Monday, January 16, 2006

Worship and Symbol

The Benedictine liturgical scholar Dom Odo Casel observes in his classic work, The Mystery of Christian Worship:

Ancient thought, considered as a whole, had a great reverence for all being: the individual felt himself to be a member of the great cosmos, and willingly submitted to its order. The self-seeker [what modern man so often views himself as being] was taken for a rebel: his deed…brought down the anger of the gods. Behind the visible world the deep insight of ancient man saw a higher kingdom of spirit and godhead, of which the things we see are symbol, reflected reality, and at the same time mediators and bearers of spiritual things. Ancient thinking was at once concrete, because concerned with objects, and spiritual, because these [men] did not remain confined to material objects. To men like these it did not seem difficult to believe that God could communicate his life through symbols, or that their own religious acts could leap up into the circle of God’s life; it was no different whether they conceived these things as more cosmic or more spiritual; in either case it was a symbolic action which rose to the height of the god’s mode of living. The symbolic, strength-giving rites of the mysteries were real for the ancients; when the Church of Christ entered the world she did not end but rather fulfilled their way of thinking.

The erosion of this manner of perceiving matter and spirit is in great part the result of the triumph of empirical “science” that determines as “real” only what is directly measurable. The sacramental dimension of Christianity has become incomprehensible to modern rationalists. Given the universal context of rationalism, the notion of symbolic worship as a real integration of matter and spirit has become equally incomprehensible. Christians have certainly fallen under a rationalist influence and so some fundamental underpinnings operative in worship have been obscured, if not lost altogether. Yet the integration of matter and spirit is precisely what sacramental – liturgical – worship is all about.

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