Reading Toward Writing Liturgical Theology

This present post is truly “bloggy” in nature, a short report on: 1.) what I’ve been reading in the past two months and 2.) why.

As to the first point: I refer Pray Tell readers to the spines of the books in the above photo (rather than my listing out the titles and authors here). The range of subjects from left to right include: 1.) social-scientific studies of the more-or-less current state of Roman Catholic parish and liturgical life (I am, of course, studying web- and journal-based reports, as well); 2.) historical and contemporary works focused or at least touching on mystagogy and the Easter season; 3.) some general works by biblical and liturgical scholars with regard to Christ, resurrection, and church-liturgy; and 4.) commentaries on the Book of Revelation, 1 John, and 1 Peter (the second readings for the Easter season in the RC and Revised Common lectionaries). Please take that little row of books as only representative of the fuller body of works along those lines that I have been and plan to continue studying.

As to the second point, namely, why I’m reading in the above subjects: The working title for my nascent book project is Faith’s Unfinished Business: A Mystical-Political Theology of Easter.

My pastoral-theological wager is that an as yet fully developed contemporary theology of the Easter Season, through examination of lectionary texts and the sacramental rites germane to Easter faith, can help form and invigorate believers’ self-appropriation as mutually responsible members of the body of Christ, priestly people with baptismal missions attuned to their particular life stages and conditions in this world.

But why the Easter Season? Problematically, I would observe that consistent Catholic and growing Protestant enthusiasm for Ash Wednesday and Lent, while beneficial to personal spirituality, has not proven capable of catalyzing regular, vital participation in Sunday worship and communal engagement throughout the year. My study will analyze both why that is the case and then, positively, how the lengthier Easter Season offers resources—exemplary of the principles of the liturgical movement—that may better serve the renewal of participation in Sunday worship by strengthening Christian identity as mutual, corporate commitment.

This is not to gainsay the Lenten Season’s effectiveness in gracefully enabling individuals to acknowledge the brokenness of the world and their own lives against the horizon of divine mercy, on which stands the symbol of the cross. The problem, however, seems at least partially to lie in the popular isolation of the season from the even longer one it is meant to inaugurate, namely, the fifty days of Easter.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium) presents Lent in terms of preparation for Easter: for neophytes, their profession of faith and baptism, for everyone else, renewal of their baptismal promises. The season’s goal tends thereby to be reduced to the single liturgical event of the Easter Vigil or Easter Morning Mass. Anthropological dynamics of anticipation and climax undoubtedly are at play in this ritual process. Still, the church calendar opens into seven Sundays of Easter culminating in Pentecost.

Further renewal of the Easter Season invites reimagining Lent as a season of personal conversion and enlightenment through popular customs and liturgical rites preparing not just for Easter Sunday but, rather, for a week of Sundays (“a week of weeks,” so St. Basil) celebrating initiatory and vocational sacraments, animating members as the community called church. Far from triumphalist or colonialist or supersessionist in character, the realistic, symbolically nourished faith of such a community is inherently a matter of trust in God’s gracious, empowering will in service to an ever-struggling pluralistic, global society.

Crucial to the practical-theological continuity throughout the Easter Season is homiletic preaching, revealing connections between word, sacrament, and people’s ethical lives as mutually responsible members of Christ’s body. The second readings for those seven Sundays in a given year—either 1 John, 1 Peter, or Revelation—provide a wealth of content for encouraging believers to know themselves and live their lives in ecclesial community and wider human solidarity as their present experience of the Crucified Risen One in the world. Such is the liturgical work, actually, of every Sunday throughout the year, but this sustained seasonal wave of preaching punctuated by special sacramental occasions can renew and strengthen people’s desire to encounter Christ in the ongoing Sunday assembly of word and sacrament.

My practical-theological wager acknowledges that liturgy, like all human ritual, is no panacea, has no unidirectional power for guiding or changing individual and communal lives in societies and/or cultures, including ecclesial ones. This poses a worthy challenge for today’s sacramental-liturgical theologian. Characteristic of modern liturgical theology has been a certain degree of (idealistic) abstraction in asserting what sacramental rites affect or accomplish in people. In corrective reaction, younger scholars have adopted heavily ethnographic methods for studying worship in congregations. In this project (as in my prior work) I want to navigate between—better yet, to integrate—description and prescription, experiential evidence and traditional resources, to elicit a practical fundamental theology from and for the church’s liturgy.

In focusing on the Easter Season, an element of Christian doctrine—at once sacramental and prophetic—comes to the fore: the eschatological nature of faith in the Paschal Mystery of the Resurrected Crucified One, whose Spirit works in the body of the church and wider world until God finally inaugurates new heavens and a new earth. Hence the book’s working title, Faith’s Unfinished Business: A Mystical-Political Theology of the Easter.

3 comments

  1. I am delighted to hear about this project. Eschatological hope is at the heart of living out the Christian faith. We need your book!

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