This is the ninth part of a series that follows The Catechism in a Year podcast. Dr. Matthew Minerd journeys with us and presents a “travel guide” through the major themes of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Need to catch up? You can find the other parts of the series here: The Catechism: A Guide for the Christian Life, Divine Revelation, A God Who Reveals Himself, Creation and the Fall, The Son, The Holy Spirit, The Church, and The Last Things.
Christianity is a religion of incarnation. It is not a purely “spiritual” faith, one that is disconnected from the physical world. Rather, in Christian belief, spiritual truths are expressed in and through material realities. We see this expressed in a preeminent, foundational way in the incarnation of Christ, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Jesus, the hidden life of the Triune God is revealed to man:
“The mystery hidden for ages and generations… [is] now made manifest to his saints.”Colossians 1:26
Here, the word “mystery” means “a hidden truth that has a visible face.”
In the Flesh
Thus, for the Christian, spiritual realities are expressed through the material world. All of creation is a sign pointing to its Source, a means for God to manifest his power and glory. In Jesus, God has become visible:
“He who has seen me has seen the Father.”John 14:9
Christian spirituality is not “spiritualism,” hating material reality; it is “spiritualization,” filling the bodily with the spiritual.
We can see this truth expressed preeminently in Jesus, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Since this is true of Christ, it is also true of his mystical body, the Church. In and through the Church, Christ makes his saving message heard through all ages and sanctifies his followers through the sacraments, with the Eucharist standing at the center of this seven-fold treasure.
This divine treasure of the sacraments is surrounded by a beautiful golden garland—the sacred liturgy. The liturgy is the “work” of the Church, the mystical body of Christ. It is not merely the work of a community of earthly believers here and now; rather, it is a celebration of the mystery of salvation at the present moment but joined to the heavenly liturgy as well. It is the public activity celebrated by the “whole Christ,” with Jesus, the head, and his body, the Church, joined together, with each member taking his or her specific part in the celebration.
In the liturgy and the sacraments, those sacred signs that convey the grace they signify, the human need to worship God by means of signs, words, and gestures is fulfilled. They are the visible means for expressing the invisible mystery of God “now made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1:26).
Public and Private Prayer
The liturgy is the public prayer of the Church. As such, it should hold a central place in our own prayer life. As the Catechism states:
“The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’.”CCC 1324
So, while the liturgy does not replace private devotion, it is the central and most important form of prayer. Although each of us is called to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we have been baptized into a communion of faith—that is, the Church:
“By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”1 Corinthians 12:13
When Jesus tells his disciples to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6), he does not mean, “Do not pray in public.” Rather, the “closed room” here is the depths of our heart, where we meet God. It is most appropriate to meet him where he comes to us, making us sharers in his own divine life (see 2 Peter 1:4)—in the liturgy and the sacraments.
In the sacred liturgy, the Lord’s death is proclaimed and made present to us. The full mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection is celebrated over the course of the Church’s liturgical year. This annual cycle is punctuated by the remembrance of the many saints who lived the great mystery of the Christian life. With the cycle of days and months, through the various seasons and feasts, the liturgical year unfolds the mystery of salvation. It becomes a kind of “reliving” of the great deeds of salvation history. It is therefore, also, the way that revelation, given once and for all, is renewed for us each day, week, season, and year.
God did not merely reveal his truths in an abstract way to his people. Rather, he declared to them his true identity and established a relationship with them, sharing his loving plans with them:
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope … I will be found by you, says the Lord.”Jeremiah 29:11 and 14
The only appropriate response to these great marvels is prayer, by which we elevate our hearts to God, who alone worked such deeds, and who alone will continue to do so until the end of time. Through the liturgical calendar, with its prayerful recollection of the loving deeds God has done in Christ and his Church, time itself is made holy.
Just as the liturgy makes time holy, so too does it sanctify certain places as well. The “incarnate imagination” of Christianity has led to the creation of many sacred spaces, such as great cathedrals, humble chapels, monasteries, shrines, home altars, and even cemeteries. The mystery of Christianity is expressed in and through such places, which are signs of the spiritual life lived within them.
Every culture manifests itself in its art and architecture. How true this should be for a Christian culture, giving its liturgical “stamp” to the buildings in which the mysteries of God are celebrated anew each day. Thus, a truly Christian architecture will express the fact that something quite unique is celebrated in the Church space, something that can be found nowhere else. Such holy buildings and places are a kind home for the Christian soul. All the baptized should yearn to be present there, where, together with their spiritual family, the Church, they praise the glory of God, their life and love. Like the psalmist, all should say:
“These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.”Psalm 42:4
At the center of the Christian temple, in the gem-setting around which the liturgy is wrapped, there are the sacraments, by which Jesus Christ is uniquely active today in the world.
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Dr. Matthew Minerd is a Ruthenian Catholic, husband, and father, serving as a professor of philosophy and moral theology at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh. His academic and popular writing has been published in the journals Nova et Vetera, The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, The Review of Metaphysics, Études Maritainiennes, Downside Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He has also served as a translator or editor for volumes published by The Catholic University of America Press, Emmaus Academic, and Cluny Media. He is the author of Made by God, Made for God: Catholic Morality Explained.