by Elizabeth Harrington.
It is easy to think of liturgy as something that we do: praying, singing, reading, making gestures, engaging with symbols. Preparing these things is the work of the parish liturgy committee and pastor. But the liturgical activities in which the Church is engaged are in fact the actions of Christ: Christ is the true celebrant of the liturgy.
God acts in the liturgy. In the waters of baptism, God plunges us into the saving mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, God joins us to Christ and we share in the great Passover from death to eternal life and in the banquet of heaven. As the celebrant anoints with holy oil, God seals the confirmand with the gift of the Holy Spirit or raises up the person who is sick.
What a pity, then, that so often we concentrate on the window itself instead of looking through it. The liturgy is boring, teenagers say. The liturgy committee decides to respond by having a ‘youth Mass’ with praise music and special lighting effects. This solution is a case of looking at the glass and the window frame instead of the view. When parishioners complain about minor rubrical infringements, they are concerned with smudges on the window.
Of course, the window itself is neither irrelevant nor unimportant. A dirty or foggy window will distort or obscure the view. The reform of the liturgy promoted by the Second Vatican Council was intended to clean the windows after centuries of grime. It was for this very reason that the Council highlighted the importance of the sacramental signs – baptising by immersion, taking and breaking real bread, receiving communion from the cup, proclaiming the word of God – not as an end in themselves, but as a means of realising what the liturgy actually does.
When liturgy committees evaluate the effectiveness of their preparation for a feast or season, their questions should not centre on the drama, decoration or liturgical forms but rather on their transparency. The hangings and symbols prepared by the liturgical artists are not designed to draw attention to themselves but rather are works of art which lead to the discovery of new spiritual depths. Ministers reviewing their liturgical roles should not just ask whether they performed their tasks correctly but seek to understand how their words and actions served to open up the reality of God’s saving work.
Liturgical innovation does not necessarily lead to a renewed spiritual experience. The unfamiliar often catches our attention and distracts from what is really taking place. Liturgical rites belong to the Church. Liturgy is the corporate worship of the whole body of Christ, united around the globe and down through the centuries.
Preparing creative and vibrant liturgy is about ensuring that the preaching, praying, music, gestures, environment, symbols and ministers of the liturgy all enable the people of God assembled for worship to see beyond the liturgical forms and to participate fully, consciously and actively in the saving mystery that lies beyond them.