The Biblical and Heavenly Roots of the Sacred Liturgy
By: Msgr. Charles Pope.
Catholics are often unaware just how Biblical the Sacred Liturgy is. The design of our traditional churches, the use of candles, incense, golden vessels, the postures of standing and kneeling, the altar, the singing of hymns, priests wearing albs and so forth are all depicted in the Scriptures. Some of these details were features of the ancient Jewish Temple, but most all of these are reiterated in the Book of Revelation which describes the liturgy of heaven.
The liturgy here on earth is modeled after the liturgy in heaven and that is why it is so serious to tamper with it. The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly liturgy and focuses on a scroll or book which contains the meaning of life and the answers to all we seek. It also focuses the Lamb of God, standing but with the marks of slaughter upon it. Does this not sound familiar? It is the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
We do well to be aware of the Biblical roots of the Sacred Liturgy not only for our own edification but also as an answer to Protestant Christians who have largely set aside these rituals and, some of whom, criticize our use of them. Many people consider our rituals empty and vain, “smells and bells.” Some consider austere liturgical environments devoid of much ritual to be “purer,” and closer to the worship in “spirit and in truth” that Jesus spoke of in John 4.
To such criticisms we must insist that these rituals, properly understood, are mystical and deeply biblical. Further, they are elements of the heavenly liturgy since almost all of them are mentioned as aspects of the worship or liturgy that takes place in heaven. In this light it is a serious mistake to set them aside or have a dismissive attitude toward them.
With that in mind we ought to consider the Biblical references to the most common elements of Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. I place an ocassional note in Red where it seems appropriate.
Rev 1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice
that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and
in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man. In traditional catholic
parishes there are six candles on the high altar and a seventh candle is brought
out when the bishop is present.
Rev 4:6 Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne.
Rev 9:13 The sixth angel sounded his
trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the horns of the golden altar that is
Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.
Rev 4:1 and lo, a throne stood in heaven,
with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and
carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald….
Daniel 7:9 As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat;… In the sacred liturgy the Chair of the priest is prominent. But, as he takes his seat we are invited not to see Father Jones, but rather the Lord himself presiding in our midst.
Priests (elders) in Albs:
Rev 4:4 the elders sat, dressed in white
Bishop’s Miter, priest biretta –
Rev 4:4, 10 With golden crowns on their
heads……they cast down their crowns before the throne…. In the Liturgy the Bishop
may only wear his miter at prescribed times. But when he goes to the altar he
must cast aside his miter. The priest who wears the biretta in the Old Mass is
instructed to tip his biretta at the mention of the the Holy Name and to lay it
aside entirely when he goes to the altar.
Focus on a scroll (Book) The Liturgy of the Word -
Rev 5: 1 And I saw in the right hand of him
who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed
with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who
is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on
earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I
wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of
Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its
seven seals.” In the ancient world books, as we know them now, had not been
invented. Texts were written on long scrolls and rolled up.
Incense, Intercessory prayer -
Rev 8:3 another angel came and stood at the
altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the
prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke
of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel
Rev 5:7 and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;
Rev 5:8 – And they sang a new hymn: Worthy
are you O Lord to receive the scroll and break open its seals. For you were
slain and with your blood you purchase for God men of every race and
tongue, and those of every nation.
Rev 14:1 Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads… and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth.
Rev 15:3 And they (the multitude no one could count) sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and wonderful are thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are thy ways, O King of the ages! Who shall not fear and glorify thy name, O Lord? For thou alone art holy. All nations shall come and worship thee, for thy judgments have been revealed.”
Holy Holy Holy
Rev 4:8 and day and night they never cease
to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
Prostration (Kneeling) -
Rev 4:10 the twenty-four elders fall down
before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and
ever; they cast their crowns before the throne. …
Rev 5:14 and the elders fell down and worshiped - In today’s setting there is seldom room for everyone to lie, prostrate and flat on the ground. Hence, kneeling developed as a practical solution to the lack of space but amounts to the same demenor of humble adoration.
Lamb of God -
Rev 5:6 And between the throne and the four
living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had
Rev 5:11 Then I looked, and I heard
around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many
angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a
loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and
wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
Rev 5:14 And the four living creatures said,
Rev 8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh
seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (and you thought your
priest paused too long after communion?)
Rev 12:1 And a great portent appeared in
heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her
head a crown of twelve stars; 2she was with child and she cried out in her pangs
of birth, in anguish for delivery.
Happy are those called to his “supper”
Revelation 19: 6Then I heard what seemed to
be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the
sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for
the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;… And
the angel said£ to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the
marriage supper of the Lamb.”
