Pushing the Liturgical Limits: Becoming God
May 11, 2024

Pushing the Liturgical Limits: Becoming God

It is common nowadays to compare liturgy to art. Both express an idea in the mind’s eye of the artist through sensible media—words, song, paint—that is meant to be perceived by another. If the art is excellent, and if the receiver knows how to appreciate it, the revealed idea may even move or transform the beholder. In fact, rather than juxtaposing liturgy and art as analogous, it is truer to say that liturgy is art: as the supreme artist, God—who is beauty itself—transforms liturgical percipients through sensible, sacramental signs and symbols.

But if this liturgy-as-art paradigm is accurate—God manifested through sacred signs to active participants—then the priest and ministers who perform the rite must celebrate under relatively strict limits. For not just any word says “Word,” and not just any piece of music echoes the song of the angels, and not just any arrangement of colors, windows, or mosaic tiles transports us to heaven. There are limits, in liturgical art especially, to what a priest or assembly can do with the ritual. “Art is limitation,” Chesterton observes: “the essence of every picture is the frame.”

This is not to say, however, that the liturgy seeks to box us in, check our freedom, or confine us to our current condition. Quite the contrary. The liturgy, which manifests the Mystery of our faith in a most beautiful way, liberates and expands our souls. Gregory of Nyssa writes that “Christian perfection has but one limit, that of having none” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2028). And the liturgy is the powerhouse of this limitless perfection.

It’s with this remarkable truth in mind that I’m pleased to announce the new Becoming God podcast. Catholic evangelist Michael Gormley and I are hosting this venture, which is being sponsored by Adoremus. Launched during the Octave of Easter, Becoming God considers sacramental celebrations and liturgical living with an eye on the prize: divinization, sanctification—in short, Christian perfection.

The “becoming God” angle on the liturgy may be a new one for some—or even many. Too often, liturgical headlines, commentaries, and debates center on what’s wrong with the liturgy (too much Latin, or not enough Latin); or liturgical abuses (e.g., invalid sacraments); or just plain liturgical confusion (what is a non-liturgical blessing, and when, where, and how may it be used?). And while questions like these are important, the telos of the liturgy—divinization—becomes an unintended casualty.

Indeed, the whole notion of “becoming God” may make strike some readers as heretical, or New Age, or pantheistic—so foreign has it become to the modern (and especially Western) mind. But the Church has consistently held that such is the purpose of God’s plan.

From the start, Adam and Eve were made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). And from there, things were only meant to get better: “Created in a state of holiness,” teaches the Catechism, “man was destined to be fully ‘divinized’ by God in glory” (398). So, what happened? If they were already made “like God” and were meant to become even more “divinized”—then how could our first parents have sinned by wanting…to “become God”? The answer is that they did not sin by wanting to become God, but by doing so “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God” (CCC, 398, citing St. Maximus the Confessor).

So a second Adam—Jesus—comes and gives us another chance to fulfill our divine destiny. As St. Athanasius puts it, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (see CCC, 460). What Jesus is by nature—the Son of God—we can now become by grace—sons and daughters of God. Scripture, for example, recounts Jesus’ own words: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, You are gods’”? (John 10:34). And at the Last Supper he prays to his Father that we “may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21).

Nor is it accidental that this mutual indwelling of man in the Trinity is prayed for by Jesus at the Last Supper, since it is by the liturgy and the sacraments—especially the Eucharist—that divinization is realized. As the 12th-century Cistercian Blessed Isaac of Stella states, “This is the explanation of the Lord’s words: Father, I desire that as you and I are one, so they may be one with us…. When all are united with God they become one God. The Son of God is one with God by nature; the Son of Man is one with him in his person; we, his body, are one with him sacramentally. Consequently, those who by faith are spiritual members of Christ can truly say that they are what he is: the Son of God and God himself” (Office of Readings from Friday, Easter Week V). Becoming God loves the liturgy and the sacraments for many reasons, but chief among them is the power they have to transform us into what we were made to be.

So, if you are up for it, join Michael Gormley and me on the weekly Becoming God podcast (via Apple or Spotify). “Man is not satisfied with solutions beneath the level of divinization,” Joseph Ratzinger says (Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers [December 12, 2000]). Liturgy lovers should also not be satisfied with quarrels and quandaries, but with nothing less than our eternal calling—becoming God.