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Liturgy is a Participation in the Church’s Life!
Continuing on with our discussion about “liturgical participation,” this is not only participation in God’s life, but also participation in the Church. To experience Christ, to be in union with him, is also to be in union with his body. His body is no longer present in Jesus of Nazareth; since the Ascension, it is present in the Church.
There is a sense that in the liturgy we are connected to both past and future such that the Christian life we celebrate not only attempts to make the present world better, but is also connected to all such activity in every age and is a participation in the future kingdom of God. We experience a oneness with the saintly people of the past and feel their love and support. We experience the kingdom as more than a utopian dream; it reaches back into our present moment and offers both challenge and hope. Because of the liturgy, we find a solidarity with all God’s people that keeps us from falling into a pitfall of hopelessness as we minister in a darkened world.
Taking its cue from the biblical account of creation, the Church sees the world in a positive light. All reality is graced, and even sin cannot alienate the world from God’s love. Liturgy, then, is not a window through which the grace of heaven enters temporarily into a secular world. Rather, it celebrates the grace of God active, always and everywhere, in the world. The liturgy is optimistic about the world because of divine grace, yet it is realistic about human sin. It celebrates the end times even in the present moment, yet it prays constantly for the strength to combat sin and live the kingdom life now. It celebrates the divine-human relationship in Christ and his body, yet it recognizes that the union is not yet complete.
~ Fr. Frank Coady
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a statement in late October about burial and cremation that reaffirms Catholic teaching on the subject. It was approved by Pope Francis. It does not change any official teaching for American Catholics, who have had similar guidelines on this subject since 1997. The CDF instruction contains some practical dos and don’ts. Cremation is permitted, but scattering of ashes is not; keeping ashes in private homes is generally prohibited; making jewelry and keepsakes out of cremated remains is totally forbidden. Nothing new here, but practices coming from the secular culture may have seemed attractive for some Catholics as well.
Let’s look at the theology that underlies the document. Catholic traditions about death and burial are shaped by what Catholics believe about Christ and what they believe about the human person. About Christ: his death has infused death itself with new meaning for those who believe; denial of death or avoidance of reminders of death is out of place. About human beings: the human body is part of the person and so is to be treated with reverence even after death. The body is not a “prison” of the soul, nor can it be reduced to a token or a memento of the deceased. We believe in the resurrection of the body, not in reincarnation or the dissolution of the person into the cosmos.
It is also about the Church. Prayer with and for the dead is part of the Church’s tradition. Having sacred spaces set aside for burial or entombment encourages and reminds us to pray for those who have gone before us. It is communal: the death of a Christian concerns not only the individual and any living relatives, but is linked with the Communion of Saints that reaches beyond this present generation. In addition, burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy.
The Funeral Liturgy, done well and according to the Church’s tradition, is meaningful and healing. It brings closure. No one does it better. And burying the dead in a cemetery provides a place where loved ones can go when they feel the need to visit and pray. Even if they never visit, there is the psychological benefit of knowing that there is a “place” where the person’s body lies. There is also the spiritual benefit of knowing that, as part of the Rite of committal, the priest or deacon blessed the ground in which the person is buried.
The instruction comes at a good time. In an age when “memorials” are conducted in place of funerals, and scattering of ashes has become commonplace, the emphases surrounding death have begun to change for Catholics. Nowadays sharing memories of the deceased is all important; praying for them is less so. Deciding where to scatter ashes seems like a chance to express the personality of the deceased; laying them in a grave marked with a name, less so.
It is, therefore, a service to the faithful that the CDF should remind us of the underlying principles of Catholic faith that can and should guide our practice. Fond memories and beautiful places that evoke those memories are fine, but they are not all that matters.
Liturgy is a participation in the Church’s life: past, present, and future.
We said last time that participation in the liturgy is a participation in the life of the Trinity. But we cannot participate in the Triune God without participating also in the Church. Ever since the Incarnation, God has a body. The risen and ascended body of Christ is no longer Jesus of Nazareth; it is the Church. The same Holy Spirit who gave the Son a body through Mary now joins the Church to the Son, making it his body. And anyone who is joined to the Son is also joined to the Father.