Golden Vessels, vestments -
Rev 1:12 – And when I turned I saw seven
Rev 1:13 – and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest
Rev 5:8 – the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense
Rev 8:3 – Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, at the golden altar before the throne.
Rev 15:16 – The angels were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests.
Rev 15:17 seven golden bowls
Stained Glass -
Rev 21:10 [The heavenly city] had a great, high wall, with
twelve gates,… The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every
jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth
emerald, 20the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the
eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the
twelfth amethyst. (The image of stained glass in our Church walls is hinted at
The Sacred Liturgy as the Splendor of God’s Eternal Glory
“. . . and, I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself.” John 12:32
My earliest recollections of the Sacred Liturgy are from my home parish church, providentially named “the Church of Saint Paul.” It was a stately Gothic structure with a beautiful high altar made of Carrara marble.
There, at a young age, I knew that I was entering not just a sacred space, but what I believed to be a vision of what heaven must be like. Every Sunday the eight members of my family would pile into our station wagon and drive the short distance to the 8:00 a.m. Mass. We sat in the second row, left hand side of the main aisle, two rows in front of my grandparents. How well I remember those days!
The parish was, very much, the center of my universe at that time. And at the Sunday Liturgy, I truly felt at home surrounded by family and friends.
The Mass, then, was celebrated in Latin, though the sermon was in English. There at Saint Paul’s, I grew familiar with the responses and became transfixed by the careful, reverent actions that made up the ritual. Without being able to give voice to my feelings, I was enamored by the Liturgy. Within it, I knew that the words of the priest gave voice to the unspoken prayers of those gathered in faith. I also knew that it provided us with spiritual nourishment and strength by the power of the Holy Spirit acting through the person of the priest. And I further knew that it brought that small, yet ever so important community of believers gathered at that hour, into a gathering that had meaning well beyond a head count of those assembled.
My brothers and sisters, I gladly share these reminiscences with you as I begin my first pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, a letter dedicated to the source and summit of the Christian way of life—the Sacred Liturgy.
That early, formative experience of worshipping with the community of faith at my home parish dedicated to the great Apostle, Saint Paul, has had a lasting influence on me right up to and including these past four years in this wonderful Archdiocese, a local Church dedicated to the same Apostle to the Gentiles.
The Second Vatican Council began when I was a junior in high school. By the time it concluded, I was already in the seminary. There I had the rich grace of taking a course on the Mass by a wise and scholarly priest. With studied research and in clear terms, he guided us step by step through the Order of the Mass, carefully relating all the parts to one another to form a synthetic whole. I was captivated as I found myself being drawn more and more into the rich meaning that lies at the heart of this marvelous prayer. Indeed, I was so drawn to it that I now could not imagine my life without it. And whether it is celebrated in Latin or English, Italian or Spanish, the effect is essentially the same. The words obviously are important, but their true importance lies in the mystery by which those words are animated, inspired and inflamed.
This is the fourth year I have been here in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and the third year I have been privileged to serve as your Archbishop. During that time, I have had the wonderful opportunity of celebrating the Holy Eucharist in literally every corner of this local Church, with 164 pastoral visits to parishes, 73 school visits, celebrations on the campuses of our two Catholic universities, feast days at our Eastern Rite churches, diaconal, priestly and episcopal ordinations, confirmations and, of course, the Sacred Triduum at our magnificent Cathedral. All of these experiences have left me with the impression that our priests, deacons, religious, catechists, worship coordinators as well as the Catholic faithful in general take the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy very seriously, putting much time and personal effort into its preparation and execution. For this I am deeply grateful. This is indeed a sign of the vitality of faith that characterizes us as the Body of Jesus Christ, who remains forever our great High Priest.
At the same time, I am also aware that with the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal, scheduled for the first Sunday of Advent this year, we have the marvelous opportunity to stop and reconsider the important role that the Mass plays in our lives as individuals, as parish communities of faith and as an Archdiocese.
I wish to offer some reflections on this most important aspect of the Church’s life as the answer to four questions: First, why is the Liturgy so essential to the well-being of the Church? Second, how can our unity in worship build up our unity as Church? Third, why is it so important that we participate in the weekly celebration of the Sunday Liturgy? And fourth, why must all we do in this great Archdiocese, individually and collectively, be informed by the Liturgy?
What is the Essential Connection Between the Sacred Liturgy and the Church?
To help us understand why the Sacred Liturgy is so important for the Church, let us define our terms—what is the Church, and what is the Sacred Liturgy?
