Dec 31, 2007

The Scandal of the Liturgy

Online Edition – Vol. VI, No. 9
December 2000 – January 2001

The Scandal of the Liturgy
"Incarnation" does not mean doing as we please with the Church’s worship

Book Review by Father Paul Scalia

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (English edition, trans. John Saward) San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. 232 pages. $19.95.


What theologians call "The Scandal of the Incarnation" poses a perennial threat to the health of the Church. This famous phrase does not designate a particular heresy or teaching but describes the difficulty of accepting the Church’s teaching that God became man.

The Incarnation scandalizes people because they resist the idea that God would limit Himself in that way, or stoop to our level at all. Further, they reject the particularity of God’s descent to earth: that He became a particular man in a particular place, in a particular time. That God should choose one time, place, and group over any other strikes them as unfair, undemocratic.

The Scandal of the Incarnation finds a parallel in the liturgical controversies surrounding us: the liturgy scandalizes people, too, and for similar reasons. They resist the teaching that the liturgy is limited in some way or that it possesses a definite spirit or form. That there should be particular demands regarding the time, place, and actions of the liturgy strikes many people as unfair, undemocratic. They resent the fact that they cannot do as they please with the liturgy. Thus the Church now suffers from what we might call "The Scandal of the Liturgy".

It is precisely this scandal and its animating spirit that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addresses in his latest book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. As he has in the past, the cardinal here displays an understanding and treatment of the issues far deeper than most other writers today.

Those who expect a controversial discussion of all the "hot button" topics will be disappointed. As the title indicates, Cardinal Ratzinger focuses primarily on the essence of the liturgy, with a view to showing how the liturgy "takes flesh" in our world. As such, the entire book is really a consideration of the incarnation of worship.

The very structure of The Spirit of the Liturgy follows the pattern of the Incarnation. Just as the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel contemplates the Word "in the beginning", before it becomes flesh, so also Ratzinger looks to the essence of the liturgy before he considers how it becomes flesh. He does not begin with rubrics and translations the "flesh" of the liturgy but with the truth of the liturgy itself.

Part One addresses "The Essence of the Liturgy" and seldom mentions specific liturgical actions or words. He concludes the introductory section on the essence of the liturgy:

Christian liturgy is a liturgy of promise fulfilled, of a quest, the religious quest of human history reaching its goal. But it remains a liturgy of hope. It, too, bears within it the mark of impermanence. The new Temple, not made by human hands, does exist, but it is also still under construction. The great gesture of embrace emanating from the Crucified has not yet reached its goal; it has only just begun. Christian liturgy is liturgy on the way, a liturgy of pilgrimage toward the transfiguration of the world, which will only take place when God is ‘all in all’. (50)

Similarly, in part two ("Time and Space in the Liturgy"), Cardinal Ratzinger illumines the fundamental structure of the liturgy. This section includes the cardinal’s reflections on "the place dedicated to divine worship", a chapter on "the altar and the direction of liturgical prayer", and on the "cosmic symbolism" of liturgical time (feasts and seasons of the Church year).

Part three ("Art and Liturgy"), which reflects on the meaning of sacred images and the importance of music in the liturgy, also covers what is essential to the liturgy before arriving at specific observations or suggestions. The author points out that sacred art "requires the gift of a new kind of seeing" and he invites us to "have one last brief look at our own times":

The dissolution of the subject, which coincides for us today with radical forms of subjectivism, has led to ‘deconstructionism’ — the anarchistic theory of art. Perhaps this will help us to overcome the unbounded inflation of subjectivity and to recognize once more that a relationship with the Logos, who was at the beginning, brings salvation to the subject, that is, to the person. At the same time it puts us into a true relationship of communion that is ultimately grounded in trinitarian love…. What in museums is only a monument from the past, an occasion for mere nostalgic admiration, is constantly made present in the liturgy in all its freshness. (155)

Artists, he also observes here, "are weary of the empty freedom from which they have emerged. Humble submission to what goes before us releases authentic freedom and leads us to the true summit of our vocation as human beings" (156).

In the final section, part four ("Liturgical Form"), in chapters on the meaning of ‘rite’ and the significance of bodily gestures such as kneeling and the sign of the cross in expressing the cosmic language of liturgical symbol, Cardinal Ratzinger examines specific regulations of the liturgy in detail only after looking upwards, to the truth of the liturgy.

Thus he concerns himself with two basic points throughout the book: first, that the liturgy possesses a definite form; second, that certain particulars in the liturgy flow from its very essence.

First of all, as the title indicates, the book focuses on the spirit of the liturgy, that is, what is essential to the very nature of the liturgy. This title, identical with that of a 1918 study of the liturgy by Romano Guardini, could easily be misunderstood. In our culture, "spirit" indicates something vague and easily (and endlessly) re-defined like the "spirit of Vatican II".

