Educating the Liturgical Imagination

Kristi Haas

Echo: Faith Formation Leadership Program, University of Notre Dame (Echo 7)
Apprentice Catechetical Leader, Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Angleton, TX

Shining a Light on the Sacredness of Space

A couple of weeks into the Continuing Christian Education (CCE) year, I realized our CCE classroom needed a makeover.

All the other places where the love of God, the Holy Spirit, comes to fill and dwell with us have special names.  The world is creation; part of the Middle East is the Holy Land.  The home is the domestic church, the church has a sanctuary, and the table in the Church is the altar.  We call certain ornate containers the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, and the Last Supper and Pentecost occurred in the Cenacle.  The girl Mary from Bethlehem became the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God.

Our CCE room was distressed, having much experience as a place where children come to know, love, and serve God, but having never had such a special appellation.  “SB-8” remained a very practical name, but the opportunity to announce its deeper character lurked as well.

Some of its catechetical relatives offered their two cents, as relatives do.  “Atrium” might make a good name, said the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.  The word comes from the Latin for an open room or court in the center of an ancient Roman house.  In this form of catechesis, “[c]hildren gather in a room specially prepared for them, called an atrium, which contains simple yet beautiful materials that they use to draw near to God.  In the early church, the atrium was the place where the catechumens were prepared.  For the child [today], the atrium is a place of preparation for involvement in the larger worshipping community.”  This wonderful concept has the liturgy at its core, as the catechumens and the children are not simply en route to a greater mental understanding of the teachings of the Church but, what is more, they seek the habits of prayer, thought, and morality which eventually enable their full participation with the community at Mass.  They also seek to understand the meaning of their experience of Mass, which sends them back into the community and the world.  Because the liturgy is at the core of this kind of catechesis, so is the community, the Body of Christ.

But the name “atrium” is taken, and we do not use the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at our parish.  “Let’s get ready to go to our Room of St. Dominic Savio!” just doesn’t roll off the tongue when it needs to, that is, when the time comes to gather the attention of twelve third-grade children from their previous objects, convince them to walk in a line, and have them simultaneously carry a lighted candle, Bible, and cross the way these things should be carried.  Despite this particular instance, I think naming rooms after saints is lovely, practical, and catechetically useful.

During this search for inspiration for the makeover, the commonalities between a CCE space and the womb of our Blessed Mother kept crossing my mind.  “Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” we tell her; she is made holy not by her own identity but by the One whom she welcomed despite the darkness of the night, the hiddenness of her womb inside her, and the uncertainty in her mind of the future.  Similarly, the catechist and children gather together to welcome God’s truth, beauty, goodness, and the light of God’s very Self.  Not one of us has control over the outer circumstances from weather to baseball practice, the progress of the lesson plan, nor least of all the conversion of all of our hearts.  Still, we trust as Mary did that God’s grace makes us holy and helps us learn about and live out that holiness.  Despite this truth, the name “womb room” would never do.  It rolls off the tongue a little too easily, so much so as to distract from what it means!

That settled it.  The room became “our sacred space,” alliterative by accident, and very to-the-point.  A sacred space is different from an everyday space (a concept, I later learned, that not all the children have had the chance to internalize), so in order to make it look the part for CCE, I lighted one pillar candle and turned off the lights while I went to fetch the children from the large hall – atrium, if you will – where they all gather before CCE.  I told them we were about to go somewhere that is holy because God is there, and I asked them how we should act when we enter a holy space.

I was surprised at how well the kids “got it,” especially since this was (scientifically, perhaps) the same room we had used during the previous two weeks.  The carpet, chalkboard, room divider, tables, and chairs were all the same.  The only differences were the candlelight in the darkened room and the name we called it.  The candle was wildly popular.  As always, we started our session with prayer.  Then we flipped the lights back on, I blew the candle out, and we continued with the lesson amid intermittent requests to light the candle again.

