Liturgical Worship: Enactment of Salvation History

For those who approach worship from a liturgical and sacramental point of view, Christian worship is an action that recalls the events of the history of salvation. This recollection, which is based on biblical models of worship, is not simply an intellectual remembering; it becomes actual participation in the saving event through forms of worship empowered by the Holy Spirit and received in faith.

A fundamental principle of New Testament theology is that all salvation history is recapitulated and “personalized” in Jesus. Nothing is clearer than the fact that everything in sacred history—event, object, sacred place, theophany, cult—has quite simply been assumed into the person of the Incarnate Christ. He is God’s eternal Word (John 1:1, 14); his new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Rom. 8:19ff.; Rev. 21–22) and the new Adam (1 Cor. 15:45; Rom. 5:14); the new Pasch and its lamb (1 Cor. 5:7; John 1:29, 36; 19:36; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5ff.); the new covenant (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; Heb. 8–13), the new circumcision (Col. 2:11–12), and the heavenly manna (John 6:30–58; Rev. 2:17); God’s temple (John 2:19–22), the new sacrifice, and its priest (Eph. 5:2; Heb. 2:17–3:2; 4:14–10:14); the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest (Col. 2:16–17; Matt. 11:28–12:8; Heb. 3:7–4:11) and the messianic age that was to come (Luke 4:16–21; Acts 2:14–36). Neither the list nor the references are exhaustive. He is quite simply “all, and in all” (Col. 3:11; this verse and all subsequent biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version), “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13; cf. 1:8; 21:6). All that went before is fulfilled in him: “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 10:1), and that includes cultic realities: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16–17).

This is seminal for any theology of Christian worship. The Old Testament temple and altar with their rituals and sacrifices are replaced not by a new set of rituals and shrines, but by the self-giving of a person, the very Son of God. Henceforth, true worship pleasing to the Father is none other than the saving life, death and resurrection of Christ. And our worship is this same sacrificial existence in us. Paul tells us, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49; cf. Phil. 2:7–11; 3:20–21; Eph. 4:22–24), the risen Christ, “image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Col. 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4), who conforms us to His image through the gift of his Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:11ff., 29). For St. Paul, “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21), and to be saved is to be conformed to Christ by dying to self and rising to new life in him (2 Cor. 4:10ff.; 13:4; Rom. 6:3ff.; Col. 2:12–13, 20; 3:1–3; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:1ff.; Phil. 2:5ff.; 3:10–11, 18–21) who, as the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45) is the definitive form of redeemed human nature (cf. 1 Cor. 15:21–22; Rom. 5:12–21; Col. 3:9–11; Eph. 4:22–24). Until this pattern is so repeated in each of us that Christ is indeed true “all in all” (Col. 3:11), we shall not yet “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). For we know “the power of his resurrection” only if we “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).

Far from being a fourth-century innovation, edification and personal sanctification and the intimate relation of liturgy to everyday life is the essence of the New Testament message concerning the new cult. Indeed, for St. Paul liturgy is the Christian life. Never once does he use cultic nomenclature (liturgy, sacrifice, priest, offering) for anything but a life of self-giving, lived after the pattern of Christ. When he does speak of what we call liturgy, as in 1 Corinthians 10–14, Ephesians 4, or Galatians 3:27–28, he makes it clear that its purpose is to build up the body of Christ into that new temple and liturgy and priesthood, in which sanctuary and offerer and offered are one. For it is in the liturgy of the church, in the ministry of word and sacrament, that the biblical pattern of recapitulation of all in Christ is returned to the collectivity and applied to the community of faith that will live in him.

