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The Liturgy as Communal Ritual Action  
Mark E. Wedig  

Part Two of Pope Benedict XVI's Sacramentum Caritatis focuses on the Eucharist as a mystery to be celebrated. This section of the Pope's 2007 post-synodal apostolic exhortation especially reflects his comprehensive commitment and dedication to the principles of liturgical reform as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium. This article and the one that will follow in the next issue of Pastoral Liturgy® expound on Benedict XVI's particular emphasis in explaining the Eucharist as a celebration. In this issue I will delineate how the Pope stresses the meaning of the Eucharist as communal ritual action. The sacrament is best understood as an ecclesial act that is dynamic and adapting to culture and time. Viewing the Eucharist as celebrative action militates against deeming it a static reality or a thing. In the article for the July/August issue, I will address what Benedict XVI means by full participation in that liturgical action.

The Primacy of Liturgical Action
In the West, classical renderings of God's mystery often have stressed the awesome and off-putting reality of the divine that defies both human intelligibility and ordinary experience. In The Idea of the Holy (translated by John W. Harvey, University of Chicago Press, 1958), Rudolf Otto characterizes the Mysterium Tremendum as the fascinating "wholly other." For Otto, mystery, or the numinous, overshadows human living with a sense of dread and even unworthiness, accentuating the chasm between the divine and the human. And yet, Christian belief in the Incarnation challenges and changes certain classical conceptions about God's mysterious nature. Christianity does not take away the powerful awesomeness of God but emphasizes the divine as selfcommunicating. God radically enters into the human condition and continually redeems humanity through transformative experiences of sacramental reality. Basic to God's self-communication is sacramental mystery, which is the human encounter of Jesus Christ in the midst of human living. God bestows humanity with the primordial sacrament of Christ and graces our ecclesial life with specific liturgical actions that continually draw us to God through Christ and in the Spirit.

In Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship and Sacraments (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2006), liturgical theologian Nathan Mitchell underlines that God's mysterious self-communication through Christ is not so much comprehended as encountered. God's mystery meets up and intersects with our lives. Mitchell says that liturgy's principal aim is to "know and name connections between God, world, and humankind" (page 201). The metaphoric speech of liturgy, he notes, "lets the celebrating assembly recognize the body of Christ as simultaneously on and at the table. And only metaphor leads to affirming God as simultaneously incomprehensible yet incomprehensively near. Divine and human interaction is revealed in the holy juxtapositions of things, people, and places whereby the liturgy makes available God's loving connectedness to humankind.

In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI underscores that in the life of the Church, the Eucharist stands as the powerful and central mediator of God's self-communicating love. The love of God is expressed uniquely in the eucharistic action of the Church gathered in Jesus' name. It is in that context that the faithful encounter the transformative self-offering of God. Our God offers himself to humanity in the gift of Jesus' life, death, and Resurrection. That gift continuously is poured out for humankind as "a radiant expression of the Paschal Mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion" (SC, 35).

As Christians, one of the primary ways we understand God's self-gift in Christ is through the Church's liturgical action. The liturgy celebrated is a key educational resource in the life of the faithful. The lex orandi, or the law of prayer, leads the faithful more deeply into the lex credendi, or law of belief. The Pope underscores the intrinsic relationship between worship and creed wherein the Eucharist celebrated authentically will instruct the Church in the mystery of faith (SC, 34).

In SC, 35, Benedict XVI points out that the liturgical action communicates uniquely and essentially through beauty. A theological aesthetics of the liturgy is much more than its artful connotation or its proportion or form. Theological beauty is the love of God poured out and communicated to humanity that the Church experiences in the Eucharist. The splendor of God's glory exceeds all worldly beauty and can transform even death into the radiant light of the Resurrection. The beauty of the liturgical action is "an attribute of God himself and his revelation" (SC, 35). Therefore, the liturgy's intrinsic beauty is Christ himself.

Benedict XVI focuses on the symmetry between the ontological and moral beauty of the liturgy. When a faithful people become the living reality of Christ in the world, there is beauty. The appreciative value of Christ's love is achieved when the living body realizes its true purpose and form in its participation in the paschal reality of the Christ. Such conceptions militate against modern romantic notions of aesthetics that can be removed from the moral life.

