Visus est ut maior partus hominibus viverent ab appetitio aliter ac intellectio
-Speroque redimire eos cum gratia Dei
Sunday, November 30, 2008
The Importance of Liturgy
I was recently reading excerpts from a book titled, "God is Big. Real Big!" by Peter Dresser. The man can't write for jellybeans, but I have to explain the context of my discovery. I was reading about the recent controversy in Australia over the South Brisbane church of St. Mary's and their having been threatened with excommunication by the archbishop-down-under. Personally, I'm quite happy to see people being informed that there are actions and beliefs that do, in fact, make you non-Catholic (such as using invalid baptismal formulae for dubious reasons). Those wonderful folks have a liking for this Fr. Dresser (I believe he is the associate pastor) and his ingeniously titled book which is supposed to make Catholicism, no joke, appetible for "educated Catholics" (I, speaking as a Catholic with a college degree, do not find anything that appeals to my "education" by condescending to me with platitudes about how "big" God is, as if He were some giant stuffed teddy bear).
Nevertheless, there was an important point in his book that I don't think Fr. Dresser understood quite well enough, and I will quote what he said: "Praxis > Orthopraxis > Orthodoxy"
Of course, for Fr. Dresser, this means that he can do whatever he wants because his own actions don't need to be informed by any other standard. However, there is a deeper and more important, very Catholic, truth to be gleaned from that formulation. One word: liturgy.
There is a liturgical principle that "lex orandi, lex credendi" - the law of prayer is the law of belief. The liturgy is a cosmically important act which brings heaven down to earth and, almost more importantly, earth to heaven. The rites and significant actions performed symbolize and accomplish this very deed. They also speak to what the community believes. But is it a transference from belief to liturgy?
It think Fr. Dresser, amazingly, is on to something quite important - much like Caiaphas, but who's counting? Liturgy began not in creedal statements which became enmeshed in ritual, but in the praxis of Jesus Christ Himself. Even older, in the Jewish Law, the ceremonial precepts gave structure to life that arose out of the revealed words of God. While one shouldn't give precedence to praxis over doctrina, it is amazingly the case that both are indispensably linked. It is the same case as the sacramental principle of the Incarnate Word. As human beings, we encounter God through material media, through actions and ritual, and God Himself used these to encounter us when He took flesh.
The liturgy in the Catholic Church arose from the primal praxis of the apostolic community, who in turn received these rituals and practices from Christ. We already find a rich liturgical life in Acts of the Apostles, where the Apostles and their communities prays at fixed times and communally worship on Sundays. It is interesting to note that Scripture arose from liturgical usage; the Gospels were liturgical books to be read at communal worship, making Jesus present through the memoirs of the apostles.
The early Church Fathers had no qualms in refuting heretics by citing the ancient liturgies, where the words spoken at the Eucharist or other sacraments rebuked their errors. The earliest creeds we have for the Church began as statements of faith professed in the sacrament of baptism. The Eucharistic liturgy was the summit of early Christian life and worship, and we find similar statements in all of the earliest manuscripts. The secrets of the sacraments were jealously guarded so as to not profane what was most sacred.
But praxis went hand-in-hand with ortho-praxis and ortho-doxy. The praxis that took precedence was the praxis of Jesus, not the praxis of Joe Bagofdonuts. This remains the "rule" of the Church, leading to orth-praxis as it was passed on in apostolic succession as Tradition. Ortho-doxy was always tied to the praxis as the end or goal of that praxis - the enjoyment of eternal life with God. Praxis always contains a statement about the intent and content of its project, and the liturgy is no exemption.