The Liturgy is the Easter Story's Proper Setting

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Christian liturgy as “the participation of the people of God in ‘the work of God’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1069). It further states that “through the mystery of Christ, our redeemer and High priest continues the work of redemption in, with, and through his Church” (Ibid.). There are three aspects to Christian liturgy: the celebration of divine worship, the proclamation of the Gospel, and active charity (CCC, §1070). These three aspects also summarize the mission of Christ. Christ came into the world to do the work of God (John 17:4). Christ is our High Priest who continues to plead our cause before the throne of grace (Heb 7:25). In his public ministry on earth Christ had constant solicitude for God’s people through his works of healing and charity. Christ is thus, the priest par excellence, the one who continues to do the work of God. Hence, the liturgy is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ.

But the liturgy is also the work of the Church, the body of Christ. In the liturgy, the body of Christ, head and members, give full worship to God. “It follows then,” says Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium that “every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others” (§7). Echoing both Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Benedict XVI asserts that:

The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (Kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable” (Deus Caritas Est, §25).

As already indicated the issue we seek to investigate is that of the extent to which the fact of the Good News proclaimed in the liturgy has a formative impact on the lives of the community and of the individual Christian. I will begin by taking a look at some scriptural passages which occur regularly in the post-Easter Sunday lectionary, especially John 20: 19-31 and Luke 24: 13-35. Some aspects of the post-Easter lectionary impressed me more deeply this year than they had done in the previous years. Here are some points of interest from the lectionary.

First, as should be expected, the Gospel readings of the first three Sundays of Easter are devoted to the post-resurrection appearances of the Risen Christ. Secondly, aside from the account of the initial appearance of the Risen Lord on the morning of the resurrection or of the narrative of the empty tomb, the other accounts of the resurrection occur within a community gathering which had some liturgical undertones. In John 20:19-31 we have an account of two appearances to the disciples gathered in a group. In the first appearance (John 20: 19-25) all of the apostles are present except for Thomas (Didymus) who is inexplicably away.

This encounter takes place, according to the Evangelist, on the evening of the very day of the resurrection. On this occasion Jesus shows the disciples his arms and his pierced side as proof of identity. He invokes his peace on them, gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit and gives them the power to forgive sins or to refuse to do so, all in his name. The gospel makes a point of stressing the absence of Thomas at this first meeting. When Jesus appears again a week later Thomas was present. He, Thomas, had been told about the first appearance of Jesus to the group the first time. He had doubted the tale because it made no sense. He would only believe that Jesus was indeed alive when and if he saw “the marks of the nail in his hands” and put his finger “in his side.” Otherwise, he said, “I will not believe” (John 20:24).

When Jesus appears a week later and after the initial greetings, he goes straight to the matter and invites Thomas to do just as he had vowed to, that is “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” William Barclay notes that Thomas had made a mistake. His mistake was as follows:

He withdrew from the Christian fellowship. He sought loneliness rather than togetherness. And because he was not there with his fellow Christians he missed the first coming of Jesus. We miss a great deal when we separate ourselves from the Christian fellowship and try to be alone. Things can happen to us within the fellowship of Christ’s church which will not happen to us when we are alone.[1]

The second appearance focuses on Thomas. Where could he have gone? Could it be that when they heard that Jesus had risen from the dead, he, Thomas, went out on his own to seek him out? Perhaps he went to the houses of Jesus’ friends, to the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary in Bethany, or to the village where they ate the Last Supper. He was seeking Jesus alone while Jesus was with the assembly of his followers. Could it be that this is the Evangelist's way of telling the reader that encounter with the risen Lord is something that happens not so much in the privacy of the individual’s religious initiative and practice as much as in fellowship with the community of believers? So the following Sunday Thomas is there fellowshipping with the rest of the community. Jesus appears as usual and Thomas experiences the desire of his heart and exclaims, “My Lord and my God” (v. 28). Next time around he would not lightly absent himself from the community Sunday assembly.

There are many people like Thomas in today’s society who are seeking for the Lord in their own private hearts and on their own resources outside the worshipping and believing community. They try to draw near to God by engaging in all sorts of self-imposed devotional exercises. Religion, they say, is personal, and they are right. But religion is also communitarian, and this they need to learn just as Thomas did. One often hears people say, I read the Bible, I am a spiritual person but I am not religious. This means that they do not belong to any worshipping community, that is, a community that celebrates the sacraments.

One also sees some theologians who do not go Mass or who seldom attend any liturgical celebrations. They theologize from presuppositions which are sometimes no less secular than their non-believing counterparts who study religions as a psychological reality. Many people today who are biblical scholars are careful not to link the Bible to faith. They are disdainful of the Church and its teaching authority when it speaks in any authoritative way on the Bible, forgetting, as St. Jerome said long ago, that the Bible was born in the womb of the Church. And even though the Bible stands in judgment over the Church as the Second Vatican Council says, the true meaning of the Bible can only be evident within the believing and worshipping community. In the liturgy, the Christ takes time to interpret to his people “the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk. 24; 27). Here in the breaking of the bread and in the other sacraments he becomes present again to his people, in sacramental form.

The point here is that although it is true that proclamation is logically prior to worship there can be no deep faith aside from worship. As the scripture passages above attest, it is in worship that we are exposed in a most intense way to the narratives that shape our lives as Christian believers. From worship to worship we re-tell our story or rather the story of God and of God’s dealings with us. We do not just retell it, we re-enact it in dramatic fashion both to delight God but also to memorialize it.

