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Contextual Delight – Book Explores the Fruitful Marriage of Theology and Liturgy

Holy Eros: A Liturgical Theology of the Body by Adam Cooper. Kettering, Ohio: Angelico Press, 2014. 126 pp. ISBN: 978-1621380764. $14.95 paperback.

On October 20-21, 2018, Father Harrison Ayre, a priest of British Columbia, Canada, and co-host of the Clerically Speaking podcast, published a “tweet storm” on Twitter. In the span of over fifty tweets he declared his unease with what he called the “Missionary Discipleship Movement.” What he described in the series of tweets, and later, on the November 2nd episode of his podcast, was a deficiency in the movement because it lacked a sacramental understanding of creation and revelation.

Because the movement was far too focused on discipleship as the goal of Christian life, it missed the ancient Christian understanding that deification is, in fact, the goal of our relationship with Christ. The concept of discipleship expresses the idea of being a student: learning from a master and incorporating his teaching into one’s life.

Discipleship is certainly an essential aspect of the Christian life; however, if it is considered the ultimate goal of that life, it fails to fully grasp the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation and Paschal Mystery. Such programs often fail to grasp the fullness of what is offered to the Christian through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

This understanding of Christianity as oriented toward deification is founded on the philosophical worldview of the Christian, a worldview that holds that material things (bodies, food, words) not only symbolically point to spiritual things but that they also have the capacity to make present those spiritual realities as well; not a mere communication of the idea of something beyond itself, but the embodiment of that other reality and the power to transform into it.

This understanding of the created world is foundational to St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body—constitutively, the material world possesses the capacity to communicate and make present the immaterial.

It is within this concept of the sacramentality of the material world that Adam Cooper, a fellow at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, sets his Holy Eros: A Liturgical Theology of the Body (Angelico Press, 2014). From the first sentence of page one, Cooper makes reference to the value of John Paul II’s contribution to a theological anthropology. While not attempting to directly work from or expound on the saintly pope’s work, he explores John Paul’s nuptial structure of the human person as metaphysically gift-oriented toward an other, and then applies those insights to the nature and meaning of the liturgy.

 

Theology Goes to Church

In developing a theology of the body for the liturgy, Cooper contextualizes his work within two general principles. The first is a definition of theology in the sense that the early Fathers understood theologia. Among the early Fathers, this “God speech” leant itself to the mystical, to the giving over of praise to God. According to Origen, theology is “to join in faith with Christ the Son in his mediating office and reconciling movement towards God the Father” (4).

And so, we find here an understanding of theologia as right worship of God through the participation in Christ’s own action as priest: “Thus in one, very profound sense, theology is fundamentally a doxological, liturgical, and thereby physical activity” (5). This worship of the Father is accomplished through the physical reconciling mission of Christ. Liturgical theology is thus primary theology, for it is through the liturgy that we actively receive the Divine nature and are caught up into the kenotic perichoresis of the three persons of the Trinity.

The second principle he contextualizes this liturgical theology of the body within is a dynamic he calls “‘performative nuptiality.’ This refers to the way in which the liturgy performs or enacts the spousal union between Christ and his bride” (6). This is a key concept.

Speech can exist in two different modes. The first mode is descriptive of pre-existing realities: “This is my car.” “These cookies have raisins in them.” “It is 32 degrees outside.” The second mode of speech is active and performative: it brings into existence what was once not there. We can think analogously of an umpire calling strikes or balls. Before he speaks, the reality of the count doesn’t exist. Once he declares a strike, the pitch exists as a strike.

God’s speech is performative in a different way, however. When he speaks, what he speaks comes into existence out of nothing (ex nihilo). The Hebrew dabar, which denotes both word and event, expresses this unique character of God’s speech. The liturgy, Cooper asserts, as the reconciling action of the Word of God, takes on this performative character: “the drama of the liturgy actually constitutes, as both ‘announcement’ and ‘cause,’ the spousal union between Christ and his bride” (7).

These two principles, taken together, form the foundation for his liturgical theology of the body. A physical theology of rites and gestures performed by the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God, is a performative nuptiality. Through the speech of God enacted out in these rites, the spousal union of God and man takes place.

These principles being established, he divides his project into two main sections. The first section sets forth the philosophical and theological principles by which he examines three modes of nuptiality in the liturgy: the priest and the people, the proclaimed word and prayer, and finally the sacrifice and sacrament.

Cooper is brilliant in his ability to write carefully-crafted and dense theology in a very concise manner. The book is deceptively thin. In its ninety-eight pages, thanks to Cooper’s succinct style, it contains the work of a text that in the hands of a less economical writer might have been expanded to five times its size. To give a summary of its content is far beyond the scope of this review and so I will only be able to focus on a few of its key themes.

 

The Metaphysics of Receptivity

To begin understanding the performative nuptiality of the liturgy, it is helpful to understand the subjects taking part in the dramatic action. To be created is to have received existence/being as gifts—an existence that is fundamentally receptive and ordered toward giving itself. Additionally, since man was created from nothing, nothingness exists as a potential for him—he is an unnecessary being. Therefore, the fact that he continues in being is so because of the relationship he has with God, the one necessary being. To exist is to be in relation to God who is being itself.

The very pattern of man’s existence, then, is to be in relationship and to be receptive. And this is why God declares that it is not good for man to be alone—that he must live out his existence with and for another other than himself. It is only in this orientation of receiving and giving, this metaphysic of gift, that the individual can actualize his personhood.