But Cardinal Ratzinger never gives vagaries and poor definitions! He makes it clear that "spirit" in this case means the liturgy’s inner demands and form. The Cardinal often recalls this point, speaking of the liturgy’s "essential" features, its "essential form", its "inward essence" and its "pre-existing identity". In short, the "spirit" of the liturgy is not one thing today and another thing tomorrow. While the liturgy expresses itself differently throughout history and in different cultures, its spirit remains the same.

This "givenness of the liturgy", as Cardinal Ratzinger calls it, occupies the center of today’s controversies. Before we can have any true reform of the liturgy, we must first respect the form of the liturgy.

But because modern man is accustomed to manipulate, control and dominate the world, the suggestion that there exists a definite, objective meaning to the liturgy scandalizes him. He resists the spirit of the liturgy would rather dominate the liturgy to make it fit his own whims and desires. Lurking behind every liturgical abuse and every call for "updating" the liturgy we find his arrogant view that the liturgy is something we create and manipulate. This view displays an attitude of rebellion and an unwillingness to receive the true worship that Christ gives us.

Cardinal Ratzinger strikes at the root of our present problems when he vindicates the spirit of the liturgy and states that "man himself cannot simply ‘make’ worship". Proper worship is "received from God in faith". The "pre-existing identity" of the liturgy means that "’creativity’ cannot be an authentic category for matters liturgical". We receive the liturgy; we do not produce it. This basic point must precede any discussion of particulars. Before we can discover what constitutes "right worship", we must first accept that there is such a thing as "right worship".

But The Spirit of the Liturgy also considers the particulars of the liturgy, that is, exactly how its "pre-existing identity" becomes flesh. Specifically, Cardinal Ratzinger examines the times of the liturgy, the art, music, gestures and postures proper to it. Always, though, he enters into these considerations with a respect for the essence of the liturgy. Many, if not most, liturgical writers today take a consequentialist approach to these questions: "We should do this because it will produce that". "Will it work?" seems to be their first and only question. Cardinal Ratzinger, on the other hand, asks whether a particular action, gesture, kind of music or art pertains to the essence of the liturgy.

He makes clear, for instance, that the issue of kneeling at Mass is not a question of what "works", but of what the liturgy demands. Similarly, whether the priest may face East depends not on sociological, political, and cultural factors, but on the spirit of the liturgy itself. He approaches all the other questions in the same way. He does not presume to supply the answers even less does he presume the ability to create the answers himself. In effect, he "asks" the liturgy itself to answer.

Of course, precisely how the liturgy becomes flesh scandalizes people. They object to the specifics of worship time, place, movement, posture, words. They would rather have their own liturgy that does not make demands on them. The disagreement here is not so much over the specific changes to be made, but over what determines the particulars: Do we decide, or do we let the liturgy speak for itself?

Cardinal Ratzinger does not merely contribute to the debate. He calls attention to what the terms of the debate must be:

The life of the liturgy does not come from what dawns upon the minds of individuals and planning groups. On the contrary, it is God’s descent upon our world, the source of real liberation (168).

On the last page of the book, Cardinal Ratzinger observes, "Incarnation does not mean doing as we please". For years, many liturgists have separated the liturgy from the Incarnation, precisely so that they may do as they please with it. The Spirit of the Liturgy reasserts the liturgy’s utter dependence on the Incarnation. By so doing, Cardinal Ratzinger reveals that the Scandal of the Liturgy really has its roots in the Scandal of the Incarnation.

In the end, the Scandal of the Incarnation stems from pride. Since God became a particular man in a particular time and place, we must meet Him according to the particulars of His life. We must meet Him on His terms, not ours. The proud resist this, because they want to determine their relationship with God. They want to set the terms. They do not want to receive God, but to possess Him.

So also the Scandal of the Liturgy stems from pride. Since the liturgy is the worship of the Incarnate Word of God, we must abide by the essence of His worship. But the "creators" of liturgy do not want to worship in the form that Christ gave us. They want to determine their own form of worship. They want to set the terms. Like the builders of the tower of Babel, they want to make a name and a liturgy for themselves. Ultimately, they do not want to receive the liturgy, but to possess it.

And just as the remedy for the Scandal of the Incarnation is to receive the truth about the Incarnate Word, so also the remedy for the Scandal of the Liturgy is to receive its true spirit:

The more priests and faithful humbly surrender themselves to this descent of God, the more "new" the liturgy will constantly be, and the more true and personal it becomes (168-169).


Father Scalia is a priest of the diocese of Arlington, serving in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He was ordained in 1996.

Excerpts from The Spirit of the Liturgy can be accessed by clicking here.



The Editors