In a true and real way, what we hear ever so often becomes us, takes hold of our imagination and impels us to try to live morally upright and pious lives. “In liturgy—which is community remembering—we recall in celebration the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in such a way that we appropriate more deeply our own present identity. In doing so, we enjoy the present experience of God.”[2] Christian liturgical celebration always consists of word and sacrament. Both are indeed two sides of the same coin.

It is the Christian belief that Scripture as the word of God is a revelation of God’s intention to save. God’s salvific intent is absolutely and supremely made manifest in Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is the story of God who so loves the world that even when “we sinned and lost his friendship,” he did not abandon us to death but continues to help us all to seek and find him (see: The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer), a God who at the appropriate time sent his Son that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

In the liturgy Christians recall and celebrate this fact. In the liturgy, the scripture as proclaimed is not just a retelling of the past but an invitation to all Christians to enter into God’s continued act of salvific benevolence in human history and to strive to further it through political commitment, that is, through active engagement in and with the world for its own good and for the redemption of all humanity.

The Good News therefore lets us into the mind of God, as it were. The letter to the Ephesians talks of the mystery hidden long ago but revealed in our own time. The essence of this mystery is that God in Jesus is reconciling all humanity with himself and with each other. The Christian who listens to and celebrates the word of God in the liturgy is bound to come to knowledge of God’s intention for the world. He or she is bound to be a disciple. The biblical narratives and their liturgical commentary are intended to reveal the basic meaning and direction of Christian living as discipleship.

As William Spohn said some time ago, a disciple of Jesus is one who takes seriously what Jesus took seriously. And what did Jesus take seriously? Jesus took God seriously. He was saturated with the cause of God: “Zeal for your house consumes me” (John 2:17). He made the cause of God his own to the point where he willingly paid the supreme price for it. Jesus took human beings seriously, all human beings, including the outcast, children, women and men, the sick and the infirm, the rich and the poor. Jesus took reconciliation between God and humanity seriously. Forgiveness of sins was a major factor of his preaching and work. Jesus took life seriously and did everything he could to safeguard and restore it. The Good News as proclaimed in the liturgy brings these realities into sharp focus for us and invites us to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

Again, the liturgy is not the only place or setting where we can read the story of Jesus and of God’s revelation to humanity. Anyone can pick up the Bible and read all these stories. The problem here is that the Bible without the liturgical backdrop is little more than another book or collection of stories. As Benedict XVI pointed out, the story of God or of Jesus without a liturgical component risks being the story of another hero or even a fairy tale:

If people forget God it is partly because the Person of Jesus is often reduced to that of the figure of a wise man and his divinity weakened, if not denied. This manner of thinking is an obstacle to understanding the radical newness of Christianity, because if Jesus were not the Only Son of the Father then God did not come to visit human history either. We only have human ideas about God.[3]

In the liturgy we get the whole deal. In other words, the liturgy as proper setting for the story of Jesus forces us to remember that we are in the presence of something radically and supremely different. It shapes us to become of the same mind and heart as Jesus. The story of God’s dealings and intentions told and retold in the liturgy shapes our imagination, sensitizes us and provides us with an angle of vision and a perspective on reality.

Let us return to Thomas “the twin” again. As already indicated his one mistake was that he had perhaps set out alone in search of the risen Jesus. When he returns to the group later on his faith was still very weak concerning the events of Easter Sunday. It is noteworthy that even before the Lord appears again to the group, his fellow disciples were already evangelizing him. He was not yet strong again in his belief, but we must not underestimate the impact that the community’s faith had on his own faith.

When the Lord came again, there was something there to build on. The point is that in the liturgy the community acts as a bridge through which we build our faith/attachment to the Lord. We all have moments of doubt and distraction which can sometimes not be dispelled by merely reading the Bible alone within the safe confines of our rooms and homes. The faith of the community proclaimed in and assented to in the worshipping community carries one along in such moments.

I had one such moment in my life as a seminarian when the anguish I felt at seeing my beloved mother dying in pain as a result of a cancer that had ravaged her formerly beautiful and energetic self. It led me to the point where I was almost became convinced by Friedrich Nietzsche, in whose work I took a particular delight in at this time, that there was no God or that if God had once existed, he was now dead.

Two things saved my faith. One was the charity of my confreres in the community and indeed of the whole community. The second was participation in community worship, especially daily Mass. Even though I was too distraught to join in community prayers and Eucharist at this time, my friends in community would not let me have my way on these occasions. They would often literally drag me to these events. Often, I chose the last and loneliest seat in the chapel. But that was enough. For, from there, I was struck by the devotion and the expressions of faith that were evident in the chapel.

Initially, I wondered what this was all about, how anyone could believe in a loving God when events all around me spoke the contrary. Things were compounded when I remembered how religious and deeply faithful my ailing mom was and how despite her cries and prayers, God was not coming to her aid. My answer came that Easter week in 1979 when in participating with the community in worship the stories of the death and resurrection of the Lord took on a different dimension. To this day, I am sure that if I had not been part of a worshipping community that took the word and sacrament seriously, I may have lost my faith.

Editorial Note: This essay was given at the June 2011 liturgy conference hosted by the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.

[1] William Barclay, the  Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of John, vol 2: ch 8-21, rev. ed. (Burlington Ontario, Canada: Welch Publishing Co. 1975), 276.

[2] Richard A. McCormick, “Scripture, Liturgy, Character, and Morality,” in Readings in Moral Theology, no.4: The Use of Scripture in Moral Theology, eds., Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 290.

[3] An address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Ecclesial Congress, June 14, 2011.

Featured Image: Anon, Doubting Thomas, c. 1190-1200; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Paulinus Ikechukwu Odozor

Paulinus Ikechukwu Odozor, C.S.Sp., is Professor of moral theology, the theology of the world church, and Africana studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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