Friday, February 06, 2004

"What is the value of worship?"

One of my bright students recently posed the following, really good question for discussion:
What is the value of worship? How is that expressed (for good or ill) today?
My response was to say that worship, for a Catholic, means presenting oneself at the Sacrifice of Christ, participating in that Sacrifice, and receiving the sacrificial Victim--Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus, the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation. Obviously, one can hardly live without that: it's tied into what St. Peter says about becoming a "partaker in the divine nature" in 2 Pet. 1:4. Music, hymnody, sermon, prayers of the faithful, etc., are all secondary, when compared to that. Of course, these other things are an essential part of liturgy, and, as such, HOW they're involved is important; but more on that some other time.

By way of clarification, my student asked:
Would you say that liturgy then is the manner in which we present, participate, and recieve, or is it apart from these acts? I can see how it would be secondary either way (how is less important that what).
Again, my response was to say that liturgy--etymologically the "work of the people" in worship--is both a single collective act and yet an undertaking with many parts consisting of discrete, individual acts. Insofar as the work of the people is to "assist at Mass," as we would put it, we are assisting the priest in his work of performing the Great Sacrifice. That Sacrifice, which is one and the same Sacrifice as the once-for-all Sacrifice performed by Christ on Calvary, is the singular point of the liturgy and the one act in which the whole liturgy, as a single collective act, takes part.

The meaning of "liturgy," however, will vary from one tradition to another. Presbyterians, for example, make use of what they call a liturgy, but ritual sacrifice of any kind has no part in it. Even when they commemorate the Lord's Supper on occasion, it is only as a memorial, and so forth. Still, Presbyterians do make use of some elements that Catholics would recognize from their own liturgy. I have seen bulletins that mark the beginning of a Presbyterian liturgy with a sung "Introit," for example; and the sermon may be followed by a recitation of the Nicene or Apostles Creed; an offeratory, and general intercessions, may follow; and so forth. But these parts of the liturgy as understood by Presbyterians make up a collective act that is non-sacerdotal, non-sacrificial, and can only be described as having a very different nature that what is understood in a Catholic Mass, for example.

Ideally, no matter what the tradition, the different elements that make up the liturgy should contribute to a seamless, collective act of worship. The text we're using by Nicholas Wolterstorff in our Philosophy of Art course, Art in Action, has a very interesting Appendix in which he discusses the role of art and various aesthetic considerations in liturgy. Clearly music and ritual can assist and facilitate the act intended in the liturgy, or hinder. These questions can be of great interest, of course. What a great question for discussion!

One of the best Catholic discussions I've seen in the last year is an essay in Catholic Dossier by Joseph Fessio, S.J., entitled "The Mass of Vatican II," whose analysis of Vatican II's poistion on questions such as the role of Gregorian Chant in liturgy and whether the priest should say Mass "facing the people" may surprise some people. His paragraph on the origin of Gregorian Chant is simply amazing! But that's a topic for another day.

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