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A Beacon Of Light… Who Celebrates The Liturgy?

November 23, 2021 Frontpage No Comments

By FR. RICHARD D. BRETON JR.

(Editor’s Note: Fr. Richard D. Breton Jr. is a priest of the Diocese of Norwich, Conn. He received his BA in religious studies and his MA in dogmatic theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.)

  • + + Welcome back to our survey of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In our previous articles, we learned how the liturgy connects us to the Blessed Trinity and how the liturgy is the dispensary, or economy, of salvation. In this way the meaning and the purpose of the liturgy have been revealed for us.
    As we move forward, today’s article will give us a deeper look into the sacraments themselves, especially what is common to their liturgical celebration. Fundamentally we will answer the following questions: Who celebrates the liturgy? How is the liturgy celebrated?
    Who celebrates the liturgy? Since the liturgy is the action of the entire Church (Christus totus), everyone participates in the celebration of the liturgy. This is first seen in what we call the “church triumphant.” This is the part of the Church that is enjoying the heavenly liturgy.
    This is expressed in the Book of Revelation: “A throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne”: “the Lord God.” It then shows the Lamb, “standing, as though it had been slain”: Christ crucified and risen, the one high priest of the true sanctuary, the same one “who offers and is offered, who gives and is given.” Finally, it presents “the river of the water of life…flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” one of most beautiful symbols of the Holy Spirit” (Rev. 4:2, 8; Isaiah 6:1; cf. Ezek. 1:26-28).
    Those in Heaven are participants in the liturgy, whereby the Holy Spirit and the Church herself enable us to celebrate the mystery of salvation through the sacraments.
    United with the Church triumphant, we also celebrate the liturgy. For us, this participation incorporates the “full church” united with the head, who is Christ.
    The Catechism explains: “Liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of the Church which is ‘the sacrament of unity,’ namely, the holy people united and organized under the authority of the bishops. Therefore, liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church. They manifest it, and have effects upon it. But they touch individual members of the Church in different ways, depending on their orders, their role in the liturgical services, and their actual participation in them.”
    For this reason, “rites which are meant to be celebrated in common, with the faithful present and actively participating, should as far as possible be celebrated in that way rather than by an individual and quasi-privately” (CCC, n. 1140).
    In this way, all the baptized are called to “a full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people, have a right and an obligation’” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 14).
    How is this done? First and foremost, it is done when each of the faithful perform the role for which they are called. The Catechism in n. 1142 offers a clear distinction: “‘the members do not all have the same function.’
    “Certain members are called by God, in and through the Church, to a special service of the community. These servants are chosen and consecrated by the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by which the Holy Spirit enables them to act in the person of Christ the head, for the service of all the members of the Church. The ordained minister is, as it were, an ‘icon’ of Christ the priest. Since it is in the Eucharist that the sacrament of the Church is made fully visible, it is in his presiding at the Eucharist that the bishop’s ministry is most evident, as well as, in communion with him, the ministry of priests and deacons.”
    Thus in the celebration of the liturgical life of the Church, each person, minister, and layperson, should only perform the function proper to their office or state in life. As for the laity, these function include readers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, ushers, and musicians.

Signs And Symbols

Now we move to the second question: How is the liturgy celebrated? The answer to this question lies within the different elements that make up the liturgy itself.
The first is through signs and symbols. Any sacramental celebration of liturgy is woven in the plan of salvation. Through creation and human culture, the liturgy, is affected by the Old Covenant and is fully revealed in the saving works of Christ. In human terms, signs and symbols occupy a kind of priority in our lives. This is most especially seen in our social interactions with others.
Language, gestures, and actions are necessary if we are to communicate with others in society. This holds true in our relationship with God. God accomplished this through creation, where He established a hierarchy of things in motion that are intelligible for man. Some of these include: light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolize both His greatness and His nearness.
These signs and symbols are also woven into the liturgical life of the Church. Liturgical actions like circumcision, anointing and consecration of kings and priests, laying on of hands, sacrifices, and above all the Passover, allow us to see in these signs a prefiguring of the sacraments of the New Covenant. We also see how Jesus, in His ministry, used signs and symbols to help the people strive for a deeper understanding of who God is.
Since the founding of the Church on Pentecost, sacramental signs and symbols find their place in the celebration of the liturgical Rites of the Sacraments. Pouring of water in Baptism, anointing with oil in Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick, and the laying on of hands in the Ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops are all symbols that lead to Christ. In each of these the liturgical words and actions are united in completing the sacramental sign.
At the heart of the liturgy is sacred music. It is here we find a treasury of precious compositions that assist in raising our experience of the liturgy to a new level. Sadly, however, many have forgotten this. I have celebrated Mass in many parishes where music was a kind of “second experience” instead of a primary aspect of the liturgy that enabled a sense of transcendence. Because of the high place music has in the liturgy, it is most sacred when connected to the liturgical action being performed.
In this way, the Catechism mentioned certain criteria that must be present: “beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration. In this way they participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (CCC, n. 1157). These signs, song, music, word, and action, are all the more expressed through the participation of the people of God, most especially at Sunday Mass.
Lastly, in order for these signs and symbols to have meaning, they must be ordered toward something. The whole liturgical life of the Church finds its foundation in Christ. This is why the Church has such a desire in expressing a visible connection to the liturgy. Holy images have a special place in the liturgy. They provide the faithful with a visible representation, to which they can focus their prayers. The crucifix in church, the statues of the saints, the stations of the cross, and the tabernacle all provide for a focused experience of faith. They focus us more fully on Christ.
In closing, let me share with you an explanation from the Catechism that pulls this all together: “‘The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God’ [St. John Damascene].
“Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful” (CCC, n. 1162).
Next week we will answer the following questions: When is the liturgy celebrated? Where is the liturgy celebrated?

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