The Maronite Liturgy: what can we do but share in the self-offering of the Lamb?
The Divine Liturgy of the Christian churches is best understood as a mystical remembering, renewal, and participation in the saving work of the Saviour, through which eternity entered time, so that we might be redeemed from death. What eternity worked in history, is endlessly actualised on altars all over the world. It is our privilege to be allowed to share in this.
Words fail us, but the Divine Liturgy is also a return to the Father’s house, to share in the communion of the Son; an Exodus from earthly to heavenly realities, and a climbing of the holy mountain of the Temple.
The Eucharistic summit of our liturgical services replicates on earth the essence of the worship eternally offered in heaven.
The central actions of Salvation History are remembered and performed in the presence of God and the angelic host.
Thus, our moment in time is united to the eternal adoration and self-offering of the Lamb. This is stated as a literal fact in the canonical Maronite communion hymn, “The Host of Angels.”
As I have shown in An Introduction to the Maronite Faith, the movement of the liturgy is ascension: we come up to the house of God for the Liturgy of the Word.
“This unfolding of liturgical and sacerdotal rites over time is intrinsic to the ancient understanding that history manifests the divine purpose …”
For the Eucharistic Liturgy, the priest ascends into the divine sanctuary on our behalf, having been prepared and consecrated in accordance with a divine teaching organic and continuous with the Old Testament dispensation.
This unfolding of liturgical and sacerdotal rites over time is intrinsic to the ancient understanding that history manifests the divine purpose whereby good is brought forth from suffering and even evil.
The Syriac liturgy forever refers to this history, notably when saints of the Old Testament are recalled on their own feast days (e.g. King David, the individual Prophets, Susannah from the Book of Daniel, and Shmouni from Maccabees).
In the language of the ancient theology of typology, our liturgical celebrations manifest, as earthly antitype, the celestial archetype which is beyond earthly representation.
Both of these dimensions are united in Sacred History and in the Divine Liturgy, especially in the Incarnation, when eternity entered time, and the Word dwelt among us.
Hence, the fulfilment of all time is in the Incarnation and the work of Christ, no matter whether that time flowed before or after it, for all streams flow into the life of the Incarnate God-Man.
This has consequences for the Church and for its liturgy. The ancient Syriac tradition of seeing each and every church building as a model of the threshold of heaven (and the sanctuary as being divine ground) is firmly based in Sacred Scripture.
Thus, for example, we are taught that the worship of the Temple in Jerusalem takes place in “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary …” (Hebrews 8:5).
This is meant quite literally, even today. The Divine Liturgy which we celebrate is not a symbol, even if it uses symbols; neither is it theatre even if there is a theatrical element.
It is, in its foundations and in its summit, a participation in the eternal worship of heaven.
Hence, the Eucharist is fittingly received within the liturgy wherein it has been “confected,” as we say.
Hence, we prepare for the Eucharistic liturgy by and in our lives, and they should be transformed by our participation in it (even if the transformation is gradual).
“Worship is the vocation of man, the very purpose for which he was created. He was created to live in communion with God, as a liturgical being.”
Here the mystery or sacrament of Holy Orders plays its irreplaceable part. The priest shares in the role of Christ the High Priest, and so we sing at the Transfer of Offerings, speaking as Our Lord who is Himself the Bread of Life: “Priestly hands now lift me high …”.
This is why it makes sense to speak of the priest as “another Christ,” at least in this context, however sinful and fallible the individual priest may be in other contexts.
Divine worship must obey divine rules. Varghese states that the Western Syriac fathers did not define the liturgy, possibly because “worship is the vocation of man, the very purpose for which he was created. He was created to live in communion with God, as a liturgical being” (West Syrian Liturgical Theology, 8).
Just as we were made to be with God, we are made to be with Him in the liturgy by sharing in the heavenly worship.
At the Entrance to the Altar, we declare that we are making an offering, and pray that God will accept it from the hands of His priest.
This reveals one element of the liturgical celebration: we here below consecrate something for God.
But what do we have which can be sanctified, rise from earth to heaven, and be accepted? What do we have, and what can we do but share in the self-offering of the Lamb?
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