To borrow a term from the biblical scholars, the liturgy is the on-going Sitz im Leben of Christ’s saving pattern in every age, and what we do in the liturgy is exactly what the New Testament itself did with Christ: it applied him and what he was and is to the present. For the Sitz im Leben of the Gospels is the historical setting not of the original event, but of its telling during the early years of the primitive church. Do not both New Testament and liturgy tell us this holy history again and again as a perpetual anamnesis? Note that this is not kerygma, as it is often mistakenly called. Kerygma is the preaching of the Good News in order to awaken the response of faith in the new message. But the kerygma written down and proclaimed in the liturgical assembly to recall us to our commitment to the Good News already heard and accepted in faith, even though we “know them and are established in the truth” (2 Pet. 1:12), is anamnesis, and that is what we do in liturgy. We make anamnesis, memorial, of this dynamic saving power in our lives, to make it penetrate ever more into the depths of our being, for the building up of the body of Christ:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1–4)

It seems to me, then, that the eschatological expectation vs. sanctification of life dichotomy arose long before the fourth century, pace Dix, and was solved by the apostolic church. But it was not solved by abandoning New Testament eschatology, which sees Christ as inaugurating the age of salvation. What was abandoned was the mistaken belief that this implied an imminent parousia. But that does not modify the main point of Christian eschatology, that the end time is not in the future but now. And it is operative now, though not exclusively, through the anamnesis in word and sacrament of the dynamic present reality of Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” through the power of his Spirit in every age.

In the Gospels, the transition to this new age of salvation history is portrayed in the accounts of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. They introduce us to a new mode of his presence, a presence that is real and experienced, yet quite different from the former presence before his Passover. When he appears he is not recognized immediately (Luke 24:16, 37; John 21:4, 7, 12). There is a strange aura about him; the disciples are uncertain, afraid; Jesus must reassure them (Luke 24:36ff.). At Emmaus, they recognize him only in the breaking of the bread—and then he vanishes (Luke 24:16, 30–31, 35). Like his presence among us now, his presence to the disciples is accessible only through faith.

What these post-resurrection accounts seem to be telling us is that Jesus is with us, but not as he was before. He is with us and not with us, real presence and real absence. He is the one whom “heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Acts 3:21), but who also said, “I am with you always, until the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). It is simply this reality that we live in the liturgy, believing from Matthew 18:20 that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” yet celebrating the Lord’s Supper to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26) in the spirit of the early Christians, with their liturgical cry of hope: Maranatha! “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

So the Jesus of the apostolic church is not the historical Jesus of the past, but the heavenly Priest interceding for us constantly before the throne of the Father (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 9:11–28) and actively directing the life of his church (Rev. 1:17–3:22 and passim). The vision of the people who produced these documents was not directed backward, to the “good old days” when Jesus was with them on earth. We see such nostalgia only after Jesus’ death before the resurrection appearances give birth to the Christian faith.

The church did keep a record of the historical events, but they were reinterpreted in the light of the Resurrection and were meant to assist Christians to grasp the significance of Jesus in their lives. That this was the chief interest of the New Testament church, the contemporary, active, risen Christ present in the church through his Spirit, can be seen in the earliest writings, the epistles of St. Paul, which say next to nothing about the historical details of Jesus’ life.

It is this consciousness of Jesus as the Lord not of the past but of contemporary history that is the aim of all Christian spirituality and liturgical anamnesis. The Christian vision is rooted in the gradually acquired realization of the apostolic church that the parousia was not imminent and that the eschatological, definitive victory won by Christ must be repeated in each one of us, until the end of time. And since Christ is both model and source of this struggle, the New Testament presents both his victory and his cult of the Father as ours: just as we have died and risen with him (Rom. 6:3–11; 2 Cor. 4:10ff.; Gal. 2:20; Col. 2:12–13, 20; 3:1–3; Eph. 2:5–6), so, too, it is we who have become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22–24), a new circumcision (Phil. 3:3), a new temple (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19–22), a new sacrifice (Eph. 5:2), and a new priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5–9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). This is why we meditate on the pattern of his life, proclaim it, preach it, celebrate it: to make it ever more deeply our own. This is why the apostolic church left us a book and a rite, word, and sacrament, so that what Christ did and was, we may do and be, in him. For this reason, sacred history is never finished: it continues in us.

The Newness of Christian Ritual

I think it fair to say that this New Testament vision of cult is something startlingly, radically new. Of course, human beings have always gathered to express themselves in ritual, so when Christians do so they are not inventing something new. What is new is the vision they are expressing.

Ritual itself is simply a set of conventions, an organized pattern of signs and gestures which members of a community use to interpret and enact for themselves and to express and transmit to others, their relation to reality. It is a way of saying what we are a group in the full sense of that are, with our past that made us what we are, our present in which we live what we are, and the future we hope to be. Ritual, then, is ideology and experience in action, the celebration or interpretation-through-action of our human experience and how we view it.