Christus Totus
In SC, 36, Pope Benedict quotes Saint Augustine's sermon on the Eucharist indicating that "the bread you see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The chalice, or rather, what the chalice contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ" and "you yourselves are what you have received" (Sermon 227, 1:PL 38, 1099). The Pope is drawing a direct line between the eucharistic action and Christ's agency of that action. Moreover, he stresses that the body of Christ gathered or assembled is the principal or integral subject of the liturgical action.

Edward J. Kilmartin helps to explain the meaning of this cohesion. "Between the action of Christ and the action of the Church in the eucharistic celebration there exists an intimate organic unity. For the priestly act of the Church is based on a participation in the priesthood of Christ" (Edward J. Kilmartin, Robert J. Daly, The Eucharist in the West: History and Theology, Collegeville, MN.: Liturgical Press, 1998, p. 262). In other words, the eucharistic action is the complete work of the Christ in us. The local assembly gathered with its ministers at the eucharistic table does not stand in for Christ but is Christ. Furthermore, through and in the eucharistic action, we encounter Christ as he has ever been encountered. The Christian community's authenticity rests on its claim that Christ is as present to them now as he ever has been present to humankind.

I am fond of saying to my students that Christ died and left us a Church, accentuating that our experience of the risen Christ is discovered in our experience of the Church. The Pope highlights, in SC, 37, that the eucharistic liturgy is the action of the risen Christ and, therefore, that the locus of God's self-communication in Christ is found in the Eucharist. "The Church celebrates the Eucharistic sacrifice in obedience to Christ's command, based on her experience of the Risen Lord and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit." Such action transcends time and context and cannot be held hostage by human trend. Furthermore, such teaching is foundational to our Christian tradition.

The Art of Celebrating the Eucharist
Similar to the understanding of the intrinsic beauty of the eucharistic action in SC, 35, Benedict XVI stresses in SC, 38, that the "art" of celebrating the Eucharist is more than mere aesthetics. The art of eucharistic celebration is directly related to the full, active, and fruitful participation of all the faithful in that action, accentuating that "(t)he ars celebrandi is the best way to ensure their actuosa participatio" SC, 38. The precision, dexterity, adroitness of the community's celebration of the Eucharist leads to its full realization as the people of God and a royal priesthood. The renewal of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council returned the Church not only to the art of celebrating the Eucharist according to its ancient tradition but also elicited a proper understanding of the ministry of the eucharistic action itself. This can be seen especially in restoring the proper ministerial role of the diocesan Bishop regarding his stewardship of the local Church's liturgical life. The Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium reminds us that:

A bishop marked with the fullness of the sacrament of Orders, is "the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood," especially in the Eucharist, which he offers or causes to be offered, and by which the Church continually lives and grows . . . . Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop, to whom is committed the office of offering the worship of Christian religion to the Divine Mystery and administering it in accordance with the Lord's commandments and the Church's laws, as further defined by his particular judgment for his diocese. (Lumen Gentium, 26)

Pope Benedict recalls this renewed understanding by stressing that the bishop of the local Church is the principal liturgist of that local assembled Church, procuring the proper moderation, promotion, and guardianship of its communal ritual life. The presbyters and deacons share the presidential ministry of the bishop and share in the responsibility to carry out the art of liturgical celebration in the diocese. Yet Benedict XVI underscores that the bishop "is the celebrant par excellence with his Diocese" SC, 39. The bishop models the local liturgical life. This is why the cathedral of every diocese should exemplify the art of celebration for the presbyters, deacons, and lay faithful. The local Church should look upon the liturgical action of the cathedral church as the measure of its liturgical life.

An appreciation and understanding of the liturgical norms of the Church as articulated by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Order of Readings for Mass, and other key books as well as a comprehensive awareness and grasp of the symbolic value of the liturgy are necessary for fostering the art of celebrating the Eucharist. Here SC, 40, places great value on proper liturgical education for ecclesial communities, so that they are exposed to the rich liturgical resources that the Church provides. Ongoing programmatic education of the local Church in liturgical study necessitates exposure to the symbolic harmony of the rites, the genres, and languages, music, gestures, silence, and movement, employed in the liturgy. Too often parish adult faith formation and children's catechesis have not included mystagogical approaches to education originating in and emanating from the liturgy. Connecting the lex orandi to the lex credendi as foundational in the local community's educational pedagogies will enrich and enliven the art of celebrating.

