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The End of the Liturgy

By Jonathan Mitchican 

The modern Church has been consumed by fights over liturgy, many of which have been proxy battles for social or political issues. Joseph Ratzinger became a lightning rod in these debates both before and after he became Pope Benedict XVI. Yet to read his liturgical theology with any seriousness is to discover a man who looks far beyond the controversy of the moment. Throughout his long career as a theologian, Ratzinger has maintained that the real battle over the liturgy is neither generational nor socio-political, but eschatological.

In his new book, A Living Sacrifice: Liturgy and Eschatology in Joseph Ratzinger, Roland Millare meticulously shows how Ratzinger understands God’s Word as that which makes the Mass a concrete sign of hope for the future of humanity. “The primacy of logos over ethos,” writes Millare, “is the hermeneutical key to understanding the unique vision of Ratzinger’s Christocentric liturgical theology and eschatology” (p. 4). Liturgy is not a tool for Ratzinger but an end in itself. It emerges from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Our job in arranging the celebration of liturgy is not to be creative but to be as receptive as we can be:

[The liturgy] is not about our doing something, about our demonstrating our creativity, in other words, about the displaying [sic] everything we can do. Liturgy is precisely not a show, a piece of theater, a spectacle. Rather, it gets its life from the Other. This has to become evident, too. This is why the fact that the ecclesial form has been given in advance is so important. It can be reformed in matters of detail, but it cannot be reinvented every time by the community. (Ratzinger, quoted by Millare, p. 51)

Millare contrasts Ratzinger’s primacy of logos with a number of modern theologians who hold to a primacy of ethos, most notably Johann Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann. All three German theologians are known for their theology of hope in the midst of a suffering world. Yet, Millare says, “History dictates the direction of theology for Metz and Moltmann. Consequently, the emphasis is on a practical theology that moves beyond mere theory…Theology is developed from the history of suffering that is made consciously present through memory in opposition to the traditional concerns of metaphysics that revolve around the question of being” (pp. 148–49).

Moltmann calls his theology “creative discipleship” and says that it “cannot consist in adaptation to, or preservation of, the existing social and judicial orders… [It] sets things right and puts them in order” (Quoted by Millare, p. 146). This reduces Christian discipleship to a social enterprise and ultimately makes worship into little more than a planning meeting for political action, or a rally for some future inbreaking of the Kingdom. Ratzinger sees this as a shallow approach that puts too much emphasis on human actions and not enough on what God already makes available to us in the sacramental life of the church.

In his encyclical on hope, Spe salvi, Pope Benedict said that “Being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his ‘being for all’; it makes it our own way of being. He commits us to live for others, but only through communion with him does it become possible truly to be there for others, for the whole” (no. 27, quoted by Millare, p. 157). Encountering Christ facilitates our ability to love others in a way that prepares us for the universal love that God will bring to fruition in the eschaton. If we want to see the world transformed by Christian love, we cannot get stuck in merely looking backward or forward for God. We have to encounter Him concretely in the here and now. This is what the liturgy gives us, an “efficacious sign of grace,” a symbol of Christian hope that also actualizes that hope for us by immersing us in the divine life (Cathechism of the Catholic Church, 1131).

The early twentieth century German theologian Romano Guardini had a profound influence on Ratzinger. Guardini said, “When the liturgy is rightly regarded, it cannot be said to have a purpose, because it does not exist for the sake of humanity, but for the sake of God. In the liturgy man is no longer concerned with himself; his gaze is directed towards God” (quoted by Millare, p. 29). The liturgy, in other words, is not for anything. It is an end in itself, because it is a direct encounter with God through Christ by the power of the Spirit.

Ratzinger took Guardini’s message to heart. All the details about how to celebrate the Mass that Ratzinger has advocated for over the years — the reorientation of the altar towards the east, the returning of chant as the preeminent form of liturgical music, etc. — has all been at the service of re-establishing our understanding that liturgy is a divine revelation and a gift, not a pious human invention. “Ratzinger is consistent with the preeminence of the eschatological, Christological, and cosmological in the development of his theology of liturgy,” says Millare. “The liturgy should always clearly be first and foremost the actio Dei, as it emphasizes the primacy of the logos in every external expression that is a part of the liturgy” (p. 247).

