Holy Liturgy and the Sense of the Sacred
by Bishop tefan Vrablec
Auxiliary Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Bratislava-Trnava, Slovakia
President of the Slovak Liturgical Commission
This article appeared in the 16 February 2005 Weekly Edition in English of L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Holy See.
Reflection: Year of the Eucharist
In reading the text of the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, a document desired by the Holy Father, I thought back several times to what the Pontiff himself wrote in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa: "Despite the dechristianization of vast areas of the European continent, there are signs which suggest an image of a Church which, in believing, proclaims, celebrates and serves her Lord." (n. 67)
"A Church which... celebrates and serves her Lord" is a beautiful description of the Church's task.
With her Liturgies she elevates the daily life of human beings to the realm of the sacred.
The definition of the sacred formulated by the theologian, M.D. Chenu — "The sacred is what has been removed from its natural goal, in order to be dedicated and referred directly to its supernatural goal" — becomes crystallized in human life.
The Church, which "in believing, proclaims, celebrates and serves her Lord," as the Pope wrote, is a true hope for the world invaded by the secularism and systematic atheism — to which the Second Vatican Council refers in Gaudium et spes — which co-maintain that "man is an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history." (n. 20)
It is possible to exclude God in many ways, even without naming him, and unfortunately people are doing so.
This leads to a lifestyle often deplored by the Holy Father with these words: "Human beings live as if God did not exist."
Renewal through the Liturgy
In this situation, a dignified liturgical celebration can be of great help in leading people to a proper relationship with the transcendent, with God.
This real possibility of renewal through the Liturgy justifies the publication of the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum and makes it highly appropriate.
In addition to the hope of providing the secularized world with a remedy, there is also, let us say, an "inner" reason for accepting the Instruction "with open arms":
Certain signs point to a weakening in the sense of mystery in those very liturgical celebrations that should be fostering that sense.
It is, therefore, urgent that the authentic sense of the Liturgy be revived in the Church.
The liturgy... is a means of sanctification; it is a celebration of the Church's faith, and a means of transmitting the faith. (Ecclesia in Europa, n. 70)
A dignified liturgical celebration helps us to acquire a deeper perception of the mystery and to broaden the dimensions of the sacred.
The Holy Father finds a convincing argument for this in the beauty of liturgical celebrations that speak to the heart.
In Ecclesia in Europa, he writes, "Together with Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church it [the Liturgy] is a living source of authentic and sound spirituality.
As the tradition of the venerable Eastern Churches also clearly emphasizes, it is through the Liturgy that the faithful enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity and experience their sharing in the divine nature as a gift of grace.
In this way the Liturgy becomes a foretaste of final blessedness and a sharing in the glory of heaven." (n. 70)
The same conviction, more forcefully expressed by the Second Vatican Council, is found in Sacrosanctum concilium: "In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem towards which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle." (n. 8)
Role of the sense of the sacred
By viewing the Liturgy in this perspective, we become aware of the need and the duty to celebrate it in a holy way (sancta sancte), and we clearly understand the insistence with which the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum asks us to affirm, respect and preserve the sacred nature of the place, persons and actions and all that is part of a liturgical rite, especially the celebration of the Blessed Eucharist.
In the Instruction, "We are not dealing with meticulous instructions compiled by 'legalistic minds'," as Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation, said in his presentation of Redemptionis Sacramentum; rather, the document intends to educate us in the sacred in order to enable us to celebrate the mystery of Christ properly, because "external action must be illuminated by faith and charity, which unite us with Christ and with one another." (Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 5)
For this to happen, we must accept willingly and observe faithfully what the texts of the sacred Liturgy ask of us.
"The liturgical words and rites, moreover, are a faithful expression, matured over the centuries, of the understanding of Christ, and they teach us to think as he himself does; by conforming our minds to these words, we raise our hearts to the Lord." (ibid., n. 5)
If we read the Instruction without prejudice and with docility to the Spirit, then Redemptionis Sacramentum offers us motivated assistance that will help us to better reach the ideal objective of conforming our sentiments to those of Christ and not to be content with a cold and uniform rubric.
We note that Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. 11:20) was unhappy about the tone of certain celebrations.
He wanted to re-establish the Corinthians' sense of celebration in relation to Jesus' celebration "on the night when he was betrayed," and thereby to restore holiness to their gatherings (cf. I Cor 11:23).
"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.... So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another — if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home..." (I Cor 11:16, 33-34).
In writing these words, Saint Paul's intention was to renew the Corinthians' meetings, to free them from abuse and make them holy by recourse to the sacrificial value of the Eucharistic celebration (cf. also I Cor 10:16-18).
And rightly, Saint Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, exclaimed, almost as if he wanted to comment on I Cor 11:26: "O sacrum convivium," not merely any meeting of friends; "in quo Christus sumitur," Christ gives himself to us, so that we do not faint on the way as we journey toward sanctification (cf. Mt 15:32); — "recollitur memoria passionis eius!"
This aspect of the Eucharist is very important.
"Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, the mystery is understood as if its meaning and importance were simply that of a fraternal banquet." (Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 38, citing Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 10)
The Crucified and Risen Jesus, the principal Liturgist, is with us; he asks us to unite ourselves to him with a deep sense of the sacred.