Of late, I have been attending the Ukrainian Rite’s Divine Liturgy (an Eastern Catholic Rite, fully in communion with Rome). Not because, like Justin, Henry, the Pezzulos and others, I had a particular inclination initially to the Eastern Rite. I actually initially began going because two of my friends went there, and they have really cute babies. However, I also discovered that the awesome priest there had time to provide spiritual direction, and (he’s a married priest, which is allowed in the Eastern Rite) his wife leads an excellent choir for the Liturgy. So I’ve been attending there pretty regularly.
One thing that has struck me in about the Divine Liturgy, a thought I have about some of my favorite parishes for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, is the way in which the Mass, or Divine Liturgy, is pedagogical. In standing before God as members of the Church, we learn how to stand before God as members of the Church. Our liturgical worship of God teaches us the reality we seek through our worship: we learn to unite with God by knowledge and love, learn to participate in His Divine Life, through uniting with God by knowledge and by love, participating in His Divine Life.
In his excellent The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) states:
(W)orship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from the divine world into ours. In this sense worship... has the character of anticipation. It lays hold in advance of a more perfect life and, in so doing, gives our present life its proper measure.
This share in the world of God through the anticipatory character of liturgical worship, involves establishing a proper relationship between the Church, in her members, and God. But, this relationship, like any relationship, is not grounded in a fiat claim that it is there. “Let there be a relationship,” isn’t how a relationship happens. Rather, this relationship is built through engaging with the Other in a shared life that is confirmed by the formal articulation of the relationship.
Think about it like this: when someone makes a relationship “Insta-official” or “Facebook-official” (here’s looking at you, Taylor), that isn’t the beginning of the relationship. Rather, the relationship likely grew out of a shared life with another: conversations, coffees, drinks, dates, walks, meals, prayers, movies, adventures, car rides, etc. There was a time prior to any sort of formal announcement during which the now-couple anticipated and participated in aspects of the being a couple, anticipating their public affirmation of that.
Perhaps even more helpfully, we can look to the process of getting married. For those called to marriage, most of us will date and spend at least six months engaged before we enter the Sacrament of Matrimony with our spouse. The time of engagement, of finding an apartment that perhaps one person moves into, of consolidating finances, of discussing big questions, of changing names, of spending time with each other’s family, is a limited participation in the Sacrament, yet lacking in the fullness of the actual Sacrament. As everyone hopefully knows, the marriage isn’t the wedding, and it certainly isn’t the wedding planning or the engagement period itself. The Sacrament is the Marriage, conferred by the words and actions of the spouses, and the whole of married life is the effects of that Sacrament.
The perfection and fullness of that reality is not yet experienced, although the engagement period is measured by, and leads to, that life. The couple shares in that mode of existence (as a married couple) without yet participating in the fullness of that mode. Despite that engagement is frustrating and stressful, that participation is, in many ways, necessary and helpful to the couple because it begins to teach them about how to be married.
Likewise, the practice of Liturgy, our participation in the Sacrament of the Altar where we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, teaches us to participate in the Divine Life of God, where we “will know fully, just as [we] have been fully known.”
We learn to set aside time for participation in “Holy things” because eternity is the perpetual “now” of God, a time which is Holy. We learn to confess our sins and seek mercy so that we may put aside the dead man and be a new creation in Christ; a parallel to our life in this world, a life in which Christ has called us to become saints. We hear the revelation of God’s Word as we anticipate the revelation of the Word “standing as slain” in Heaven. We praise God now in union with the praises of the Church Triumphant before the Throne. We receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, uniting ourselves as members of His Body, so that we who have died with Christ might also rise with Him, and participate in the Divine Life of God. We unite to Christ, to God, in the Sacrament of Love now, as we will be united all the more wonderfully in Heaven.
It is so easy to zone out during Mass or Liturgy. Trust me, I’ve been there. The standing and sitting and motion and singing of the Divine Liturgy is particularly helpful for me simply because each movement and action is meant to teach, and it captures my attention well. But, how often is it so easy to zone out because we don’t consider it as meaningful? We go about our days, doing things all the time. We often aren’t paying close attention to the actions we do. Yet, when you have a crush on this woman or that man, and oh boy can you analyze it. “He texted me right away, he must like me!” “She totally walked over near my coffee shop, I wonder if that means something?”
When we anticipate the possibility of a relationship, of a shared life, with another, every little action becomes significant in pointing to that reality. Everything we observe, we dwell on, often too much, because we want to know the life we might share: we want to realize our hope. The liturgy is meant to teach us that life, to anticipate our future activity. As Russian Orthodox theologian Nicholas Afanasiev put it, the liturgy enables us to live “in empirical reality,” the experience of Divine Life in this life, for all that liturgy “does not exhaust this [anticipated] reality, for it is not of this world.”
This is why Catholics of all rites ought to take their liturgy seriously: because it is through liturgical life that we anticipate and gain practice in participating in Divine Life. For “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face;” and despite how dim that vision is now, in the shadows and dim light, we catch the revelation of eternal love.
“There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!”
(Henry Vaughan, The Night).