The Unsurpassable Greatness and Glory of the Sacred Liturgy (Part I)
This is part one of a two part essay on the relationship between the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Divine Office, and how together they form the whole of the Sacred Liturgy in all its greatness and glory.
In the Prologue of the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope St John Paul II we read that, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life (CCC, 1).” This was the goal from the very beginning. Man was created not only to know God, but to be intimately united to Him – to share in His own Divine life.
We must ask, what could man do, having received such beneficence from his Creator? What could he possibly render to God for his plan of the sheer goodness? The answer can be summed up in one word: praise. In the words of St Paul, for man to remain in the favor of God, he had only to “live for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:12).” Irenaeus has famously said, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” And a man fully alive is one who, knowing he has nothing commensurate to offer for God’s gifts, gives glory to God for all things. In other words, the glory of God is a man who lives his entire life with his hands extended in praise of the God who has fashioned him from the dust, blessed him with His own image, and made him to share his own divine life.
However, we know that this was not the end of the story of Adam and his children who came after him. Having forgotten all his benefits, Adam failed to bless the Lord. He cast aside God’s commandment concerning the Tree of Life and after failing to repent, was excommunicated. Yet, in an act of mercy and in the fullness of time, the Word of God became man and dwelt among us – a “faithful high priest in the service of God,” not only to “make expiation for the sins of the people (cf. Hebrews 2:7)” that “we might escape from corruption that is in the world because of passion” (cf. 2 Peter 1:4), but in order that we “become partakers of the divine nature”(cf. 2 Peter 1:4, CCC, 460) and ascend to heavenly glory.
The new Adam assumed what was ours in order to make us share in what was His. Echoing the Church Fathers, St Thomas Aquinas said, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods (Opusc. 57:1-4, quoted in CCC, 460).”
What does this have to do with the unsurpassable greatness and glory of the Sacred Liturgy? Well, if this is in fact true – that we are men made to be gods in Jesus Christ – then surely God has supplied the means for this to become a lived reality in the lives of His children. Considering the weakness of our flesh along with our concupiscence, he knows that we need all the help we can get! Thanks be to God that our Lord has not asked of us anything for which He has not already supplied the means. Indeed, we have been richly provided for. But how exactly? What are the means God has provided in order that we might attain the glorious end for which we have been created?
First, it must be said that Jesus Christ and His most precious Cross is the all-sufficient means. He has “reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross… in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him (Colossians 1:20, 21).” By means of His death on the cross, our Lord has made infinite satisfaction for our sins and has accomplished our salvation. Nevertheless, He left to “His own beloved Spouse the Church, a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, that would re-present the bloody sacrifice offered once on the cross,” applying its fruits to all who partake worthily of the sacred species (Mediator Dei, 71). In other words, the full effect of the sacrifice of Christ comes “into complete possession of the souls of men” only through the Holy Eucharist, for “it is necessary that men should individually come into vital contact with the sacrifice of the cross, so that the merits, which flow from it, should be imparted to them (Mediator Dei, 77).”
“The august sacrifice of the altar is, as it were, the supreme instrument whereby the merits won by the divine Redeemer upon the cross are distributed to the faithful (Mediator Dei, 79).” This sacrifice is one and the same with that of Calvary. Stated plainly, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the only difference being the manner in which it is offered.
The faithful come to Mass then not simply to witness this sacrifice, but to participate in it by offering themselves in union with the priest. In doing so, we become with Christ “this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim.” Offered “through him, and with him, and in him,” it is us who are “borne by the hands of the holy angel to the altar on high in the sight of the divine majesty” so that all of us who participate in the sacrifice of the altar may receive the body and blood of Christ in place of our meager offerings of bread and wine. In this way the work of our redemption is accomplished and the merits of the Cross are individually applied to man. For when we offer our bodies as a spiritual sacrifice, we are united with the holy oblation of our Lord and receive from Him “every grace and heavenly blessing.” For what is holy communion, but the great exchange through which Jesus Christ takes what is ours and gives us what is His.
And so we ask again, what could man do? What could he possibly render to the God who not only created him but even more wonderfully restored him to new life?
Stay tuned for part two in which we will discuss how the Divine Office extends the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and makes it possible for man to again live for the praise of God's glory.