The Catholic Liturgical Life as New Exodus
Exodus and New Exodus
The story of the Exodus, God's deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, is at the heart of the Old Testament. After 400 years of bondage in Egypt, God hears the cry of his people and, giving them Moses as a leader, sets them on their way to the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey where they will be able to live in freedom and independence within secure borders in a country of their own.
But the Exodus also had another goal: Israel was to become God's people. God told Moses: "You shall be a special treasure to Me above all people... and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5-6). Leading the Israelites into their own land was not an end in itself. It was subordinate to the primary goal of transforming this clan of slaves into a holy nation consecrated to God. In order for the gift of the land to be a real blessing, in order for Israel to live there in peace and security, they would need an all-embracing rule of law and life rooted in the goodness and wisdom of their Deliverer. Without this rule of law, life in the Promised Land would not be a life of freedom and justice but of anarchy. Further, the law and code of ethics that would form Israel's identity had to remain permanently grounded in a relationship with the Giver of that law. Only in communion with God could the law remain a guarantor of order, justice and peace without becoming an arbitrary tool subject to the shifting human standards of the ruling majority. This communion between God and his people that would ensure their freedom and well-being would be called liturgy.
During the Exodus, the meeting place between God and Israel was the Tabernacle, a mobile dwelling and portable version of the temple that would be built much later in Jerusalem. Israel's worship during their wanderings in the wilderness was to be, on the one hand, an anticipation and "rehearsal" for the future worship in the Jerusalem Temple. But this worship in the Tabernacle was no less real and vital in itself for their survival and existence in the desert. For forty years, it would be their lifeline to God, a reminder of his great deliverance from slavery, a sign of hope for the promised inheritance that still lay ahead of them, and the way for them to live out their calling as His people. This task would prove to be more difficult for Israel than to be set free from Egyptian bondage: Though it took only a day to take Israel out of Egypt, it would take forty years to get Egypt out of Israel. After their rapid escape from Pharaoh, it would take decades for them to lose their "slave mentality" and learn how to live as God's redeemed and beloved children.
Though the Exodus was a real, monumental act of deliverance, it prefigured something even greater: God the Father's deliverance of all of humanity from the slavery of sin through a new and greater Savior, Jesus Christ, who is leading Christians on a New Exodus towards our real Promised Land and eternal home: heaven.
We, too, are called to be - in even greater measure - "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people." As the Israelites needed to be prepared in advance to live as free children in the land given to them by God, so must we also be made fit for life in our eternal dwelling. Unlike Israel, however, we are not just heading for "another place" but are called to participate in supernatural, Trinitarian life. Yet though the goal is different, the preparation school is similar: like Israel, we must become a liturgical people during the course of our earthly exile. We are delivered from the bondage of sin in a few instants at the time of our baptism, but it takes a lifetime for us to fully live out our calling as children of God who are reborn into his family. The liturgical life is what enables us to rise up to this calling, being the channel of God's transforming, Trinitarian life that directly connects us with the events of our salvation that make us members of God's family.
The Paschal Lamb: The Beginning of Redemption
The redemption of Israel was carried out entirely out of God's initiative. From heaven, the Lord heard the cry of his oppressed people. Having mercy on them, He sent Moses to take them out of Egypt and lead them towards the land of Canaan. He sent his judgment upon Egypt in the form of the ten plagues that culminated in the slaying of the first-born. The Israelites were protected from the angel of death by the blood of the slain Passover lamb that they were commanded to spread on the doorposts of their homes. They were to eat of the lamb along with unleavened bread, and then leave in haste. God instructed Moses that they were to commemorate this event perpetually (Ex. 12:14), and to this day Jews remember the Passover and commemorate it as if God had personally taken them out of Egypt.
The New Exodus, like the first, is gratuitously initiated by God and begins with a new Passover: Jesus is the Lamb of God, whose blood is shed as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. By his death on the cross he reconciles us to God and makes it possible for men to share in his divine sonship. By his resurrection, he conquers death. Jesus makes the Father's plan to reconcile all of creation with Himself possible and effective. But unlike all other historical events, Christ's Paschal Mystery does not only remain in the past. Though Jesus died, was buried, rose from the dead and was seated at the right hand of the Father once for all, these events transcend time and are perpetually present to us in way far more real than the Jews' participation in the Passover today. When we commemorate the Paschal Mystery at Mass, we are there, at the foot of the cross, reliving the events of our salvation. Since God is not limited by space and time, Christ is really present in the earthly liturgy which is itself a participation in the liturgy of heaven.
Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire: Led by the Spirit
It was not enough for God to provide the Israelites with a way of escape from Egypt. He also had to show them where to go and guide them on their way to the Promised Land. Immediately after they left Egypt, God provided for them a pillar of cloud to lead the way by day, and a pillar of fire to guide them at nighttime (Ex. 13:21-22).
Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, he poured out the Holy Spirit onto the apostles. The Spirit would guide them as an inner pillar of cloud and fire, leading them and their successors into all truth so that they may guide the pilgrim Church towards her heavenly destination. The Holy Spirit effects the plan that God the Father willed and that Jesus made possible, preparing the hearts of the faithful for the reception of Christ, recalling to their minds the Paschal mystery, making it truly present among them in the liturgy and sacraments, and bringing them into communion with Christ. In addition, through the liturgy we, the people of God, participate in a real way in "the work of God."
Crossing the Red Sea: Baptism
The Israelites were making their escape, but the Egyptians were still on their tail pursuing them. Israel's deliverance only became assured, final and irreversible when they crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians were drowned behind them. This event was the dividing line between their life of slavery and the road to freedom that lay ahead of them. There was now no more turning back.
At the beginning of his public life, Jesus identified himself with Israel's "baptism" in the Red Sea by being baptized in the Jordan River. For Christians, baptism is the entrance door into the supernatural life and the beginning of the exodus towards our heavenly home. When we are baptized "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," we are reborn of water and the Spirit into God's Trinitarian family and become a "new creation".
The water of baptism is a symbol of death that reminds us of the death of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. It also represents the mystery of the cross. Yet baptism - like the other sacraments - is not a mere symbol, but a sign that effects what it signifies: The believer enters through baptism into communion with Christ's death, is buried with him, and rises with him. When we are baptized, we die to sin. "The person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us." Baptism is also a sign of washing and liberation: we are forgiven and set free from the slavery of sin. It is "the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth". Through it we are also incorporated into God's people and Christ's Body, the Church. For this reason, we are obligated to grow in faith and in the sacramental life of the Church, and parents are also obligated to help the newly baptized children on the road to Christian life. As the Israelites could not turn back and return to Egypt after they had crossed the Red Sea - even if they wanted to - so are we marked at baptism with an indelible sign. There is no turning back. We can either continue on our journey and trust that God will lead us to destination, or die in the wilderness.
Baptism is also a prophetic sign as the seal of eternal life: "If we have grown to be one in the likeness of Christ's death, we shall be so in the likeness of his resurrection." By remaining faithful to the demands of baptism, the Christian is able to depart this life in expectation of the blessed vision of God and in the hope of resurrection.
Sinai: Covenant and Priesthood
It is only after God had delivered his people from slavery that he brings them to Mount Sinai to make a formal alliance with them. God had acted first and saved Israel with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Now that they had seen his great works they were in a position to trust Him. At Sinai, God adopts Israel as his firstborn son and makes a covenant with them that now demands a response to his saving action, a response that would raise them up to living their new calling as God's firstborn.
It is at Sinai that God teaches Israel through the covenant how they are to become a liturgical people. They not only receive a common rule for righteous living, the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law, but also instructions to build the Tabernacle according to the heavenly pattern that God showed Moses. It is also at Sinai that the Levitical priesthood is instituted. For the rest of the Exodus and also after they have settled in their land, the priests will act as mediators between a holy God and a sinful people. It is through their intermediary that the Israelites will have access to God's presence.
Christ was not only the Paschal sacrifice. He is also the eternal high priest who is perpetually offering himself to the Father. Before ascending to heaven, he gave special powers to his apostles and their successors to share in his one eternal priesthood. This ministerial priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood of all believers and "guarantees that it really is Christ who acts in the sacraments through the Holy Spirit for the Church." "The ordained minister is the sacramental bond that ties the liturgical action to what the apostles said and did and, through them, to the words and actions of Christ, the source and foundation of the sacraments." Thus it is through the apostles and their successors that the Church dispenses the mysteries in the sacraments, the truths of revelation and the grace that saves us.
The priesthood of the New Covenant and the sacraments that the Church dispenses through them manifest how the law of incarnation did not come to an end after Christ returned to the Father. Just as God came to man taking on flesh and blood, He continues to communicate himself to us through the veil of sensible things such as water, oil, bread, and wine. How astonishing to think that it is through these seemingly mundane elements that God elevates man to nothing less than a divine state!
