grateful response that becomes the Eucharist – the thanksgiving – and thereby we become living signs of God’s presence in our lives and in the world. This is the very meaning of the human existence, and living our lives in the truth entrusted us is the mission that all Christians are called to live.

We have said that the liturgy is a dialogue between God and his Church, through words and actions. In this language given through the liturgical form, we also find an educative aspect. Most of us have sometimes felt impatience or emptiness during the liturgical celebration. Since the liturgy is a given formulary, we are ‘forced’ to follow the liturgical rite, even though we may feel a certain resistance towards it in the moment. We may recognise a similar feeling if we think of our own childhood. As children, we may remember how we were asked to obey our parents, being told what to do and how to behave. At the time, we did not necessarily consent to all the demands, but as we grew older, we often come to appreciate this fundamental education. It is easy to see the parallel to the ‘formation’ given through the liturgy. Even though we are not receptive to the liturgical event in the moment, we are gradually being formed and given the possibility of growing into an ever deeper understanding of the sacramental celebration.

As we have recently celebrated Pentecost, it is appropriate to reflect of the Spirit’s presence in the life of the Church. We should let the Spirit move us in all areas of our existence; in our moral life, in the spiritual life and in our intellectual approach. In fact, we have a responsibility of growing in understanding of our faith. The liturgy, being such a substantial part of our faith, needs to be grasped also at an intellectual level. The liturgy is after all the concrete way by which we enter into relation with our God.

For further self study, I will recommend two key sources:

-The Catholic Catechism which teaches us about the liturgical life, see this link: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2T.HTM

Bror Haavar Simon Nilsen OP


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