As anyone who has taught Sacred Scriptures knows, dealing with apocalyptic literature is a perilous affair. Students expect to read in such literature historical prophecies about the end of the world. Does the Blood Moon of late September portend the end of the cosmos? (No). What about the rise of Temple University’s football program? (Perhaps). Are the number of presidential debates evidence that God’s judgment has come upon humanity? (Likely). Because they’re looking for apocalyptic literature that predicts the precise details of the end of the world, students are often unprepared to see the surprising telos of literature like the Book of Revelation: that the wedding feast of the slain and resurrected Lamb is God’s definitive judgment upon history.
The loss of this sense of the apocalyptic, of God’s coming to judge the world in the wedding feast of the Lamb, has been detrimental to our capacity to participate fully, consciously, and actively in the liturgical prayer of the Church. As Annie Dillard has written in an oft-quoted text:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return (Teaching a Stone to Talk).
We gather in our parish churches, seemingly unaware that the Eucharistic liturgy we celebrate on a weekly basis is the foretaste of this wedding feast of the Lamb. That the Scriptures we hear forms us to see the world from God’s own viewpoint. That the Eucharistic Prayer we offer to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit manifests to us that God is:
…the Master of reality, Lord, God of truth, who exist before the ages and govern throughout the ages; who dwell in the heights of heaven throughout the ages, gazing down on lowly things; you who have made heaven and earth and sea and everything that is in them. The Father of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through whom you made all things, those visible and those invisible. Who sit upon the throne of your holy glory in your kingdom; who are adorned by every holy power (Alexandrian Anaphora of Basil).
Our celebration of the liturgy is a sacrament of God’s definitive judgment upon the world, in which the Christian is formed over the course of a lifetime to participate in the sanctified wisdom of the Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One. This participation will involve understanding the various ways that the life of the Church, our family life, our understanding of human dignity as a nation-state–all of these fail to measure up to the terribly festive judgment of the wedding feast of the Lamb.
The loss of this apocalyptic (and thus eschatological) disposition in our prayer is a real problem that the Church must face. Our participation in liturgical rites are not simply a celebration of our identity as Christians (although, they are indeed this). They are not the redeemed of the city, gathering together for self-praise. Instead, our prayer is participation in the sacrament of God’s eschatological judgment of the world in which sin (including the sin of particular parish communities, of nation states) is revealed for what it is: a paltry imitation of God’s power and might.
The renewal of this apocalyptic imagination in the Church need not involve a turning back from the liturgical renewal that took place as a result of the Second Vatican Council. Instead, it requires a remembering by those who practice liturgical ministry that our celebration of the liturgy is not first and foremost about our speaking of a word to God. Rather, it is a response to God’s call, the triune God’s glorious judgment of the gift of the world in the first place. It is because of God’s voice as other, as interruptive of ours, that prayer can take place in the first place. As Jean-Luc Chretien writes:
The space of response is opened only by the difference between speaking of oneself and speaking oneself. There can only be a call and a response if the two are no longer conceived as identical and if the fact that we do not speak of ourselves, out of ourselves, actually gives us a voice rather than condemn us to silence or to a simulation of speech (The Call and the Response, 27).
Therefore, to re-foster liturgical participation today will not (in the end) involve just changing the rites around. It will, instead, involve learning to see the Church’s prayer as actually speaking to, communing with a God who is not us. A God who comes to judge us, the world, not as the inaccessible judge. But as the Lamb slain, who announced that the world’s approach to violence, to destruction, is over. Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.
It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)
My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche and my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)
And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.
When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237). As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:
A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.
(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)
“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)
It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.
Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.
The Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).
So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).
The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:
“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).
It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.
Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.
For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).
Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.
Last week, I participated in a week long ecumenical gathering of international liturgical scholars. The theme of this year’s Societas Liturgica biennial meeting was liturgical formation. In the midst of plenary lectures and research papers, three thoughts surfaced for me about the nature of liturgical formation in the late modern or postmodern world.
The Separation of Liturgical Studies From The Study of the Scriptures, Theology, and Spirituality
It was a common motif among the keynote addresses, along with many of the short research papers, to bemoan the separation of liturgical scholarship from its roots in Scripture, theology, and spirituality. Liturgical studies, insofar as it has become a separate discipline, has at times become myopic in its treatment of formation. That is, as liturgical studies elevates participation in the liturgical rites of the Church to the privileged location of formation, the rest of Christian life is marginalized. As Patrick Pretot wrote in his major essay:
…the dream of a type of liturgical formation that would be able to find its principal support within the celebration itself is today confronted with many difficulties…liturgical formation needs to find new routes for our post- or ultra-modern era….these new ways must seek to draw together Scripture, theology and spirituality in such a way that formation must not be subordinated to the sole end of ritual performance…
The goal of the liturgical life is glorification of God and the sanctification of humankind. There is a danger that following the Second Vatican Council, the telos of liturgical prayer was nothing short of liturgical prayer itself. The next frontier of liturgical studies within the academic discipline of theology will be discerning an approach to liturgical formation that opens up the imagination to a “liturgical approach to life” that was itself pivotal to Romano Guardini, to name but one example. Liturgical studies, if it remains an insular discipline concerned about performance of rites alone, will lose its place in theology as that discipline, which unites academic rigor with pastoral practice.