I immediately noticed my own experience of walking to our sacred space with the children.  In the next days, as I reflected and certainly came across ideas from our textbook and other catechists, I realized that the need to transport the children from the large hall to each room was a real opportunity.  It is much easier to help them see the difference between a sacred space and an everyday space when they arrive together and in an organized fashion from somewhere else, from an everyday space.  Really, they were processing into the CCE room, but in a veiled sort of way.  The next week, therefore, we lifted the veil, and we processed to our sacred space!

The novelty and surprise at the new look of the sacred space wore off a little.  Once we entered the room, if a child or two went to someone else’s seat or ran or shouted, the others’ attention moved from the sacred sense of the room to the other child.  One way I tried to respond was by gentle reminders of the sacredness of the space.  This worked…at times.  A better way to lessen this problem and to keep the children focused in general was to give them jobs.  Some children were to pass out books, pencils, etc., and one was charged with posting and remembering our rules in order to remind the others as needed.  At first, there weren’t enough responsibilities to go around, but since God’s creative power flourishes amid the debris of our unaccomplished plans, we ended up having a Candle Extinguisher each week.  (This is a most coveted responsibility and a motivator for good behavior.)  In addition, some children became responsible for carrying objects during the procession, and we have two rotating Hospitality Ministers whose task is to greet the other children and myself as we enter and exit the sacred space.  This solution brought up questions of its own, of course, such as when to announce the responsibilities for the day (it has to be before the procession, which takes some time), what to do if both of the Hospitality Ministers are late or absent, and how to inoculate the children from the sharing of cooties which is inevitable in the ministry of hospitality.

The sacred space continues to become what it is.  Now, from time to time, the children arrive to find the room arranged differently; that is, so that it does not look or feel like a classroom once the lights come back and the Candle Extinguisher does her thing.  Several times the children have had the chance to move around to different “stations” in the room to encounter the content of the textbook lesson in the form of word games, pieces of art, or skits they can bring to life.  Often we sit in a circle on the carpet to listen and respond to stories.  Sitting in a circle on the floor is very helpful for some children, while others find it especially conducive to treating the nearby tables as forts or jungle gyms.  The setup of the room, then, was not constant but variable, determined according to the lesson plan and my knowledge about what the children’s attention spans could handle.

The next step, I think, has less to do with arranging the space.  It has to do with helping the children name their experiences.  One day when we had a hard time getting into prayer mode, I decided to review the difference between sacred activities and everyday activities.  The children understood this well.  Then I asked about our own space.  Is it sacred?  Yes!  Why is it sacred?  More good answers.  And finally, how do you know Jesus is in this room?  Many children raised their hands: Because we talk about Jesus.  Because of the cross.  The Bible.  The candle.  These liturgical symbols had spoken for themselves, though I had only actually told the children about the sacredness of the space and the meaning of the candle.  This reflection could continue: What is it like to come into our sacred space when it looks like this?  How do you feel when you are welcomed by the Hospitality Ministers?  What do you think of being a Hospitality Minister?  Do you think we should get rid of the candle?  (No.)  Where else do you see candles and Hospitality Ministers?

And with the help of their parents and the Holy Spirit, the children just might recognize for themselves that the church they enter on Sundays is way better than this sacred space, even if at first it is only due to the sheer number of candles.

Desire Transfigured: A Lenten Sermon

Fr. Kevin Grove, C.S.C.

Parochial Vicar, Christ the King Parish, South Bend, IN


“Grandma.  I hate Lent,” her teenage grandson said.  “We have fish sticks for lunch at school; any extra coins from lunch go into our “Operation Ricebowl” box which my little brother doesn’t have to give anything to; and Dad and Mom are making us go to Stations of the Cross every Wednesday.  My teacher said that fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are supposedly conforming [dripping with sarcasm] me to Christ.”  I have come to the conclusion that if this is being conformed to Christ, then we are being conformed to be…kinda grouchy and miserable.”

