If you’ve never been inside a Catholic Church before, the first time you walk in you may be struck by many sights, smells, and sounds which seem out of place with the modern world. You may notice furniture like the Altar, Ambo (Lectern), or presider’s chair that are placed prominently. You might see sacred artwork or stained glass windows which show Biblical or Saintly images; and hopefully you’ll notice the Crucifix and a Tabernacle (marked by the red vigil light, always burning so that we might remember Christ is present here.) You might hear sacred music which would take on a variety of forms, from Gregorian Chant to hymns to modern praise and worship music; and, depending on the occasion, you might even smell incense burning (rising, as our prayers do, to God.)
All of these things – and the architecture of the Church building itself – are meant to help us see that the work done by all in the Church – also known as the liturgy(which literally means ‘work of the people’) – comes from God and is directed to God. It’s meant to give us a sense that we entering into a whole other world – because in a very real sense, we are. God is trying to raise us up to share in all that He is, so every liturgical celebration that takes place in a Church is meant to be a feast full of power and beauty:
“Feasts of the Father who created us- that is why the gifts of the earth play such a great part: the bread, the wine, oil and light, incense, sacred music, and splendid colors. Feasts of the Son who redeemed us- that is why we rejoice in our liberation, breathe deeply in listening to the Word, and are strenghtened in eating the Eucharistic gifts. Feasts of the Holy Spirit who lives in us- that is why there is a wealth of consolation, knowledge, courage, strength, and blessing that flows from these sacred assemblies.” -YouCat 170
When I wrote last week about the Sacraments, I tried to explain how each of the Seven Sacraments is a moment where we encounter Christ – a divine appointment. This is true because in each of these celebrations, what we see, hear, and smell reflects a deeper unseen reality: that of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For example, when a person is Baptized, we see water being poured over their head as the Trinity is invoked (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit), and at the same time, God is washing away their sin – both original and any they may have committed since reaching the age of reason. We are baptized into the death and the resurrection of Jesus; just as we are forgiven in Reconciliation by what He did on the cross, nourished in the Eucharist by the Body He gave for us (I think you get the picture.) For this reason we say that “Every liturgy… is an Easter in miniature.” (YouCat 171)
While Liturgy can go beyond them – there can be many other prayers and celebrations such as the Liturgy of the Hours (a routine of prayer that priests and religious pray alone or in a group each day) – most of the time when we’re speaking of ‘liturgy,’ we think of the Sacraments. The Church has seven Sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick), each one given to us by God and either instituted by Christ or elevated to the dignity of a Sacrament by Him. Each one offers sensible signs by which we can encounter God – water, bread, wine, oil, light, incense – helping us to see, hear, touch, and experience Christ. These were entrusted to the Apostles and handed on by them, to build up, nourish, and perfect the Church through those successors of the Apostles (bishops) and their assistants (the priests and deacons) who administer and share the Sacraments with us.
Two final things are important to note here: first of all, the Sacraments are a gift, but they are not magic. While there is great grace offered to us in each Sacraments, it is offered and not imposed. It is possible to go to Mass, receive Jesus in the Eucharist… and to the same person you offered a sign of peace a few minutes earlier, you’re offering a different sign (much less polite) while trying to get around them in the Church parking lot. There are many who go to Mass every week and see no change in their hearts or lives, but this isn’t because God isn’t offering us grace… it’s because some are not choosing to receive it. This is the response of faith that is needed in each moment of our spiritual lives. It is through our faith in Christ – and the understanding that He is acting in the Liturgy – that these Sacraments can transform us more and more into the people He made us to be. Second, the effectiveness of a Sacrament is not dependent of the holiness or worthiness of the minister. God gives His grace to us whether the priest or deacon is a saint or a notorious sinner… the way in which God’s grace is passed on is His free gift to us. If you think about it in both cases, it is a question of God neither forcing Himself upon an unwilling heart (needing faith to work in us), nor withholding Himself from us because of the fault of others.
God wants to meet us and to give Himself to us in the celebrations of the Church. He wants to transform us, and in the liturgy we come to know that He holds nothing back:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness… by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.” -2 Peter 1:3