Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote a magnificent book called The Spirit of the Liturgy which I had the opportunity to read, think, and write about for one of my classes here at the seminary. He has a great insight into the Liturgy’s meaning and its centrality to the world in which we live. Because I learned a lot from the book, I wanted to share my thoughts on it. Through this sharing, I hope to encourage many of you to read the book and also, to generate some discussion on the Liturgy which is so central to our faith.
The Second Vatican Council reminds us that each human being is a mystery to himself or herself; a mystery which will not be completely understood in this life. In the Spirit of the Liturgy, Ratzinger argues convincingly that the primary end of all creation is the participation of rational beings in the cosmic Liturgy which is the life-giving communion of the Holy Trinity. Liturgy is, therefore, essential for the right type of human existence and moreover, it is the end for which we are created. It gives form to our existence by orientating it correctly and should provide the basis for our beliefs and morality.
The importance of worship in human community cannot be overstated, it is what brings a people together and gives them unity and a common purpose for being. It might be thought of as the actual public recognition of the goal for which a society strives. This tendency towards cult is found is every human society because it is a natural instinct of humanity to anticipate a future which is better (in whatever sense a person may take that word). Cult which, “has the character of anticipation…[and] lays hold in advance of a more perfect life,” fulfills this basic human need, “and in so doing, gives our present life its proper measure.” As human beings we need this anticipation of a future which is more perfect, to keep going in the present amidst the many struggles and trials that each person undergoes.
Nowhere is the need for the anticipation of a more perfect life more clearly seen than in the prevalent agnosticism and atheism which rules much of our society today. Despite the fact that society has become decidedly secular, atheistic, or agnostic, all of these people find a something or someone to worship, to hold up as his own personal idol, to emulate and praise, and he strives to reach communion and happiness. We see microcosms of the need for the anticipation of more perfect life in the everyday lives of people today, many of whom have no formal sense of religion or worship. For some it is as trivial as idol of free time seen in the attitude of “working for the weekend.” For others especially the young it may takes the appearance dream of attaining unrivaled prowess on the athletic field or in the classroom. For still others it takes the form of the perfect career, the perfect spouse, the perfect sex-life, pleasure, the perfect family, the perfect kids, or the perfect trip. As these many examples show, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, people need a reason for being something which they can anticipate and for which they work, and which they worship. In these cases, a twisting of the good and natural desire for to anticipate life with God occurs. Because these men and women either have consciously rejected or have never been taught about God as their final end, they settle for whatever idol suits their particular mood at the time. Since these idols can never fulfill the true desires of their hearts, they are left wanting, and wandering from idol to idol seeking the full consolation but never finding it. Rather, they find compounded pain and sorrow, and grow bitter, disillusioned, and begin to despair; losing hope even in their own sources of fulfillment they wonder why they have being at all.
This leads us to another important point that Ratzinger develops in Spirit of the Liturgy, namely, that the laws and ethics of any society must be grounded in a “God-ward perspective” or ultimately they will “degrade man, because they rob him of his highest measure and his highest capacity.”  Thus he implies that worship, or cult underpins and provides the groundwork for any legitimate structure of laws. A law generically speaking is an ordinance of reason, promulgated by one having authority over and care for a community for the common good. All true laws thus seek to serve the community that for which they are promulgated. But this good is not an ethereal, unknowable concept which is determined by a tyrant (even it is a tyrannical majority in a democracy). Rather, the laws must derive their final end from the true good, the good without exception, the bonum per se in which all other goods participate and thereby derive their own goodness. The problem with any other basis for the laws of a society is not that it asks too much of man but, on the contrary that it demands too little. Man is made for communion with this type of goodness, and made to be an image of such goodness in his relations with others. Legal systems and ethical standards within a society that are not based a proper teleological perspective with God as the standard of goodness, truth, and beauty, are destined to fail because they fail to recognize that man is the image of God, and destined for communion with Him. When God is removed as a reference point, laws become little more than the coercion of a tyrant, or in a “more civilized” society the tyrannical majority.
This is true above all in the case of laws regarding worship and liturgy, since these are the ways in which we relate to God and the right worship is “essential for [the right] law.” It follows, that if we want to have a good society, a just society, and a Christian society (as the Church is, and is supposed to be) we would do well to ensure that our liturgy is done well. Ratzinger writes, “Worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world.” But what is the right kind of cult? The right kind of worship? How, are we to know what type of praise is fitting to God? Ratzinger does not mince words when he describes the problem of knowing how to worship correctly:
“Worship is the attempt to be found at every stage of history to overcome guilt and bring back the world and one’s own life into right order. And yet an immense feeling of futility pervades everything. This is the tragic face of human history. How can man again connect the world with God? How is he supposed to make valid atonement? The only real gift man should give to God is himself. As his religious awareness becomes more highly developed, so is his awareness that any gift but himself is too little, in fact absurd becomes more intense.”
We are left in a paralysis between the knowledge that even all we have, including ourselves is too little to atone for and justify us before God, and the knowledge that we desire to atone and bring into right order our lives and the world around us. In this moment, we know that we cannot redeem ourselves, for as Paul reminds us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” But how then, are we able to dare to say that we have liturgy? How are so bold to claim that we worship correctly? Are we deluded into participating in a mere self-affirmatory ritual?
No, emphatically, we are not. Ratzinger succinctly summarizes the long tradition of the Church on why we are able to offer fitting worship by reference to its institutional and relational character. “Liturgy,” writes Ratzinger, always, “includes some kind of institution…[and] implies a real relationship with Another, who reveals himself to us and gives our existence a new direction.” The fundamental law of liturgy is that it is not merely or even primarily a human action, but rather an action in which we are able to participate. Baptism, which imparts the character which allows one to love God through the virtue of charity, makes the one baptized a fitting participant in the liturgy through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. As Ratzinger summarizes, “This, then, was seen as the Christian faith’s great gift: we know what right worship is.” When a Christian exercises this power, he does so as one remade in the image of the Son (“a son in the Son”) and therefore participates in the Son’s own worship toward the Father at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, “man himself cannot simply “make” worship,” but rather all true worship is truly taught to us by the Spirit. Because of the implicitly relational and institutional nature of all true Liturgy men should not, of their own accord change the Liturgy or do anything against its true spirit. This provides us with a warning about creating our own Golden calves (self-generated liturgy) in order to not have to “cope with the [seemingly] invisible, remote, and mysterious God,” and make Him instead something suitable for our own use.  This does not rule out, of course legitimate growth in the understanding of and praxis of the liturgy, but we must always ensure that the spirit of the Liturgy is maintained. This is accomplished by the faithfulness to the Church’s magisterial teachings about the Liturgy. All Christians should develop an attitude of service to liturgy, rather than the unfortunate attitude which makes them its master.
A true son of the Church and a father to its members Ratzinger wants his readers to fall in love with the Liturgy for their own sake and for the sake God’s glory. If man falls in love with the Liturgy, that is to say, he has learned to follow its Spirit and made this Spirit his own, he will always be at its service and thus fitting praise will be given to God, and the sanctification of man will be accomplished for all eternity. Authentic participation in the Liturgy is the highest act of man; it is the ultimate fulfillment of his human potential. It is the only human action which endures into eternity itself. The liturgy does not cease with death for the faithful servant, but continues eternally because it is a participation in the action of communion within the Blessed Trinity – heaven itself.
Ratzinger, Josef Cardinal. The Spirit of the Litrugy. Translated by John Saward. San Franciso: Ignatius Press, 2000. P. 21
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 Rom 8:26, NABRE
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