I noticed something in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the other day when preparing to give a diocesan talk. Part II of the Catechism is the place to go for the sacraments, but before the text reaches that subject, it pauses to discuss the celebration of liturgy, and before it reaches that subject it pauses on the paschal mystery, and before it reaches that subject, it begins with the Holy Trinity.

This suggests to me that liturgy begins in a place where we don’t normally look. People look for the origin of liturgy in ancient history, in religious ritual, in human need, in communal fellowship. But apparently we do not begin the liturgy, the Trinity does. The bulb from which the liturgical tulip grows is not a human decision; we join a liturgy already in progress.

Paragraph 1069 summarizes the point nicely. “The word ‘liturgy’ originally meant a ‘public work’ or a ‘service in the name of/on behalf of the people.’ In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in ‘the work of God.’ Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.”

Of course, the term “liturgy” can be used to mean the complex of official services: the rites, ceremonies, prayers, and sacraments of the Church, as opposed to private prayer and devotion. While this is an accurate definition, I wonder if it is too thin a definition. The liturgical cult that we can see is like the part of an iceberg visible to us: it is the visible part of something much greater. And one way I would define “liturgical theology” is the discipline that wants to know what this cult is connected to. What is the deeper reality that lies below the ceremonial surface? That would lead us to connections between cult and cosmos, sacred and profane, church and world, ritual liturgy and lived liturgy.

So my mind has wondered about contriving as thick a definition of liturgy as I can manage. Here is my starting point.

The relationship of persons of the Trinity was described by the fathers as “perichoresis.” It is a dance of mutual indwelling, as love circulates between the three persons of the Trinity. It is the nature of love to give itself to the other. That includes the descent of the second person of the Trinity in “kenosis.” And when the Son of God who descended in the incarnation then returned to his Father, his ascension was as the first fruits of humanity, blazing a trail for all to follow. Discipleship means to follow, and we must “disciple Christ” right to the throne of the Father. In that way, faith can be said to co-operate with grace. The Greek word for energy or action or power is ergeia, and to act in harmony with an energy is syn-ergeia. In a synergistic relationship, the two powers are unequal in importance, but equal in necessity (Kallistos Ware). Augustine observed “He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge but He does not justify you without your willing it.” And when a human being is led into participation in the very life of God, the fathers called it “deification.” Christ’s divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, and through his promises we become participants of the divine nature (2 Peter 1: 3-4).

So here is my ending point, my functional definition: Liturgy is the Trinity’s perichoresis kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification.

The Trinity’s circulation of love turns itself inside out, and in humility the Son and Spirit work the Father’s good pleasure for all creation, which is to invite our ascent to participate in the very life of God; this cannot be forced, it must be done with our cooperation. This is our liturgical life.

Virgil Michel, OSB, founder of Oratre Fratres and whose name is invoked in the launch of this blog, was acutely aware of the Trinitarian quality of liturgy. “The liturgy, through Christ, comes from the Father, the eternal source of the divine life in the Trinity. It in turn addresses itself in a special way to the Father, rendering him the homage and the glory of which it is capable through the power of Christ. The flow of divine life between the eternal Father and the Church is achieved and completed through the operation of the Holy Ghost. The liturgy, reaching from God to man, and connecting man to the fullness of the Godhead, is the action of the Trinity in the Church. The Church in her liturgy partakes of the life of the divine society of the three persons in God.” [The Liturgy of the Church, 40]

I sometimes wonder if our treatment of liturgical questions loses the scale proper to its discussion if we lack this starting point. This may be something to consider when we in the guild get carried away with our favorite topics. Liturgy is not arranging the furniture of the Jesus club, it is a cosmic and eschatological thing. It exists for the spiritualization of matter, and the sanctification of persons, and the glorification of God. And that part of the iceberg should be remembered as we discuss participation, architecture, music, reverence, ministry, etc. etc.


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