Joining Heaven with Earth

A central question amid all the controversy about Catholic liturgy these days is: what are the purposes of liturgy? The argument often seems to be a mere matter of taste. “Traditionalists,” in that perspective, just prefer the sonorous rhythm of Latin, as well as the beauty of Gregorian chant. In contrast, those who uphold the Mass of Paul VI feel more at home in the vernacular and in its less formal atmosphere. These Catholics doubtlessly like its familiarity. Traditionalists would rather experience what they do not customarily encounter in the everyday.

But the real question remains: What is liturgy for?

The Church Fathers, who as bishops presided at liturgy every day, wrote often of the presence of the community of worshippers, saints, the deceased, and the company of the heavenly host at the public worship of the Church. The Fathers did so from the very first days of the Church, for the Jewish custom of praying for the dead, which memorialized their continued presence among the living, carried over into Christianity. Unlike other Jewish observances, the continued observance of which occasioned strife and division (such as circumcision), Jewish prayer for the dead passed seamlessly into the regime of Christian prayer.

In addition, first-century Jewish observance influenced Christian notions of sacred space. Like contemporary Jews, Christians often assembled to worship at the graves of the dead, especially the tombs of the martyrs. The living took care to acquire the remains of the dead, and to mark well their final resting places.

As the early Church Fathers reflected upon liturgical invocation for the dead (note, that practice generally preceded later speculation about the subject in the history of the church), they insisted that the liturgy imaged Heaven itself.

Augustine wrote that at the liturgy the angels, the saints, and those yet to be born all join together in the great act of worship of the trinitarian God, as though the faithful departed stood beside the living, and the angels flank the altar of sacrifice in the sanctuary.

The great biblical scholar Origen agreed: “I do not doubt that angels are present in our assembly.” He likewise taught in his commentary on Psalm 22, that worship “makes present what took place in times past as if we were actually watching our Lord on the Cross.”

About a generation after the death of Augustine, Pope St Leo I preached that “we experience [what Jesus did] in the power of the works that are present.”


In the sixteenth century, Ignatius Loyola recommended that we imagine ourselves actually present at the scenes of the life of Jesus – His nativity, His preaching of the great Sermon on the Mount, at Calvary, and among the disciples when Thomas probed His wounds with his hands, and replied, “My Lord and my God!”

Thus, throughout all of history, the liturgy served for Christians as anamnesis, the recollection of faraway places and the long-since past as present in the here and now.

Augustine and Leo thus also insisted, as did Clement of Rome three centuries earlier, that Word and Sacrament have agency, that is to say, the proper words and gestures are more than symbols. They have power.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he did not reply that should say whatever was on their minds or in their hearts, but they should rather say, “Our Father.” Ever since, Catholics have privileged some prayers over others.

They have relied especially on the intercession of the Blessed Mother with the Memorare, Salve regina, and the Rosary.

Of course, the Mass itself was and is the greatest expression of petition, praise, and thanks.

Eucharistic celebration exhibited the unification of time and space. In an effort to explain Christian worship to the pagan Roman emperor, St Justin Martyr taught that the faithful receive a living person “eucharistized” (his word) in the bread and wine. St Irenaeus, a younger contemporary, agreed that the bread and wine is the true flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

The teaching of both men can be traced to the Apostle John, and therefore to Jesus Himself. No Catholic who invokes the past is merely a “backwardist” (as Pope Francis seems to believe), but a believer who unites himself/herself to the teaching of the Twelve and the person of the Savior.

A historical Church must have a temporal link with the Jesus of the Galilee and Jerusalem. Unlike their pagan contemporaries, our earliest ancestors in the faith offered to God an “awesome and unbloodied sacrifice,” in the words of the Liturgy of St James, the oldest rite known to us. No longer were lambs, doves, cattle, and other animals sacrificed to God, but God Himself became the sacrifice, in the form of eucharistized bread and wine.

Liturgy then is the image of Heaven on earth. What an awesome gift! What an incredible invitation!

The stakes could not be higher, and must be kept in mind, heart and soul when we think about the public worship of our beloved Church, for we not only memorialize the Paschal sacrifice, but we are also there present.

The liturgy should place us in the presence of the Divine and lift up our souls to God. We there glimpse the ultimate purpose – and goal – of all our lives.


*Image: All Saints (The Adoration of the Holy Trinity or the Landauer Altar) by Albrecht Dürer, 1511 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]

Robert W. Shaffern is a professor of medieval history at the University of Scranton. Dr. Shaffern also teaches courses in ancient and Byzantine civilization, as well as the Italian Renaissance and the Reformation. He is the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.