Thickening our definition

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.



  1. Your point is well taken and very true. If we really believed what the Catechism teaches and that which you have described in rather heady terms, then would the tip of the liturgical ice berg we see be banal, informal, pedantic, inward looking, closed in, nonchalant, uninspired, constantly changing, non-artistic, puritanical, literalistic, personality driven, congregationally oriented or would it be God directed, outward looking, other oriented, majestic, catholic (universal) and artistic? Would there be mystery, reverence and awe? In other words, Liturgy is based on the truth of God, therefore orthodox and leading to ortho-praxis. It is not based upon wishful thinking, gnostic principles, and subjective criteria. Doing away with the tendency in the last sentence is what the “reform of the reform” should be all about and the Pope’s MC gets it!

  2. And yet I’m not convinced that the liturgical camps are so cut-and-dried as you suggest, Fr McDonald. Pre-conciliar Low Mass: banal, pedantic, inward-looking, closed-in, non-artistic, puritanical, literalistic, personality-driven. Check.

    In the hands of pragmatic clergy uninterested in liturgy, the reform of the reform would be deadly to the spiritual life of a parish. Not to mention even farther afield from Church teaching as elucidated in Sacrosanctum Concilium and all the post-conciliar documents.

    Msgr Marini lives in a world where clergy are as populous as blades of grass, where architectural wonders abound, where the most dried up clergy would wait in line to celebrate an extra Mass with the pope. (Where back home, it might be an all-out rush for the golf course or the wet bar.)

    So sorry; while I don’t always see gems in the tip of “my” iceberg, I do see subsurface hazards in placing too much hope on an unreformed rite.

    1. I have to admit that I’ve only been to one low mass in my life. It was there, however, that I think I really got my first glimpse live of that rare bird “noble simplicity.” There was one server and one priest, but there was an economy that created the simplicity and purposefulness, artistry, and humility that created the nobility. It also employed all of the congregational participation allowed by the rubrics, including the Pater Noster. I will grant you that it could have absolutely gone the other way, and I can see how such a mass could lend itself to the very abuses you mention (except perhaps “personality-driven”). It was the generally celebrated mass, however, in the United Kingdom when Catholicism was illegal. It sustained peoples in persecution for generations.

      I do wonder, however, if a renewed sense of the supporting role that priests have in the celestial liturgy will make them less likely to hit the links or the wet bar. I know of a lot of people who take pride in the clothes that they need to wear for work-suits, uniforms, etc. It’s not where they ultimately derive their satisfaction with their occupation, but it can help on the bad days. Does putting on weird-looking polyester vestments help priests on the bad days, when they’re doubting whether they make a difference or whether it’s all worth it? Maybe putting on the same chasuble worn by the priest a couple generations back who was a chaplain during WWI might help. Maybe it will also help the congregation remember that priests make a difference.

      Just throwing it out there.

      1. I recall my mother’s friends comparing the liturgies at the parish–around the late 60’s, but with references extending back before Vatican II. They referred to “Father N’s Mass” or “Father X’s Mass,” as if the liturgy were defined in style by the priest. (Not the rite, of which they probably knew little to nothing.)

        As for the vestments, don’t look for polyester among the liturgical progressives. There’s nothing wrong with a Shaker-like simplicity extended to vestments of good cut–it’s what SC 124 prescribes.

  3. Thank you, David! This is one of those brief pieces that will provide me many happy hours of prayerful meditation (quite apart from academic pondering.)

    I’m tempted, though, to suggest adding something to your functional definition — I’m just not sure what: “Liturgy is the Trinity’s perichoresis kenotically extended [ ???] to invite our synergistic ascent into deification.” I know you’re using kenosis here as synecdoche for the self-emptying Christ-mystery, but I wonder if some further specificity isn’t needed of what’s implied in that concept = in the incarnation, in the economy. Maybe I’m just thinking overmuch within the Immanent Trinity framework: kenotic extension being a dimension of the perichoresis itself…. anyway, just an academic thought.

    1. The one thing I would like to add to my own definition, without ruining its terseness, is the activity of the Holy Spirit. The third person is already present in the incarnation, I know, but almost always needs more attention in liturgy than he receives. So I wish I could incorporate Paul Evdokimov’s thought when he writes, “The ascension of the Lord, his going up to the Father, is the Trinitarian epiclesis of the Son who asks the Father to send down the Holy Spirit.” The Father accedes to the Son’s petition, and liturgy is done in the crater caused by this explosion of divine energy.

  4. 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.

    “Apparently”? I thought this was a fundamental and fairly universally understood principle of Catholic Liturgy, being a central point of the Catechism’s exposition of liturgy:

    Catechism of the Cathic Church (1138-1139)

    This book (Revelations) reveals the participants who are “recapitulated in Christ.” These include the heavenly powers, all creation (the four living creatures), the servants of the Old and New Covenants (the twenty four elders), the new People of God (the 144,000), especially the martyrs and the Mother of God (the Woman), and finally, “a multitude which no one could number.” We participate in this heavenly liturgy whenever we celebrate the sacraments

    You also point out:

    People look for the origin of liturgy in ancient history, in religious ritual, in human need, in communal fellowship

    Be assured that not everyone looks there…

  5. Mr. Fagerberg, this is an absolutely wonderful and edifying piece. So many Christians nowadays think that the liturgy is something we create for ourselves, something we make up to achieve some sort of self-serving goal, like ‘feeling good’ or ‘building up our community’. No, the liturgy, like everything else in the Universe, comes from God and has Him as its destination. We shouldn’t tinker about with it as we please, but humbly accept it as a gift from God with which we can properly worship Him and be led to the beatific vision.

  6. David, I understand that this may be deduced from the Catechism, but could you say what is the historical basis for this idea? Is it a neo-platonic idea? The “spiritualization of matter” is a Greek concept, isn’t it?

    1. Rita, thanks for the opportunity to clarify. I certainly don’t mean anything dualistic by the phrase “spiritualization of matter.” I mean the harmony Athanasius meant when he said:

      “Like a musician who has attuned his lyre, and by the artistic blending of low and high and medium tones produces a single melody, so die Wisdom of God, holding the universe like a lyre, adapting things heavenly to things earthly, and earthly things to heavenly, harmonizes them all, and, leading them by His will, makes one world and one world order in beauty and harmony.”

      Matter spiritualized is matter suffused with the Holy Spirit, as a saint’s body, or an icon, or sacramental matter. As Evdokimov puts it:

      “Everything is destined for a liturgical fulfillment …. The final destiny of water is to participate in the mystery of the Epiphany; of wood, to become a cross; of the earth, to receive the body of the Lord during his rest on the Sabbath … Olive oil and water attain their fullness as conductor elements for grace on regenerated man. Wheat and wine achieve their ultimate raison d’etre in the eucharistic chalice … A piece of being becomes a hierophany, an epiphany of the sacred ….” [Art of the Icon]

      That’s what I had in mind.

  7. Ms. Ferrone, I think you’ll find that this kind of Christian liturgical theology is rooted in the teachings of the Church Fathers, particularly the Greek ones (though they may of course have incorporated certain Neo-platonic ideas).

  8. Thank you for this excellent post, David. I was just re-reading some Schmemann this afternoon, and finding many ‘pre-echoes’ of what you have so eloquently said.

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