By Love for Love Called: The Liturgy as God’s “Adoption Agency”
May 25, 2021

By Love for Love Called: The Liturgy as God’s “Adoption Agency”

You may have heard it said that every Sunday is a “mini-Easter,” a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is true as far as it goes, but Sunday is also the day of the creation of light (the beginning of creation) and the day of the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit; and thus of all three divine Persons of the Trinity.[1] It is on this threefold meaning of the Lord’s Day that Pope Clement XIII based a decree in 1759 ordering the use of the eucharistic Preface of the Most Holy Trinity at all Sunday Masses not having a proper preface—more than half the Sundays of the year.[2] This ancient preface[3] addresses God the Father, to whom thanksgiving “is truly right and just…always and everywhere.”

The prayer continues: “For with your Only Begotten Son and the Holy Spirit you are one God, one Lord: not in the unity of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance. For what you have revealed to us of your glory we believe equally of your Son and of the Holy Spirit, so that, in the confessing of the true and eternal Godhead, you might be adored in what is proper to each Person, their unity in substance, and their equality in majesty. For this is praised by Angels and Archangels….”[4]

And so on, into the hymn that extols the Almighty as “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It is all very precise and orderly, but we are left in the dark as to how and why God communicated to mankind the mystery of his Trinitarian life, the central mystery of Christianity. Our best clue is the sacred liturgy taken in its entirety. For the liturgy is the means by which God makes himself intelligible to us; it is also the means by which God’s purpose in disclosing his inner life is fulfilled. This is a very “high” view of the liturgy, indeed, but justifiable from the fact that the liturgy is grounded in how God reveals himself. We know God for who he is in what he does for us.

The Church’s liturgical worship is Trinitarian not simply because it names God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but because it makes present to us God’s saving deeds in history, particularly the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. It is by experiencing Christ in the liturgy that we know the Trinity. To say this is not to diminish Scripture as revelatory of God but simply to point out Scripture’s proper home. While it is true that the doctrine of the Trinity is grounded in the inspired scriptures of Israel and the Church as interpreted by the early Fathers, it is also true that a fundamental aspect of scriptural interpretation is the oral tradition that is mediated in the liturgy itself.[5] Which is to say that Scripture derives from the liturgy, not the other way around. At the same time, so suffused with Scripture is the liturgy that in many ways the liturgy is the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.[6]

A Testament of Three

Guided by the Church’s living tradition of faith and worship, the New Testament authors set down a view of Jesus both as he was in his earthly life and as the Church came to know him from Pentecost forward, and they did so in a spirit of Trinitarian faith.[7] This fact helps us to understand the Trinitarian pattern of such gospel passages as the Annunciation account (Luke 1:35), the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:10-11), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5), and the baptismal formula “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Likewise for St. Paul, the totality of God active to save us is never less than Trinitarian (Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 5:18-20; Romans 5:1-5).

The liturgy is Scripture’s interpretative basis, but this is not the only way it reveals to us the mystery of God. Through the activity of the liturgy—its symbols and symbolic gestures as much as its words—the eternal conversation within the Trinity between the Father and the Son is made available to our understanding and we are caught up into it.[8] And what is the content of this conversation? It is the “mystery of our religion” (1 Timothy 3:16), hidden in God eternally but now revealed in God’s incarnate Word.[9] In other words, the mystery is Christ himself, the culmination of the secret plan. To hear his words is to hear a distant echo of his heavenly dialogue with the Father.[10]

The form of this conversation in time is Christ’s self-offering to the Father at every moment of his life but culminating in the historical sacrifice of the cross, and the Father’s approval of that sacrifice as signified by the Resurrection—in short, the Paschal Mystery, celebrated and made present to us in the liturgy with all its saving force.[11] Christ, through his Spirit, calls his Church together in worship so that the members of his Mystical Body may hear his saving words[12] and be present to his redemptive work, and thus be drawn into the Trinitarian “liturgy” that is “the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s eternal reciprocity in adoration and obedience towards the Father.”[13] Without this participation in God’s eternity, the earthly liturgy would be a mere recollection of past events.

Room to Grow

The sacramental worship of the Church, above all the Mass, puts us in contact with the Paschal Mystery and so with the life of the Trinity, but let us not overlook the sacred space wherein the earthly liturgy shares in the heavenly. “All liturgical signification,” writes Laurence Hemming, “presumes the sanctified place which indicates the liturgy of the end-times: the altar and the sanctuary as the body of Christ and the ‘holy of holies’ of the Temple of the New Jerusalem….”[14] A consecrated altar symbolizes Christ’s body in our midst, the place on which the supreme offering of Calvary, linked with the Last Supper, is sacramentally re-presented in the Mass, and from which the risen Christ feeds us with his Body and Blood, replenishing within us the Holy Spirit, the crowing gift of his redemptive work.

