The Relationship of the Liturgy to Time and Space

Can there really be special holy places and holy times in the world of Christian faith? Christian worship is surely a cosmic liturgy, which embraces both heaven and earth. The epistle to the Hebrews stresses that Christ suffered ‘‘outside the gate’’ and adds this exhortation: ‘‘Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him’’ (13:12). Is the whole world not now his sanctuary? Is sanctity not to be practiced by living one’s daily life in the right way? Is our divine worship not a matter of being loving people in our daily life? Is that not how we become like God and so draw near to the true sacrifice? Can the sacral be anything other than imitating Christ in the simple patience of daily life? Can there be any other holy time than the time for practicing love of neighbor, whenever and wherever the circumstances of our life demand it?

Whoever asks questions like these touches on a crucial dimension of the Christian understanding of worship but overlooks something essential about the permanent limits of human existence in this world, overlooks the ‘‘not yet’’ that is part of Christian existence and talks as if the New Heaven and New Earth had already come. The Christ-event and the growth of the Church out of all the nations, the transition from Temple sacrifice to universal worship ‘‘in spirit and truth,’’ is the first important step across the frontier, a step toward the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament. But it is obvious that hope has not yet fully attained its goal. The New Jerusalem needs no Temple because Almighty God and the Lamb are themselves its Temple. In this City, instead of sun and moon, it is the glory of God and its lamp, the Lamb, that shed their brilliance (cf. Rev 21:22f.). But this City is not yet here. That is why the Church Fathers described the various stages of fulfillment, not just as a contrast between Old and New Testaments, but as the three steps of shadow, image, and reality. In the Church of the New Testament, the shadow has been scattered by the image: ‘‘[T]he night is far gone, the day is at hand’’ (Rom 13:12). But, as Saint Gregory the Great puts it, it is still only the time of dawn, when darkness and light are intermingled. The sun is rising, but it has still not reached its zenith. Thus the time of the New Testament is a peculiar kind of ‘‘in-between,’’ a mixture of ‘‘already and not yet.’’ The empirical conditions of life in this world are still in force, but they have been burst open, and must be more and more burst open, in preparation for the final fulfillment already inaugurated in Christ.

This idea of the New Testament as the between-time as image between shadow and reality, gives liturgical theology its specific form. It becomes even clearer when we bear in mind the three levels on which Christian worship operates, the three levels that make it what it is. There is the middle level, the strictly liturgical level, which is familiar to us all and is revealed in the words and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. These words and actions form the core of Christian liturgical celebration, which was further constructed out of the synthesis of the synagogue and Temple liturgies. The sacrificial actions of the Temple have been replaced by the Eucharistic Prayer, which enters into what Jesus did at the Last Supper, and by the distribution of the consecrated gifts. But this properly liturgical level does not stand on its own. It has meaning only in relation to something that really happens, to a reality that is substantially present. Otherwise, it would lack real content, like bank notes without funds to cover them. The Lord could say that his Body was ‘‘given’’ only because he had in fact given it; he could present his Blood in the new chalice as shed for many only because he really had shed it. This Body is not the ever-dead corpse of a dead man, nor is the Blood the life-element rendered lifeless. No, sacrifice has be- come gift, for the Body given in love and the Blood given in love have entered, through the Resurrection, into the eternity of love, which is stronger than death. Without the Cross and Resurrection, Christian worship is null and void, and a theology of liturgy that omitted any reference to them would really just be talking about an empty game.

