Liturgy. From 2007 until March of 2013 traditionalists talked of rite, form, liturgy, history, the people, the priest, and the deep inter-connectivity between all these elements of opus Dei. Reformers had the same conversation within their own circles in the early and mid-20th century. But what is rite or liturgy or the point of a priest? Why does liturgical tradition matter in the 21st century, a era in a faster and more rapid rate of motion than any previous period. Why care about liturgy? Aidan Kavanagh's On Liturgical Theology provides some answers.
On Liturgical Theology is a book version of two sets of lectures given by a Benedictine monk, Dom Aidan, in 1980 on "Liturgy and World" and in 1982 on "Liturgy and Theology." Those with even a passing knowledge of liturgy readily recall the now trite misquotation of St. Prosper of Aquitaine lex orandi lex credendi. The misquotation is not insignificant, in that the implied est creates a false equivalency between the two. The proper quotation, which Kavanagh applies at the opening epigraph of On Liturgical Theology, is ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi: "....so that the law of supplication might form the law of belief." This aphorism reflects the basis of a truly orthodox understanding of liturgy.
Orthodoxy, or orthodoxia, as a concept derives from the earliest Christian experiences with prayer. As one priest said succinctly, "the Christian is someone who prays." Orthodoxy is "true praise" or "straight worship." Worship for Kavanagh is the manifestation of God to His earthly people. God created the world and He saw that it was good, and the fall of Adam and Eve wounded the world rather than blacken it. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. One could similarly say, and St. Athanasius did, that man is charged with being an icon, an image, a lesser but definitive reflection of God. In a like way human society, most perfectly manifest in a city and not in a rural setting, is an icon of the heavenly kingdom of God. There is the City of Man and the City of God, one an imperfect image of the other. The liturgy makes God manifest in Presence, in spirit, in Word, and in the Sacraments to the City of Man, sanctifying it and bringing it closer to the City of God.
In the liturgy, Kavanagh argues, God operates in a worldly manner, using the language, ceremonies, gestures, and ideas of human societies to make Himself know to mankind. St. Prosper's aphorism is "a civil and worldly statement if ever there was one." Through the gradual assimilation of a structured liturgical praxis the various churches came to know God in light of their own cultures, contributing to the Church as large and learning from the other local churches. Kavanagh does not adduce this particular example, but the Grecian concept of logos fits his thesis well. Liturgy is structured and formal because it is a human endeavor, but it should have a strong enough internal force to it such that it brings the Christian to the brink of spiritual violence. And the liturgy is something that happens always and everywhere. "Where there is the bishop there is the Catholic Church," wrote St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans. If the bishop's presence effects the Church's assembly then the bishop's presence effects Church liturgy. Those who formed the liturgical praxes of the Church understood the significance of the bishop and brought him throughout the various cities to celebrate the hours of prayer anywhere and everywhere on every day.
The celebration of the Eucharist was special, reserved to feasts and Sundays. The Mass, or Divine Liturgy, is both "Word and Liturgy" to Kavanagh. The "Word" is both Christ's Presence in His words and the actual words of scripture proclaimed to the City of Man in a powerful event. At one point in On Liturgical Theology Kavanagh laments the deleterious influence of printing on spirituality. The abecedarian experience of reading the Bible hardly matches the unique experience of a weekly proclamation of the Gospel or the use of the psalms throughout the Eucharistic celebration. In a twist of irony, the fundamentalist groups who insisted on sola scriptura devolved into oblivion while the more holistically minded descendants of the Apostles retained a moderate perspective on the place of Scripture in the Church.
Kavanagh, having established the purpose and use of the liturgy, then asks what is liturgical theology. It is not, contrariwise to instinct, a theological exposé on the various rites, usages, texts, and ceremonies celebrated abroad in the Church. It is theology done through the liturgy. It is theology done in motion, in worship, in the Presence of God. It is the primary theology of the Church. The more academic brand of theology—forming and testing proposition to create well worded doctrines—is a later and secondary kind of theology, import to say the least, but far from the center of the Christian's life. The primary theology forms the secondary theology, although the secondary theology can enrich the primary theology that is the liturgy.
Through the various forms of liturgy molded in the Holy Spirit and with human cooperation in art, in movement, in writing, and in rituals, people begin to understand and to know Who God is. In understanding God and standing in His Presence He sanctifies them, making people holier and raising them up and He rose on the third day, inaugurating the eighth day of creation, the "first and last day" in the last aeon of the earth. This is liturgical tradition. This is why the liturgy matters. The liturgy is not just a series of texts and movements about God, but rather it is of God. To change the liturgy is to change how people understand God, how they meet, Him, how they come to know Him, and how they relate to the previous inhabitants of the City of Man who have gone to their rest and moved on to the City of God (or the other place): "As Christians have traditionally understood it, their liturgy does not merely approach or reflect upon all this from without, nor does it merely circle this mystery from a distant orbit. Rather, Christians have traditionally understood their liturgical efforts to be somehow enacting the mystery itself, locking together its divine and human agents in a graced commerce, the effective symbol of which is that communion between God and our race rooted in the union of divine and human natures in Christ Jesus."
There is a very thinly dissimulated criticism of the Pope who began to change the Roman Church's liturgy by subverting it to secondary, academic theology and by unambiguously changing the Church's teaching on liturgy, and hence on everything else:
"To reverse [lex orandi lex credendi], subordinating the standard of worship to the standard of belief, makes a shambles of the dialectic of revelation. It was a Presence, not faith, which drew Moses to the burning bush, and what happened there was a revelation, not a seminar. It was a Presence, not faith, which drew the disciples to Jesus, and what happened was not an educational program but his revelation to them of himself as the long-promised Annointed One, the redeeming because reconciling Messiah-Christos. Their lives, like that of Moses, were changed radically by that encounter with a Presence which upended all their ordinary expectations. Their descendants in faith have been adjusting to that change ever since, drawn into assembly by that same Presence, finding there always the troublesome upset of change in their lives of faith to which they must adjust still. Here is where their lives are regularly being constituted and reconstituted under grace. Which is why lex supplicandi legem statuat credendi."
In his last chapter Kavanagh regards the Christian as an abnormally normal person, the person who is living a changed and restored life, a life renewed and put the way God wants it to be lived, coterminously the proper life and the life that most in the world do not want the Christian to life. Chastity is normal, but it is far from common. The grace to do this descends from the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit—and by the liturgy.
The only criticism I can levy against this book is that On Liturgical Theology is almost entirely theoretical, laying down principles of how the Church does its primary theology through the liturgy and experiences God's Presence. This is inevitably the result of the initial lecture format of the chapters. One could see each chapter lasting about one hour and plus time for questions. Yet some of concepts, particularly on the ubiquity of the bishop and his relationship to the liturgy, could have been fleshed out in the historical record. One thinks, pertinently, of the ancient practice of the Pope celebrating the full Divine Office and Mass at a different parish church in Rome every single day of Lent.
"Like poetry and art," Kavanagh concludes, "liturgy provides us a means of knowing the kind of thing that can only be known transrationally; that cannot be analyzed, taken apart, spelled out and reassembled." The liturgy is what the Church does, what makes the Church orthodox, what gives it its place in the City of Man and the City of God. The liturgy is the Church's "service and mission of the life of the world."
On Liturgical Theology can be summarized in one line sung during Orthros (Mattins) in the Byzantine rite: "The Lord is God and has appeared to us, blessed is He Who comes in the name of the world." The Lord, the Jewish substitute for the fearsome named of Yahweh, denotes an actual person. That person is God, not a god, but God Who created heaven and earth and Who loves both. And He has come to us and "dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.... full of grace and truth."