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The Spirit of the Liturgy
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000
(232 pages; $17.95, cloth)
reviewed by Robert Hart
Well-written theology does more than educate the mind. A good theologian takes his readers by the hand and leads them up the Mount of Transfiguration, where they can see the revelation of divine glory in the human face of Jesus Christ. A good theologian helps us to encounter God, because he knows God. Though his work is too objective to indulge in autobiography, his footprints are discernable in his pilgrimage to Zion and the temple.
In The Spirit of the Liturgy Cardinal Ratzinger accomplishes this task by taking us not so much past as behind the details and rubrics of the Liturgy to the very reason for worship. The emphasis is primarily on the why of the Liturgy, and the how of the Liturgy is spoken of only from the vantage point of its source and meaning. The Liturgy is more than following a program of motions and words; it is a life in which we offer ourselves to God and render to him our logike latreia (Rom. 12:1, 2). The Liturgy itself, and the whole life that it envelops, is connected to the Incarnation of God in Christ, the ultimate revelation. Our words and actions should be faithful to the intention of doing everything the right way, but not as an end in itself; rather, for the sake of the truth and of the presence of God.
The Liturgy is written in words larger than any printed page can hold. It is written in history, the redemption history of Israel leading to the salvation history of the New Covenant. It is also written in the cosmos, for the liturgical times and seasons are reflected in the rhythms and cycles of nature. The very stars of the heavens and the seasons of the year help us celebrate the mysteries of the gospel, for sacred time corresponds with these cosmic patterns and seasonal changes.
Christ, who is both present and coming, is our true oriens, our orientation toward the rising of the sun. When Christians face east, it is not the earthly Temple Mount that we face anymore, but the risen Christ, the One who shall return. When we celebrate his nativity, his death and resurrection, the cycles of nature become the instruments of the church’s worship and of its message, the whole creation groaning and awaiting the manifestation of the sons of God.
It is right that nature should serve the Church in this way, for the creation is very good (Gen. 1:31), and mostly so because of the central fact of the Christian faith, the Incarnation. The message of the Christian faith is the message of the Word made flesh (John 1:14), whose friends could see, hear, and touch him. From the beginning of the Church, it is into this fellowship that they have called us (1 John 1:1–4).
In the chapter on sacred images, in which Cardinal Ratzinger appears to show a preference for the icons of the East (which I share), we are taught that these sacred images require “a new kind of seeing” that frees us from the limitations of the senses so that we may perceive “the interior orientation of the icon.” This “enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in Him, of the Father.” This seeing is trinitarian, for “it is the Holy Spirit Who makes us capable of seeing.”
“Only when we have understood this interior orientation of the icon can we rightly understand why the second Council of Nicea and all the following councils concerned with icons regard it as a confession of faith in the Incarnation and iconoclasm as a denial of the Incarnation, as the summation of all heresies” (an obvious reference on the cardinal’s part to 1 John 4:1f). Along these lines, he says: “The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God.” But this requires the new kind of seeing, seeing by faith.
This central truth of the Incarnation is the key to understanding Ratzinger’s thoughts about sacred space, the reservation of the Sacrament, and sacred music. All of these originate from our faith in the presence of Christ, a real and tangible presence in the world of the senses, time, and matter, but one that requires understanding of the God who is making himself known. We need the new kind of seeing, as well as of hearing and even of touching—for we come into physical contact with the Blessed Sacrament. The Liturgy brings us into the presence of the living God by means of all these earthly realities of the very good and redeemed creation.
This book is a theology of what the Liturgy is, and it makes its case for what ought to be done only in the context of the larger meaning that requires the new kind of seeing. The church’s Liturgy did not just happen, nor is it simply an evolution of man-made religion. Like nature itself, like the sacraments, like the great miracles of our salvation history, it is the work of God. It is rooted in the whole history of God’s people and of his salvation of mankind.
The book thus calls us to be faithful to the original intention, the why, of all that the Liturgy contains. It is for this reason that we should be very conservative with the Liturgy. That is, fidelity to that which has been handed down to us moves us to conserve the treasure of this great gift and not to presume that our innovations are equal or superior to that which grew from its Jewish radix in ancient times to flourish as the Liturgy of the Church. Trying to “make the Liturgy relevant” is as misleading a goal as trying to make the gospel relevant. Nothing can be more universally relevant by its nature, or more easily corrupted by man’s tools, his clever ideas and good intentions (Ex. 20:25).
By going behind the details and the rubrics, Cardinal Ratzinger does not make light of them. Indeed, it is his opponents who have been making light of these things for decades—though often not by intention. No, by going to the root of what these details and rubrics are about—the revelation of God in Christ—Ratzinger conveys the true dignity and purpose of the cosmos—the order and harmony—of the Liturgy. He brings its meaning back into focus.
As a result, it becomes clear that many foolish presumptions and practices that have become all too common and comfortable since the 1960s must die. Such things have been a problem not only for the Roman Catholic Church, but also for Christians, such as myself, in other liturgical churches of the West, making us all too lazy in our thinking. We have approached the Liturgy as less than a spiritual journey that must be rooted in the truth. Ratzinger shows us that the true “spirit of the Liturgy” is the Spirit of God, who reveals the glory of the Father in the face of Jesus Christ.
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.