Within Catholicism, perhaps, I would gather that we are entering the era of “lay liturgical scholarship,” which will facilitate this movement. In previous generations, it was the priest who studied liturgy. Yet, among the younger Roman Catholics present in Quebec, I encountered lay student after lay student after lay student, intrigued by connecting liturgical prayer with a form of life. The project of renewing liturgical studies will be a lay project in particular.
Not Liberal, Not Conservative But Identity Forming
In her opening address to the conference, President Lizette Larson-Miller described a change in liturgical practice, especially among the young. She noted a group of Anglican seminarians, who would celebrate Vespers every Friday, concluding with the Latin Marian antiphon of the day. They did all this dressed in cassocks. Larson-Miller described this approach to liturgical prayer (not as conservative) but as related to the manner in which identity is formed in late modern life. To put on a cassock, to pray in this way, is to “write” one’s identity in Christ upon the body. Implicit in Larson-Miller’s analysis is the claim that one should not treat such young adults under the rubrics of conservative or liberal. Rather, they are seeking to perform Christian identity in a bodily way, one that perhaps was lost to a previous generation.
In conversations with many others throughout the conference, I came to see that this concern with “forming one’s identity” through “traditional” practice is in fact the way forward for many of our Christian traditions. I spoke to Anglicans, who noted the growth of their assemblies when they let the angels fly (as Walter Knowles described it). I spoke to Catholics and Anglicans also, who acknowledge the benefit of praying ad orientem not as a way of returning to some golden age but as the proper eschatological and liturgical posture before God. The desire to try on these “traditional” postures is not being performed as some conservative reaction to secularity. Rather, it is a way of marking oneself as Catholic, as Christian, as a liturgical pray-er. I listened to an essay describing the music of Hillsong as moving toward a “traditional” articulation of what constitutes Christian salvation in their taking up the music of the Creed (for example).
In an era in which Christianity is increasingly marginalized (especially among those in Europe, Australia, and the United States), the taking up of traditional practice is a way of shaping an identity apart from alternative constructions of identity available to the postmodern person. It should be cultivated, not bemoaned.
The Spectre of the Secular: A Liturgical Evangelization
Although it was not always mentioned, the spectre of the secular was omni-present at our gathering in Quebec. At the literal level, we walked around a city in which church after church, convent after convent, has been converted into condo, library, or is in the midst of being sold. Further, in paper after paper, one encountered exasperation that the liturgy was not quite as formative of identity as we would hope. That the numbers of those attending our weekly liturgical rites were not as high as we would hope. That baptism or confirmation or Eucharist functioned as a kind of rite of passage, not transforming the life of the believer.
Here, what is required is not further academic research per se but a renewed approach to evangelization as a whole. What we study and preach is not a liturgical rite, a sacrament per se but Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Liturgical studies would benefit from greater contact with a Christo-centric missiology. As Josef Jungmann wrote in his Pastoral Liturgy:
…through worship the Christian shape of our picture of the universe can and should be made effective–our Christian consciousness. We might say too: awareness of Christ must be formed through worship. We must not underestimate the danger in which we stand in the free West. People do not want to be Godless, they even want to be Christians; but Christ–the personal Christ, the God-man scarcely counts. That God has come down to us in Him, has spoken to us through Him, that His coming was the turning point in the world’s history and that since then He has continued to be a decisive factor in the course of the world and its order, is more or less overlooked. We have only to think of how Christmas is celebrated publicly; to look at the average Christmas card (Easter cards are no better) to detect how unreal Christ has become, how little He is taken in earnest…That He is the keystone and remains in the structure of our very existence, that He alone is the bridge linking us with God, is no longer a living thought. Only this makes sense of faith, sacraments, grace, and the Church (338).
Liturgical prayer is not simply an object of study, an interesting footnote to historical theology. But is itself an encounter with the living Christ mediated through rites, making sense of history. The spectre of secularization is such that we forget this, seeing in the liturgy only book, only ritual action. Forgetting that what we do is itself an encounter with reality.
Leaving this conference, what I found was not a need for additional study of rites. But a renewed commitment to liturgical evangelization. Perhaps, the way that we will move forward ecumenically is through retrieving this approach to liturgical evangelization within each of our traditions. In this context, dialogue will take on a shared perspective that we seek to encounter the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who has transformed the very meaning of history.
Springtime means a number of things. It means the smell of freshly cut grass, the return of thunderstorms, and the bane of allergies. But this springtime through this reflection brings together two of my favorite things in a new way. It brings together a) baseball and b) a concrete example of a way that theological thought—the way we think about and grow in our faith—truly does impact our daily lives.
The connection here is a little more subtle than a church softball league, so I will explain. In the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams, a down-on-his-luck Iowa farmer begins (without really understanding why) building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. He is prompted to do this by a few rather mystical experiences, including the whispered, repeated phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”
My home diocese, the Diocese of Knoxville in Tennessee, isn’t building a baseball diamond. But she is embarking on a building adventure of her own. This past weekend, members from all corners of the diocese (along with leaders of the wider Church) came together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the building project for a new Cathedral. Originally, when Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 by splitting it from Nashville, the already existing Sacred Heart Parish was chosen because of its size and central location to serve as the Cathedral parish. But the diocese has grown and changed in the last twenty-five years, and with it, the Cathedral parish demographics have increased and changed dramatically. In deciding to build a Cathedral, Catholics of East Tennessee are coming together to build; we are remembering and honoring the past and (short) history of our diocese and we are getting ready for the future, for a new chapter in which we will stand more on our own feet as a maturing diocese.
