Sunday, December 07, 2008


“Christ with Us” first appeared in the May, 2002 issue of Touchstone.

Christ with Us

The Spirit of the Liturgy
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000
(232 pages; $17.95, cloth)

reviewed by Robert Hart

Well-written theology does more than educate the mind. A good theologian takes his readers by the hand and leads them up the Mount of Transfiguration, where they can see the revelation of divine glory in the human face of Jesus Christ. A good theologian helps us to encounter God, because he knows God. Though his work is too objective to indulge in autobiography, his footprints are discernable in his pilgrimage to Zion and the temple.

In The Spirit of the Liturgy Cardinal Ratzinger accomplishes this task by taking us not so much past as behind the details and rubrics of the Liturgy to the very reason for worship. The emphasis is primarily on the why of the Liturgy, and the how of the Liturgy is spoken of only from the vantage point of its source and meaning. The Liturgy is more than following a program of motions and words; it is a life in which we offer ourselves to God and render to him our logike latreia (Rom. 12:1, 2). The Liturgy itself, and the whole life that it envelops, is connected to the Incarnation of God in Christ, the ultimate revelation. Our words and actions should be faithful to the intention of doing everything the right way, but not as an end in itself; rather, for the sake of the truth and of the presence of God.

The Liturgy is written in words larger than any printed page can hold. It is written in history, the redemption history of Israel leading to the salvation history of the New Covenant. It is also written in the cosmos, for the liturgical times and seasons are reflected in the rhythms and cycles of nature. The very stars of the heavens and the seasons of the year help us celebrate the mysteries of the gospel, for sacred time corresponds with these cosmic patterns and seasonal changes.

Christ, who is both present and coming, is our true oriens, our orientation toward the rising of the sun. When Christians face east, it is not the earthly Temple Mount that we face anymore, but the risen Christ, the One who shall return. When we celebrate his nativity, his death and resurrection, the cycles of nature become the instruments of the church’s worship and of its message, the whole creation groaning and awaiting the manifestation of the sons of God.

It is right that nature should serve the Church in this way, for the creation is very good (Gen. 1:31), and mostly so because of the central fact of the Christian faith, the Incarnation. The message of the Christian faith is the message of the Word made flesh (John 1:14), whose friends could see, hear, and touch him. From the beginning of the Church, it is into this fellowship that they have called us (1 John 1:1–4).

In the chapter on sacred images, in which Cardinal Ratzinger appears to show a preference for the icons of the East (which I share), we are taught that these sacred images require “a new kind of seeing” that frees us from the limitations of the senses so that we may perceive “the interior orientation of the icon.” This “enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in Him, of the Father.” This seeing is trinitarian, for “it is the Holy Spirit Who makes us capable of seeing.”

“Only when we have understood this interior orientation of the icon can we rightly understand why the second Council of Nicea and all the following councils concerned with icons regard it as a confession of faith in the Incarnation and iconoclasm as a denial of the Incarnation, as the summation of all heresies” (an obvious reference on the cardinal’s part to 1 John 4:1f). Along these lines, he says: “The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God.” But this requires the new kind of seeing, seeing by faith.

This central truth of the Incarnation is the key to understanding Ratzinger’s thoughts about sacred space, the reservation of the Sacrament, and sacred music. All of these originate from our faith in the presence of Christ, a real and tangible presence in the world of the senses, time, and matter, but one that requires understanding of the God who is making himself known. We need the new kind of seeing, as well as of hearing and even of touching—for we come into physical contact with the Blessed Sacrament. The Liturgy brings us into the presence of the living God by means of all these earthly realities of the very good and redeemed creation.

This book is a theology of what the Liturgy is, and it makes its case for what ought to be done only in the context of the larger meaning that requires the new kind of seeing. The church’s Liturgy did not just happen, nor is it simply an evolution of man-made religion. Like nature itself, like the sacraments, like the great miracles of our salvation history, it is the work of God. It is rooted in the whole history of God’s people and of his salvation of mankind.

The book thus calls us to be faithful to the original intention, the why, of all that the Liturgy contains. It is for this reason that we should be very conservative with the Liturgy. That is, fidelity to that which has been handed down to us moves us to conserve the treasure of this great gift and not to presume that our innovations are equal or superior to that which grew from its Jewish radix in ancient times to flourish as the Liturgy of the Church. Trying to “make the Liturgy relevant” is as misleading a goal as trying to make the gospel relevant. Nothing can be more universally relevant by its nature, or more easily corrupted by man’s tools, his clever ideas and good intentions (Ex. 20:25).

By going behind the details and the rubrics, Cardinal Ratzinger does not make light of them. Indeed, it is his opponents who have been making light of these things for decades—though often not by intention. No, by going to the root of what these details and rubrics are about—the revelation of God in Christ—Ratzinger conveys the true dignity and purpose of the cosmos—the order and harmony—of the Liturgy. He brings its meaning back into focus.

