The Liturgy is the school of prayer where God Himself teaches us to pray. But in order to celebrate the Liturgy well, to really experience the re-enactment of Christ’s Paschal Mystery we must make our hearts God’s Altar and understand that the Liturgy is the action of God and of man, as the Second Vatican Council teaches us. Emer McCarthy reports:
In his latest instalment in his cycle on the School of Prayer, Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his Wednesday audience to prayer and the liturgy.
Below a Vatican Radio translation of the Holy Father’s catechesis:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
in recent months we have made a journey in the light of the Word of God, to learn to pray in a more authentic way by looking at some great figures in the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Letters of St. Paul and the Book of Revelation, but also looking at unique and fundamental experience of Jesus in his relationship with the Heavenly Father. In fact, only in Christ, is man enabled to unite himself to God with the depth and intimacy of a child before a father who loves him, only in Him can we turn in all truth to God and lovingly call Him “Abba! ! Father. ” Like the Apostles, we too have repeated and we still repeat to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1).
In addition, in order to live our personal relationship with God more intensely, we have learned to invoke the Holy Spirit, the first gift of the Risen Christ to believers, because it is he who “comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought,”(Romans 8:26).
At this point we can ask: how can I allow myself to be formed by the Holy Spirit? What is the school in which he teaches me to pray and helps me in my difficulties to turn to God in the right way? The first school of prayer which we have covered in the last few weeks is the Word of God, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Scripture in permanent dialogue between God and man, an ongoing dialogue in which God reveals Himself ever closer to us. We can better familiarize ourselves with his face, his voice, his being and the man learns to accept and to know God, to talk to God. So in recent weeks, reading Sacred Scripture, we looked for this ongoing dialogue in Scripture to learn how we can enter into contact with God.
There is another precious “space”, another valuable “source” to grow in prayer, a source of living water in close relation with the previous one. I refer to the liturgy, which is a privileged area in which God speaks to each of us, here and now, and awaits our response.
What is the liturgy? If we open the Catechism of the Catholic Church – an always valuable and indispensable aid especially in the Year of Faith, which is about to begin – we read that originally the word “liturgy” means ” service in the name of/on behalf of the people” (No. 1069) . If Christian theology took this word from the Greek world, it did so obviously thinking of the new People of God born from Christ opened his arms on the Cross to unite people in the peace of the one God. “service on behalf of the people ” a people that does not exist by itself, but that has been formed through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. In fact, the People of God does not exist through ties of blood, territory or nation, but is always born from the work of the Son of God and communion with the Father that He obtains for us.
The Catechism also states that “in Christian tradition (the word” liturgy “) means the participation of the People of God in “the work of God.” Because the people of God as such exists only through the action of God.
The very development of the Second Vatican Council reminds us of this. It began its work, fifty years ago, with the discussion of the draft on the Sacred Liturgy, solemnly approved on December 4, 1963, the first text approved by the Council. The fact that document on the liturgy was the first result of the conciliar assembly was perhaps considered by some a chance occurrence. Among the many projects, the text on the sacred liturgy seemed to be the least controversial, and, for this reason, seen as an exercise in the methodology of conciliar work. But without a doubt, what at first glance seemed a chance occurrence, proved to be the right choice, starting from the hierarchy of themes and most important tasks of the Church. By beginning, with the theme of “liturgy” the primacy of God, his absolute priority was clearly brought to light. God before all things: the Council’s choice of starting from the liturgy tells us precisely this. Where God’s gaze is not decisive, everything else loses its direction. The basic criterion for the liturgy is its orientation to God, so that we can share in His work.
But we may ask: what is this work of God that we are called to participate in? The answer offered us by Conciliar Constitution on the sacred liturgy is apparently double. At number 5 it tells us, in fact, that the works of God are His historical actions that bring us salvation, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; but in number 7, the Constitution defines the celebration of the liturgy as “the work of Christ. ” In reality, the two meanings are inseparably linked. If we ask ourselves who saves the world and man, the only answer is Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, Crucified and Risen. And where does the Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, that brings salvation it becomes present and real for us, for me today ? The answer is the action of Christ through the Church, in the liturgy, especially in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which makes real and present this sacrificial offering of the Son of God, who has redeemed us, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through which we pass from the death of sin to new life, and in the other sacramental acts that sanctify us (cf. PO 5). Thus, the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ is the centre of liturgical theology of the Council.
Let’s take a step further and ask ourselves: how is this re-enactment of the Paschal Mystery of Christ made possible? Blessed John Paul II, 25 years after the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, wrote: ” In order to reenact his Paschal Mystery, Christ is ever present in his Church, especially in liturgical celebrations. (27). Hence the Liturgy is the privileged place for the encounter of Christians with God and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ (cf Jn 17:3). “(Vicesimus quintus annus, n. 7). Along the same lines we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ” A sacramental celebration is a meeting of God’s children with their Father, in Christ and the Holy Spirit; this meeting takes the form of a dialogue, through actions and words.” (n. 1153). Therefore, the first requirement for a good liturgical celebration is that both prayer and conversation with God, first listening and then answering. St. Benedict, in his “Rule”, speaking of the prayer of the Psalms, indicates to the monks: mens concordet voci, “may the mind agrees with the voice.” The Saint teaches that the prayer of the Psalms, the words must precede our mind. Usually it does not happen this way, first one has to think and then what we have thought, is converted into speech. Here, however in the liturgy it is the inverse, the words come first. God gave us the Word and the Sacred Liturgy gives us the words, and we must enter into their meaning, welcome them within us, be in harmony with them. Thus we become children of God, similar to God. As noted in the Sacrosanctum Concilium, to ensure the full effectiveness of the celebration ” it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain “(n. 11). The correlation between what we say with our lips and what we carry in our hearts is essential, fundamental, to our dialogue with God in the liturgy.
In this line, I just want to mention one of the moments that, during the liturgy calls us and helps us to find such a correlation, this conforming ourselves to what we hear, say and do in the liturgy. I refer to the invitation the Celebrant formulates before the Eucharistic Prayer: “Sursum corda,” we lift up our hearts outside the tangle of our concerns, our desires, our anxieties, our distraction. Our heart, our intimate selves, must open obediently to the Word of God, and gather in the prayer of the Church, to receive its orientation towards God from the words that it hears and says. The heart’s gaze must go out to the Lord, who is among us: it is a fundamental requirement.
When we experience the liturgy with this basic attitude, it is as if our heart is freed from the force of gravity, which drags it down, and from within rises upwards, towards truth and love, towards God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls: ” In the sacramental liturgy of the Church, the mission of Christ and of the Holy Spirit proclaims, makes present, and communicates the mystery of salvation, which is continued in the heart that prays. The spiritual writers sometimes compare the heart to an altar. “(No. 2655): altare Dei est cor nostrum.
Dear friends, we celebrate and live the liturgy well only if we remain in an attitude of prayer, united to the Mystery of Christ and his dialogue as the Son with the Father. God Himself teaches us to pray, as St. Paul writes (cf. Rom 8:26). He Himself has given us the right words to hear to Him, words that we find in the Psalter, in the great prayers of the liturgy and in the same Eucharistic celebration. We pray to the Lord to be ever more aware of the fact that the liturgy is the action of God and man; prayer that rises from the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the Son of God made man (cf. Catechism the Catholic Church, n. 2564).