I've been starting the last few days to prepare for a class I'm taking this Fall, Theology of the Sacraments. I've been personally involved in liturgical matters for many years, as student, presider, lector, extraordinary minister. However, as I begin some reading, I've started to have a new appreciation for the source and summit of our faith.
Then along comes yesterday's gospel reading... Martha, Mary and the one thing needful. How perfect!
"As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."
This gospel reading puts the focus of our worship and our lives where it really belongs... on being with Christ. We need to hear this again and again.
I was taught early on at (Lutheran) seminary that liturgy meant "the work of the people." Liturgical reform was seen by some as if lay folk were storming the Bastille of clergy dominated rites and re-taking their rightful place as the focal point of the Church's public worship.
Liturgy... of the people, by the people, for the people.
For Christians in general and for Catholics in particular that word "liturgy" by the mid 20th century had come to mean the cultic acts of public worship, the pious exercises God's people engage in communally in worship and praise of God.
Pope Pius XII sensed the need to point the Church toward a deeper understanding of liturgy with his encyclical Mediator Dei. There he said that essential liturgy was not just our actions. It is the extension of Christ's saving presence as High Priest into our world. An important message. However, that early 1950's reminder was soon overtaken and swamped by the current events of the Second Vatican Council.
Turn the altars around!
Anoint the lay folk to take over roles previously reserved to clergy!
Make the language spoken intelligible and every-day so the people can "relate!"
Rightfully, the Vatican II Council pointed once again to active, full and conscious participation in the liturgy as one goal among others. Indeed, many of these changes rendered valuable service to a Church in sore need of reform.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think we need to turn back the clock. However, I also don't think the Reform can progress much further going forward without a much-needed Reform of the Reform.
The zeal for immedate reform in the wake of Vatican II seems to have obscured the importance of Pius XII's statement. Two other important elements of worship only now, a generation later, can be rediscovered, unpacked and fully appreciated.
Looking again at Pius XII's statement and the ancient sources it seems to me that the word "liturgy" really has two additional and slightly different foci. The word leiturgeia was used most commonly in the ancient world to reflect the work done on behalf of another.... public service, if you will, whether that be civic, political or religious duties. The focus of liturgy rightly belongs on Christ's priestly work and on others, not on us.
One of the "others" we focus on is God Himself. As Pius XII said, true worship is Christ-o-centric. It comes from Christ and remains centered on his salvific work as our great High Priest. The priesthood and accompaning sacramental ministries all turn back toward this one point, the source of all grace and all life who is that greatest of all High Priests. He mounted the altar of the Cross and gave himself for us. This is where we need to aim our worship, and not at the lower (but admirable)goals of "relevance" and "intelligibility."
A counter-balancing facet keeps this turning upward from becoming some sort of inward-turning introspective, convoluted maze, unrelated to the world at large. The "for other-ness" of liturgy also means that the entire assembly is called to worship and serve the living God in order to help bring life to the world.
We're not here in Mass to make ourselves feel good, or be affirmed or even to be "strengthened for service," All of those results may be helpful by-products of our liturgical involvement. We are really there on behalf of another or really LOTS of others... to help make the salvation which Jesus Christ won for us more real in its salvific effects in the world.
We really need both elements of "for-otherness" to make liturgy work right.
The high-priestly work of Christ made present in and for the world. What could be better? What could be more needful?