One of the most insightful descriptions of the liturgy which I have read is an excerpt from Von Hildebrand’s Liturgy and Personality: The Healing Power of Formal Prayer. In it, Von Hildebrand explains what the person’s response to the Liturgy ought to be. It is easy to think of all of the benefits that the Mass brings to our soul and to the world. And though these are true and our participation in Mass important, the Mass is not about us. The Mass is the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary being offered to God the Father for His glory and in atonement for our sins.
The Catholic Church holds a metaphysical realist philosophical position. Simply put, this means that the Church, along with many philosophers like Von Hildebrand, holds that there is a reality that is not made up by the mind and that man can know reality with his reason. The Church also recognizes that there is an order in creation instituted by God which leads each thing to its final end.
Catholic moral teaching is grounded on the assumption that man can know the order that God put in creation and with his reason know the proper response that is due to each thing; that is to say that man can know the demands that the order of being makes on him. This is precisely what natural law is: man’s participation, through reason, in the order that God instituted from the beginning of time. For example, when man encounters another man, he knows with his reason that the other man is like himself and deserves to be treated with human dignity. When man encounters an animal, he knows that he must be a steward of that animal, but that he does not owe the same respect to the animal as he does to another man.
When one attends Mass, one attends the greatest sacrifice in history. It is almost scandalous that God, the Uncaused Cause, the Unmoved Mover, the only Necessary Being, and He who is Existence Itself takes up our finite, limited, and lowly human nature out of love and lays down His life to pay our debt. At each Mass we are really taken out of time to Calvary itself.
In the book Liturgy and Personality, Von Hildebrand argues that the most important thing in this life is the Liturgy because in it we participate in the Beatific Vision. It is the only activity that will not pass away. Consistent with metaphysical realism and Catholic ethics, Von Hildebrand argues that at Mass we should strive to give a due response to what is objectively happening on the altar. The four ends of the Mass are worship, thanksgiving, atonement, and petition. Offering all four of these is precisely the due response of man as he encounters the Sacrifice of the Cross. The understanding of the immensity of the event leads us to thanksgiving. We respond to how great God is and how much He loves us with worship and awe. To the reality that it was our own sin that caused the need for such a sacrifice we respond with sorrow and atonement. And, to the reality of our own finite and limited existence, we respond with petition.
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