Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Per Ipsum Et Cum Ipso Et in Ipso

Some Random Thoughts

In the past few days, I have been reading more and more about Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Christianity in general, and so far, it has proven to be time very well spent. As a Roman Catholic, I am used to ‘concrete’ answers: things like the torments of hell and the degrees of heaven have been the subject of much speculative theology in Catholicism. For the Eastern Christians, however, there is a deeper sense of mystery about the things around us.

As Catholics, we are taught to believe that everything Christ did while on earth had a purpose, and therefore, are worthy of imitation. Thus, we follow His commands to disdain worldly pleasures in the quest to find spiritual perfection. We are obedient, or at least try to be, and are bound to worship Him in the Eucharist. Now, the Mass and the Divine Liturgy are essentially the same thing—but the modes in which the truths of the faith are expressed in both are so wildly different and far from each other that each is basically its own animal. Both major strands of Christianity—the Latin and Greek rites—believe the Eucharist to be the fons et culmen of the spiritual life. And how could it not be? It was, after all, instituted by Christ Himself, and it is Christ Himself that we celebrate, and celebrates (in the person of the priest), in the liturgy.

So what does it mean to imitate Christ? The answer lies in the Mass itself, I think. There can be no greater joy than to know that God is with us always in the most holy sacrament of the altar; this we believe to be undeniable and incontrovertible truth. I think what we need to remember most of all is that this act of divine condescension is not just the legal result of a promise made by Our Lord some two thousand or so years ago; rather, it is Our Lord Himself who takes delight in doing this action. The meeting between God and man is the most wondrous thing that can happen in this universe; as Gerardus van der Leuw once said (I paraphrase), it is the primary action to which our counter-action is naturally directed and without which we remain merely marionettes—a slave to strings, a puppet, incapable of moving independently of itself.

To imitate Christ, then, is more than merely doing a certain set of things; on the contrary, to imitate Our Lord, we must become the faith itself.

So what does it mean when we say that the Mass is the saving action of God projected through time and space? I often think that Western Christianity seems to suffer from a limited perspective of salvation history—we are stuck in the crucifixion alone—much to the detriment of other events in Our Lord’s earthly life. Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, holds that salvation does not come merely from the passion and death of Christ alone; for them, we are saved not by what He did—but by Who He was: God. We must remember that the Christian religion is primarily an encounter with a Person, and only secondly, and in an infinitely lower rung, Christendom (that is, global politics and worldviews). For the Easterners, Christ was the very real epitome of salvation history. So in the Divine Liturgy, they celebrate not only the crucifixion, which is the obvious coup de grace of the whole ordeal, but also the events of the Old Testament: when God appeared as a pillar of fire to Moses, when He led the Israelites to freedom in the crossing of the Red Sea, and when He brought the walls of Jericho crumbling into dust and ashes..

One of my favorite parts of the entire Mass, Tridentine or Novus Ordo, is the final acclamation, otherwise known as the part when the priest chants the words ‘Through Him, with Him, in Him….’ It’s strange, but I only realized the significance of those words now. When the priest chants those words, he is not so much recalling a past event—a mere psychological phenomenon—but confessing a certain truth as well: that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the Ages, the Ineffable, Who continues His work of salvation even now. He is the same God Who led the Israelites out of Egypt, Whose power brought down the might of nations, Who took flesh and dwelt amongst men, Who died the most ignominious death on the Cross, Who will come to judge the quick and the dead in the fullness of time. He is the same Jesus before Whom John the Divine and the patriarch Moses hid their faces from in the face of His glory.

The name Jesus means ‘God saves’, and there could be no better name to give the Savior of the world. I am a firm believer in the concreteness of the Mass as a propiatory sacrifice and as a commemoration of Calvary, but we must rediscover above all a sense of the longue duree because only then will we see the fullness of the glory of Our Lord and the sublimity of God’s plan of salvation. Gloria tibi, Domine, Gloria tibi!

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