Human societies have used rituals especially to express their religious outlook, their universal system for relating to the ultimate questions of life. Religion is different from a personal philosophy of life in that it is a shared perspective, a common outlook on reality. As such it depends on history, on the group’s collective remembrance of things past, of events that have been transformed in the collective memory of the community into key symbolic episodes determinative of the community’s being and self-understanding.

This is the basis of ritual behavior. For it is through the interpretation of its past that a community relates to the present and copes with the future. In the process of ritual representation, past constitutive events are made present in ritual time, in order to communicate their force to new generations of the social group, providing thus a community of identity throughout history.

In primitive, natural religious systems the past was seen as cyclic, as an ever-repeating pattern of natural seasons. Rituals were celebrations of this cycle of autumn, winter, spring, harvest—of natural death and rebirth. But even at this primitive stage men and women came to see these natural rhythms as symbols of higher realities, of death and resurrection, of the perdurance of human existence beyond natural death.

So even natural religious ritual is not just an interpretation of experience but implies reaching for the beyond, for ultimate meaning in the cycle of life that seemed to be an ever-recurring circle closed by death. The discovery of history was a breakthrough in this process: life was seen to have a pattern that extended beyond the closed cycles of nature, of life and death. Time acquired a new meaning, and human ritual was transformed from a way of interpreting nature into a way of interpreting history.

Thus, events in the past came to acquire a universal symbolic value in the mind of the community: in fact, these events were so fundamental that they actually created and constituted the community’s very identity. By celebrating these events ritually, the community-made them present again and mediated to its members their formative power. Of course, these were usually events of salvation, of escape from calamity and death, and it was but one further step for them to become transformed in the collective memory of the group into symbols of God’s care and eternal salvation.

This is what happened with Israel. What makes Israelite liturgy different from other rituals is revelation. The Jews did not have to imagine that their escape from Egypt was a sign of God’s saving providence: he told them so. When they celebrated this Exodus ritually in the Passover meal, they knew they were celebrating more than the universalization of a past event in the historical imagination of their poets and prophets. The covenant with God which they reaffirmed ritually was a permanent and hence ever-present reality because God had said so.

Here we encounter a basic difference between Judeo-Christian worship and other cults. Biblical worship is not an attempt to contact the divine, to mediate to us the power of God’s intervention in past saving events. It is the other way around. It is a worship of the already saved. We do not reach for God to appease him; he has bent down to us.

With Christian liturgy, we take another step in our understanding of ritual. As in the Old Testament, we, too, celebrate a saving event. For us, too, the meaning of this event has been revealed. But that is where the parallel ends. For Old Testament ritual looked forward to a promised fulfillment; it was not only an actualization of the covenant but the pledge of a yet unrealized messianic future. In Christianity, what all other rituals strain to achieve has, we believe, already been fulfilled once and for all by Christ. Reconciliation with the Father has been accomplished eternally in the mystery of his Son (2 Cor. 5:18–19; Rom. 5:10–11). The gap is bridged forever through God’s initiative.

So Christian worship is not how we seek to contact God; it is a celebration of how God has touched us, has united us to Himself, and is ever-present to us and dwelling in us. It is not reaching out for a distant reality but a joyful celebration of a salvation that is just as real and active in the ritual celebration as it was in the historical event. It is ritual perfected by divine realism; a ritual in which the symbolic action is not a memorial of the past, but a participation in the eternally present salvific Pasch of Christ.

Christian liturgy, therefore, publicly feasts the mystery of our salvation already accomplished in Christ, thanking and glorifying our God for it so that it might be intensified in us and communicated to others for the building up of the church to the perpetual glory of God’s holy name.

Liturgy: A Work of the Church

So liturgy is an activity of the church. It is one of the ways the church responds in praise, surrender, thanksgiving, to the call of God’s revealing, saving word and deed. This eternal doxology is a response to something, and it is important to note that this divine action itself is not extrinsic to the liturgy but an integral part of it. Liturgy is not just our response; it is also the eternally repeated call. It is both God’s unending saving activity and our prayerful response to it in faith and commitment throughout the ages.