His grandmother smiled—one of those wise and wrinkled smiles that only grandmothers somehow can give—and told her grandson to sit down and, first of all, to relax.  She sat down next to her teenage grandson and said, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.  Because like you I never really got the point of all of this Lenten stuff, until I learned my own story.  Now today I am going to tell you yours.”  She closed her eyes, as if drawing something up from the creation of time, and then began.

“The ancients knew of three things that plagued every human heart.  Each civilization called them different names, but the ancient Hebrew people knew them as the three desires.  The first one was what they called the desire of the eyes.  We look around at nice things, at beautiful things, and they stir in us the desire to own them, to possess them.  The second one was the desire of the flesh, which was the need for bodily pleasure.  You know, food or drink or sex.  And the third desire was called “pride of life.”  And it is the pride of the human heart in our very existence and our importance here.  The ancients knew us well, didn’t they?” the grandma gently said.

“They knew us so well, that they were inspired to write this into the story of the first man and the first woman.  Remember, before the first woman ever took a bite of the forbidden fruit in the garden, she noticed something about that fruit.  She thought to herself, “the fruit was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.”  Think about it, my dear, the fruit was good for food—the desire of the flesh.  It was pleasing to the eyes—the desire of the eyes to possess something.  And it was desirable for gaining wisdom—one way to pride in one’s life.  The first woman and the first man had those three desires in them…and what were good desires they let go too far…and overindulged them in the forbidden fruit.”

“And after them, generations and nations and you and I have been struggling with the limits [slower] of these very same desires.  We want more than our fair share, we do to ourselves whatever feels good rather than what is good, and our lives can become all about us.  The ancients could get depressed about this; some had no hope, no joy, that they could live their desires in a healthy way.  They were always flopping back and forth between complete self rejection and total self indulgence.”

“But then came one man who was led by the Spirit.  And before he ever ministered or taught anyone, he went out into a place to be alone.  He went out to face his own human desires.  He went to the desert and he stayed forty days.  And I’m not sure he knew if he could do it.  Because while he was out there, a tempter came and asked him to make stones into bread because he was hungry—to feed the desires of his flesh.  But he didn’t do it.  It’s not that food was bad, but that it could not be stronger than his desire for God.  Then the tempter told him to throw himself off of the high parapet of the temple and to let God save him—to have so much pride in his life that he would make God serve his own pride.  But again, he didn’t do it.  And the tempter took the man finally up onto a very high mountain and showed him every kingdom on earth—every desire the eye could wish to control.  And a third time, he didn’t accept the offer of the tempter, for he would have to put his possessions before God his Father.”

“That man changed the human story that day; he changed the outcome of your story and mine.  That one man went into the desert and gave you and me real hope for the first time since the first man and woman in the garden.  He overcame the desires that no one else could.  And he didn’t do it by condemning the things we own, or the food we eat, or the good pride we have.  He put them all in their right place, reflecting God’s glory.”

And with that, the Grandmother paused a moment, and focused again on her grandson’s eyes.  She sighed, and said, “I know that you have already figured it out that the man was Jesus.”  But there is a little more.  When we fast, we remember the overwhelmingness of our own desire of the flesh.  When we give alms, we remember how powerful is the desire of our eyes to have things for ourselves rather than give to those in need.  And most of all, when we pray, we remember how quickly our pride swells up inside us.  And if we just get stuck at this point, having remembered these things, then our fasting, almsgiving, and prayer can make us hungry, poor, and grouchy.

But Jesus changed us and our three desires that day in the desert.  And right now, every day, Christ re-orders those three desires in us.  Every time we pray, and fast, and give alms, we are going back to that desert because Jesus Christ is there changing us…every day.  And this makes our time of Lent, then, joyful…because Christ is helping us to write the end of our stories in a way we couldn’t do alone.  So, Happy Lent, my son!  And she smiled that grandmotherly smile that showed she really meant it.



The Small Crucifixion of Matthias Grunewald

Jem Sullivan, PhD

Adjunct Professor in the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC.


