The Spirit of the Liturgy

by Philip Jones

This post, like two others written recently, is not directly concerned with ecclesiastical law but with a subject that is close to it.  It is mostly an appreciation of a commentary with the above title by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later, of course, Pope Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus).  The English translation was published in 2000 by Ignatius Press.  Ratzinger chose the title in tribute to a book of the same title published in 1918 by Romano Guardini, another German Catholic theologian.  The concluding comments on the Church of England and the Anglican Communion do not represent anything stated in Ratzinger’s work, but were inspired by reading it.

Liturgy and Land

The need and the duty to worship God require first of all a sacred space.  Moses’ quest for the Promised Land was a quest for space in which to worship God (pp.15-17).

Christian liturgy, like Jewish liturgy and pagan cults, is based on sacrifice.  Thus the sacred space, the place of worship, was never a mere meeting place or school for religious instruction but a ‘cultic space reserved for the Deity’ (p.62).

However, for a long time before Christ, there had been a growing dissatisfaction among Jews with the sacrificial system centred on the Temple.  The Qumran community and many hellenised Jews rejected this system (p.45).  The Church proclaimed Christ as the new Temple, and the Eucharist as the sacrifice and gift of Christ.

Liturgy in relation to Time and Space

Christianity, like Judaism, is primarily a historical religion, concerned with the relationship between God and man in history (p.24).  This is in contrast to more primitive religions which concentrate on the cosmos (sun, moon, weather-events etc).

Yet Judaism and Christianity also have a cosmic dimension.  The Redeemer (historical) is also the Creator (cosmic).  There must therefore be a relationship between liturgy and creation, as well as between liturgy and history.

The Bible relates that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  Hence the seventh day became the day of worship (p.25).  Therefore worship begins when creation is complete.  The giving of the ceremonial law to Moses and the Tent of Meeting make the connection between creation and liturgy (pp.26-7).  Liturgy is the divinisation, or surrender, of creation to God.  The divinisation of creation has been studied by theologians throughout the Church’s history.  The late Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) is the most distinguished modern contributor to this debate (pp.28-9).

Christian liturgy is also cosmically oriented.  Christian churches have from earliest times been built facing east, the rising sun being the symbol of the Risen Christ, just as synagogues were oriented towards the Temple (pp.64, 68).

The nativity of St. John the Baptist is celebrated in midsummer (on 24th June, six months before Christmas), when the days begin to shorten, while the nativity of Christ is celebrated as the days begin to lengthen again (p.109).  The date of Easter is the Sunday after the first full moon of spring.  The date thus reconciles the solar and lunar calendars (p.100).

The date of Easter has led to the modern difficulty that Easter in the southern hemisphere occurs in autumn, not spring.  This demonstrates that the historical aspect of liturgy takes priority over the cosmic (p.104).

In modern times the cosmic orientation of the liturgy, especially the eastward position, has been undermined by an abstract universalism.  However, while it is true that God is accessible everywhere, His universality is known to mankind only through Revelation, which is a particular, not a universal, event.

Neglect of the eastward position, like a fixed date for Easter, may lead to neglect of the uniqueness of Revelation.  It brings other dangers too.  If the priest faces the people, he may appear to be more important than God.  The liturgy is reduced to a mere communal celebration or get-together, rather than a sacrifice (pp.77, 80).

Art and Music

The use of painting and sculpture in church was attacked by iconoclasts and Protestant reformers as an offence against the Commandment forbidding any ‘graven image’. However, the Old Testament records that Moses was commanded to make two cherubim of gold to cover the Ark of the Covenant. Early icons depicted the Resurrection against the backdrop of the Ark (pp.115-6).

The relationship between art and worship has never been very clear. The second Council of Nicaea (which met in 787) affirmed the use of sacred art, and repudiated iconoclasm, but the implications of this affirmation have yet to be fully worked out (p.134).

The author argues that a distinction must be drawn betweeen sacred art, which is directly related to the liturgy, and religious-themed art in general (p.134). A similar distinction must be drawn in liturgical music (p.147).

Music, like art, has a biblical basis (for example, in the Song of Songs), and the word sing is one of the most commonly used words in the Bible (p.36). While art generally serves the historical aspect of liturgy, music serves its cosmic aspect (pp.151-2).

Liturgy and Communion

Liturgy is an entire way of life, not merely a form of worship.  The Ten Commandments illustrate this point (p.18).  It is the liturgy that makes the worshippers into one people, a comm-union.  Even secular societies have unifying rituals of some sort (p.21).