It is possible, of course, to come to different conclusions about specific aspects of Ratzinger’s vision. It is tempting to get lost in examining the checklist and assuming that any point of deviation from what Ratzinger suggests, say on celebrating the Mass ad orientem, necessitates a wholesale rejection of him as an old fashioned or reactionary figure. But that is, I believe, a tragic mistake. Ratzinger is not offering anything ideological in his liturgical theology. He is not trying to convince us to adopt a particular style, nor are his suggestions code for culture war politics. What he wants us to see about the liturgy, more than anything else, is that it is not a means to God, but God Himself coming to be with us. It does not merely point us to the future of the Kingdom but inaugurates us into the Kingdom in the here and now. The more we let that realization affect us, the more fruitful our experience of the liturgy will be.

Ratzinger’s liturgical theology offers us a healthy way out of the constant back and forth between factions over liturgical minutia. It is not that the details about how liturgy is conducted do not matter. They matter a great deal. But they matter for the same reason that it matters whether or not you clean your house, or how you arrange the table if the King were coming to dinner. In the liturgy, Jesus Christ, the King of the universe, is coming to make the future reconciliation of all things present to us in time and space. In Ratzinger’s words, “Communion with Christ is of necessity a communication with all those who are his: it means that I myself become a part of this new ‘bread’ which he creates by transubstantiating all earthly reality” (quoted by Millare, p. 123).

In the Mass of the Roman Rite, the priest holds up the consecrated host and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are those who are called to the supper of the lamb,” and the congregation replies with a paraphrase of the words spoken by the centurion in Luke 7:6-7, “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” The attitude of the centurion is the one that should govern the whole of our response to the liturgy. In the liturgy, the Holy Spirit gathers us into the sacrifice of Christ and brings us face to face with our Lord. It is only in light of that truth that we can have a meaningful conversation about liturgical practices.

Far too often, approaches to liturgy boil down to nothing more than mere preference, sprinkled with a soupçon of private mystical experience. We choose to do things one way or another because we like it that way, or because we have found that it makes us feel closer to God. These decisions cut across the spectrum. The use of contemporary Christian songs in Mass, for instance, is often defended because they ‘connect better with people,’ especially young people, speaking to their desire to have a personal experience of God. In Ratzinger’s thinking, though, this would be an example of leading with ethos instead of logos, reaching for what we want instead of receiving what is given.

Yet the argument for more traditional forms of music in the liturgy — organ music, traditional hymns, or Gregorian chant — is also sometimes defended on experiential grounds. Millare argues that “chant is sacred” while modern forms of liturgical music are base and more self-interested than God-focused. “Although utility music in its various forms may be subjectively more pleasing to a particular group or congregation,” says Millare, “it tends to focus on God’s descent without a corresponding ascent on the part of the human person” (p. 245). That may often be the case, but as an argument this reasoning relies heavily on a subjective interpretation of what makes something sacred. Certainly the Catholic Church has given chant a privileged place in the Mass, based on its long history of profitable usage, but that does not mean that another musical form is intrinsically incapable of soaring to the same heights. Moreover, in some places, the use of chant and incense and certain kinds of vestments or gestures has taken on an air of affectation that is itself more egocentric than Christocentric.

All of which is to say that adopting Ratzinger’s theological understanding does not close down debates about liturgy in one fell swoop. If we are following Ratzinger’s approach, then most of the time we will privilege that which has long standing precedence, but there is also room to think about why we do what we do and not simply to adopt supposedly “traditional” liturgical options simply because it is fashionable or personally meaningful to do so. We should start from a posture of reception and even contemplation.

The liturgy is a gift, revealing God’s love and light, and it is therefore not something for us to mold to our liking or even to our own sense of what might be spiritually beneficial. Rather, it exists to shape us, and any choices we get to make in terms of how it is handled are only meant to help us to get ourselves out of the way so that we can actually see what God is doing for us. If we were able to recover this simple but rich understanding of what liturgy is about, perhaps our debates over how it is done would start to take on more meaning. Liturgy cannot and should not ever be just another channel for personal expression or the exercise of human power. The liturgy is God himself breaking in through the fog of our overly atomistic lives, showing us something far more wonderful that lies just over the horizon, and calling us to live now as if already immersed in his presence.


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