Although I was privileged to go home for the weekend and participate in the events associated with the groundbreaking, I have mostly been watching this entire process unfold from afar. My home diocese has been my home in many ways for nearly my whole life. As a daughter of the Diocese who loves her home, while living (in happy exile) away from home and majoring in Theology at Notre Dame, I have been geeking out quite a bit as it all transpires.
I am watching my home Church come together, work together, and learn together about why and how we think about our sacred spaces in the way that we do. I am seeing tutorials on the meaning behind church architecture reach people; I am watching as people transition from hesitancy about the need for a new Cathedral to excitement, pride, and willingness to go the distance and to be a part of this effort. I am seeing a countless number of individuals devote their time, their talents, and their efforts in order to make all of this happen. And most importantly, I am seeing first-hand the way that physically building a new Cathedral church is teaching, forming, and building up the Body of Christ in East Tennessee.
This weekend, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people work together and come together for this moment. (Apparently the final count was 1200 local folks, 12 bishops, 3 cardinals, a governor, and two mayors.) This time in Knoxville diocesan history clearly has become a teaching and formational moment. It has taught and re-taught us about our need to worship God rightly so that we may live rightly, not just as the parish of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but as the entire diocese and all of her members. The tagline of the Cathedral campaign itself packs a theological punch about this rightly ordered way of looking at church building: “Home, Where We Worship, Teach, and Serve.”
Thinking about building, thinking about the seasons of life, and deciding to build has helped all of us who call ourselves a part of the diocese of Knoxville to realize that the Mass, the liturgy, and the life of the Church (both local and universal) is not simply about “we the people.” The Church is actually about the Trinity; the Church only exists because the love of the Trinity overflowed and continues to overflow to creation. God’s overflowing, self-giving, and ever-expanding love explains the basic fact of why we are here. But reflecting on God’s love also helps us understand the fitting priority list for our lives and that if we don’t worship rightly we cannot live rightly—and this is why I’m so proud of the “Worship, Teach, Serve” tagline.
Reflecting on worship and on what it means to build a fitting space for the “home base” of the Diocese (the baseball jokes continue) also means something else. It means that we realize our lives of faith mean more than the sense of community or feeling of belonging that we encounter when we gather for the liturgy. In the Mass and in other liturgies, we (the people of God) participate and pray in hope and in confidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.
But we ourselves, though we are the people and the assembly of God, are not actually the main focus of the liturgy. The Mass and the liturgical life of the Church is not meant to inspire and entertain us, so that we come back next time for more. The liturgical life of the Church is meant to take all of us up into the love of the Trinity, so that we glorify our Creator and are strengthened by the sacraments in order that we may then go out and participate in the work of the Trinity. We do this by helping to sanctify the world with Christ’s love and Christ’s beauty. Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, we make something beautiful for God by our lives and our loves.
There’s a pertinent phrase in liturgical theology “lex orandi, lex credendi” that can help us think about this. It means that the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, what we say in prayer reflects what we truly believe. Building decisions with churches and with this cathedral extends this “lex orandi, lex credendi” to “lex aedificandi, lex credendi.” Aedificandi means build, and so what we build and the way we build it reflects what we believe, too. In his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara says that “architecture is the built form of ideas; church architecture is the built form of theology. As go the ideas, so goes the architecture . . . all architectural decisions are theological decisions.”
Actually, the self-gift (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross forever changed the way that we see our lives and think about beauty. Because Christ’s gift of Himself to the point of death transformed even the worst suffering into the opportunity to give and in that giving to become something beautiful for God, everything in our lives can be transformed by Christ’s work on our behalf. Here and now, in our local churches, we have a chance to give of ourselves, in our daily life. This occurs for Christians all over the world in a significant way through the celebration of the liturgy. By investing prayer, thought, time, energy, and our own personal resources into the building of our local churches (both physically and metaphorically) we also participate in another way in that mystery of self-gift and self-emptying in order to help build the Kingdom of God in new ways.**
In the book Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer, this theological understanding that what we build and the way we build it says something about what we believe is inferred from the title itself. Kieckhefer also makes the comment that
“art in a religious setting can serve as a sacrament of grace, and the capacity to see oneself as worthy of beauty is one dimension of recognizing oneself as by grace made worthy for grace—the sole condition for beginning to receive it” (99).
Our churches should be fitting, beautiful places for God to be housed, where we can enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith so that we can recognize that we are called to be where God is—because God is worthy of the beautiful. And since God is the author and source of all beauty, and since our ultimate call is to become more like God, we are worthy to sit and contemplate God’s love and God’s beauty in beautiful places so that in better understanding God’s beauty we can go into the world and share that beauty.
So how is a building project or thinking about building up and supporting a local church practicing Easter?
