Blog #3-Liturgy; Play, Symbol, Festivity

On first look at Christian liturgy, it seems out of place in today’s world. It’s outdated, repetitive, and slow in a modern world full of constant stimulation and distraction. This may lead one to question, why doesn’t the Church update? Wouldn’t this attract more followers? Our readings this week would argue that the Church should not and cannot cut up and take away pieces of the liturgy because they are essential to our salvation in Christ. The liturgy is intentionally formed in the perfect way to point us towards God, and it is us who must change to realize this.

First, the liturgy is playful. To me, Guardini best describes play in “it is life, pouring itself forth without an aim, seizing upon riches from its own abundant store, significant through the fact of its existence.” By ‘pouring itself forth without an aim’, play does not have a purpose. This does not mean that play is meaningless, but that it does not seek a goal outside of itself. This is true in liturgy as one does not attend Mass for a goal but for the glory of the Mass itself. I am reminded of Cyril of Jerusalem’s account of the catechumens undergoing baptism. These people are not entering the Church so they can gain benefits, meet new people, eat free bread and drink free wine, or any other alternative reason — they are entering the Church simply because entering the Church is a beautiful thing. All the bells and whistles of baptism — water, oil, looking to the west — intend to deepen this meaning as symbol. All liturgy is this way. In liturgy, we are not working toward some final goal; we have already reached the full meaning of the liturgy by receiving it. We allow ourselves to escape the empty purposefulness of life into the Scripture, ritual, and song of worship, with no intention but to exist in the Scripture, ritual, and song which in turn exist in God.

The symbolic elements of the liturgy are what allows us to come into contact with this meaning. To me, the clearest example of the liturgy’s symbol is the Eucharist, described by both Cyril of Jerusalem and Gertrude of Helfta. Cyril describes receiving the Eucharist reverently in the “throne of our palms”. As Gertrude of Helfta describes, when she receives the body of Christ, she has a vision of the host passing through Christ’s body and issuing through his wounded side. Both of these descriptions show the realness of the symbol of the Eucharist. The host is not a sign of Christ, it is Christ himself for us to feel and taste. The many other sensations of the liturgy — the scented oil Cyril describes, the sound of the bells from Guardini’s Sacred Signs — are meaningful and filled with the real presence of God.

Finally, the liturgy is festive as it transcends secular notions of time. Interestingly, the accounts of Gertrude of Helfta are divided into many important feast days, such as Good Friday and Palm Sunday. These are not based on the temporal passing of time but are to focus on the moments of Christ these celebrations evoke from Gertrude of Helfta. For example, as Good Friday approaches, she is described as sensing “in advance the announcement of the agony of her one and only” (p.137). For Gertrude of Helfta, it is not Good Friday because of the calendar, but because she feels from her connection to God that it is time to contemplate Christ’s suffering and death. Christian worship does not celebrate feast days and holidays simply based on the date. Instead, the liturgy asks us to keep these days always in our hearts and to celebrate and contemplate them in their proper time.

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