In recent decades, there have been tensions in the Church over liturgical and communal life.
With criticisms from some “parish tea party” liturgies that focus on the community rather than God, and others complaining of liturgies removed from life, there are various views and dispositions in the debate over liturgy, particularly the mass.
While there are a variety of liturgical forms, the central liturgy – the mass – is bigger than how we prefer to worship; it is an invitation into our true selves who God knows best.
It is at the heart of the formation of the Church as a community, which enables her mission to the world. In other words, the liturgy has real implications for our personal and communal lives; and it is meant to be God’s way of forming them.
Unfortunately, it seems that as our liturgical and sacramental life has declined in the West, so has our sense of community (and vice versa). Further, as the efficacy of Christian liturgy and community has seemingly declined, the nation-state, and its national liturgies and worship, have filled the void.
William Cavanaugh argues that nationalism has taken the place of “religion” in the lives of Westerners. Christianity and Christian liturgy have been marginalised by national civic religion, with its rituals, loyalties, enemies and scapegoats.
The power of nationalism is shown in the fact that one can choose to have a religion, but one must have a nationality; and that loyalty to the nation is primary, to the point of offering one’s life. The power to authorise killing and sacrifice is where a community shows its real priorities. What the early Christians resisted – the national cult of the Romans – has come in a new form:
There is a longing in nationalist ritual that bespeaks a desire for communion that is at the heart of Christian liturgy. Patriotic liturgies have succeeded in imagining communities because Christian liturgies have failed to do so in a fully public way. ...If the Christian liturgy is to reclaim its centrality to the imagination of a redeemed world, we must look with a critical eye on liturgies that compete for our allegiance [Cavanaugh, “Liturgies of Church and State”, Liturgy 20 (1), p. 29-30].
While nationalism binds us to each other, the capitalism work ethic keeps us over-active. This over-activity can close us off and keeps us safe within our self-sufficient universe because we think we can control it.
The importance of the Christian revelation and the Christian liturgy is that God interrupts our false worship and activity to bring us into real relationship with each other and Himself, despite our best efforts to avoid it.
In the modern West, material affluence and faith in our nationalist myths and technological age leave us complacent in our middle class lives – impacting on our liturgies and faith in God. The Catholic liturgy is meant to break us out of lesser realities so that we can remember our true selves – by remembering Christ, we are put in touch with our real selves in relationship with God and others.
Rather than us trying to satisfy the national or consumer gods, God comes to satisfy us:
It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him. ...This is truly something new, something unheard of - the starting-point of Christian existence ... It does not stand there as the work of expiation which mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God's which gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship too, man's whole existence acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called "Eucharistia", thanksgiving. In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man's letting himself be endowed with gifts ... Letting God act on us - that is Christian sacrifice. (Joseph Ratzinger, 1990, Introduction to Christianity, p. 214-5).
In other words, God is allowing us to relax into our true lives in His love. In the first place, Christianity privileges reception: receiving from God – the gift of His very self – so that we can give to others.
In this sense, the Eucharistic liturgy is a service to us – to the Church. It is a service that God performs through Christ who mediates God fully to us as both priest and victim.
This service is the beauty and precious quality of the liturgy itself. The liturgy allows us to enter into the space of God – to have a taste of the Kingdom.
The liturgy allows us to enter into the rhythms and movements of God – the chants, readings, and prayers enable us to contemplatively come to a deeper participation in God’s life.
When we ask for more participation in the liturgy, we (the laity) should remember that the liturgy is being offered in service to us in order to enable us to enter into the praise and life of God.
Despite what some may say (or even do) on the altar, the liturgy is for us: Christ is doing something for his people. Christ wants us to enter his life so that we can fulfil our purpose: to give of ourselves in praise of and service to God and the world.
Joel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
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