Many of our first readings in the Lectionary this time of the year are drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the stories of the early Church growing and building, coming together to break bread and to hear the Word of God. In East Tennessee, we are building and re-building our growing local church, so that we may have a place to come together as an entire diocese. Like the members of the early Church, we do this so that we may hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and break bread together in the Eucharist. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us think about this in another way highlighting tbe seasonal, liturgical factor of life. There is a season for everything. The season of spring is baseball season, like I mentioned earlier. But in East Tennessee this year, spring is also church-building season. It is a stone-moving season, and a planting season for the seeds of faith.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl 3:1–5a)
At the end of his own season of building in Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella realizes that his baseball diamond building project was not about the baseball players who came, or the field for its own sake. Instead, it was actually about re-building his relationship with his own father, through a simple coming together in playing a game of catch. At the end of Field of Dreams, Ray is asked by his father, “Is this heaven?” Ray responds by stammering out, “…This.. it’s… it’s Iowa…”
In the movie Field of Dreams, because of his building project, Ray experiences the healing and growth of relationships in his life, including his father. The comparison with the Cathedral project in Knoxville wasn’t meant to be trite. Because in the building and completion of a Cathedral for the Church in East Tennessee (or anywhere where the people of God continue to build) we see a closer glimpse into the call of our eternal relationships with our Heavenly Father and with each other. Our Father in Heaven wants much more than the time spent in a game of catch with us; He wants time with us for all of eternity. The glimpses of that heavenly call show us little glances of the beauty of God’s image for the world in His new, restored creation made possible for us by Christ’s defeat of death and promise of eternal life.
East Tennessee isn’t heaven. But I swear, sometimes, it is pretty close. And I do think that the new Cathedral, upon its completion, will be a little bit like a glimpse into heaven.
**We obviously do this too by the way we serve the wider people of God. The website for the campaign, http://www.sacredheartcampaign.org/, puts it this way: “While we aspire to glorify God through our worship, we plan to continue our work to help the poor. The Diocese of Knoxville provides over $6 million in ongoing charitable services to the poor and marginalized every year. Over the next 5 years, we will have spent more on charitable initiatives than we will have spent on the building of the cathedral.”
Sorry about the delay in posting our Monday, Wednesday, Friday list of what we’re reading. Because I’ll be traveling tomorrow to San Antonio for the National Catholic Conference of Youth Ministers, we’ll be featuring six things that you can read.
Churches are not meant to make us feel at home, and Mass is not at all like our family table. Our Churches are meant to elevate our senses beyond this world, and give us eyes to see and ears to hear the things of eternal significance. Children are smart, and they are naturally programmed to experience awe and wonder. Their capacity to understand and respond to the sacred is way more advanced than we have given them credit for, I think.
They do not need another environment artificially geared toward their needs. They do not need to feel at home at Church in the sense that Church does not evoke a different experience than home. What children need is a sense of the sacred–an awareness that what happens at Church is differenent than what happens anywhere else outside of Church. Stepping into Church should inspire a sense of his heavenly home, not his earthly one.
We need to allow our kids to grow up with a sense of the sacred. In our world, where our daily lives are more and more marred by humanity’s faults and sins, we need a place set apart that reminds of the hope of eternity, that lifts our senses beyond the world around us to the glory and wonder and majesty of the throne of heaven. And our kids need to grow up experiencing that same sense.
What’s going on here? It’s like the very last scene of the church year yesterday led into today’s liturgical trailer that previewed…more of the same!
You know the answer, I’m sure. It’s because the new liturgical year is more of the same, and that “same” is Jesus himself who’s always showing up at unexpected times. For Christians, there’s only one show, and it’s perpetually new. As St. Patrick put it, it’s “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me; Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ on my right, Christ on my left,” basically Christ all over the place. He’s the director, cast, and crew; he’s the dialogue, the plot, and the script; he’s the special effects, the soundtrack, and the cinematography.
The whole shooting match, the whole shebang! And we always have to be ready to receive him, not just at Christmas!
So, yes, take a deep breath – one screening has past; the next is just about to start. Sit back and stay awake: The adventure is about to begin all over again.
This Sunday’s readings (we’re in Year B now) remind us of our distance from God, who created us and to whom we desperately wish to return, and of God’s promise of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. And even though Christ has already come to Earth, our salvation will not be fulfilled until he comes again on the last day. And so we turn to God, despite our imperfections, and, strengthened by God’s grace, await Christ’s return. It’s a little dark; but, then again, Advent is a little dark. I’ve always loved how, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, right at the time that winter begins to rear its ugly head, right when the days reach their shortest and the nights their longest, right when a little, primordial part of you begins to wonder if the world will ever be warm or bright again, we mark this dark season by lighting a new candle each Sunday and we celebrate our expectation of the coming of the Light of the World on December 25th. It’s incongruous, but the celebration lies in the incongruity. But of course, the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, of good over evil, is not accomplished on December 25th and was not achieved on the day when Jesus Christ was born of Mary. That is not what we celebrate at Christmas. Think about it: the human infant is one of the most helpless and vulnerable of all the newborn creatures on earth. Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, could not have vanquished a fly, let alone darkness and death at his birth. It’s precisely this vulnerability, exemplifying God’s total humanity in Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas. Again, it seems that we are celebrating what is incongruous, what doesn’t fit. But what we are celebrating, in fact, at Christmas, in Advent, on this First Sunday of Advent, and throughout the liturgical year, is not what doesn’t fit, but how it all fits; that is, how each event memorialized in the liturgical year fits into God’s plan of salvation manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. And that salvific plan culminates in Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection, a theme that reverberates in each and every feast, fast, and season of the liturgical year.