Power from on High: Confirmation
The pillar of cloud and pillar of fire had already guided Israel through the Red Sea and to Mount Sinai. By the time they left Sinai, however, they were no longer a disorganized band of fugitives, but a people consecrated to God by his sacred covenant. At Sinai, the Israelites inherited special responsibilities to be God's witnesses to all nations during the course of their wanderings and also after they would be established in their land. God's presence among them was specially manifested at the end of the book of Exodus, after the Tabernacle had been completed and the priesthood instituted and consecrated, when the cloud covered the tabernacle and it was filled with the glory of the Lord.
After Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove upon him, and at his Passion, Christ merited the full communication of the Spirit to the faithful. The sacrament of confirmation constitutes the completion of baptismal grace by which the baptized "are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed." At confirmation the bishop confers the sacrament through the anointing with chrism (oil) on the forehead of the baptized, done by the laying on of the hand, and through the words: "Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit." This seal, like baptism, imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark which clothes the Christian with power from on high for the rest of his life so that he may be Christ's witness and part of his militia. The seal of the Holy Spirit "marks our total belonging to Christ, our enrollment in his service for ever, as well as the promise of divine protection in the great eschatological trial.
Like Israel, we are not just saved as individuals but in a community. In the liturgy the whole Church, the Body of Christ comes together and celebrates united with its head. Unity and community are made and at the same time manifested in the liturgy. Our witness to Christ in a world alienated from God will be primarily seen in how we relate to each other and love one another.
Sacrifice and Atonement: Reconciliation
As an integral part of the worship in the Tabernacle, the priests were to offer daily animal sacrifices on the altar for the atonement and expiation of Israel's sins. Every day, all year round, the blood of sheep, goats, and bulls shed for sin offerings was a stark reminder of the high price that had to be paid for a sinful people to come into the presence of a holy God. Additional sacrifices were required for the holy days of the liturgical year that culminated with the Day of Atonement, the only time of the year when the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of a goat to atone for the sins of the people.
These perpetual sacrifices, however, were powerless to remove sin; they could only cover transgressions but not take them away (Heb. 10:4). They were but a type of the true Paschal sacrifice, Jesus Christ the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by his one-time offering of himself at Calvary.
At baptism, Christians are washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. But this new life has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin which remains in the baptized. Always in need of purification, they are called to continued repentance and conversion. Already during his public life, Jesus shocked many by forgiving sins, a prerogative, they thought, that belongs to God alone. Before going to the Father, he entrusted to his apostles this power to forgive sins. Today, their successors the bishops, with their collaborators the priests continue to exercise this ministry of reconciliation. Gone are the daily bloody sacrifices. In their place is now a sacrament that is truly efficacious in bringing complete forgiveness to the sinner and reconciling him with God and with the Church.
Though the faithful are obliged to confess their sins at least once a year (if they have mortal sin), the Church recommends frequent use of confession - even for venial sins since by restoring us to God's grace the sacrament also helps us form our conscience and fight against evil tendencies. For the penitent to receive absolution he needs to be genuinely contrite - which includes sorrow for sin and the resolution not to sin again, he must confess his sins, and make satisfaction for them with some form of penance imposed by the confessor. As a more general requirement, we must always remember to forgive those who have offended us, as much as we want God to forgive us.
This sacrament is also prophetic in that the sinner, "placing himself before the merciful judgment of God, anticipates in a certain way the judgment to which he will be subjected at the end of his earthly life. For it is now, in this life, that we are offered the choice between life and death, and it is only by the road of conversion that we can enter the Kingdom."
The Lord Who Heals You: Anointing of the Sick
God is not only concerned with our spiritual ills but with the entire well-being of our body and soul. During the Exodus he promised health to Israel if they would remain faithful to the covenant: "If you diligently heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statues, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the Lord who heals you."
Jesus often healed the body to point to the greater spiritual illness of sin. But his compassion toward the sick and his many healings of every kind of infirmity are in themselves a "resplendent sign that ‘God has visited his people'... He has come to heal the whole man, soul and body; he is the physician the sick have need of.'" Jesus' call to heal the sick has also been entrusted to the Church in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Though it is up to Him whether He will physically heal a person or not through this sacrament, the Church believes that it imparts special graces of strengthening, peace and courage to the sick. "This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God's will. Furthermore, if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven." Christians may ask to receive this sacrament anytime they are gravely ill and not only when they are at the point of death.
