Dear Catholic Exchange:
I help teach a bible study to Evangelicals and they do not understand why Catholic service (liturgy) is so ritualistic. Why is it not modern and free form?
Dear Mr. Moore,
This is a great question and there are many ways of approaching it. I'll just touch upon a few of them, realizing that the more central issue is the sacramental nature of the Church, in which the saving action of Christ described in Sacred Scripture comes alive and effective in our lives today through the external signs, or rites, of the Church.
The liturgy of the New Covenant was instituted by Christ and entrusted to His Apostles and their successors to "do this in memory of me" (Lk. 22:19). When Christ commissioned the Apostles to evangelize, this commission included baptizing, or introducing the new converts into the life of the Church (Mt. 28:19), and teaching them to "observe all that I commanded" (Mt. 28:20), which would include participation in the sacramental life of the Church, especially doing this (i.e., celebrating the Eucharist) in remembrance of Christ. The liturgy is the legacy of Christ to His Church, and is vivified by the action of the Holy Spirit. So fidelity to the Church's liturgy down through the centuries up to the present is our participation in the ongoing mission of the Holy Spirit.
An approach I've personally found convincing is to understand the liturgy not as something we do or create, but rather as something into which we join. Bible Christians would understand that when we accept Christ, we in a sense bring ourselves into the story of the Bible, which suddenly becomes our family album. But the Bible (and the Church) would be there even if we didn't enter the pages. Similarly, the liturgy isn't about how well we sing or about how well the church is furnished or how well the pastor preaches, even though all those things are important and add to the celebration. Rather, it's about our entering into the heavenly liturgy, enjoying a foretaste of eternity. (See Catechism, no. 1090.) This heavenly liturgy is described in the Book of Revelation. Your students may well benefit from a dynamic new Catholic Bible study on the Book of Revelation entitled "Coming Soon." It's available at www.emmausroad.org.
A third approach might similarly emphasize the divine element of sacred liturgy. The Bible is both a collection of ancient human writings and at the same time the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Our Lord Himself is both fully human like us in all things but sin, but also fully divine. The same principal applies by analogy to the sacred liturgy. The human dimension is important, and some inculturation — taking into account cultural, language, and ethnic differences — has a place. After all, each of us needs to "connect" with the liturgy so as to fully and actively participate in the saving work of Christ that's taking place on the altar. But at the same time, the liturgy is primarily a work of the Holy Trinity. Just as we can't save ourselves, we can't concoct our own liturgical "potions" or services that will bring to us divine grace. Christ has already given us the blueprint for this, and it is up to us to receive the sacred rites, not create them. It seems to me such an approach demonstrates the Catholic affirmation of God's sovereignty and the primacy of divine grace, which Evangelicals would appreciate.
United in the Faith,
Catholics United for the Faith
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