When we extend our minds, in McLuhan’s sense, through the use of electronic media, we externalize both the mind’s strengths and its weaknesses. The Internet enables our curiosity and speculative capacities (our abilities to “be elsewhere” in at least potentially good ways), but it also empowers our pre-existing inner capacity for distraction – the ability to be elsewhere when we ought to be present here and now. Without such technology, the mind “goes elsewhere” on its own: surfing through its inner realm of facts, commentary, and possibilities. With the Internet, it does so externally and visibly.
McLuhan’s idea of externalization suggests that our deepest problem is not our relationship to technology, but something more ingrained. Long before “smartphone” entered the dictionary, each of us carried around a resource with amazing powers of access and connection, as well as vast potential for distraction and self-indulgence. That resource is our own mind. Today, we have simply externalized and boosted its abilities and habits.
We may cringe at the sight of two people sitting across a restaurant table, both absorbed in their smartphones. But how often have we met with a friend or loved one, and ended up absorbed in our own inner thoughts and concerns, of one kind or another? It is the same tendency: unsatisfied with present reality – for trivial or serious reasons, or no reason at all – we look for ways to be elsewhere, ways of escape that become habitual and start feeling necessary.
Right relationship is also at the core of what the Church has termed “the New Evangelization,” which is an ongoing process that calls Catholics to share the Good News with new vigor in a world where so many are searching for meaning. The New Evangelization is all about deepening our relationship with Christ as friend and savior and deepening the relationships we build with one another as Church. This shared emphasis on relationship makes social justice work and the New Evangelization natural partners.
Every Sunday afternoon I gather with a couple of the undergraduates who work in our Campus Ministry office for liturgy planning. We pray the collect of the Sunday which we are planning, we go around the circle reading what the lectionary offers us, and then I open with a question, “What are your thoughts?” What I want is for these young students to get used to actually listening to what they are hearing in the weekly readings. As they listen and make connections I want them to be able to voice those connections by offering thematic possibilities for hymns, choral pieces, and ritual actions that will serve our campus community well in the liturgy. What I invariably get are a couple moments of silence as I look from person to person, trying to catch their eye. Finally, as if in pain, someone mumbles a thought in the form of a question: “Something about sheep?” That triggers someone else to offer the idea of God as a shepherd, leading and protecting his flock. The ideas can begin to flow more freely at this point and the planning can really begin.
At a recent meeting of this liturgy planning team one of our youngest members, a freshman, looked like she really had some idea to share. I poked and prodded until the student finally offered the suggestion of a piece they thought might work for the liturgy we were planning. It was a piece that I too had been thinking about and I told them as much, hoping to encourage further suggestions. I asked why there was such hesitancy whenever I asked for suggestions and the response I received was one that I have heard in many of my interactions as a campus minister: “I didn’t want to sound stupid.” Most everyone encounters this feeling at some point in their lives, perhaps especially those of us engaged in ministry! What if we say something wrong? What if someone thinks our opinion is worthless or is offended by what we say? It can be a paralyzing fear, and it sure seemed to be for these students when it came to liturgy planning. I know that in my own experience of ministry there have been times when I was paralyzed by the fear of doing or saying something that was wrong. I am positive that some great moments of grace, some great moments of encountering Christ, have been missed because I was too afraid to make a misstep. But what is worse, being so unable to take the risk that we let the moment of grace pass us by, or taking the risk by reaching out for that encounter with Christ even if we do not find what we were expecting?
This week we celebrated the first liturgical feast of Saint John Paul II. In an unusual liturgical phenomenon his feast day is not celebrated on the day of his death but on the anniversary of the inauguration of his pontificate, October 22. On that day in 1978 the new Pope offered the homily which in many ways would come to define the message of his pontificate. He knew that the young generation of people around the world were in a state of flux after almost two decades of social change. Many were unsure what role Christ had in their lives. They were paralyzed with the fear that if they followed Christ they might be ostracized. The Holy Father challenged that all with four simple words: Do not be afraid. He challenged the young people of the world to be open to Christ, even when the political, economic, and cultural situations would say otherwise. Do not be afraid. It is only when we are open to Christ that we are able to overcome the paralyzing fears that can plague us – in ministry, in our relationships, in offering a hymn suggestion at a liturgy planning meeting.
This is the message that I have tried to take to heart in my own ministry, and it was the message that I offered to the student that day: Do not ever be afraid to offer something, to speak up, to put yourself forward. It is the only way that we are going to have those moments of grace. It is the only way that we are going to encounter Christ in one another. The student was able to offer a few more suggestions during the meeting and has been more open in subsequent interactions. I hope that all of us can have experiences that build confidence in the knowledge that when we offer something of ourselves to others in the name of Christ we can never be stupid, we can never fail. Do not be afraid.
After finishing Seminary I have found myself reading fiction that I willfully ignored when I was younger and did not have time for during my years of study. While I am sure that this ignorance has caused me to miss out on a more literarily-robust childhood, a part of me thinks that reading children’s fiction this late in life means that I get far more out of each story than I would have if I had read them at the appropriate age.