The liturgy of Ash Wednesday, that begins the Lenten season, draws us into the mystery of dying and rising to new life. One particularly evocative image that visually leads us along the paschal journey from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday is Matthias Grünewald’s The Small Crucifixion. This masterpiece was completed sometime between 1511 and 1520, and is now displayed in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Some twenty paintings by the master German artist Grünewald survive today. The Small Crucifixion is his only extant work in America. Grünewald’s other well known masterpiece, The Eisenheim Altarpiece (1515), also features a heart-rending crucifixion scene in the central altarpiece panel.

Matthias Grunëwald’s The Small Crucifixion

The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In The Small Crucifixion from the National Gallery the artist invites the viewer into the horror of crucifixion, with moving realism and immediacy. The perfect and divine oblation of our Lord on the Cross radiates from the canvas. Christ’s abandonment, desolation, and poverty on the Cross is expressed through every element in the scene – form, line, color, and composition. The viewer is drawn to His emaciated body racked with marks of torture, his bloodied face, and his bowed head, all of which speak of his unbearable agony.

This is the revealed form of divine love.

Christ’s luminous body, draped in a tattered loincloth, gives evidence of the inhumanity of his tormentors, and the sin of humanity for which He willingly humbled himself, “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

But it is our Lord’s yearning and twisted fingers and his gnarled feet that rivet the eye.

For in them is expressed the fullness of divine love in anguish over human alienation from God. The crossbeam strains under the weight of his wounded body, while his distressed hands, stretching heavenward, offer final words of filial abandonment, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 46).

Three robed figures stand in the viewer’s space while uniquely sharing in Christ’s Passion. On the left stands Mary, his Mother, bowed with the grief that now pierces her heart; on the right is the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, praying before the mystery of the Cross. And at the foot of the Cross kneels Mary Magdelene, pondering in a contemplative gaze the meaning of human suffering, in light of His Passion.

A landscape of low green hills and rocky inclines also bear witness to this pivotal moment in the history of salvation. It is as if all of creation groans with its suffering Lord. Grünewald conveys the biblical record of the “darkness that came over the whole land,” in the eerie green-blue light that envelops the scene.

The Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Passion, death, and Resurrection have, over the centuries, inspired countless master artists. Such works reveal the artists’ skill and creative inspiration. They also invite a profound sharing in the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising, made present for us in Lenten liturgies. Such artistic masterpieces are visual reminders that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not distant theological abstractions, but events that forever transform human history, and our own daily existence, if we allow it.

To the casual observer, Grünewald’s The Small Crucifixion evokes empathy in the face of another’s torment. Through the eyes of faith the Christian disciple is led a step further. For in pondering this image we can be moved through beauty to enter into the redemptive meaning of Christ’s suffering. For through this visual homily, Grünewald, the painter, encourages us along the Lenten journey to persevere in our own daily patterns of dying and rising to new life.

Eucharist in the Syriac Tradition

Deacon Owen Cummings, D.D.

Regis Chair of Theology, Mount Angel Seminary, St. Benedict, OR.


All too often in our Western liturgical and sacramental tradition we neglect the enormously rich contribution of the Syriac fathers. In part this may be due to the difficulties of the Syriac language and scripts for the Westerner. But it is also due to our penchant for prose over poetry, and for a philosophical approach to theology in contrast to a more image driven approach. This modest reflection offers the briefest of tastes of Syriac eucharistic thinking by way of images.

In his ecumenical survey of the Christian sacraments the late John Macquarrie (1919-2007) spoke of the Eucharist as “the jewel in the crown among the sacraments” (John Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments, New York: Continuum, 1997, 101-102). The metaphor of the jewel describes something that is very precious, something to be treasured, something immensely valuable. The Syriac theological and liturgical tradition has a similar way of speaking about the Eucharist. Before describing the approach of the Syriac fathers, it may be helpful briefly to say something about their understanding of the sacramentality of creation. Ephrem of Nisibis writes: “In his book Moses described the creation of the natural world, so that both the natural work and his book might testify to the Creator: the natural world, through man’s use of it, the Book, through his reading of it” (Hymns on Paradise, V.2). In this perception the Holy Scriptures and creation may be said to be complementarily sacramental. Scripture and creation are the means of God’s revealing himself, and this revelation in both is by way of symbols and types, inviting humankind, as it were, to see spiritually beyond the veil of God’s hiddenness.

