I was recently at the 90th birthday celebration of a long-time member (indeed, the longest-time member) of my parish. It was an amazing occasion, with many stories told and much fine food and drink consumed. Toward the end of the evening, a former parishioner commented to me that she saw no real difference between what we do in the liturgy and what was taking place that evening: it was all about celebrating life.
Though I outwardly nodded, I inwardly rolled my eyes and began to formulate some thought about the Vatican II generation and their inability to distinguish between the supersubstantial bread of the Eucharist and the quotidian bread of our lives (both possible renderings of the Our Father’s ἐπιούσιον). But in the days since, I’ve returned in my mind to her remark, trying to figure out what I think is correct about it and what is incorrect, or at least incomplete.
In this particular case, the matter was complicated and enriched by the fact that the birthday celebration was begun with the celebration of Mass, so that the liturgy and the party, while not folded into each other, were closely related. The Mass cast a kind of liturgical penumbra over the whole event, and when, toward the end of the evening as part of a series of toasts, people began spontaneously naming those departed friends who were present in spirit, it felt like (indeed, it was) a liturgical momento of the dead.
At the same time, there seems to me a crucial difference between the liturgies we celebrate and the parties we throw. At a party it is we who are the primary celebrants, it is we who remember; but in the liturgy, it is God in Christ who celebrates, it is God in Christ who remembers us, and so draws us through the Spirit into God’s celebration of his mighty works. Perhaps all human celebrations of life are inchoately yearning to be this sort of remembering, but it is a yearning that our celebrations themselves cannot fulfill. It is one thing for us to tell stories; it is another thing for God to speak to us in sacred Scripture (though even in sacred Scripture, God speaks to us through human words). It is one thing to consume fine food and drink; it is another thing for Christ to feed us in the Eucharist (though even in the Eucharist, Christ gives himself to us under the forms of human food). It is one thing for us to remember those now departed; it is another thing for God to remember them unto eternal life (though even God’s remembering occurs through our remembering).
This complex relation of unity and difference between human celebrations and the divine work that is the liturgy is simply one mode of the complex relation of unity and difference between nature and grace. On this particular evening, the juxtaposition of the Mass and the party revealed to me quotidian nature’s restless yearning for God’s grace, and the supersubstantial graciousness of the God who comes to fulfill that yearning.