Case in point: I only recently finished reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver. I could not help but read the novel in light of many of my own life journeys. One journey in particular that The Giver continually brought to mind was my own journey into a liturgical tradition.
As Jonas slowly discovered his gift of “seeing beyond” the black and white world of “sameness,” I found myself thinking back to my earliest experience of being moved by a prayer written in a century long before my own. It was so different from what I knew, yet it had a familiar quality. It was new, but not alien to my experience as a human. As Jonas experienced his first “longings” I was reminded of the feeling I could not shake after leaving my first ever Ash Wednesday service. I had attended the service by myself but did not leave alone; I was visibly marked as a member of a community I did not create. This was a new experience, one that left me wanting more.
Neither of these experiences would have amounted to much by themselves. Without an embodied guide along the way, my longing for our colorful past and a sense of belonging to the whole church would have remained just that—a longing and a sense.
Jonas was twelve when it was revealed to him that he would be given one such guide. He had been chosen to bear the memories of human history on behalf of his community, and he would be guided along the way by an older, wiser Giver of memories. The memory of his community’s past were incredibly painful to bear at times. The sterilized environment of his youth was free of war and an understanding of death. He had no framework for understanding the horrors or level of loss he experienced through the memories. Other memories brought him pleasure beyond what he could have ever imagined. He received memories of basking in sunlight, sledding down a hill, and familial love that he had previously never experienced.
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” The Giver
These memories did not appear all at once. They were transmitted to him by an older, wiser Giver. I was an adult when I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by the Bishop of Dallas. My wife and I had taken the Canterbury Trail confirmation class together, and I decided that though I had much to learn, I was ready to commit to worshiping as a Christian in the Anglican tradition. Thomas Howard’s opening lines of his (quite helpful) book The Liturgy Explained described my feelings well:
“We are all beginners at the liturgy, really. All of us—from the first-time visitor who finds himself paging helplessly through the Prayer Book wondering what is happening, to the aged priest who has known it all by heart for half a century—are really only on the lower slopes of worship.”
I suspect that I felt this sense of being a beginner more than most. But I take great comfort in knowing that I too have been given guides along the way of exploring a liturgical life.
Reading the Church Fathers has shown me that while so many of these liturgical experiences are new to me, they are not new to Christ’s church. The Book of Common Prayer reminds me that I am not the only one fumbling through the Daily Office, confused at times about what I should be reading and when. The Eucharist—perhaps the greatest of all guides—serves as a memory that is more than a memory.
But like all disciples of Jesus, I find that while I myself am being guided by Givers of all varieties, I am also called to be a Giver myself. My wife, who faithfully followed me into this tradition, and our daughter, who was baptized on the day before the first Sunday of Advent 2013, both need me to guide them along this path of discipleship, just as I need them.
So as I think about my role in the liturgy in light of Jonas’ journey in The Giver, I am reminded of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:1,
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
This path of discipleship is one that calls us all to be both givers and receivers of the Good News of God in Christ.
In an occasion of divine providence, I happened to hear a recording of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C-Minor, Op. 13 (better known as the “Pathétique Sonata”) on the radio in its entirety (a rarity) as I was driving home the other night. I learned this piece more than 15 years ago, and when I say “learned,” I mean learned. Every grace note, every trill, every dotted sixteenth note—they’re all still there, emblazoned in my mind’s eye and in my inner ear and even still in my fading muscle memory. It was a thrill to listen, hearing someone else play the notes I had practiced so diligently until they had become an extension of my being. And yet, as delightful as it was to hear the recording, it wasn’t enough. The tempo in the glorious second movement was a little too slow for my liking; the tempestuousness of the third movement failed to quicken my pulse as it once had. So when I came home I sat down at my keyboard. Not my piano. My keyboard. And I played. I played through the entire piece—complete with the double exposition in the first movement—all the way to the final descending scale whose final triplet I could never quite master. And yet, as gratifying (and entertaining) as it was to fumble through this piece after too many years away from it (yes, there were many mistakes, or as my beloved college professor used to call them, “incidents”), even this still wasn’t enough.
Music lives in the performance, as a friend of mine reminded me over dinner the other night. It lives in the enactment, in the embodiment. It lives when notes on the page cease to be just notes on a page and they pierce the air like arrows or drift about in it like snowflakes. So listening to a recording, while wonderful on one level, isn’t quite the same thing as sitting in Carnegie Hall listening to the strings tune up, feeling the hum of the room as the sound waves vibrate and resonate, swirling around in a harmonious swell. And sitting down to play Beethoven at a Yamaha P-95 digital piano, while allowing me to perform in a rudimentary sense, was definitely not the same as sitting down to a concert Steinway in a recital hall, the keys warming to my fingers, the action and hammers responding to the forcefulness or delicacy of my touch, the strings sounding then decaying into nothingness or stopped short by felted dampers. Music lives in the performance, but it must be performed beautifully and on an instrument that was crafted, created for the task.
