If you ask anyone at my Catholic high school what their favorite event of the year was, they would probably mention the annual Christmas liturgy. In puncturing the high spirits of the student body with a reverent seriousness, this liturgy invited all to reflect upon the mysteries of the Christian religion through different methods of worship. The symbol, play, and festivity found within Christian worship as described by Cyril of Jerusalem, Gertrude the Great of Helfta, and Romano Guardini enable the Church as one united body to encounter divine truth.
Perhaps the most sacred symbol of my school’s Christmas liturgy is that of the candle. At the beginning of the liturgy, we would all receive candles and pass a blessed flame until the previously dark auditorium was flooded with flickering light, representing the power of Christ’s love in a world of sin. Candles and the countless other symbols utilized in worship represent “…the spiritual element[‘s] [transposition]…into material terms because it is vital…that it should do so” (Guardini 57). Thus, symbols allow us to better comprehend divine mysteries that would otherwise seem inaccessible to us. Water is another universally important symbol in liturgy, implemented in the washing of the priest’s hands and the blessing of the congregation, which evokes our baptism and represents “…the cleansing of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Cyril 101). It is the universal usage of symbol that interconnects the members of the Church, and the knowledge of the spirituality contained within the material that makes us aware of the magnitude of the mystery of our existence and God’s everlasting love for us.
The play present in the Christmas liturgy is both engaging, and thought-provoking. Guardini introduces us to the importance of play as action that is meaningful in itself, saying that “…it is life, pouring itself forth without an aim… significant through the fact of its existence” (68). Play is present in liturgy in a variety of different ways, perhaps the two most obvious being music and ritual movement. While the hymn “And All The People Said Amen” invited the Christmas congregation to clap and dance, the songs sung during eucharistic adoration compelled us to kneel and contemplate. Gertrude the Great reflects this in saying, “At the words “Holy, holy, holy,” she prostrated herself on the ground with heartfelt humility and prayed the Lord that he would deign to prepare her …” (175). Thus, the movement involved in the playfulness of music is very meaningful: it makes transparent our collective joy, reverence, and contrition, emotions that bring us closer to God as the Church. Ultimately, the shared movement of play unites us, and the shared meaning behind our action enhances our understanding of God’s will for us.
The Christmas liturgy completely embodies the concept of festivity. While it took time from work and no material or academic advantage came of it, the liturgy was still significant because it enabled us to celebrate the complexity of divine mystery in uniting ourselves with God. Festivity is very present in communion: it struck me deeply during the Christmas liturgy that everyone who went forth to receive came from a different walk of life but emerged from the experience with the same renewal of faith. Cyril references communion through the metaphor of donning spiritual clothing, “…that you might say with the blessed Isaiah, ‘Let my soul rejoice in the Lord. For he has clothed me in a garment of salvation and has covered me with a robe of gladness’ (Is 61.10)” (117). For in receiving Christ’s body in the symbol that is communion, we are invited to collectively delight in and ponder the mystery of Christ’s resurrection that grants us eternal life. Gertrude reflects upon the festal quality of communion in saying, “Moreover, you must consider the excellent way in which your soul, in receiving this gift, is invigorated and receives the life which lasts eternally…” (179). The “invigoration” she references implies the joyfulness that is brought about by the consumption of the host, while the “consider[ation]” insinuates that contemplation of the significance of the communion must occur for people to obtain divine truth from it.
Therefore, the symbol, play, and festivity found within the Christian liturgy enable the Church to encounter truth in the face of divine mystery. As Christians, we walk together on a path towards better understanding God and His creation, a path ornamented and made more accessible through different methods of worship.