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Liturgy speaks in silence song and word of God

 The theology of the liturgy analyses the liturgical sign and addresses the fundamental liturgical question of why we need visible signs that are perceptible to the senses in order to be sanctified and enabled to glorify God?

People are corporeal-spiritual beings; the spirit needs the body to come into contact with its environment and our spirit can only be accessed through our five senses.

There are Christological reasons too, as we believe that the invisible God became visible in the person of Jesus, who is both human and divine. Jesus is the greatest sign of the invisible God the world knows. Jesus is the fundamental sacrament and he continues, through visible signs, to act as the sacrament in his Church.

The Church is also the body of Jesus. The Constitution on the Liturgy calls it, “The sign lifted up among the nations under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together” (No. 2).

Without visible signs, the liturgy would not be human, Christian or ecclesial. Words too are audible signs, and they play an important role in the liturgy. The word of God proclaimed in the liturgy, together with the words of the prayers and the explanations serve to clarify the meaning of the visible signs.

The sign of the immersion in the water is clarified and determined by the words, “I baptise you in the name of the Father …” and the same holds true for the signs bread and wine, which are clarified and determined by the words, “This is my body given up for you. This is my blood, shed for you.”

That is why the council wanted to reform the liturgy, so that “the intimate connection between words and rites may be apparent in the liturgy” (SC 35) and “through a good understanding of the rites and prayers, they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing” (SC 48).

Note how the council carefully couples words and rites and rites and prayers together, emphasising the importance of the role played by the word in the liturgy. Liturgical signs belong to the very nature of liturgy. They must be understood for the liturgy wants to make sense.

If the liturgy remains a sequence of incomprehensible rituals and words, then it could be seen to border on magic. This explains why the council took the hugely courageous decision to introduce the language of the people into the liturgy. A new door was opened and, since for many centuries Latin had been the language of the Roman rite, the reason offered by the council for this change is pastoral.

“The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended” (SC 36:1, 2).

At the same time, the Council is aware that prayer needs silence. Too many readings and verbal explanations may create an atmosphere of unease. This is the council’s suggestion, “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence” (SC 30).

By reverent silence the council means a ritual and communal silence, a silence that is observed by all, including the presiding priest; something like a pause in a piece of music, when the choir makes a silent pause before continuing singing; a silence that is part of the liturgy and it is a sign of Jesus’ presence in the midst of the assembly.

It is not like the silence of the Tridentine Mass, as all those present had to be silent, while the priest recited prayers and readings in their name, and the canon in a low voice.

The reverent silence the council speaks of is part of the dialogue between God and his children. “In the liturgy, God speaks to his people and Christ is still proclaiming his gospel. And the people reply to God both by song and prayer” (SC 33).

Silence is part of this dialogue. This is how the General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains the silence during the liturgy of the Word.

“The liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to promote meditation, and so any sort of haste that hinders recollection must clearly be avoided. During the liturgy of the word, it is also appropriate to include brief periods of silence, accommodated to the gathered assembly, in which, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared.

“It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the liturgy of the word itself begins, after the first and second readings, and lastly at the conclusion of the homily” (SC 56).

... something like a pause in a piece of music, when the choir makes a silent pause before continuing singing; a silence that is part of the liturgy and it is a sign of Jesus’ presence in the midst of the assembly

● Father Giovanni Giampietro