The liturgy, too, lives in the performance. The liturgy is something that must be done. It must be enacted. It must be embodied and celebrated, or it remains just words a page, in the same way that a musical score remains just strange markings on a page without someone there to perform them. The musician receives the piece as gift and strives to perform it as the composer intended. We receive the liturgy as gift and strive to offer it to the best of our ability (“incidents” and all), the significant difference of course being that we don’t simply offer it on our own, without any indication that God the infinite composer is pleased with our performance. God himself comes to our aid as we offer the liturgy with Christ and in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ, the incarnate Word is the maestro leading the cosmic symphony, and everyone must play his part well. God has given us the instruments—not plastic, cheaply made contraptions, but incomprehensibly miraculous instruments of flesh and blood—our bodies are the instruments “fearfully, wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14), gifted to us by God precisely in order to offer him praise. Some are strings, some are reeds or brass, some are percussion, yet all are called to participate together with the angels and saints, as one Body, in the one hymn of praise led by Christ our Head. For Christ himself, the incarnate Word, has taught us to play aright by taking up the instrument of the body, and in offering himself on the Cross, he became the definitive “new song” intoned for all eternity (see Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 138). Christ is the new song; moreover, “Christ himself thus becomes the choir director who teaches us the new song and gives the Church the tone and the way in which she can praise God appropriately and blend into the heavenly liturgy,” and we are to offer this song with him in a hymn of unbroken praise from now until he returns in glory (Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord, 97). Liturgy lives in the performance, and we practice it unceasingly, as a young pianist practices Beethoven, on days when we feel like it and on days when we don’t. Some days, our practice is easy. Other days, it demands every ounce of our patience and perseverance. Yet, for the musician, slowly, slowly, the notes on the page are bodied forth with ever greater fidelity, ever more intimate knowledge, and ever more unique beauty (for no two perform alike). And for us in our performative practice of the liturgical life, slowly, slowly, our hearts become transformed, conformed to Christ with a deepening fidelity, until the day when performer and the piece are finally one, and all are caught up in the hymn of praise, in the eternal glory of a communion of love.
“We—[ah!] I—believe in one God, the Father Almighty…begotten not made, one in—[oh gosh] consubstantial—with the Father…”
I vividly remember my discomfort while stumbling through the new translation of the Nicene Creed for the first time at Mass a couple years ago. Despite my best efforts to try to memorize it before the new translation took effect (as any enthusiastic theology student would), when the time came to utter the words aloud in the liturgy, my confidence faltered. Something that had been so ingrained in my subconscious was now a disarming, uncomfortably new struggle to articulate the profession of faith I had recited on a weekly basis since I was old enough to clamber onto a pew and read from the Breaking Bread missalette at a little military parish in Germany in the early 1990s. Many supporters of the new translation praised the fact that we had to re-learn how to pray the Mass, that we had to actually think about the texts and their meanings—and so we did. We have just begun our third liturgical year with the new translation, and although all of us may have experienced our own hiccups here and there, or perhaps even some slightly awkward moments when the priest momentarily lapsed into the old translation and the whole congregation hesitated, exchanging sheepish glances…somehow, we are back to reciting the Creed as effortlessly as we did before November 27, 2011. Perhaps the ease with which we gradually fell back into routine should pique our curiosity.
St. Ambrose of Milan once wrote that the Creed is “the spiritual seal, our heart’s meditation and an ever-present guardian; it is, unquestionably, the treasure of our soul.” The treatment of the profession of faith in the Catechism lasts over 250 pages—for to say the Creed with faith is “to enter into communion with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and also with the whole Church which transmits the faith to us and in whose midst we believe” (CCC, §197). In the liturgy, we gather as a community of believers, and it makes sense that we should have a common language with which to express the faith that binds us together. Before we partake in the ultimate unification of ourselves with Christ in the Eucharist, we first unite ourselves in communion with each other by uttering the articles of our faith.
And yet, we cannot try to confine the Creed to its place in between the homily and the Prayer of the Faithful—it overflows from the liturgy and seeps into every corner of our lives as Christians, saturating our conversations with God even in the silence of our hearts. St. Anselm of Canterbury exemplifies this when he beautifully encapsulates the creed in one of his prayers:
“So, as much as I can, though not as much as I ought, I am mindful of your passion, your buffeting, your scourging, your cross, your wounds, how you were slain for me, how prepared for burial and buried; and also I remember your glorious Resurrection, and wonderful Ascension. All this I hold with unwavering faith, and weep over the hardship of exile, hoping in the sole consolation of our coming, ardently longing for the glorious contemplation of your face.”
Surrounded by music and the Word of God, which we receive aurally, this one moment forces us to stand up before the Church and the world in the liturgy to publicly announce our identities as Catholic Christians. The beauty of it all? No one else can speak the words for us, and the momentum of our speech—robotic or not—is ours alone. When the priest calls upon the Lord “to look not on our sins but upon the faith of your Church,” I’d like to imagine he sees a ragtag community of believers standing together, voicing the words of faith from deep within their hearts, blazing with hope.
Recently, though, I’ve become painfully aware of how much I tend to rush through the long, spoken communal prayers at Mass without thinking—so many incredible moments to take ownership of my faith before the Church and the world, and I just let them slip away! But again, St. Anselm reassures us with the perfect response:
“My prayer is but a cold affair, Lord, because my love burns with so small a flame, but you who are rich in mercy will not mete out to them your gifts according to the dullness of my zeal, but as your kindness is above all human love, so let your eagerness to hear be greater than the feeling in my prayers.”
