Professional liturgists are often rightly accused of overemphasizing ritual details: the number of swings of a thurible, the precise placement of candles on the altar, or the manner of tying a cincture. While exactitude in such matters is not itself a fault (says this “professional liturgist”), losing the bigger liturgical picture in striving for such exactitude is. Ritual and rubrical precision are not ends in themselves: rather, they serve a greater reality.
So, lest one get lost in the liturgical weeds, it is helpful from time to time, especially during this time of summer vacation and opportunities for human recreation, to take a step back and look with fresh eyes at what happens in the liturgy: what are its most basic structures? What, in fact, is the liturgy?
Adoremus Bulletin has been publishing solid liturgical information and commentary for 27 years now. Still, despite this track record, the essence of the liturgy can continue to be a slippery thing. In fact, by way of illustration, explain to your spouse, friend, or coworker—or even yourself—in 50 words or less, what the liturgy is.
How did you do?
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, offers a concise definition early in the document, one that we can examine with much benefit now. “The liturgy,” it says, “is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members” (7).
Within this definition or description, we see three persons, or group of persons, involved in the liturgy, whose work in its celebration can clarify our big-picture look at the liturgical landscape.
First, the liturgy is an “exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ.” Here is the essence of the liturgy—the work of Christ the High Priest. Jesus, in cooperation with Father and Spirit, is the Prime Minister of the liturgy, its principal actor. His “priestly office” or work is nothing other than his Paschal Mystery—his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension—by which he passed from the fallen world of sin to the glorious heaven of the Father. His passage, in fact, has bridged earth to heaven, so that now we too can cross over with him. The Trinitarian bridge-building project stands beneath (is the sub-stance) of every liturgy: the Mass, sacraments, sacramentals, Liturgy of the Hours, funerals. What’s more, it is done perfectly every time: whereas you or I may have a bad day on the job, Christ always works perfectly. Hence, from this angle, every liturgy is absolutely perfect.
Second, this “priestly office of Jesus Christ” is made present to us “by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs.” That is, Jesus’ priestly work of reconciliation carried out in the flesh some 2,000 years ago has been turned into—clothed in, as it were—rites and sacraments. St. Leo the Great famously put it this way: “What was visible in our Savior has passed into his sacraments.” But it is not simply the seven sacraments that make Jesus and his work present to us today, even though these are the most privileged channels. Every liturgical element—such as swinging thuribles, properly placed candles, and tied cinctures—reveal, even if in a smaller way, Christ. This liturgical and sacramental manifestation of Christ is principally the work of the priest-celebrant and the ministers who assist him and the assembly. The Church likens this task to a work of art—an ars celebrandi, or “art of celebrating”—where the Father’s true masterpiece, Jesus, is displayed before the praying Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. A perfect liturgy (perhaps “less imperfect” in practice is the better way to say it) thus finds priest and ministers celebrating with humility, devotion, and obedience to the Church’s ritual books.
Third, the definition found in Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us that the liturgy is celebrated “by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.” As we saw above, the priest-celebrant occupies a privileged place among the praying Church, standing in the person of Christ the head (in persona Christi capitis). But a head without a body is as lifeless as a body without a head: the members of Christ’s body, each of the baptized, join with the head in actively participating in the “priestly exercise of Jesus Christ.” And while the priest captains the liturgical celebration with mind and heart, the faithful—each according to his or her ability, be it the eight-day-old newly baptized infant or the octogenarian grandmother—engage fully, consciously, and actively in the liturgical rite, and not, as Pius XII said in his 1955 encyclical on liturgical music, like “like dumb and idle spectators” (Musicae Sacrae, 64).
In short, there are three bodies of liturgical actors who reveal the essence of the liturgy: 1) the Trinity, 2) the priest and his ministers, and 3) the faithful. The Trinity always works perfectly; unfortunately, the human actors work less so. The priest’s ars celebrandi shines when following the Church, but is lackluster when it follows his personal inclinations; likewise, the faithful’s sanctity and worship excel when actively participating with intelligence, but fall flat when we become too passive during a liturgical celebration.
This liturgical look at the big picture is always helpful, even necessary, to bear in mind, but especially so as we free ourselves from the many COVID-inspired restrictions that wormed their way into so many aspects of the liturgical rite. Ceremonial details are important—God is in the details—but so too is keeping our eyes fixed on the larger truth of the matter: that the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ is substantially present to the praying Church in 2021. How perfect!
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.