The Ontological Dimensions of the Sacred Liturgy

“The Church … the communio sanctorum of all places and all times, is the true subject of the liturgy.”

Ratzinger, “The Image of the World and of Man in the Liturgy,” pg. 450

To an Adult Faith Formation Class

Who celebrates the sacred liturgy? This seems like a question with a rather obvious answer: the bishop or the priest who stands at the altar celebrates. After all, he is called the “celebrant!” The Church, however, proposes a different answer in the Catechism: “Liturgy is an action of the whole Christ” (CCC 1136), the whole body of Christ, that is, the Church. In fact, every liturgy is an act of Christ Himself, the High Priest, who alone saves mankind by His eternal act of redemption. We who are “baptized into Christ” (Gal 3:27) and have “become one body, one spirit” in Him (Eucharistic Prayer III) now share in His work of redemption by offering ourselves through Him, with Him and in Him in the sacred liturgy.

It is Christ who celebrates: already the horizons of the liturgy expand far beyond the sanctuary of our little church to encompass Gethsemani, Calvary, Christ in glory. The liturgy has a dimension of mystery, known by faith, which transcends what we can see and hear. But there is even more than that. We know that the Church does not include only those of us who happen to be alive on earth now; it encompass all the believers of past ages and all those yet to be born, “from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect” (CCC 769). Thus there is a historical dimension: the liturgy is not created anew; it is ever ongoing, handed on from generation to generation until the end of the ages. Finally, if we expand our vision even further to take in the earth, the seas, the heavens, which “proclaim the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), we see the whole created order coming together in the liturgy as its focal point. There is a cosmic dimension: we unite ourselves to Christ in self-offering, and all of creation is united in us, offered back to God. 

History, mystery, cosmos: these are “the three ontological dimensions in which the liturgy lives” (Ratzinger, pg. 451), and these three dimensions imply three basic attitudes we must take care to cultivate toward the liturgy. First, history implies development: the liturgy is a living thing, and “lives only by being developed further” (ibid). It is not static, but neither is it arbitrary, ahistorical, created out of whole cloth to suit what we imagine to be the needs of our time or group. The liturgy has a history, which we call tradition, and we must be grateful servants of that tradition if we are to celebrate the liturgy of Christ. Second, reflecting on the cosmic dimension of liturgy invites us to an attitude of participation in something far greater than us, individually or collectively. The liturgy is no one’s pet project: it is an awesome reality in which we are privileged to take part. Finally, the dimension of mystery demands an attitude of obedience, the obedience of faith. As we have seen, liturgy does not begin with our action; we are not its masters. Rather, our participation in liturgy is a grateful response to Christ’s action. If we cultivate in ourselves these three basic attitudes, we can be sure that we are celebrating the sacred liturgy of the whole Christ ad mentem ecclesiae, in union with the mind of the Church.

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