"... though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave..." (see, Phil 2:6-11).

An Existential Approach to Liturgy

Part III: An "Existentialist" Approach
and Liturgical Prayer

A. Liturgy and Trinitarian Prayer: What do we mean by an existentialist approach to liturgy? First of all, this approach begins with the relationship established in the liturgy between the body of worshipers and the Trinity.

Together with the Risen Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church offers praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the magnalia dei, the great deeds God has done for us in creation and redemption. We enter into the same and eternal relationship Christ has with the Father and the world through the liturgy of the Church.

Christ still lives coram patre.* That is, Christ, having received everything from the Father, is eternally and dynamically pouring himself out in love to the same Father. Christ also is ever oriented pro nobis, acting always on our behalf. Therefore, worship, liturgical prayer itself, conforms the community to Christ - coram patre and pro vobis.

As a result, the most authentic human stance at worship involves the worshiper consciously pouring out himself or herself toward the living God - with the Risen Christ and in the Spirit - and toward others in the human community.

B. The Sacrifice of Praise: Secondly, this approach understands this orientation of the worshipers to lead directly to a "dying to oneself." For, to enter into such a relationship with the Risen Christ places each of us in a similar dynamic orientation, or vector, of pouring out one's self toward God and others:

"The truth of my life is not about me, but about You!" Therefore, praise involves the sacrifice of one's focus on self. This is the "sacrifice of praise." It is a deep acknowledging of the reality of the First Commandment in the very act of worship.

We take as a model of this stance in prayer what the letter to the Philippians tells us: "... though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave..." (see, Phil 2:6-11).

Thus, our very act of worship - praying as the Body of Christ in the world with the Risen Christ - involves an essential dying to self by pouring our selves out in praise of God and love of neighbor. This is one way to think through the Church's entry into the Paschal Mystery - the celebration of Christ's life, death, resurrection, ascension and return.

C. The Paschal Mystery: Finally, inasmuch as worship orients the persons in the community toward a profound self-offering, it needs to be understood as an act that involves "life and death matters." In other words, this approach accounts for the Paschal Mystery as a "threat" - the threat of Christ's command that we die to self - as much as a promise.

And so, we will highlight those aspects of the liturgy itself - the prayers, scripture texts, ritual symbols, and ritual gestures - that disclose the "life and death" character of our relation to God in Christ through the Spirit.

We need to "look at those who gather to celebrate" more intently. What does it mean to gather as a community at liturgy and have to face "life and death matters" consciously every time? It can seem like a terribly daunting prospect. And so it is.

D. Implications: Our first assumption is this: people who attend liturgy know implicitly that the meaning of worship is about dying to self. We know that the Word and Sacrament and ritual symbols lead us to an encounter with "life and death matters."

But, in an effort to avoid such profound matters, we all make the liturgy be about so many other things that are not as basic. And so our very participation in liturgy tends not be conscious, but rather it functions as a denial of those very "life and death matters" that we encounter.

In one sense, then, the challenge of conscious participation in liturgical prayer lies in our human nature. And yet, that challenge also reveals the glory of God in the incarnation through which Christ became a conscious participant in human life. He offered himself fully to the Father and, so, redeemed our human nature. It is important, then, to consider those aspects of human nature that resist a consciousness of God's 'grace [that] builds on human nature.'

E. An 'Existentialist' Approach: So, what might it mean for the Body of Christ to "deny the life and death matters" as a matter of habit in liturgy?

This approach understands first, that one significant aspect of the project of becoming human involves a broad and life-long denial of limitation and death in order to cope with living.

Secondly, it takes seriously those descriptions of a basic emotional 'journey' that people make when they encounter death and loss.

So, since the Church invites the people of God into a more conscious participation in worship, we who deal with liturgy and liturgical matters need to understand how both of these dynamics play out in our assemblies. For insofar as it is a fair assessment that people are drawn to meet "life and death matters" in Christian worship, we ministers need to grow in our comprehension of what we are doing and into what we are all being invited to participate.

If you would like to continue to reflect on these matters, please go to one of the next several pages for an 'existential' consideration of our human nature. Three approaches follow - a spiritual approach (Part III), a more psychological approach (Part IV), and a classic study of dying (Part V).


*Peter Fink, S.J., professor at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, is the source of these insights. I am deeply indebted to him for his truly personalist insights into liturgical theology and practice.

Copyright © Robert F. O'Connor, S.J., 2000. All Rights Reserved.