Paying particular attention in SC, 41, to how environment and art affect the liturgical life of the Church, Pope Benedict establishes a number of principles concerning edifice and image. The first liturgical-aesthetic principle he articulates is that of unity. The sanctuary must establish symmetry and equilibrium whereby altar, ambo, chair, crucifix, and tabernacle are evenly or proportionally related. Secondly, art and architecture need to keep in mind the liturgical action for which it serves. Sacred art and architecture is to offer a fitting space for the assembly of the faithful to celebrate the mysteries of faith. Thirdly, sacred art is oriented for instructing God's people about the meaning of their faith. Pope Benedict underscores that "religious iconography should be directed to sacramental mystagogy." (SC, 41). Art and architecture serve to direct and guide the faithful's visual understanding of Christianity. Therefore, a sensitivity to the history of art on the part of pastoral leaders and in the training of seminarians is necessary to understand and impart the role that art and architecture has played in Christian formation.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship provides a complementary resource to Vatican documents for probing the theory, practice, and meaning of environment and art for Catholic worship. Built of Living Stones engenders a comprehensive ecclesiology of art, architecture, and complete liturgical environment using the resources of art history and numerous Church documents concerning the liturgy, doctrine, and canon law.

As Pope Benedict writes about the role of song in the liturgical action, he quotes from Saint Augustine's sermon that notes song as an expression of joy and love. The two-thousand year history of Christianity embodies a rich heritage and patrimony of song. Even though there is no one musical genre for the liturgical action, music nevertheless must follow the flow of worship and find integration in it. Citing Sacrosanctum Concilium and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Pope advises that the long-standing tradition of Gregorian chant in the Latin Church remains "esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy." (SC, 42).

The Structure of Eucharistic Action
Consonant with his steadfast commitment to the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council and in continuity with his reflection on the Eucharist as liturgical action, Benedict XVI in paragraphs 43-51 addresses the intrinsic unity of the communal ritual action by focusing on the variously related structures of the eucharistic celebration. Fundamental to the structures of the Mass is the inseparable Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. A seminal agenda of the liturgical renewal after the Second Vatican Council was the interrelated symmetry established between word and sacrament. The two feed off the same reality. In SC, 44, we are instructed that the bread of life comes from the two tables of word and Body of Christ.

The unalterable place of the word in eucharistic worship is emphasized in SC, 45. The presence of Christ in the scriptures ministered through the Lectionary must not be downplayed from other eucharistic presences. Benedict XVI approaches the subject of liturgical memory, often referred to as anamnesis, instructing the reader that liturgically we do not journey to the past, but we encounter Christ presently in and through the liturgical action. This is significant for our understanding of the word of God and how the scriptures speak to us in the context of communal ritual action. Furthermore, the Christ-event extends to other ministries of the word such as lectio divina and especially the Liturgy of the Hours. These other ministries of the word can help us to understand and participate more fully in the eucharistic action.

Far from being a hiatus from the liturgy, the homily is central to the liturgical action and extends the proclamation of the word of God so that the faithful may connect that word to their lives. In SC, 46, the Pope stresses that the quality of homilies needs to be improved in order to engender a deeper understanding of the word of God that, in turn, bears fruit in the lives of the faithful. Without careful preparation, adequate knowledge of the scriptures, and a theological background, the preaching will be deficient and ineffective. The catechetical role of preaching should not be downplayed, especially when the feast or the season in the liturgical year orients the Church to a particular theme in its ministry of the word.

Like the homily, the Preparation of the Altar and the Gifts is not a hiatus or an interval between the liturgies of word and sacrament. The Pope reminds us that "in the bread and wine that we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father" (SC, 47). Furthermore, the pain and suffering of the world are united with Christ. The gestures of this rite are to be simple.

