God’s Accommodations: New Book Seeks to Locate Authentic Foundations of Liturgy
Mar 10, 2021

God’s Accommodations: New Book Seeks to Locate Authentic Foundations of Liturgy

Rabbi, where are you staying? – Come and see” (see John 1:38, 39). In one of the first dialogues between our Lord and his soon-to-be disciples in the Gospel of John, a key element of the Christian life is boldly pronounced: the necessity to dwell with Christ, who, in turn, desires to dwell with us. Although a number of worthwhile themes can be identified in William Daniel’s Christ the Liturgy, this call to a life in Christ is perhaps one of the more significant ones in relation to the ultimate end of the liturgy.

An Episcopal priest of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, Father Daniel approaches the liturgy in a way reminiscent of Catherine Pickstock’s seminal work, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, in which the logic of the liturgy is examined through the lens of language and sacred action, revealing the reality of divine presence. There is much to laud in this approach, as well as the principal error that Daniel seeks to correct, namely, that liturgy is not ‘the work of the people,’ but “the work of the One for the sake of the many” (p. 2).

In examining the nature of liturgy as such, Daniel speaks of it as “metaxological,” meaning that the liturgy serves as the “in-between” or “middle-ground” (metaxu) connecting two inseparable realities: Christ and his Church (see p. 164). In this, Daniel highlights the “volitive participation in the procession and return of God from and to God” (ibid.), or deification, using concepts borrowed from the Pauline corpus as well as the Church Fathers, primarily those of the East. Indeed, one of the strengths of this work, at least as found in the first two chapters, is Daniel’s rooting of his argument on the sure foundation of the theological reflections of the saints, including such luminaries as Gregory of Nyssa, John Damascene, and Maximus the Confessor, and to a lesser extent Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Ambrose of Milan.

In Chapter One, Daniel provides the much-needed corrective to the incorrect interpretation of leitourgia as ‘the work of the people.’ Using St. Paul’s treatment of leitourgon (“minister”) in reference to those who gather and present the people’s offerings to God, Daniel notes that the act of liturgy and the role of priestly service are inextricably linked: “Paul is the liturgy he enacts—Christ. His liturgical role is to serve as Christ, to gather the offerings of the faithful into the offering Jesus is in himself. Only in this way do the liturgical actions—offerings—of a people become bound to the offering of Jesus to the Father—the one, holy, acceptable offering” (p. 8). This outlook is carried over into the Post-Apostolic period, where the writings of Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and the Shepherd of Hermas speak to a lack of separation between the offering of Christ and that of the Church, the latter being viewed through the lens of “participation in triune reciprocity—humanity’s share in God’s fullness” (p. 27).

Christ the Liturgy by William Daniel. Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020. 206 pp.  978-1621385554. $32.00 Hardcover; $17.95 Paperback.

In Chapter Two, Father Daniel delves into human self-knowledge by way of sacramental participation in the very life of God: “When the human willfully ascends through liturgical participation to the location of her identity in this erotic-knowing of the Holy Trinity, she realizes her personhood to be sustained in, by, and through the shared life that is Father, Son, Spirit—Thought, Word, Deed. That is, she loses herself, and in this losing is the ultimate receiving of her identity in the being-known of God” (pp. 50-51). Here, Daniel relies heavily on the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa, who uses the analogy of the mirror to make a connection to the illumination, or deification, that occurs through sacramental participation: “The mingling of lights on the surface of the mirror that is the object—in this case the Light of Christ and the light of the human—is, for Gregory, an active and mutual penetration of the two natures, divine and human, inasmuch as the human’s gaze is locked on Christ” (p. 60). Thus, it is only through the liturgy, and in particular “Christ the Liturgy,” that humanity finds itself as “participating in the being-known of God,” as individuals incorporated into the offering of the Son to the Father in the Spirit (see pp. 81-82).

Whereas these first two chapters focus on the establishment of the theological data by which the topic at hand can be approached, the last two chapters seek to marry theology to praxis. Chapter Three, “The Architecture of Faith,” examines “liturgical habitations” where ritual exercises are often predicated by the spatial environments in which they are enacted. Here, in lieu of his earlier reliance on Scripture and the Fathers, Daniel utilizes modern voices in the pertinent fields of study. For instance, in his discussion of liturgical habitation, Daniel highlights the significance of Martin Heidegger’s reflection on the German word ‘to build’ (bauen/buan) and how it originally indicated ‘to dwell.’ Thus, Daniel, quoting from Heidegger, notes that “the way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we are on the earth, is Buan, dwelling” (p. 101). When this connection is lost, that is, when the connection between “building” and “dwelling” is eradicated, a separation is exposed between “inhabiting a space and enacting something within a space” (p. 105). This most notably occurs when the church structure separates the ekklesia—the gathered assembly—from the kyriake oikia—the “economy of the Lord”—which is the sacred action of divine worship (see p. 102).