Food for the Journey: The Eucharist
Throughout their forty years in the wilderness, God provided the Israelites with food for their sustenance, the bread from heaven which they called "manna". Jesus stunned his listeners when, after having fed the multitudes with only five loaves and two fish, he declared: "I am the bread of life...which came down from heaven." Later, before his Passion, he partook of the Passover meal with his disciples and thereby gave it a new meaning. Breaking the bread, he said: "This is my body." Taking the cup, he said: "This is my blood." At the last supper, Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the "source and summit of the Christian life." All of the other sacraments and the entire liturgical life are oriented towards the Mass where Jesus' eternal sacrifice is made present to us under the appearance of bread and wine. At the Mass, after we listen and respond to the Word of God, we offer ourselves, Christ's Mystical Body united with Christ the head as one holy and acceptable sacrifice to the Father, and receive in return nothing less than the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Savior. It is in the Eucharist that we most fully participate in God's Trinitarian life.
Before this awesome mystery and great gift of the Father, how great is our responsibility to prepare our hearts before coming to the table! More than anything, the Eucharist obliges us to live our lives according to the sign that we receive. "For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body." We must purify our hearts before partaking of the heavenly meal - with the sacrament of penance if we are conscious of grave sin. Though we are obliged to take communion only once a year and to attend Mass only on Sundays and days of obligation, how could we not yearn to take part in the Paschal feast as often as possible?
The Eucharist not only brings us back to the night when Israel became a free people and to the moment when the new and eternal covenant was made with mankind. It is also a prophetic sign of the future glory: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes." The Mass unites us with the saints in heaven as we "share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God."
The Two Shall Become One: Matrimony
From the beginning, when God created man in his own image, he created them male and female. He declared that "it is not good for man to be alone," and that he was therefore to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they should become one flesh. Under the Law of Moses, marriage had not yet been elevated to the dignity of a sacrament. But with the establishment of the New Covenant, marriage takes on a new meaning. Jesus restores the indissolubility of marriage that had been God's plan from the beginning. It becomes a sign demonstrative of sanctifying grace by which "a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring."
The sacrament of marriage is also a sign commemorative of God's covenant with Israel that was often portrayed in the image of exclusive and faithful married love. Even more, it is commemorative of Christ's Passion, where He acquired the Church as spouse. Thus every Christian marriage is a domestic church that is called to reflect the inner life of the Trinity, the holy family of Nazareth, and the relationship of love between Christ and his bride. Matrimony, blessed by many goods, therefore also bears important responsibilities, such as the obligation to guard and nurture the unity and indissolubility of marriage, the fidelity of conjugal love, and the openness to fertility.
The sacrament of matrimony also bears a prophetic dimension in that, like the Eucharist, it is a sign of future glory. For the heavenly banquet that awaits us at the end of our journey is described as the marriage supper of the Lamb, when all the elect will be seated at the table of the kingdom and will feast with the bridegroom.
The Cosmic Universality of the Kingdom of God
All of creation is ordered towards one end: the kingdom of God, which is to be gathered up in Christ in one cosmic reality and joined together in the heavenly Jerusalem. The kingdom thus embraces the totality of all creatures ordained to a common end, united in a certain solidarity and interdependence, and forming a single universal symphony. In light of this, the liturgy views the whole cosmos as an integral universe united in worship. We have seen above in the story of the Exodus and of salvation how liturgy actualizes the whole man, body and soul, and develops him through the various stages of life. Since man is a union of body and soul, liturgy cannot be limited to spiritual principles or to "faith alone": "In the liturgy it is not just the soul of the believer but the concrete totality of the believer in the substantial unity of his being, body and soul, that is sanctified by God, which is consecrated to God and which renders worship to God." This is why specific gestures such as bows, prostrations, and the sign of the cross must be present in the liturgy: the whole man must attune himself to the liturgical action.
Further, the rest of the material world is connected to the Kingdom of God through man. We see this not only in how sacraments use material signs to signify spiritual realities, but also in the use of sacramentals: material objects are blessed and set aside to give concrete expression to spiritual realities, as blessed water, for example, serves as a sign to remind us of our baptism.
In summary, the liturgy transcends time and space and connects us with all of salvation history in an eternal "today." As the Israelites - and Jews today - continue to observe fixed feasts, "beginning with Passover, to commemorate the astonishing actions of the Savior God, to give him thanks for them, to perpetuate their remembrance, and to teach new generations to conform their conduct to them," so does the Church continually relive the events of Christ's life in each liturgical year. "In the age of the Church, between the Passover of Christ already accomplished once for all, and its consummation in the kingdom of God, the liturgy celebrated on fixed days bears the imprint of the newness of the mystery of Christ." In the Liturgy of the Hours, "the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praise of God," and the faithful, even if they are praying alone in their room, are attuned to the universal prayer of the Church and exercise their royal priesthood of the baptized. In the liturgy, the kingdom of God enters our time. In the liturgy, God shares His life with His people. The liturgy is the source and manifestation of the Church, out of which flow all of her works of love and charity that bear witness to Christ in the world.