Friday, February 06, 2009

Taft on liturgy and life.

As I expressed hopes of doing in an earlier post, I'd like to reflect a bit on a lecture that I heard Father Robert F. Taft, S.J. give last week at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. As is often the case with academic lectures, some of the most insightful and provocative things that Father Taft had to say came in his answers to questions posed after his talk rather than in the text that he had prepared for the occasion. To a question on the relationship between liturgy and spirituality, Father Taft had this to say:
Basically, the main problem of all liturgical theology is how do we justify the claims that we make for Christian liturgy? How can we say in the churches, the apostolic churches that have a high Christology – my Christology is so high it’d give you a nosebleed – a high Christology, in other words, which believes that Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God who became incarnate, as in the teaching of the ecumenical councils, that he preexisted before all time, and that Jesus Christ is the main protagonist, as head of his body, of our liturgical services – and that’s what gives them the reality that we assign to them.

In other words, that we say that it is Christ acting through the indwelling of his spirit in the Church who is the main protagonist of the liturgy. It’s not the Church that does it, separate from Christ. Liturgical celebrations are celebrations of the entire body of Christ, and the main celebrant of the liturgy, so to speak, is Christ himself. But the point of liturgy is that we are supposed to become what we celebrate. The purpose of the Eucharist isn’t to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ, it’s to change you and me into Jesus Christ – that’s what it’s all about. We are supposed to become the word of comfort and forgiveness, we are supposed to become the bread of life for the world, we are supposed to become the healing oil – and by 'we,' I don’t mean just the ordained, [but] all Christians. So there’s no possibility of separating liturgy and spirituality.

Liturgy is simply the mirror of what we are supposed to be, so that when we leave the liturgical assembly, we are supposed to go out and be what it is that we celebrate. That’s why St. Paul never once uses sacral terminology, like 'sacrifice,' 'offering,' 'liturgy,' 'priesthood' and so forth for anything except Christian life in Christ. What we do in church is simply the initiation into, and the feeding, and the restoration, if it’s lost by sin, and the intensification through preaching and the sacraments of what we’re supposed to be. If we don’t become it, we might as well stay in bed on Sunday morning, because what we’re doing is just a comedy.

So liturgy and spirituality are one – they can’t be separated, can’t be separated, or if they are separated, then we have, we have sucked all of the meaning out of what the liturgy is supposed to be. So the purpose of liturgy is that we become that which it exemplifies. Liturgy holds up to us the model of Christian life. What’s the model of Christian life? What do we put on the altar? We put on bread that was broken, and blood that was poured out, as signs of what we are supposed to be. When we put the bread on the altar and the chalice on the altar as the signs which will become through the invocation of the Holy Spirit the body that was broken for us and the blood that pours out to – we’re saying, 'I’m doing this because this is what I know I’m supposed to be.' And if that’s not why we’re doing it, why bother? What good is it?
Father Taft's trademark frankness may be off-putting to some readers, but I think it's hard to contest the truth of his central thesis. Christian liturgy should offer a model for Christian living - that is, what we celebrate in the liturgy ought to be a part of our daily lives and not an escape from it. Father Alexander Schmemann made this point when he described Christianity as "the end of religion" - the end, that is, of a false separation between the sacred and the secular that allows believers to treat worship as something alien and removed from ordinary experience.

To be sure, the transformation of the gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ is accomplished in the liturgy regardless of whether the communicants undergo the sort of inner transformation that Father Taft speaks of. Nonetheless, it is worth asking what meaning the Eucharist can truly have for those who receive communion but are not really open to receiving the grace that God offers to them through the sacrament. If your experience of the liturgy doesn't help to bring about a deeper transformation in your life, you may want to ask yourself why it does not.

More constructively, you may also wish to consider how you can make your experience of the liturgy more meaningful - not simply for you, but for those with whom you live. There is a lot more that could be said about this, but for now I'd simply like to give the readers of this blog an opportunity to sit with Father Taft's words and to reflect upon them as I have done over the past week. We would all be very fortunate, I think, if each time we took part in the liturgy we could truly say to ourselves, "I'm doing this because this is what I know I'm supposed to be." AMDG.


At 2/06/2009 7:45 PM, Blogger Fr Paul Johnson said...

Hey Joe, thanks for this post. I found it interesting and inspiring. You raise some good questions. Hope you don't mind; I'd like to quote you on my own blog.

At 2/07/2009 12:04 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for your kind words - it's good to know my post was helpful; please feel free to share it with others.

At 2/07/2009 7:33 PM, Blogger Tony said...

Inspirational stuff that says in words what my instinct perhaps only half grasped some time ago when I found joy in the Liturgy but didn't really understand why. Effectively and *really* practising what is preached, letting the Liturgy become part of us and us part of it in Church and in the World. AMDG in action! Thank you so much for this.

At 2/09/2009 1:08 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the comments - I'm glad to hear that this post resonated with your own experience; it's always good to know when something I have posted has helped others to reflect more on their own lives of faith.


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