Liturgy, then, is much more than an individual expression of faith and devotion and infinitely more than a subjective expression of “where we’re at” or “where we’re coming from,” as contemporary American slang puts it. It is first and foremost an activity of God in Christ. Christ saves through the ages in the activity of the body of which he is the head. He does this in the word that calls us to conversion to him and union with him and to reconciliation with one another in him. He creates and nourishes and heals and restores this life in the water and oil and food of sacrament, and joins his prayer to ours to glorify the Father for those gifts. And all this is liturgy.

Liturgy then is the common work of Christ and his church. This is its glory. It is also what makes possible the extraordinary claims the church has made about the nature of Christian worship. Our prayers are worthless, but in the liturgy, Christ himself prays in us. For the liturgy is the efficacious sign of Christ’s saving presence in his church. His saving offering is eternally active and present before the throne of the Father. By our celebration of the divine mysteries, we are drawn into the saving action of Christ, and our personal self-offering is transformed into an act of the body of Christ through the worship of the body with its head. What men and women have vainly striven for throughout history in natural ritual—contact with the divine—is transformed from image to reality in Christ.

Of course, Christ, through the Spirit, does all these things apart from the liturgy, too—all this calling and healing and nourishing and saving and praying in us and with us. Then what is so special about the liturgy? Certainly not its efficaciousness, for God is always efficacious in all he does. The obstacles come from us. What is special about the liturgy is that it is a visible activity of the whole church. Indeed, in a certain sense church is the church only in liturgy, for a gathering in its fullest sense is a gathering only when it is gathered! Liturgy, therefore, is different from private prayer and other means and vehicles of grace and salvation in that it is a “symbol,” a symbolic movement both expressing what we are and calling us to be it more fully. It is a celebration of the fact that we have been saved in Christ, and in the very celebration that same saving mystery of Christ is offered to us again in an anamnesis for our unendingly renewed acceptance and as an everlasting motive for our song of joyful thanks and praise: “He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name!” (Luke 1:49).

We do all this together because we are “together,” and not just individuals. Christian salvation is by its very nature “church,” a “gathering,” one body of Christ, and if we do not express this, then we are not what we proclaim to be. Redemption in the New Testament is a coming together, solidarity in the face of the evil of this world. It necessarily leads to the community because only in common can new human values be effectively released and implemented. Christ came not just to save individuals, but to change the course of history by creating the leaven of a new group, a new people of God, the paradigm of what all peoples must one day be. In the Acts of the apostles, the life of this group is sustained in gatherings, and its basic dynamic is toward unity: that they may be one in Jesus, that they may love one another as Jesus has loved them and as the Father loves Jesus, is the will and prayer of Jesus in the Last Discourse in John’s Gospel (15:9ff., 17:20ff.). This is the remedy for hate and divisiveness and enmity, the products of egoism that is the root of all evil.

Unless seen in this broader context of the whole of life, what the community does in its synaxes does not make much sense, for liturgy is not an end in itself. It is only the means and expression of life together in Christ. It is that which is primary: A common life of mutual support and generosity, of putting self second so that others can be first. Prayer in common is one of the means to this unity, part of the group’s cement, as well as its joyful celebration of the fact that inchoatively, if not perfectly, this unity exists already.

So it is toward life that worship is always directed. We see this in 1 Cor. 11–14 and Matt. 5:23–24. We see it in the Didache 14:1–2: “And on the Lord’s day of the Lord, after you have gathered, break bread and offer the Eucharist, … But let no one who has a quarrel with his neighbor join you until he is reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled.” A few years later, around a.d. 111–113, we see it in the garbled account of a Christian assembly in the letter of the pagan governor Pliny to the emperor Trajan, during a time of persecution in the Roman Empire. Pliny had interrogated Christians concerning their private gatherings, which had brought them under suspicion after Trajan’s edict forbidding hetaeriae or secret meetings. Pliny obviously did not comprehend the information he had received from them. But he did understand that these Christian assemblies involved a commitment to a covenant with stringent ethical implications:

They insisted, however, that their whole fault or error consisted in the fact that they were accustomed to gather before daylight on a fixed day to sing a hymn to Christ as God and to bind themselves mutually, by means of a religious vow, not to any crime, but rather not to commit any theft or robbery or adultery, nor to go back on their word, nor to refuse to return a loan when it is demanded back. (Plinius Minor, Ep. 10, 96:7)

We see it in the questions asked the baptizandi in Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 20: And when those who are to receive baptism are chosen, let their life be examined: did they live good lives when they were catechumens? Did they visit the sick? Have they done every kind of good work? And when those who sponsored them bear witness to each: “He has,” let them hear the gospel.

