‘The liturgy is the privileged place for the encounter of Christians with God and the one whom He has sent’
By Father Randy Stice
The Liturgy,” wrote St. John Paul II, “is the privileged place for the encounter of Christians with God and the one whom He has sent, Jesus Christ (cf. John 17:3)” (Vicesimus Quintus Annus, 7). Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes it as “a meeting of God’s children with their Father, in Christ and the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 1153).
This meeting is a dialogue with its own ‘language’: words and music, gestures and silence, movement, candles, colors, and incense. And it involves the “conscious, active, and fruitful participation” of everyone (CCC, 1071). When we speak of the liturgy, we are referring to the official public worship of the Church for which there are official ritual books. It includes the seven sacraments but also many other books, such as the Book of Blessings, Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass, and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
Pope Francis, in his first encyclical, The Light of Faith (LF), offered an important diagnosis of our contemporary culture. “Our culture,” he wrote, “has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world.” For many people today, “God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships.” But this, says Pope Francis, is not what we believe. “Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love, which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.” In this, my first column, I want to offer a few examples of how God acts in the Mass.
In the Liturgy of the Word, each Person of the Trinity acts. “When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 29). The reading of the Gospel is marked by particular honor and veneration—standing, candles, incense—because “Christ, present in His word, proclaims the Gospel” (GIRM, 29). Finally, the Holy Spirit “brings home to each person individually everything that in the proclamation of the word of God is spoken for the good of the whole gathering of the faithful” and is able “to make what we hear outwardly have its effect inwardly” (Lectionary for Mass, 9).
God also acts when we profess the Creed, as Pope Francis explains: “We can say that in the Creed believers are invited to enter into the mystery, which they profess and to be transformed by it . . . taken up, as it were, into the truth being professed.” We cannot “truthfully recite the words of the Creed without being changed, without becoming part of that history of love which embraces us and expands our being, making it part of a great fellowship,” the Body of Christ, which is the Church (LF, 45). In the profession of the Creed, we encounter the truth of God’s saving love that transforms and embraces us.
The supreme moment of God’s action in the Mass is the consecration that transforms the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. At this point, wrote Pope Benedict XVI (before he was elected pope), “the human action steps back and makes way for the action of God. In this oratio [prayer], the priest speaks with the I of the Lord—‘This is my Body,’ ‘This is my Blood.’ The priest has become the voice of Someone Else, who is now speaking and acting. This action of God is the real ‘action’ for which all of creation is in expectation. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 172-173).
The consummation of God’s action in the Mass is when Christ gives us His very self, His Body and Blood. St. John Paul II described this as a mutual receiving and abiding. “We can say not only that each of us receives Christ, but also that Christ receives each of us. He enters into friendship with us: ‘You are my friends’ (John 15:14). . . . Eucharistic communion brings about in a sublime way the mutual ‘abiding’ of Christ and each of his followers: ‘Abide in me, and I in you’ (John 15:4).” In addition, “Through our communion in his Body and Blood, Christ also grants us His Spirit. . . . by the gift of His Body and Blood Christ increases within us the gift of His Spirit, already poured out in baptism and bestowed as a ‘seal’ in the sacrament of confirmation” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 22 and 17).
These examples are just a few of the ways that we encounter God’s “tangible and powerful love” in the Mass. If you are interested in learning more about how the Trinity acts in the Mass, a good place to start is the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church titled “The Liturgy—Work of the Holy Trinity” (nn. 1077-1112). Next month, I will discuss the different ways we are invited to respond to the work of the Trinity in the Mass.
Father Randy Stice is director of the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.