In considering this foundation of reality that undergirds Christian liturgy, we need to take account of another important matter. The Crucifixion of Christ, his death on the Cross, and, in another way, the act of his Resurrection from the grave, which bestows incorruptibility on the corruptible, are historical events that happen just once and as such belong to the past. The word semel (ephapax), ‘‘once for all,’’ which the epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes so vigorously in contrast to the multitude of repeated sacrifices in the Old Covenant, is strictly applicable to them. But if they were no more than facts in the past, like all the dates we learn in history books, then there could be nothing contemporary about them. In the end, they would remain beyond our reach. However, the exterior act of being crucified is accompanied by an interior act of self-giving (the Body is ‘‘given for you’’). ‘‘No one takes [my life] from me,’’ says the Lord in Saint John’s Gospel, ‘‘but I lay it down of my own accord’’ (10:18). This act of giving is in no way just a spiritual occurrence. It is a spiritual act that takes up the bodily into itself, that embraces the whole man; indeed, it is at the same time an act of the Son. As Saint Maximus the Confessor showed so splendidly, the obedience of Jesus’ human will is inserted into the everlasting Yes of the Son to the Father. This ‘‘giving’’ on the part of the Lord, in the passivity of his being crucified, draws the passion of human existence into the action of love, and so it embraces all the dimensions of reality—Body, Soul, Spirit, Logos. Just as the pain of the body is drawn into the pathos of the mind and becomes the Yes of obedience, so time is drawn into what reaches beyond time. The real interior act, though it does not exist without the exterior, transcends time, but since it comes from time, time can again and again be brought into it. That is how we can become contemporary with the past events of salvation. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux has this in mind when he says that the true semel (‘‘once’’) bears within itself the semper (‘‘always’’). What is perpetual takes place in what happens only once. In the Bible, the Once for All is emphasized most vigorously in the epistle to the Hebrews, but the careful reader will discover that the point made by Saint Bernard expresses its true meaning. The ephapax (‘‘once for all’’) is bound up with the aionios (‘’everlasting’’). ‘‘Today’’ embraces the whole time of the Church. And so in the Christian liturgy, we not only receive something from the past but become contemporaries with what lies at the foundation of that liturgy. Here is the real heart and true grandeur of the celebration of the Eucharist, which is more, much more than a meal. In the Eucharist, we are caught up and made contemporary with the Paschal Mystery of Christ, in his passing from the tabernacle of the transitory to the presence and sight of God.

Let us go back to where we started. We said that there is, first, the level of the event of institution and, secondly, the liturgical making present, the real liturgical level. I have tried to show how the two levels are interconnected. Now if past and present penetrate one another in this way, if the essence of the past is not simply a thing of the past but the far-reaching power of what follows in the present, then the future, too, is present in what happens in the liturgy: it ought to be called, in its essence, an anticipation of what is to come. But we must not be overhasty. The idea of the eschaton, of the Second Coming of Christ, immediately comes to mind, and rightly so. But there is yet another dimension to be considered. This liturgy is, as we have seen, not about replacement, but about representation, vicarious sacrifice [Stellvertretung]. Now we can see what this distinction means. The liturgy is not about the sacrificing of animals, of a ‘‘something’’ that is ultimately alien to me. This liturgy is founded on the Passion endured by a man who with his ‘‘I’’ reaches into the mystery of the living God himself, by the man who is the Son. So it can never be a mere actio liturgica. Its origin also bears within it its future in the sense that representation, vicarious sacrifice, takes up into itself those whom it represents; it is not external to them, but a shaping influence on them. Becoming contemporary with the Pasch of Christ in the liturgy of the Church is also, in fact, an anthropological reality. The celebration is not just a rite, not just a liturgical ‘‘game.’’ It is meant to be indeed a logike latreia, the ‘‘logicizing’’ of my existence, my interior contemporaneity with the self-giving of Christ. His self-giving is meant to become mine, so that I become contemporary with the Pasch of Christ and assimilated unto God. That is why in the early Church martyrdom was regarded as a real Eucharistic celebration, the most extreme actualization of the Christian’s being a contemporary with Christ, of being united with him. The liturgy does indeed have a bearing on everyday life, on me in my personal existence. Its aim, as Saint Paul says in the text already referred to, is that ‘‘our bodies’’ (that is, our bodily existence on earth) become ‘‘a living sacrifice,’’ united to the Sacrifice of Christ (cf. Rom 12:1). That is the only explanation of the urgency of the petitions for acceptance that characterize every Christian liturgy. A theology that is blind to the connections we have been considering can only regard this as a contradiction or a lapse into pre-Christian ways, for, so it will be said, Christ’s Sacrifice was accepted long ago. True, but in the form of representation it has not come to an end. The semel (‘‘once for all’’) wants to attain its semper (‘‘always’’). This Sacrifice is only complete when the world has become the place of love, as Saint Augustine saw in his City of God. Only then, as we said at the beginning, is worship perfected and what happened on Golgotha completed. That is why, in the petitions for acceptance, we pray that representation become a reality and take hold of us. That is why, in the prayers of the Roman Canon, we unite ourselves with the great men who offered sacrifice at the dawn of history: Abel, Melchizedek, and Abraham. They set out toward the Christ who was to come. They were anticipations of Christ, or, as the Fathers say, ‘‘types’’ of Christ. Even his predecessors were able to enter into the contemporaneousness with him that we beg for ourselves.