In the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, the Second Vatican Council reminds us that the Church is a “sacrament – a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men.” The Council also refers to the Church as a “gathering together” of those who believe in Christ, and as “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, from this same great Council, makes the purpose of this gathering in Christ clear when it states that all activities of the Church are directed toward the sanctification of human beings and the glorification of God. From these references, then, we can state simply that the purpose of the Church is to call her members to holiness, in other words, to create saints. Consequently, everything the Church does must be seen in that light.
But sanctity for the Christian is not a solitary activity. It is done in and through the Church, a Church which is “gathered” as an assembly called by Jesus Christ to form His Body, and that is seen most fully in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.
Again, the uniqueness of this worship was emphasized in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council:
“. . . 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; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.”
If our worship is truly to be effective then, it must be done through Him, with Him and in Him.
As Pope Benedict has written,
“The Liturgy derives its greatness from what it is, not from what we make of it. Our participation is, of course, necessary, but as a means of asserting ourselves humbly into the spirit of the Liturgy and of serving him who is the true subject of the Liturgy: Jesus Christ. The Liturgy is not an expression of the consciousness of a community, which, in any case, is diffuse and changing. It is revelation received in faith and prayer, and its measure is consequently the faith of the Church in which revelation is received. The forms that are given to the Liturgy can vary according to time and place, just as the rites are diverse. What is essential is the link to the Church, which, for her part, is united by faith in the Lord. The obedience of faith guarantees the unity of the Liturgy, beyond the frontiers of place and time, and so allows us to experience the unity of the Church, the Church as the homeland of the heart.”
In the community of believers, our own hearts’ hopes and sorrows, joys and disappointments find reception, affirmation, and transformation as they are offered as one with Christ to the Father in prayer.
This “homeland of the heart” is made up of believers who have likewise been “gathered” as an assembly to pray together. In the community of believers, our own hearts’ hopes and sorrows, joys and disappointments find reception, affirmation, and transformation as they are offered as one with Christ to the Father in prayer. Thus, we see why it is profoundly true that no one can pray to God as an isolated individual.
Again, Pope Benedict has observed,
“Prayer is always praying with someone. No one can pray to God as an isolated individual and with his own strength. Isolation and the loss of a basic sense of fellowship in prayer constitute a major reason for the lack of prayer. I learned to pray by praying with others, with my mother, for instance, by following her words, which are gradually filled out with meaning for me as I speak, live, and suffer in fellowship with her. …And that is precisely why it is impossible to start a conversation with Christ alone, cutting out the Church: a Christological form of prayer that excludes the Church also excludes the Spirit and the human being himself. I need to feel my way into these words in everything I do, in prayer, life, suffering, in my thoughts. And this very process transforms me. But I must not try to dispense with the example of the words, for they are alive, a growing organism, words that are lived and prayed by countless people.”
The Liturgy, therefore, finds its origin in Christ’s call to be “gathered”—he who is both victim and priest, the one who offers and the one who is offered. He calls us to holiness, but always in and through the Church and her Liturgy. Again, this is the reason for the Church’s existence: to bring the baptized into a closer relationship with Christ as members of His one Body who pray the Liturgy together with Christ for the glory of God and the good of all. Our corporate or communal prayer is thus a prayer that what has been accomplished in Christ might be accomplished in us, and that like Christ we might be sent to bear fruit for the life of the world.
Here, in the “work” of the Church gathered in Christ, the two great themes of the Second Vatican Council, communio and missio, become ever more clear. The Church is gathered by its call into communion in order to be sent forth on mission to bring Christ to the world and to bring the world to Christ. As Blessed John Paul stated in Christifideles Laici, “Communion gives rise to mission and mission is accomplished in communion.” It is impossible for us to have one without the other.
There is also an eschatological dimension to this gathering, often termed the “not yet” of our faith life, that is, our future eternal life in God, reflective of the words that Jesus Himself used about his own mission:
“. . . and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to Myself.” (Jn 12:23)
This gathering in Christ that takes place in the Liturgy is a foreshadowing and a foretaste of the gathering which will happen in the New Jerusalem where Christ desires to gather all people to himself at the end of time.
Through this understanding of the Liturgy, we can see how the Church is the sacrament of unity and salvation of the whole world. When “the Mass is ended,” we are called to go out into the world and proclaim the good news of Jesus crucified and risen, a reality that is witnessed, touched, and seen at the Sacred Liturgy.
The vision of our being “gathered” together in
Christ, then, gives impetus for our intention to be united as one in the
practice of the faith and in a particular way by our observance of the rubrics
given to us by the Church for the celebration of the Liturgy. As Pope Benedict
reminds us, “The obedience of faith guarantees the unity of the