I don’t think we can understand liturgy until we understand that it is a storytelling process. And then we have to understand the story liturgy tells and what the story does.
Why understanding liturgy as “story” is so important
It is important to see liturgy as a story because narrative structure conveys meaning. Like a story, the liturgy has a plot in which key characters experience a conflict or crisis. Something happens in the story during which the key characters learn something or discover something they didn’t know before. They are changed. And that change then empowers them to resolve the crisis or conflict.
So, in a romantic comedy, for example, the plot is usually boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Between “loses girl” and “gets girl back,” something happens that gives the boy new insight, and he becomes a better person.
What is the story that liturgy tells?
The Story of Salvation is much more profound than a romcom, but it is a love story, nonetheless. The story begins with creation — God made us. God made us to love us, to be intimate with us, to be in relationship with us.
And we blew it. We lost out. We almost missed our chance. We broke off our relationship with God.
The Story then spends a long time in the inbetween phase. God tried many things to get us back. The stories of Abraham and Isaac, the escape from Egypt, Sodom and Gomora, David, Judith, Hosea, the Flood, and the Maccabean revolt are just a few of the stories within the Story that describe God’s attempts to bring us back.No matter how we tell it or how we adjust it, liturgy is always, always, always telling the Story of Salvation. Click To Tweet
The Incarnation is the last of these stories within the Story. By becoming human, God gives humanity the insight we needed to become faithful to God. The Crucifixion-Resurrection is the Story’s climax, which Pope John Paul II called “the fulcrum of history.” In the Crucifixion-Resurrection event, we are fully restored to intimacy with God. It is, in a sense, a new creation. We get a do-over. We are saved.
The liturgy is a way of telling and retelling the Story of Salvation. It is the same story every time. Sometimes we emphasize one part of the story more than another part. Sometimes we leave some things out. Sometimes we focus on one of the stories within the Story. But no matter how we tell it or how we adjust it, liturgy is always, always, always telling the Story of Salvation.
Narrative structure of eucharistic liturgy
The liturgy tells the Story in several ways. In this post, I’m going to focus on two of them. The first is the celebration of Sunday Eucharist. The Eucharist has this narrative structure (or plot):
- God gathers us — for a reason
- To remind us we belong to God (that is, we are the ecclesia)
- To remind us God is crazy in love with us
- We tell the stories within the Story
- By proclaiming the scriptures, we are reminded of all the ways God has blessed us and loved us
- The last of these stores within the Story is the Incarnation — Word becoming flesh. And so the Logos is really present in the proclamation of the word. It is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.
- We give thanks
- In the first creation, when God expressed God’s love for us, we blew it. Now we know better. In the new creation, we respond to God’s love with thanksgiving.
- The way that we give thanks is the way that Jesus taught us. We break bread and share the cup. This action of the church (ecclesia) offering thanks is so meaning-full that Christ is really present in the elements of the thanksgiving. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.
- When the church shares in the Body and Blood of Christ in the act of communion, we are the fullest image this side of heaven of the unity that God intends for us. By the power of the Spirit, we become one with the love of the Father and the Son.
- Like the Samaritan Woman, we run into town to tell the good news
- Our encounter with Jesus in the liturgy changes us. It empowers us. The power that we now have is to go and do the work of the church.
- That work is fundamentally to tell the world that Jesus loves us and saves us.
Metanarrative of the liturgical year
The second way in which the liturgy tells the Story of Salvation is through a metanarrative or overarching plot line. Think of the Star Wars movies. Each one is a telling a story of salvation. But all of the movies together tell that same story from a higher, more expansive viewpoint.
The liturgy uses the same technique through the celebration of the liturgical year:
Within the cycle of a year, moreover, [the church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 102)
By structuring our Sunday Eucharist and other sacramental and feast day celebrations within the structure of a year, the year itself becomes a storytelling device. Like the Star Wars movies, you can drop into the Story at any point and gain some insight into the plot. But to understand the “whole mystery of Christ,” we have to tell the Story every week in all its forms throughout the liturgical year. That is why it is important for catechumens to be in a process of formation for at least one full year. Anything less, and they will not have heard the whole Story.
Why the story we tell matters
The implications of all of this for pastoral leaders are profound. On a given Sunday, if we do not tell the story well, we lose that chance to change and empower the members of the assembly to be able to go out and proclaim the good news. And if our storytelling is faulty or weak on most Sundays, the bigger story, the “whole mystery of Christ,” is not revealed as fully as possible. Then the formation of the catechumens falters and the ongoing formation of the baptized is damaged.
On the other hand, when we do tell the story well, the faithful are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The catechumens take another step on the way of faith and conversion. And, through our witness, the world becomes reconciled to God.
It’s a thrilling Story, and it’s up to us to make it come true.