Perhaps we may say that the sacramentality of both Scripture and creation reaches its unique climax in the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, and he becomes the source of our transformation or divinization in and through the central sacrament of the Eucharist. Thus, the Syrian Orthodox Liturgy of St. James draws a close connection between the Annunciation epiclesis and the Eucharistic epiclesis: “(Send your Spirit) so that he may overshadow and make this bread into the life-giving Body, the saving Body, the heavenly Body, the Body which brings salvation to our souls and bodies, the Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ…” As the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, so the Holy Spirit overshadows the Eucharistic gifts so that they may become sacramentally who Jesus Christ is. Furthermore, Mary’s receptivity to the action of the Holy Spirit is a paradigm for the cooperation between humankind and the Holy Spirit through the Eucharist. As Mary accepted the Gift of the Spirit, so human beings are invited to accept the Eucharistic gift of the same Spirit, and to be transformed and so to live out of that gift.

Let us now move to the metaphor of the jewel for the Eucharist. In ancient times it was widely thought that pearls came about when lightning struck the oyster in the sea. So, Ephrem of Nisibis thinks of Christ as the Pearl coming to be when the lightning of the Holy Spirit strikes the watery womb of Mary. In a parallel fashion another Syriac author, Jacob of Serugh, writes as follows: “The Holy Spirit goes forth from the Father and descends, overshadows and resides on the bread, making it the Body, making it the treasured pearls to adorn the souls that are betrothed to him” (cited in Sebastian P. Brock, Studies in Syriac Spirituality, Poona, 1988, 36).

These treasured eucharistic pearls make a difference in the life of the communicant. The communicant who is genuinely open to God’s grace and collaborates with the sacramental gifts finds his experience eucharistically aligned. This is how it is expressed by Joseph the Visionary: “May I draw near to you, and you alone be seen by me: may I not perceive anything else that is next to me, but may I walk in the house of prayer as though in heaven, and may I receive you who live in the highest heaven.” Joseph wants to be drawn into close communion with Christ, and to be free of anything that would distract from the intensity of that experience. The house of prayer, that is to say the building of the church, becomes an experience of heaven and so of communion with Christ. He then goes on to speak of the consequences of this communion: “You have revealed to me your hiddenness in the Bread and in the Wine, reveal in me your love, cause a desire for you to shine out in me…” (Sebastian P. Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1987, 358-359).

These Syriac approaches to the eucharistic presence of Christ arguably have as much to offer, if not in some ways more to offer than medieval scholasticism.

Oblation: Liturgy and Evangelization (coming March 31, 2011)

In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI writes regarding the Eucharist:

“The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28)” (no. 11).

The Notre Dame Center for Liturgy’s electronic journal,  “Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization,” explores this radical change, the transformation of all human existence, through contemplation of the liturgical pedagogy of the Church.  And this pedagogy is incomprehensible outside of the mission of evangelization that is defining of the Church’s very identity as a “sacrament–a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race….” (Lumen Gentium, no. 1).

We embark on this exploration, this pilgrimage toward greater understanding of the evangelical nature of liturgical prayer, through articles and videos on liturgical spirituality; on teaching liturgy and sacraments in parishes and schools; on the relationship between liturgy and culture including music and art, politics and society; on developing a sacramental mysticism; on liturgy and Bible, including examples of sermons that we see as “evangelical.”  And, of course, more that we can only imagine.

As we prepare to launch this journal in the coming weeks, we hope that you might join us in our thoughtful consideration of these themes, emailing us with comments and suggestions (  And of course, engaging in the process of self-appropriation whereby you come to take up the Eucharistic vocation of the Christian–that capacity to recognize all within the pattern of God’s gift giving, offering the spiritual worship appropriate to our priestly, prophetic, and kingly identity.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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