We even see this structure of gift and receptivity within the very nature of the Trinity itself. The Son stands in a perpetual relation of receptivity to the Father, so much so that he declares that he and the Father are one. Thus, receptivity is not an indication of a lack in the person or of unfulfilled being, but rather receptivity is the way to perfection of being. There is no such thing as the self-made man or the self-sustaining man. To become who you are, you must live a life of gift which has woven into its very structure the posture of receptivity.

The initiator of the liturgical action is therefore God: “In every celebration of the liturgy,” Cooper writes, “…the hypostatic union is somehow made present and consummated anew” (24). We participate in the sacred liturgy primarily to be recipients of God’s performative presence in the world. Human beings do not contain within themselves the active principle for their existence and perfection since they have come into being out of nothing.

Taking into account all that has been described to this point about the essential relation to God and the fabric of personal fulfillment being receptivity, we can conclude, Cooper notes, that “only in Christian worship are the conditions for human life and perfection fulfilled” (24) because only in Christian worship does the human person receive the fullness of what they were made for—relationship with the Divine.

Therefore, Cooper concludes, “assimilation to God in the liturgy is not a matter of pure aesthetic or emotional experience, still less of mechanical cause and effect, but of voluntary integration of the sensory passions to the ‘noble pleasure’ of love for God, in response to Divine action” (25). The nuptial exchange of persons, Divine and human, takes place in its fullest dimension in the liturgy. It is an exchange of gift and of love, and being the actions of persons, takes on the full dimension of personal existence and expression.

 

The Liturgical Theodrama

How then to understand the physical gestures and elements of the liturgical action itself?

This nuptiality takes flesh when the Church gathers for worship: Christ is acting in and through her even as she acts as him. Cooper applies the words of St. John Paul II in speaking of spouses to the liturgical relationship of Christ and the Church: “Through love, the wife’s ‘I’ becomes, so to speak, the husband’s ‘I’” (29). It is through the Eucharist that the Church’s identity is fulfilled in becoming the identity of Christ.

Analogously, in the liturgy of matrimony, the husband and wife declare their consent and through this very speech-act the two become one, a single subject. But then the words must become flesh. The couple moves from the vows to conjugal intercourse where the words spoken are acted out in their reality. The marriage liturgical rite is thus a dramatic playing out of performative and prophetic speech which refers back to its institution by Christ and looks forward to physical consummation.

The eucharistic liturgy, Cooper says, also embodies these performative and prophetic dimensions “referring backwards to salvation history and its culmination in the pascha of Christ, and forward—with a sense of incompleteness and yearning—to the eschatological consummation at the resurrection” (34). Each eucharistic liturgy, then, takes up the entire drama of God’s interaction with mankind, from the foundations of creation until the end of time.

If the liturgy is the dramatic action, then the setting of that action, the stage, if you will, is the church building and the various elements used during the liturgy. This ritual topography has, from the beginning of Christian thought, been considered of determinative significance. The Temple in Jerusalem, for instance, was considered to be representative of the entire cosmos, the garden of paradise in miniature—and within this context the priest stood between heaven and earth to offer sacrifice on behalf of the whole created order.

In giving value to the spatial and elemental aspects of the liturgy, Cooper writes, we can see the liturgy as “a progressive series of unfolding symbolic and theandric activities through which the eschatological union of the cosmos in and with God is manifested and realized in historic time” (36). Thus, “such matters as architecture, orientation, and ritual movement are by no means incidental to faithful liturgical enactment,” the author concludes. “The church building and the liturgy enacted therein have an appropriate body language: they are patterned on and meant effectually to embody true and transcendent realities. Not only the liturgy, but also the building, conveys certain meanings and ideas, and with this comes the possibility of falsification” (36).

Cooper goes on to explore various topics related to the topography of the liturgy such as the altar, the eastward orientation of the building and worship, the division of the church into sanctuary and nave, etc. Ultimately, Cooper makes the case that the Church is sanctified and sanctifies the world because she is situated in a defined space in the world and lives out, in performative ritual, the whole of salvation history and eschatology.

 

Sacramental Grounding

In the decades following the Council and even, in some ways, leading up to the Council, there was a loss of the expression and perception of the sacramentality of the liturgy. In some places, it devolved into a mechanical performance of rites, in others, iconoclasm and a utilitarian concern dominated the topography of liturgical architecture, art, and expression. A certain Cartesian dualism also infected the landscape and within this division of spirit and matter, certain falsifications began to find expression.

By regrounding us within a metaphysics of receptivity, the performative drama of liturgical action, and the nuptial character of eucharistic deification, Adam Cooper has made a substantial contribution to the renewal of the liturgy in the 21st Century. As stated earlier, the text is rich and dense. It is academic, and it presupposes a certain amount of familiarity with metaphysics, the writings of the Church Fathers, and the work done by theologians such as Balthasar, Ratzinger, John Paul II, and others.

In my attempt to summarize a portion of the book’s contents, I had to leave much valuable material unrecognized. However, much good would come from a careful study of its contents by parishes and chanceries in ongoing efforts to achieve the liturgical vision set forth in the 20th century’s Liturgical Movement and ultimately at the Second Vatican Council. Recovering a sacramental vision of creation and mission will do much for the efforts of the New Evangelization and will distinguish the unique character of Christian liturgical worship as the ultimate fulfillment of our nature.

Richard Budd

Richard Budd

Richard Budd lives in Grand Ledge, MI, with his wife and two children. He obtained a Master's degree in Marriage and Family Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C., and worked, for a time, in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. He has served as the Director of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Lansing, MI, for the past four years. In addition to the work he does for the diocese to build up the Domestic Church, and building up his own Domestic Church at home, he directs the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at his home parish, co-hosts a weekly podcast called The Armchair Catholic, and regularly writes and gives talks on marriage and the family, Theology of the Body, and other related topics.