Representation and Participation in the Sacred Liturgy

“The concept of representation, of standing in for another, which affects all levels of religious reality and is thus also important in the liturgical assembly in particular, is one of the fundamental categories of Christian faith as a whole.”

Ratzinger, “The Regensburg Tradition and the Reform of the Liturgy,” pg. 473

To an Adult Faith Formation Class

We have spoken already in this class about the cosmic dimensions of the sacred liturgy. The liturgy is a transcendent and ongoing reality, one which exists before us and does not originate with us; it is, in fact, Christ’s own action in which we are privileged to participate. Furthermore, this action stretches beyond the boundaries of our particular congregation to incorporate the Church spread throughout the world, the Church of history, in all ages and places, and the Church in glory, united in adoration of the mystic Lamb. It even incorporates the rest of God’s creation, “heaven and earth and the seas and all that is in them”  (Ps 146:6), insofar as they are made to “declare the glory of God” (19:1) and do so when we lend them our voices.

This cosmic dimension of the liturgy introduces a very important concept: “the concept of representation, of standing in for another” (pg. 473) In the sacred liturgy, each of us has a role to play. We come before God as we are, but in the liturgical action, we also come to represent much more than ourselves. The priest, as you know, stands at the altar in persona Christi capitis, “in the person of Christ the head” of the Church. When I celebrate Mass and say the words of Christ, “this is my Body,” it is Christ who celebrates, Christ who speaks through my voice. 

Likewise, all of you have a representative role to play. The Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom sings this profound hymn before the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer: “Let us, who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving trinity, lay aside all worldly cares, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Christ is offering Himself to the Father invisibly in the sacrifice of Holy Mass. Your part, like the cherubim, who surround the throne of God and chant his praises, is to adore and praise His majesty, singing the thrice-holy hymn, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, in union with “all the hosts of heaven in whose acclamation the whole Church, redeemed mankind, can sing in unison because of Christ, who connects heaven and earth with each other” (pg. 475).

And what if you can’t sing? That’s why we have a choir, which “is itself part of the community and sings for it in the sense of legitimately represent it or standing in for it … Through its singing everyone can be led into the great liturgy of the communion of saints” (pg. 473). Whether you prefer to sing or listen at any given moment, then, you are doing the most essential thing: uniting your prayer with that of the priest, the people, the saints and angels, the one prayer of adoration of the thrice-Holy God. 

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