It is tempting to say that this third dimension of liturgy, its suspension between the Cross of Christ and our living entry into him who suffered vicariously for us and wants to become ‘‘one’’ with us (cf. Gal 3:28), expresses its moral demands. And without doubt, Christian worship does contain a moral demand, but it goes much farther than mere moralism. The Lord has gone before us. He has already done what we have to do. He has opened a way that we ourselves could not have pioneered, because our powers do not extend to building a bridge to God. He himself became that bridge. And now the challenge is to allow ourselves to be taken up into his being ‘‘for’’ mankind, to let ourselves be embraced by his opened arms, which draw us to himself. He, the Holy One, hallows us with the holiness that none of us could ever give ourselves. We are incorporated into the great historical process by which the world moves toward the fulfillment of God being ‘‘all in all.’’ In this sense, what at first seems like the moral dimension is at the same time the eschatological dynamism of the liturgy. The fullness of Christ, of which the Captivity Epistles of Saint Paul speak, becomes a reality, and only thus is the Paschal event completed throughout history. The ‘‘today’’ of Christ lasts right to the end (cf. Heb 4:7ff.).

When we look back on our reflections hitherto in this essay, we see that we twice encountered—in different contexts—a three-step process. The liturgy, as we saw, is characterized by a tension that is inherent in the historical Pasch of Jesus (his Cross and Resurrection) as the foundation of its reality. The ever-abiding form of the liturgy has been shaped in what is once and for all; and what is everlasting—the second step—enters into our present moment in the liturgical action and—the third step— wants to take hold of the worshipper’s life. The immediate event—the liturgy—makes sense and has a meaning for our lives only because it contains the other two dimensions. Past, present, and future interpenetrate and touch upon eternity. Earlier we became acquainted with the three stages of salvation history, which progresses, as the Church Fathers say, from shadow to image to reality. We saw that in our own time, the time of the Church, we were in the middle stage of the movement of history. The curtain of the Temple has been torn. Heaven has been opened up by the union of the man Jesus, and thus of all human existence, with the living God. But this new openness is only mediated by the signs of salvation. We need mediation. As yet we do not see the Lord ‘‘as he is’’. Now if we put the two three-part processes together—the historical and the liturgical—it becomes clear that the liturgy gives precise expression to this historical situation. It expresses the ‘‘between-ness’’ of the time of images, in which we now find ourselves. The theology of the liturgy is in a special way ‘‘symbolic theology,’’ a theology of symbols, which connects us to what is present but hidden.

In so saying, we finally discover the answer to the question with which we started. After the tearing of the Temple curtain and the opening up of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified, do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the ‘‘image,’’ through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified. Christian liturgy is no longer replacement worship but the coming of the representative Redeemer to us, an entry into his representation that is an entry into reality itself. We do indeed participate in the heavenly liturgy, but this participation is mediated to us through earthly signs, which the Redeemer has shown to us as the place where his reality is to be found. In liturgical celebration there is a kind of turning around of exitus to reditus, of departure to return, of God’s descent to our ascent. The liturgy is the means by which earthly time is inserted into the time of Jesus Christ and into its present. It is the turning point in the process of redemption. The Shepherd takes the lost sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home.

Editorial Note: This full essay is an excerpt from: Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy: Commemorative Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2018), 67–75. Used by kind permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: The Good Shepherd mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia [detail], 5th c., taken on: 27 April 2015, taken by: Petar Milošević; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Joseph Ratzinger

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant theologians and spiritual leaders of our time. As Pope he authored the best-selling Jesus of Nazareth; and prior to his pontificate, he wrote many influential books that continue to remain important for the contemporary Church, such as Introduction to Christianity and The Spirit of the Liturgy.

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