As a result, it becomes clear that many foolish presumptions and practices that have become all too common and comfortable since the 1960s must die. Such things have been a problem not only for the Roman Catholic Church, but also for Christians, such as myself, in other liturgical churches of the West, making us all too lazy in our thinking. We have approached the Liturgy as less than a spiritual journey that must be rooted in the truth. Ratzinger shows us that the true “spirit of the Liturgy” is the Spirit of God, who reveals the glory of the Father in the face of Jesus Christ.

7 comments:

Canon Tallis said...

I wonder if any other than myself finds it passing strange that Rome should suddenly have a bishop who seems more like an old fashioned Anglican high church bishop than the Roman prelate which he has been most of his life? I certainly don't expect him to swim the Tiber or the Channel, but it is wonderful having some one in that see that you can relate to as a "mere Christian" as many of us did to John XXIII.

What I would like to see is for all of us "who call ourselves" Anglicans to treat our Anglican liturgy and tradition with the same seriousness and love which Benedict XVI treats that of the Roman Church. He certainly has attempted to make sure that all of those who see him see someone who loves his faith and its liturgy and who always wants others to see it in the very best light. In that he is certainly a model for every bishop.

beowulf2k8 said...

Here's a question. If the liturgy is designed by God and all that, why did men just now remove "for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory" from the Lord's prayer in response to agnostic textual criticism? You're not going to convince me that that was a move by God. I'm not Anglican and don't believe your liturgy is designed by God, nor the Catholic liturgy. If men can make a bone-headed move like this one now, why not in the past?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Canon Tallis wrote:
I wonder if any other than myself finds it passing strange that Rome should suddenly have a bishop who seems more like an old fashioned Anglican high church bishop than the Roman prelate which he has been most of his life?

I think this is due to the fact that he is more learned than most, and is both a scholar and a theologian. His passion for the truth (or should we say, the Truth?) cuts across boundaries, and that is very Anglican indeed. By the way, his book on the Liturgy was not specific to either east or west, and what he writes applies quite well to our Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service as well. The only part I do not agree with is about silent celebration. I am not a fan of that idea.

Beowulf2k8 wrote:

If the liturgy is designed by God and all that, why did men just now remove "for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory" from the Lord's prayer in response to agnostic textual criticism?

This is quite an interesting version of the facts, and one that does not quite fit reality. I am not sure why the old Latin Mass does not have these words, but it had nothing to do with "agnostic textual criticism" that began centuries later. It seems that Beowulf2k8 is not familiar with our Anglican sources, either the Book of Common Prayer or the King James Bible, where this phrase is not missing at all.

poetreader said...

The doxology, regardless of whether it is part of the original Scriptural text, is clearly not part of the earliest selection of a text to use in the liturgy. It seems never to have found its way into the Mass or offices of the Roman Church prior to Vatican 2.

Although it is used in all the Eastern Churches, it is an exclamation sung by the priest after the people have sung the body of the prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer uses the full prayer, with doxology most of the time, but not always, and this Anglican use was a clear addition to the texts from which the compilers worked.

Thus "For thine ... " has always been treated as a detachable part of the prayer.

Anyway, who says that one can't quote a part of a passage in prayer? This line of reasoning leads to the possibility that one would need to quote the entire Bible every time. A bit unwieldy, that. If taking something from its context distorts the meaning, well, that is a problem. If the clear meaning is kept, it's no more than is done in every sermon and teaching.

ed

Sandra McColl said...

Canon Tallis: be not surprised. He is Georg Ratzinger's little brother, you know. But even then, he can't make the Sistine Chapel Choir sing in tune.

Anonymous said...

I do not know what beowulf2k8 means by "agnostic textual criticism." The great 19th century scholars Westcott and Hort were anything but agnostics, and the dean of 20th century textual critics, Bruce Metzger, is a conservative evangelical. Such a sally on the part of Beowulf simply reveals his ignorance of the topic; only a person committed to a high view of inspiration would even bother with textual criticism. (And yes, I know about Bart Ehrman, but that is the exception which proves the rule. He started out as a conservative evangelical-- which is how he became interested in the field.)

As for the doxology which concludes the Lord's Prayer, the textual evidence for it is exceedingly weak. It was always the liturgical practice of the Jews to conclude prayers with a doxology, such as we have (or simply insert)at the end of our proper collects. This undoubtedly explains how the doxology, used from the time of the apostles in the church's worship life, worked its way into the manuscript tradition. It became a part of Erasmus's Textus Receptus and so into the AV. It was never in the Western liturgy. The doxology at the end of the embolism (Defend us, O Lord...) made it unnecessary.
It is found, however, at the end of the Lord's Prayer in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.
The delightful Fr Benedict Groeschel is fond of saying that
this is a point where RC's follow Scripture and Protestants follow tradition.

"The Spirit of the Liturgy" is a great book. It was the first thing by Cardinal Ratzinger that I read, and I have been hooked on him ever since. If only he, RC Sproul and Michael Horton would sit down and discuss Justification...... B16 may just be the great Ecumenical Pope. I will venture such a prediction.
LKW

William Tighe said...

Allow me to express my support for Fr. Wells' sentiments in the preceding comment.