Our profession of faith may indeed seem lukewarm or lack any conscious momentum to us sometimes, but it burns with a crackling intensity all the same, inflamed by God’s infinite mercy and unconditional, self-giving love. St. Irenaeus, the great defender of the faith against early Christian heresies, wrote that when we recite the Creed “we guard with care the faith that we have received from the Church; for without ceasing, under the action of God’s Spirit, this deposit of great price, as if an excellent vessel, is constantly being renewed and causes the very vessel that contains it to be renewed.” It is what we meditate on in our hearts—not just at Mass, but unceasingly, imbuing our days with the richness and the joy of faith.
And so, the Creed—the very one we all stumbled through two years ago, the one we now often hurtle through at a breakneck pace—could be a miraculous opportunity for us to slow down and allow ourselves to be formed by the liturgy even in the midst of it. Remembering the words of Irenaeus, a profound, deliberate way of professing our faith may be one way through which we can renew the liturgy, and even ourselves, in the process. Remembering the words of Ambrose, the Creed is the treasure of our soul. The next chance you get to speak those words in the liturgy, think of the precious gift of faith you guard and protect in your heart, and let it shine forth.
 Ambrose of Milan, Explanatio Symboli. 1: PL 17, 1193.
 Benedicta Ward, trans., The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 95.
The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, 214-215.
“But above all, it’s the Gospels that occupy my mind when I’m at prayer; my poor soul has so many needs, and yet this is the one thing needful.
I’m always finding fresh lights there, hidden and enthralling meanings.”
—St. Therese of Lisieux
As a child, I usually thought of the Liturgy of the Word as the interminably long span of time where I could take a brief nap—only to be unceremoniously awoken by the psalm or the Alleluia. I’ll even confess to closing my eyes during the readings once in a while as a college student, especially at a late night dorm Mass in the midst of midterms week. There’s just something about the meaning of this part of the liturgy that has always eluded me, until I took the plunge and started taking Scripture courses in earnest as a graduate student and serving as a sacristan for daily Mass. Immersing myself in this study and service, it was like a veil had been gently lifted from my eyes. While the Eucharist is rightly the source and summit of the Christian life, we truly come to know this in the depths of our souls through listening to the proclamation of the Word at Mass. Our active reception of Scripture undoubtedly forms us liturgically, for reasons I elaborate on below.
Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” Dei Verbum, declares that Sacred Scripture is “the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit” (DV, §9). When we listen to the Old Testament readings, the psalms, the epistles, and the Gospels at Mass, we hear God himself speaking directly to us, transmitted through divinely inspired but human hands. Rather than agonizing in private prayer at what we perceive to be God’s unyielding silence and longing to receive some sign that He has indeed heard our cries, we could engage in a more direct encounter with God just by taking the time to concentrate on the revelation of salvation history proclaimed for us during the Liturgy of the Word. Yearning for an intensely personal experience of Jesus? Then open your ears! For as St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “Sacred Scripture is the heart of Christ,” anticipated throughout the Old Testament and fully revealed in the New. Centuries later, in addressing the topic of biblical faith, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that, “in the pierced heart of the Crucified, God’s own heart is opened up—here we see who God is and what he is like” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 48). This idea that Scripture is the heart of Christ allows us to engage in a deeper encounter of His self-giving love, much like the way the Eucharist inexplicably draws us towards the altar each Sunday. Thus, our familiar excuse that “Catholics don’t read the Bible” crumbles, since it gravely undermines our relationship with the God who reveals Himself through the very texts we jokingly rebuff.
I was struck into a moment of profound silence after looking up what the Catechism had to say about scripture, and it also quotes Dei Verbum: “The Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body” (DV, §21). Readers, I don’t know about you, but I was never once taught this in Sunday school! If I had been, then I probably would have cracked open my Bible much, much sooner, and forced myself to pay attention during the longer readings at Mass. In addition to cultivating a devotion to the Eucharist and a penitential character, it looks like the veneration of Scripture is going to be an essential component of our liturgical formation as well; for Scripture reveals the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, and His heart. By listening intensely to the Scriptures at Mass and finally taking ownership of our biblical tradition, we come to participate more fully in the life of the Church.
Sacred Scripture in the liturgy and life of the Church is an issue that Dei Verbum treats at length. One of the most transformative statements in the entire document reads: “For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” (DV, §21). The Church is even referred to as the “bride of the incarnate Word” (DV, §23), opening up an entirely new perspective on the traditional notion of the Church as the bride of Christ, who is the Logos, the very Word of God.
In hearing the Scriptures read each Sunday, we are washed anew in the mysteries of our faith. Through this, God invites us to encounter him in a precious manner; our response to this invitation is the cultivation of a deep faith, in which we submit our whole beings to him. In this faith, we freely submit to the Word of God that we have heard. Chapter 3 of Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy addresses the fundamental form of liturgy—its determination by biblical faith—and agrees: “the only real gift man should give to God is himself” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 35). At the same time that God offers himself to us through our reading of Scripture, we return the favor by responding with a faith characterized by complete and utter self-gift.
Yet, the “great gesture of embrace emanating from the Crucified has not yet reached its goal” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 50). Rather, it has only begun. We remain pilgrims on the journey, at turns stumbling under the weight of sin and being uplifted by God’s grace. The Word proclaimed in the liturgy is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path as we ascend ever closer to the altar of God.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Expos. in Ps 21,11; cf. Ps 22:15.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life