So worshiping God in the liturgy cannot bypass his body, the Church. When we come into a Catholic church, we leave our individuality at the door. Our signing in the baptismal water is a gesture of acceptance that we belong to the body. We have died to ourselves and have become one with him—in his body.
When we participate in the liturgy, we are connected to the global Church: not only in the present, but also the past and future. The mystical body of Christ transcends time and space. It includes the entire cosmos, all of God’s creation in every age. Christians live in between the “already” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God. This is the eternal NOW of the liturgy. Time collapses. There is no distance between 2016 and the Last Supper, nor is there any distance between 2016 and the Second Coming of Christ.
The Christian life we celebrate not only attempts to make the present world better, but is also connected to all such activity in every age and is a participation in the future kingdom of God. We experience a oneness with the saintly people of the past and feel their love and support. We experience the kingdom as more than an utopian dream; it reaches back into our present moment and offers both challenge and hope. Because of the liturgy, we find a solidarity with all God’s people that keeps us from falling into the pitfall of hopelessness as we minister in a darkened world.
Liturgy is participation in God’s life…
The Christian life is more than just believing certain truths or imitating Christ or obeying his mandates of love and service. For Christians, truth is not a philosophy; it is a person. Christians do not live in obedience to laws, they live in obedience to the person of Jesus Christ. Christians see Christ everywhere. They experience a connection with everyone, sensing Christ in one another. This is not an emotional bond, but a bond of charity. Christ himself gave wonderful examples: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son’s father.
John’s gospel takes the bond of charity a giant leap further. In Christ’s last discourse, he tells his disciples that they who do his commands actually live in him and he in them. Obedience to Christ means to share his life, to be filled with his Spirit, to be joined to the life of the Triune God. Christians live similar lives to those of other good, philanthropic people, but their motivation is different. Christians want the world to be better, like the others. Christians experience the joy and satisfaction of “worship,” defined in the generic sense as giving themselves over to something larger than themselves and losing any excessive self-concern in the process. What makes Christians unique, though, is that they “worship” also in the liturgical sense: they give themselves over not just to goodness, but to the persons of the Triune God and become one with them.
So, to participate in the liturgy is to participate in God. It is more than just singing/saying the right things and performing the right body postures. Those are done precisely because they can lead us into participating in God’s life. They help to prepare us to receive God’s life into our lives.
Article 14 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, from Vatican II, considers the full, conscious, active participation by all the faithful as the principle goal of the liturgical reform. We have spent the last 50 years since the Council coming to a gradual understanding of what that participation should be. Early on, it looked like a series of “get-tos.” I get to carry something; I get to read something; I get to distribute something. But if that were participation, it would leave out most of the assembly at any given Mass.
So what does participation mean, and how does one do it? Parishes do not provide training workshops for the assembly like they do for lectors, cantors, musicians, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Perhaps that is not possible, but something needs to be done.
I would like to devote a series of these Musings to discuss the full, conscious, active participation by all. Here is the first installment.
The first thing to know about participation in the liturgy is that it involves more than just the time spent in church. Liturgy is the ritual celebration of the whole Christian life. Liturgy presumes that the people celebrating it are actually striving to live in holiness, justice, and truth.
Any number of people in the average assembly have not prayed all week long. What makes them think they could then be good prayers at Sunday Mass? Some people in the assembly have ignored the mandates of love all week long. How are they, then, capable of celebrating the greatest gift of love on Sunday?
This is not to say that perfection must be achieved before one is capable of participating in the liturgy. Far from it. Liturgy celebrates that very patience of God that forgives human failing and calls people back from their sin toward divine grace. Liturgy is not only the summit of Christian life; it is also its principle source.
What is being said here is that liturgy is connected to life and that any false separation of the two negatively affects one’s spiritual existence. Failure to live the Christian life affects one’s participation in the liturgy. Similarly, failure to participate in the liturgy affects one’s ability to fully live the Christian life. Asking which comes first is a moot question. Begin doing both, and both will improve.
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