Monday, February 07, 2005

Liturgy and Auschwitz
Another essay from Neil. I'm grateful for and welcome his regular input.
January 27 marked National Holocaust Day in Great Britain. The Archbishop of Canterbury said, “On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we confront again not simply the darkness of those years but the darkness that can always take hold of the human spirit. One of the lessons we still struggle to learn and a lesson that serves for old and young alike, is how frail our commitment can be to what we profess: that God calls us in the light of his love to honor and respect all of humanity as made in his image.” Can liturgy help us learn this lesson that, sadly, “we still struggle to learn”? The priest-theologian James Alison helps us answer this difficult question (“Worship in a Violent World,” Studia Liturgica 34 [2004]). He begins, though, in a rather odd way, with the Fourth Lateran Council’s proclamation, “Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.” Please don’t stop reading - this thirteenth century remark might seem horribly abstract, but it is a necessary protective against idolatry, our tendency to simply take that common pagan word “god” (“Theos” comes from “Zeus”) and then speak of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Against this inclination, the “greater dissimilitude” reminds us that what we mean when we apply the word “god” to our Father “is much more unlike a ‘god’ than it is like it.” Christian language, then, really must be subversion against ordinary usage. Indeed, in the Incarnation, “God takes us starting from where we are, with our words to do with god, and worship, and sacrifice, and love, and enables us to turn them into something quite else, something which is not full of the fear, ambivalence, violence, and frenzy which characterize those words in their ordinary usage.” Liturgy can keep us from the “darkness that can always take hold of the human spirit” if it remains faithful to this subversion; it is in danger of returning to “fear, ambivalence, and frenzy” when it merely speaks of the “god” of the pagan cult of divinities. How can we tell if we have unconsciously forgotten the “greater dissimilitude” and fallen back into “ordinary usage”? Fr Alison asks us to consider the difference between an authentically subversive liturgy and that most extreme display of paganism recently forced back into our consciousness, the Nuremberg Rally. We can first say, then, “True Worship is for our own good.” In the Nuremberg Rally, the spectacle had a clear purpose, the wretched designs of party officials: “A quite specific set of desires was being put forward, and the faithful were being inducted into acquiring these as their own,” with the hypnotism of pageantry. But authentic liturgy subverts any such “clear purpose” because it is for God, who “has no desire for us to worship him for his sake; he needs no worship, no adulation, no praise, nor glory.” Instead, the praise of liturgy is to “have our imaginations set free from fate, from myth, from ineluctable forces, from historical grudges” altogether. Alison continues, “True Worship achieves nothing.” While the Nuremberg Rally aims to achieve certain things – togetherness, belonging – for the sake of the future, “Christian worship is predicated on the understanding that there is nothing left to achieve.” This is especially true in the Feast of the Ascension in which “we describe that it’s all over, the crucified and risen Lamb is already in heaven. His marriage supper has already started.” The Nuremberg rally slowly builds to a climax when the Fuhrer finally appears with the divinity and aura of a god. True worship? The crucified Lamb has no need of an apotheosis; he is just there. “Because He is just there, our liturgy is an ordered and relaxed way of habitually making ourselves present, as worshipping group, to the one who is just there, already surrounded by festal angels, and our predecessors in the faith.” At its height, the Nazi rally, with fiery oratory, condemns the Jews – the miserable enemies who are destroyed in a consoling myth about a communal return to the Promised Land. True worship instead brings us face to face with our forgiving victim, the “Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36), so that any myth involving the sacrifice of imagined enemies is effectively demythologized. True worship also does not produce group unanimity, that false sort of communion built upon uniformity, shared feeling, or excitement. No “Bruderschaft” here, either. Finally, Fr Alison notes that the “frenzy” of the Nuremberg Rally is somewhat safe: “It should not threaten us with hazard, except the comfortingly controlled hazard of the choosing of the victim. There should be nothing too risky or open-ended about it.” On the other hand, there is nothing safe about authentic worship at all. Read the words of Fr Alfred Delp, SJ, murdered by the Nazis: “The necessary condition for the fulfillment of Advent is the renunciation of the presumptuous attitudes and alluring dreams in which and by means of which we always build ourselves imaginary worlds. In this way we force reality to take us to itself by force - by force, in much pain and suffering.” Think about this during the “jagged edges” of Holy Week. So, how does liturgy teach us that the light of God’s love must be directed against the darkness of Auschwitz, a “darkness that can always take hold of the human spirit”? When we slide back to “god” by thinking of worship that will serve the purpose of ineluctable forces, achieve a mythic future, culminate with an apotheosis and a consoling revelation, and hold us together with chthonic enthusiasm, liturgy should be there to say, “Absolutely not.” Authentic worship reminds us that we worship the God who needs no worship, who has already triumphed, who is “just there,” and who was once our “miserable enemy” nailed to the cross. No marching, uniforms, or intoxicating music for our God; just “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” Liturgy is our anti-Nuremberg Rally. Through its “jagged edges,” may the reality of God’s love for all humanity always pierce through our darkness.

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