“One often gets the impression today that the liturgy is perceived more as a problem to be solved than as a source of life.” This is the opening line of the 2014 English translation of Goffredo Boselli’s The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy. Whether one thinks of the liturgy as problematic or not, it is true that the Church intends its liturgical celebrations to be life-giving, especially when we appeal to the mystical tradition for a description of the experience of the liturgy.
The liturgy offers us a liminal space, which Jean Corbon compares to the moments of dawn just before sunrise in his book, The Wellspring of Worship: “The time of the luminous cloud but not yet of day.” We have moved from our day-to-day and into a special space and time, set aside for this purpose, where there waits a particular encounter with the mystery of God. An encounter which contains the possibility – and the expectation! – of revelation. Revelation by God of God’s self, and revelation of our own selves.
We should expect the liturgy, particularly when we participate in sacramental celebrations, to be a source of life. When we gather to offer prayer, praise, and worship to God, we do so not out of habit or a compulsion toward rote repetition – indeed, empty rituals repeated over and over are the grip of death – but because we expect to meet there the mystery that is the source of all life: God. We do not hope for this encounter; we expect it because God has promised “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). The encounter is one that seems to be a paradox: deep, familiar, knowing intimacy with one who is more than we can fully comprehend, but also one who uses each such seemingly impossible encounter to offer still more revelation of self.
Our participation in the liturgy is participation in God’s work, for only mystery can reveal mystery – only God can reveal God. When Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection and shares a meal with them, he opens their minds to the scriptures where they can then plainly see him, when they could not before (Luke 24:45–48). The mystery reveals itself to those who participate in it. In that revelation, we encounter what Boselli referred to as “a source of life”: a wellspring of living water.
This wellspring of life flows forth like a river, into whose current we are called to step and travel. When we participate in this mystery, this divine work, God rejoices in our inhabitation of creation and delights in our own rejoicing (Proverbs 8:31). When the liturgy and our lives connect, we find ourselves in the centre of the mystery, and we realize part of the mystery revealed. As the disciples saw Jesus in the scriptures, so we realize that the wellspring not only flows from God but may also flow from us. Through our participation in this work of God, we realize that we, too, may be sources of life.
Consider our participation in the eucharistic celebration at the moment when the gifts are presented. We bring bread and wine to the altar as both the fruit of creation and the work of human hands. We are the fruit of nature, history, and culture, but each one of us also represents an outpouring of love within the Trinity, a love which draws us back to its source. And so, we present bread and wine that they may become the body and blood of the Lord, and in so doing the entire life of humanity is transformed. In the bread and wine, our lives are transformed through God’s work, in which we participate as an act of communion and sharing.
The transformative power of encountering mystery in the liturgy is why Jesus calls us to plunge deeply into the river that flows from this wellspring of life (Luke 9:24). When we submerge ourselves in this work of God, its abundance overflows us with holiness and manifests as God’s glory. When we drink from the flowing river and take in that mystery, it reveals to us that we need not gather fruit for ourselves to eat, remembering the pain, rejection, barrenness, and death of our actions in Eden. We are instead transformed into the very trees of life ourselves.
The Anglican tradition includes many liturgical styles and patterns. Liturgy is always contextual, and the rites and language which open up the possibility of encounter with the mystery of God differ from community to community. What does not change is the expectation of that divine encounter: the desire to participate in the liturgical work of God and dip into that flowing river, the wellspring of life, to know God’s self-revelation. In so doing, we are transformed into a more perfect likeness of the one in whose image we were all made.
Andrew Rampton is the incumbent of St. Bartholomew’s Anglican in Winnipeg and the chaplain of St. John’s College. In August, he completed an MA in theology at Huron University College, specializing in liturgy.