“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you” — St. Augustine
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
The question Jesus asks of His disciples is the most important question of our life that we must answer anew every day. Though we know St. Peter’s response — “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” — it is still a confession of faith we must make intimately our own. For to the degree we seek to know Christ and desire Him to reign in our heart is the degree with which we can answer the primal question, “Who am I and what must I do?” And nowhere do we learn our true identity in Christ and become more and more fully who we are called to be than through the liturgy of the Church.
We live in a time of terrible crisis, one far worse than the pandemic we are experiencing. It is a crisis of identity. So many people do not know who they are and are desperately searching to discover an identity and purpose that give meaning to their life. If people don’t know who they are, then neither will they know how to act, for purpose is inseparably tied to identity. This is why the Church emphasizes, “It is Christ Jesus who fully reveals to us who we are and makes our supreme calling clear.”
Our first name, in truth, is “Christian,” for it is our core baptismal identity. Only by living this core identity can we give true expression to all the other identities reflective of our state in life — as a husband or wife, a father or mother, son or daughter, doctor or mechanic, teacher or student, and the many more that are expressive of our dignity and talents.
The intimate relationship between the liturgy and our identity and lives is expressed in a dictum of the Church — Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Roughly translated, it means the law (lex) or way of praying (orandi) is the way of believing (credendi) and the way of living (viven-di). In other words, our worship and prayer inform and nourish our faith, and together they form our identity and guide and fill us with purpose, hope, and charity for living our lives in joy. This is the essence of liturgical living.
What is it, though, that keeps us from knowing our true identity and from living our life with dignity? In a single word, it is “sin.” However, this word is practically taboo to speak of publicly today. Though we can ignore sin and even deny it really exists, no one is immune from its alienating and deadly effects. But Christ assumed the lowliness of our human flesh and raised us up in Him so as to give us new life.
Liturgy is “the work of God” — the work of our salvation in which we are called to participate. In its broader meaning, it includes not only the holy sacrifice of the Mass, but also the other sacraments through which Jesus communicates His grace to us for our sanctification. It also includes the Liturgy of the Hours, which is “the voice of Christ’s beloved spouse,” as well as “the prayer of Christ and His Mystical Body to the Father — our own voices echoing in Christ, His voice echoing in ours.” The Mass, though, is the supreme celebration of the liturgy, for it is the one and same sacrifice of the cross that is made present upon our altars.
Every Mass begins with the sign of the cross, the price of our salvation and the indelible mark of our identity, which leads us to the penitential act and our humble expression of sorrow for our sinfulness. If we are truly to identify with Christ, we must acknowledge all that separates us from God and from one another. For every sin, no matter how personal, is also a social sin, for what harms us personally also harms the body of Christ of which we are all members. This is why we say, “I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned …”
If we have unconfessed mortal (deadly) sin, we must have recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation before approaching to receive holy Communion. Otherwise, as St. Paul warns us, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the Body and Blood of the Lord” for it is to “eat and drink a condemnation upon yourself” (1 Corinthians 11:27, 29). The confessional is where our identity and life in Christ is renewed and restored.
The “I confess…” of the penitential act should enflame our heart with the desire to praise and thank the God of mercy and love — to give “Glory to God in the highest.” And instructed and fortified in the Liturgy of the Word within the Mass, we then are invited to make our act of faith — “I believe in one God. …” The articles of the creed that we profess should embolden our faith and fuel our desire to exercise the triple dignity of our baptismal identity in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king.
In the Liturgy of the Word, we participate in the prophetic mission of Christ in accepting the Gospel and giving it expression in the Mass we live through the course of our week. What Zechariah said of John the Baptist after his birth is our commissioning, too — “You my child shall be called the prophet of the Most High for you will go before the Lord to prepare His way … (Luke 1:76). We do so by being the voice, the face, and the heart of Jesus.
In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we exercise our share in Christ’s priest-hood in the offering that we bring of ourselves to the altar where Jesus joins it to His sacrifice of the cross — a sacrifice of adoration, thanksgiving, atonement, and petition to the Father. A beautiful responsory prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours reminds us of the importance of our offering:
Christ died for our sins to make of us an offering to God — He died to this world of sin, and rose in the power of the Spirit, to make of us an offering to God.
Because identity and purpose are intimately connected, we must come to Mass with the intention of not just receiving holy Communion, but, first and foremost, of participating in Christ’s sacrificial offering. For the Mass is a sacrifice that must first be offered before it is a sacrament that we receive. And as we approach to receive Our Lord — Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity — in the Eucharist, consider the counsel of St. Augustine, who urges us to “Become what you receive and receive what you are.”
If we are to “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by [our] life,” we must exercise our share in Christ’s kingship and be the bearers of His peace out in the world. But if the kingdom of God is to reign in our hearts and be extended through our actions, we must engage in “spiritual combat,” lest we succumb and become slaves to the kingdom of sin. Christ must reign as the “Prince of Peace” in our hearts and lives.
When we live liturgically, that is, exercising our share in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king, Mary’s canticle of joy, her Magnificat, becomes ours, and with her we exclaim, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-55).
May you be the bearers of her joy and help others to know Christ as their joy.