In short, the touchstone of our liturgy is whether or not it is being lived out in our lives. Is the symbolic moment symbolizing what we really are? Is our sacred celebration of life a sign that we truly live in this way?

In taking this perspective we are doing precisely what we saw the New Testament do with the mystery that is Christ: we recall it, make anamnesis of it, as a medium for encountering this mystery anew, so that we might see it as it is, the model and source of what we must be. But its purpose is not merely didactic. Its blazing light serves not only to illumine our deficiencies. It also burns away our darkness and draws us into its divine light.

Liturgy then has precisely the same dynamic as the New Testament and also contains my response to it. To appropriate an expression of Mark Searle, just as the Bible is the saving Word of God in the words of human beings, so the liturgy is the saving deeds of God in the actions of men and women. And both have the same end: that we might respond to the call and live it. Indeed, in a sense liturgy is more inclusive than the Scriptures, for it comprises both the saving Word and the saving actions of God, and our response to both. But just as the Word and deeds of God are seen here in sacramental form, but are present to us at every moment, symbolized but not exhausted in the ritual movement, so, too, my ritual response is but the symbolic movement of what must be the response of my every moment, with God’s help.

For liturgy is a present encounter. Salvation is now. The death and resurrection of Jesus are past events only in their historicity, that is, with respect to us. But they are eternally present in God, who has entered our history but is not entrapped in it, and they have brought the presence of God among us to fulfillment in Jesus, and that enduring reality we encounter at every moment of our lives. The past memorialized is the efficacious saving event of salvation now, re-presented in symbol. In the risen Lord, creation is at last seen as what it was meant to be, and Christ is Adam, that is, all humankind.

So the Jesus we recall is the fulfillment of all that went before. But this fulfillment of the past is directed at the future. For just as Christ has become everything and fulfilled all, so for us to be fulfilled, we must become him. And we can do this only by letting him conform us to himself, to his pattern, the model of the new creation. It is this remaking of us into a new humanity that is the true worship of the New Law. The old cult and priesthood have been replaced by the self-offering of the Son of God, and our worship is to repeat this same pattern in our own lives, a pattern we celebrate in symbol when we gather to remember what he was and what we are to be.

To express this spiritual identity, St. Paul uses several compound verbs that begin with the preposition syn (with): I suffer with Christ, am crucified with Christ, die with Christ, am buried with Christ, am raised and live with Christ, am carried off to heaven and sit at the right hand of the Father with Christ (Rom. 6:3–11; Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 1:5; 4:7ff.; Col. 2:20; Eph. 2:5–6). This is one of Paul’s ways of underscoring the necessity of personal participation in redemption. We must “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), and assimilate him, somehow experience with God’s grace the principal events by which Christ has saved us and repeat them in the pattern of my own life. For by undergoing them he has transformed the basic human experiences into a new creation. How do we experience these events? In him, by so entering into the mystery of his life so that each can affirm with Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

This is what Christian life, our true liturgy, is all about. Our common worship is a living metaphor of this same saving reality, not only representing and re-presenting it to us constantly in symbol to evoke our response in faith and deed but actively affecting it in us through the work of the Holy Spirit, in order to build up the body of Christ into a new temple and liturgy and priesthood in which offerer and offered are one.

This is what I mean when I say that all liturgy is anamnesis. It is not just a psychological reminiscence, not just a remembering, but an active and self-fulfilling prophecy in which by the power of God we become what we celebrate, while at the same time thanking and glorifying him for that great gift.

2 Peter 1:12–16 says: Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it is right … to arouse you by way of reminder.… And I will see to it that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty.

Liturgy also reminds us of the powerful deeds of God in Christ. And being reminded we remember, and remembering we celebrate, and celebrating we become what we do. The dancer dancing is the dance.

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