This, then, leads to Daniel’s final chapter, “The Grammar of God,” endeavoring to resolve the erroneous definition of liturgy as “the work of the people.” The solution that Daniel identifies is rooted in a grammatical structure that has fallen out of use in modernity: the middle voice. This construct occurs when two subjects are involved in a shared agency, e.g., “John and I were walking,” as opposed to “I walked John to the door.” Such a sharing in the action of the verb ensures the appreciation of the “medial nature of human experience and existence” (p. 126) in which there is a “dynamic relation of mutual subjects involved in a shared agency, in an action that cannot be described in purely active or passive terms” (p. 129). Daniel observes that this active/passive dualism has been resisted in large part by the Church’s liturgy, focusing instead on the worshiper’s participation in the action of Christ, “who remains the singular agent of all faithful liturgy, and yet incorporates all of creation into his self-offering to the Father—inter-Trinitarian worship” (p. 148). Subsequently liturgy, far from being the “work of the people” or an act of “self-expression,” is the “work of God” in which “we become Christ in proportion to our participation in the work” of Christ, done “for the sake of many” (p. 158).

As has been made evident, there is much to laud in Father Daniel’s work that sets aright the true nature of liturgy. However, there are also a number of elements in Christ the Liturgy that might prove challenging to particular readers. The first such element is the very structure of the argument itself. Whereas the title of the work gives the impression of a study that will enter into a deep conversation with the usual modalities of sacramental and liturgical theology, Daniel’s method relies little on the ancient or modern liturgical texts or on the usual points of contact with sacramental theology, and instead approaches the topic more from the vantage point of contemporary philosophy and linguistics. This Daniel does this well. However, for the reader who picks up Christ the Liturgy without a sense of the methodology utilized, the effect could be somewhat jarring.

A second point of criticism can be connected to style. Father Daniel exhibits great erudition throughout the work, and demonstrates that he is a true scholar who has examined the intricacies of his argument and synthesized them with his impressive source material. However, interspersed in this scholarly approach are exempla that seem to introduce socio-political topics that might distract the reader from the main argument. For instance, in his discussion of liturgical space as a means of establishing conviviality amongst persons, Daniel dedicates a section to the “industrialism” that can enslave man to consumerism and the machinery that makes this consumerism possible (see p. 111). This, then, devolves into a “slight detour” (identified as such by the author himself) that outlines Karl Marx’s critique of capitalistic consumerism (see pp. 111-118, esp. 117-118). Daniel justifies this detour by noting that it calls attention to how “spatial restructuring,” in this case, the restructuring of cities and villages to meet the demands of the market, “reconstitutes language, making certain action and relationships possible and others not, conditioning the human to perceive her environment as a dweller or occupant, but not both” (p. 118). Another illustration of such distraction, one that might prove only tangentially relevant to the thesis, is Daniel’s use of a popular television drama, The Good Doctor, to indicate how language can lead individuals to personal self-knowledge and mutual understanding. The episode that Daniel highlights is one in which the main character, an autistic surgeon, encounters a transgender child and attempts to understand this child’s sense of self-understanding (see pp. 135-137). In both of these examples, as well as an additional one that Daniel uses to critique a particular politician and national organization for their perceived complicities in the tragedies of recent gun violence in American schools (see pp. 131-132), the exempla do eventually prove pertinent to the particular argument at hand. However, for some readers these illustrations might appear as incongruous and only tenuously linked to the otherwise scholarly and objective discussion of participation in the inner life of the Triune God in the sacred liturgy.

Finally, the lacuna in treating recent ecclesiastical documents on the topic of the sacred liturgy in general, and this particular question of participation in the action of Christ, the High Priest, in particular, is quite noticeable. Granted, one should not expect Daniel, an Episcopal priest and theologian writing to a mainly Protestant Christian audience, to treat Mediator Dei, or Sacrosanctum Concilium, or the writings of the great lights of the Liturgical Movement, in depth. However, some of the dubia that Daniel raises, including the claim that there has been little exploration of leitourgia from the standpoint of the priesthood of Christ as “offerer, offering, and act of offering” in the West (see p. 3), seems to deny (or at least ignore) the tremendous work done in this regard in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican circles in the past century and a half, as well as the traditional theological data that has guided the Church’s sacramental/liturgical theology for millennia.

These critiques aside, Father Daniel’s work provides us with a rich study of the liturgy and an attempt to right an improper attitude that has been in vogue for far too long. Through his application of the scriptural, patristic, philosophical, and linguistic sources, William Daniel successfully dispels the aberration that liturgy is “the work of the people,” and rather instills in his readers a sense of liturgy as humanity’s participation in the divine economy of the Triune God: Christ the Liturgy.

Adoremus Bulletin for March 2021: Vol. XXVI, no. 5