Liturgical rites are Apostolic, because they originated in the places where the Apostles preached.  They are therefore ‘forms of the Apostolic Tradition’ (p.164).  Their Apostolic origin reinforces the point that, although Christianity is universal, it still has a particular historical origin, and ‘can never be separated from the soil of sacred events’.  The rites originated in Alexandria, Antioch and Rome (p.163).  The Roman rite was influenced by the Alexandrian rite.  There was also a Byzantine rite, which was derived from the Antiochene liturgy.  The Antiochene liturgy had a profound influence on all subsequent liturgical practice (p.161).  (It was at Antioch, of course, that Jesus’ followers were first called Christians.)

Being of Apostolic origin, liturgical rites are of universal (hence Catholic) application, embracing different cultures and languages and drawing them all into a relationship of communion.  Elements of popular piety may become grafted onto a Catholic rite, and hence become part of the rite’s organic development.  There is inevitably a certain tension here.  A rite must be sensitive to the local culture while remaining Apostolic, one and universal.

Liturgy and Scripture

Liturgical rites, like the Scriptures, are the work of human authors.  Liturgy ‘contains an essential exposition of the biblical legacy’ (p.167), though academic study and the Magisterium of the Church also play a vital role in this work of exposition.  The seat of Moses, or shrine of sacred books in the synagogue, was replaced in Christian churches by the seat or ‘teaching chair’ of the bishop (p.72).

The foregoing account indicates that the Catholic understanding of liturgy is radically different from the Protestant.  For the Catholic Church, the liturgy is a link to the Apostles and, through the Apostles, to Christ.  This link would still exist even if there was no Canon of Scripture (just as the Magisterium would still link the Church to Christ without the Bible).  In Protestantism, by contrast, the Church is entirely dependent on the Bible for Word and Sacrament.  Liturgy therefore cannot link the Church to Christ and the Apostles, because it is not part of the Bible.  For the same reason liturgy cannot be a source of communion between different particular Churches, even if a number of Churches use the same liturgy.

At the Reformation many Protestant Churches, including the Church of Scotland, even abolished liturgy altogether, because it is unscriptural.  With the rejection of Catholic liturgical tradition, the Bible became the sole basis of Protestant Christianity.  The consequence of this principle of sola scriptura was that Protestant faith was at the mercy of modern biblical exegesis, with no liturgical tradition to support it.  Its only defence was to take refuge in a simple-minded fundamentalism.  By contrast, Apostolic liturgy, and the Magisterium, protect the Catholic faith against the errors both of modern exegesis and of biblical fundamentalism.

The Church of England, of course, did not abolish liturgy at the Reformation.  On the contrary, the Book of Common Prayer retains many elements of the mediaeval Catholic liturgy, translated into sublime English.  The undoubted beauty and dignity of the Prayer Book liturgy, and its partial resemblance to Catholic liturgy, may well serve to obscure the Protestant principle of sola scriptura.  However, the 39 Articles are clear that the Church’s true identity depends on Scripture, and not liturgy.  Liturgy is only permissible to the extent that it is agreeable to Scripture, and it is based only on human authority and culture.

Article 25 makes the dichotomy between the ‘biblical’ sacraments and the ‘liturgical’ sacraments.  Baptism and the Eucharist (‘the Lord’s Supper’) are the only two sacraments ‘ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel’.  The other five ‘commonly called sacraments’ are indeed found in the liturgy, but they ‘are not to be counted for sacraments of the Gospel … for they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God’.  The Eucharist is understood only by reference to what the Bible says about it, not what the liturgy says about it.

Article 34 is the principal authority on the place of liturgy in the Church: ‘traditions and ceremonies … at all times have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners … Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority’.

Modern Anglican governance follows Article 34.  The ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’ of 1888 did not require acceptance of the Book of Common Prayer (or of any other liturgy) as a condition of Church unity.  The Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974, and the canons promulgated thereunder, provide only that new forms of service should be ‘neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’ (s.4(1)).  No mention of the Apostles anywhere.

The liturgical freedom conferred by the 1974 Measure, and its equivalents in other Anglican Churches, has led to a multiplicity of modern Anglican liturgies, and to the relative marginalization of the Book of Common Prayer.  A commentary on the Prayer Book, written by an Anglican bishop, acknowledges that uniformity of worship has given way to a mere ‘family resemblance’ between the different liturgies: see The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer (OUP 2006), eds Hefling and Shattuck at p.238, per Colin Buchanan.