SC, 48, reminds us that the eucharistic prayer is the apex of the eucharistic action and its significance needs to be emphasized. There is a great need for the faithful to develop a spirituality of the eucharistic anaphora. For them to do so, a deep appreciation of the various structures of the prayer need to developed. A theology of the liturgy demonstrates how anamnesis leads to epiclesis, which leads to intercession. Through a variety of eucharistic prayer texts, the Church provides rich examples of eucharistic discourse. Liturgical education needs to stress that the Preface and Sanctus are part of the eucharistic prayer.

SC, 49, comments on the Sign of Peace, especially in highlighting that in a world fraught with conflict, fear, and violence, the peace of Christ stands as a stark contrast to such a world. The Church has a deep responsibility to be a sign of this peace and reconciliation for the world. The serious nature of this gesture as part of the eucharistic action requires a certain restraint and sobriety in its embodiment.

Pope Benedict exhorts attention to a proper theology of the Communion Rite, so that it may be carried out according to Church norms. SC, 50, urges that the ordained (ordinary) and extraordinary ministers ensure that the theological significance of the Communion Rite be understood through correct practice. This rite, by its nature, embodies comprehensive ecclesiological significance in that the local eucharistic assembly enacts the Church's ministerial self-understanding in the postures, gestures, decorum, and ordering of its communion ministry (Mark E. Wedig, "Reception of the Eucharist Under Two Species," Rite, vol. 38 (3): 8-12).

This section of Sacramentum Caritatis and the conclusion of this article, both dedicated to the primacy of the liturgical action in the Eucharist, end by reflecting on the meaning and purpose of the Rite of Dismissal. Even though the Ite, missa estoriginated as a simple dismissal ending the eucharistic liturgy, its meaning in the history of the Mass developed to be more than a mere ritual conclusion. The eucharistic action of the communal ritual itself is linked to the Church on mission in the world. SC, 51, correlates the action in the Eucharist directly to the People of God's involvement in acts of justice, peacemaking, and reconciliation.

In conclusion, the community's understanding of the eucharistic action can be measured by the degree to which the assembly and its involvement in the world are directed toward the same end. The kingdom of God both realized and experienced in the word and sacrament becomes the Church's identity and practice in society. The primacy of the liturgical action reaches its fulfillment when the Church's ritual life and its missionary praxis are unified in lives of the faithful.

Questions for Reflection
1. Why is the eucharistic liturgy best understood as a mystery to be encountered or celebrated more than something to be understood? Related to the phenomena of encounter and celebration, why is the liturgy best understood as an action instead of a thing?

2. Pope Benedict XVI describes liturgical celebration as an art. What are the essential characteristics of an artful liturgy according to the Holy Father?

3. In Benedict XVI's examination of the structure of the eucharistic celebration, he addresses the essential relationship of word and sacrament. Explain why these two structures of eucharistic prayer cannot be understood fully without each other?

4. What is your reaction to the statement, "The local assembly gathered with its ministers at the eucharistic table does not stand in for Christ but is Christ?" Have you considered that the assembly is Christ?

5. How do you experience the risen Christ in the Church?

6. Other than the Creed, give examples of prayers in the Mass that express our belief.

7. Have you considered all creation in the bread and wine?

8. Do you see a reason for a restrained and sober offering of the Sign of Peace? How is the Sign of Peace offered in your parish? Do people continue to offer it while going to Communion?

9. How does considering the action of the Eucharist as related to the assembly's involvement in peacemaking and reconciliation efforts broaden your perception of what occurs during Mass?

Mark E. Wedig, OP,
is chair and associate professor of liturgical theology in the Department of Theology and Philosophy and associate dean for Graduate Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences at Barry University.

This is the third in a series of six articles reflecting on the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. Those using the study guide may find it helpful to read the document, which can be found online at the Vatican's web site, www.Vatican.va.

Part I: Reflecting on God's Action in the Eucharist
Part II: Each Sacrament Connects to the Eucharist
Part III: The Liturgy as Communal Ritual Action
Part IV: The Eucharist: A Mystery to be Celebrated
Part V: The Eucharist Changes the World: Effects on the Person
Part VI: The Eucharist Changes the World: Effects on Society and Culture

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