Although the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to one another is an eternal reality within the life of God, it is a mystery that has been revealed for a reason: so that, in knowing God as he knows himself, we may have eternal life (John 17:3). The God, whose very Being is the giving and receiving of love,[15] invites us to share in the Love he is. This is the life Christ came to bring us, the life he prayed we may have (John 17:21). Bestowed in Baptism, sealed in Confirmation, and nourished by the Eucharist, life in Christ is given so that each Christian may contribute to the building up of the Mystical Body until all things are restored in Christ. The soul of this Body is the life-giving Spirit, whose gifts enable each member to grow into “mature manhood,” measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

To know God as Trinity is to know that the Father has predestined us to sonship in his only Son through the Spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15), a vocation given in virtue of the Paschal Mystery by which we are reconciled to God: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). With this knowledge comes the realization that the Christian meaning of salvation involves more than forgiveness of sin and deliverance from eternal punishment; it involves divinization (or theosis, as Eastern Christian theology calls it) in Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit—an idea St. Peter expresses when he speaks of Christians as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).[16] Our participation in the Church’s liturgical rites, from Baptism to (please God) Viaticum, is the practical—and salutary—working out of this knowledge.

Notes:

  1. See John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (May 31, 1998).
  2. Dicreta authentica Congregationis Sacrorum Rituum, vol. 2 (Rome: Typographia Polyglotta, 1898), no. 2449, affecting the Sundays in Advent, “after Epiphany,” and “after Pentecost.” The 1962 Missale Romanum provides an Advent preface for optional use instead of the Trinity preface (Sundays) or the Common preface (ferial days). In the Ordinary Form, which provides eight prefaces for the “ordinary” Sundays per annum, the Trinity preface is used only on Trinity Sunday and in the Votive Mass of the Most Holy Trinity.
  3. The Trinity preface, or some form of it, is found in the little collection of Masses compiled by Alcuin (d. 804) for priests who could not possess a full missal.
  4. Trans. International Commission on English in the Liturgy, 2010.
  5. Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2003), argues that the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament especially was derived directly from the early Church Fathers’ understanding of what they believed Jesus had revealed secretly to his apostles in a tradition that came to be preserved liturgically.
  6. The biblical canon—the list of what texts or “books” together constitute Scripture—was not determined in order to know what corpus of texts individual Christians should study; rather, the canon developed as the set of books that could be used in the liturgy as authentic expressions of the faith “delivered once for all to the saints” (Jude 3). St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26), which was passed on to him, is evidence that the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist even before they had the written gospels.
  7. Inchoate though it was. The development of Trinitarian theology that was worked out by our Fathers in the faith began with reflection on the Father-Son relationship—the Spirit is ever-present as the outpouring of the Father and/through the Son—and was brought to a head by the Arian denial of the Son’s full divinity. The early Christians sought to understand the unique relationship Jesus has with the one God he called Father, and also with the Spirit whom he promised the Father would send in his name. Deploying the metaphysical language of the day (“substance,” “essence,” “person,” etc.), and guided by the Spirit of truth (John 16:13), the Church came to realize that God is triune from all eternity, independent of his creative, redemptive, and sanctifying activity.
  8. Drawing on St. Bonaventure, Pope Francis wrote about this eternal conversation in his encyclical Lumen Fidei (June 29, 2013), saying, “God speaks about himself, for he is an eternal dialogue of communion, and he allows us to enter into that dialogue” (no. 36).
  9. “Religion” understood in its etymological sense as a “binding back” or uniting of the broken connection between fallen man and God.
  10.  St. Thomas Aquinas taught that because Jesus is God, he beheld the Beatific Vision from the moment of his virginal conception (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 7, a. 3). Jesus saw God with his mind’s eye and heard God with his mind’s ear. Though incarnate on earth, the Son never left his eternal conversation with the Father.
  11.  Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963), no. 2.
  12.  The words of the liturgy are Christ’s, either because he himself spoke them (as recounted by the Evangelists), or because they point to him (they are taken from the Old Testament and interpreted as corroborating Jesus’ identity as the Christ, Bridegroom, High Priest, etc.), or because they are attributed to him in consonance with Tradition (e.g., the Easter Sunday introit Resurrexi has Christ greeting the Father at the moment of his Resurrection: “I have risen, and I am with you still…”). It has been argued that these words, when sung to the music proper to the Roman Rite, take on added capacity to sanctify those who hear them; see Dom Jacques Hourlier, Reflections on the Spirituality of Gregorian Chant, New Edition Revised, Expanded and Translated into English by Dom Gregory Casprini and Robert Edmonson (Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, 1995).
  13.  Philip Krill, Deified Vision: Towards an Anagogical Catholicism (Lulu, 2017), 165.
  14.  Laurence Paul Hemming, Worship as a Revelation: The Past, Present and Future of Catholic Liturgy (London and New York: Burns & Oates/Continuum, 2008), 92. Even when the liturgy is not celebrated in a church, “a minimal level of significatory elements are necessary to let the sanctuary be present—a cross, appropriate liturgical dress, lights, etc.” (ibid., n28). Tied to the revelatory significance of the church building is ritual orientation. See U. M. Lang, Turning towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004). For much shorter treatments see Thomas Kocik, “Ad Orientem Liturgy: To What End?”, available at https://www.onepeterfive.com/ad-orientem-liturgy-end; “[Re]Turn to the East?”, Adoremus Bulletin (November 1999), available at https://www.adoremus.org/1999/11/return-to-the-east.
  15.  “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). This does not just mean that God is loving but that God’s very Being is love. God is not only a unity but a union of mutual indwelling among the three divine Persons in a perpetual movement of love.
  16.  As St. Athanasius of Alexandria explains, human divinization is the obverse of the Incarnation: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God” (On the Incarnation, 54, 3).