Perceiving Liturgical Meaning

To perceive the meaning of the liturgy does not require that one read a book of liturgical theology. It does require that one experience the juxtapositions of the liturgy in all their strength. Any participant in the assembly should, on some level, be drawn into the experience of meeting set next to week, of texts set next to the bath and next to the table, of thanksgiving intertwined with lament, and of the whole made to speak of Christ in the midst of the world’s need. The symbols and rituals should be strong enough to evoke and hold the experience of the participants in the liturgy. The crisis of the symbols should speak salvation and call for faith among those participants. The interactions of the ordo make the participants themselves part of the meaning proposed by the meeting.

Certainly a meaning is proposed to us even when the juxtapositions are lost, but it may not be a Christian meaning. When, for example, all prayer becomes thanksgiving alone, our experience of loss and failure may be shut out, and the social-critical character of the assembly may disappear. Thanksgiving alone, especially in the mouths of wealthier peoples in the world, can function as an unbroken affirmation of the status quo, needing not Christ except as a name for ourselves.  … On the other hand, when all prayer is lament, it may mirror only ourselves and our refusal of faith. Lament alone, which does not even characterize the great lament psalms of the scripture, can be blind to the created goodness of the earth and to God’s victory present in the world in the Christ of Christ. …

Furthermore, when the rituals are done with great care but there is no functional understanding of the rituals broken, the meaning may simply be a compulsive exclusion of all that is outside of the ritual. Indeed, when the word is cut loose from the meal and the preaching of the texts, or when the Sunday meeting no longer functions as an “eighth day,” there is a danger that the meaning that is proposed will be one that has too quickly closed in on itself. What Jesus Christ means will not be nearly large enough. We may lose the gentle balance between the reliable word and the taste and sight that are beyond words. We may lose the critical balance between the peaceful order of this ritual circle that we make and the gracious order of all things that only God can give.

Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), pp 163-164. ISBN: 978-0-8006-3131-4.

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Article by Andrew Doohan

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