Liturgy, Preaching, and the Social Teaching of the Church: Going Back to Our Roots

By SimonMary Aihiokhai, C.S.Sp., Ph.D. 

To speak of the liturgy as an anamnesis of the paschal mystery is to speak of the liturgy as saturated with a call to be prophetic and to speak truth to power. It is no wonder, thus, that Christian churches have constantly been reminded by their members to stand up to all sources of social and individual oppressions, be they economic, cultural, ethnic, racial, political, social, religious and so on. Nevertheless, one must ask, why should the churches be reminded of this calling of theirs. Is it not a given that this ought to be the norm?

Jesus did not die as a result of old age. Neither did he die from natural causes. He was murdered by the political and social powers of his time, the Romans, with the instigation of the Jewish religious leaders. He was murdered because he dared to speak truth to power. To justify his death, as is the case when those who abuse power are challenged, he was presented as a disturber of the peace – Pax Romana. Consequently, when Jesus invites his followers to celebrate his life via the breaking of bread and wine, it means that Christians are to make conscious to themselves and to the world the witnessing of Jesus Christ to the truth that liberates.

So often I have heard pastors preach homilies and sermons that invite the gathered assembly to reject sin, without speaking to the structures of sin that make the people sinful. I have also heard uninformed Christians chastise their pastors for daring to speak truth to the political and social madness playing out in society. The pastors are told to leave politics to the politicians and stick to the gospels.

One must ask, what are the gospels?? They are the reflections and witnessing of the early followers of Christ on the response of Jesus to the political and social realities of his time and how, even in his unjust death, he overcomes all powers aimed at silencing his voice. The resurrection is not just about the rising of Jesus from death, it is also about the vindication of truth spoken to power. Thus, when pastors speak boldly against the unjust structures in society, they make concrete the witnessing of Jesus to the world.

The liturgy, if it must be regarded as such, cannot but be linked to social justice. Ite missa est (The mass is ended) does not mean that the-liturgy-is-ended-thank-God-let-us-go-about-our-lives. I believe it means that what has been celebrated and what we have eaten has become part of us and we have become part of it. That said, it also means that what we have become we should make of others. This means that if we have become like Christ, the prophetic witness of God’s truth to others, we must also become the prophetic witness of God’s truth to our communities, countries, and world.

America is today a very divided nation. Nigeria is plagued by tribal and religious hatred. Christians are as guilty as others. Yet they claim to be faithful disciples of Christ. Without denying their fidelity to Christ, may I ask the following question? How does the liturgical life accommodate any form of discrimination, hatred, and oppression of those not like us religiously, racially, tribally, economically, politically, and culturally? Social justice is not about words alone, it is also about actions. It involves becoming an embodiment of justice for all. It means making our bodies an incarnational vehicle for witnessing of truth for those who have been silenced. If we seek resurrection of our bodies as the ultimate Christian hope then we ought to make our bodies the vehicle of hope for those whose bodies are held bondage by the structures of injustice.

 

Dr. SimonMary Aihiokhai is a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, province of Nigeria North-West. He is an assistant professor of systematic theology at the University of Portland. His research explores issues dealing with religion and identity, interfaith dialogue, comparative theology, and expressions of Christianity in the global context.

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3 comments

  1. In the United States, there is a tradition that Catholicism and patriotism are perfectly compatible. I suppose it goes back at least to the 19th century, when American Catholics as an oppressed minority felt pressured to demonstrate their commitment to the United States, but within the living memory of our older parishioners, it was reinforced by the hyper-patriotic experience of World War II, and then the Cold War, which was portrayed as pitting the Christian West against the godless East.

    Liturgically, this manifests itself in the custom, which still can be seen in some churches, of having the American flag in the sanctuary.

    Any preacher who preaches a homily that criticizes the United States in any way, is asking for negative feedback from some parishioners, especially older parishioners. That our country may be pursuing policies, and enabling structures of sin, that are contrary to our faith, is a concept that is contrary to how they were reared and what they have been trained to believe.

    Because of North Korean provocation, the prospect of nuclear war has come to the forefront of American consciousness, in a way that it hasn’t for at least a generation. The conventional American response is, “If they attack us, we’ll nuke ’em back to the stone age.” In my view, nuclear warfare, and its seemingly increasing likelihood, is something that must be preached about. And when we do so, if we are faithful to the church’s views, we will make many of our parishioners upset.

    1. “Liturgically, this manifests itself in the custom, which still can be seen in some churches, of having the American flag in the sanctuary.”

      And back in the day when there were processions too. The flag was always included along with the banners. I remember it even to my early teens in the later 1970s in the processions at Easter, Forty Hours, Corpus Christi, and May Crowning. There was a lot to prove that you were American.

  2. You wrote: ” I have heard pastors preach homilies and sermons that invite the gathered assembly to reject sin, without speaking to the structures of sin that make the people sinful.”

    Amen to that brother! As a working preacher, I am always reminding those gathered that Jesus was addressing systematic injustice not so much individual transgressions. I also teach that the “church” has used “sin” as a way to control people, and maintain institutional power which is NOT what Jesus was talking about.

    Once a person or a congregation realizes that liturgy (the work of the people) is a symbolic representation of distributive justice, a person’s daily living can be gradually transformed.

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