The Sacred Liturgy as a Monument or Witness of Tradition

The Catholic who wishes to think with the Church, (sentire cum Ecclesia, as the expression goes), to take part in her life, and to grow in communion with her, must be attentive to her Tradition. For the faithful must hold fast to that which is handed down, be guided by the Magisterium, and must ensure that it is transmitted, in all of its purity, to subsequent generations. Many think, perhaps, of Sacred Scripture, the decrees of ecumenical councils, or even of the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church when considering the Church’s Tradition. And, indeed, these are all elements of this reality. There is a more fundamental reality, however, which is, in some sense, more fundamental than these, and certainly more frequently engaged by faithful Catholics. This reality is the sacred liturgy, which may be called a monument or witness of Tradition. I wish, therefore, to explore precisely how the liturgy is such a monument. I will begin by speaking of the liturgy as the locus of union between the two aspects of Tradition. Secondly, I will discuss the educative and illuminative power of the liturgy, focusing in particular on sacred art and architecture. Lastly, I will explicate the relationship between the liturgy and Sacred Scripture.

Tradition may be considered under two aspects, namely, that which is handed down, and those by whom it is handed down. These correspond to the object and the subject of Tradition respectively. As Yves Congar says:

The act of transmitting implies a content, an object; it also implies someone who transmits, an active subject. The subject of tradition is the living being who carries it and is answerable for it: the subject of an action always bears a measure of responsibility.

The content of course is the salvific truth of God, revealed once and for all in a definitive way in Jesus Christ. He alone bears witness fully to the Father, for he has come forth from his very bosom. The Subject of this divine revelation is the Holy Spirit, he who corresponds to the promise of Christ: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” From this text, it is clear that he is not presenting some new revelation, but the very truth of the Gospel given in Christ. The Holy Spirit may be called the “Transcendent Subject” of Tradition, the “trans-historical” Subject who calls to mind in the Church of every age the teaching of Christ and his will for her. The historical subject then is the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ, the visible society of the faithful that extends Christ’s presence through time and space. This subject in Sacred Scripture is said to be “the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

The sacred liturgy is the intimate meeting place of these two subjects. This is not to say that they are not always joined together, for the Spirit of Christ remains with the Church to strengthen her, and give her life. Even still, in the liturgy, the union between the two subjects of Tradition is manifested in a most perfect manner. The words of Pope Pius XII are helpful in determining precisely what is meant by “liturgy.” He says in his encyclical, Mediator Dei:

In obedience, therefore, to her Founder’s behest, the Church prolongs the priestly mission of Jesus Christ mainly by means of the sacred liturgy. She does this in the first place at the altar, where constantly the sacrifice of the cross is represented, and with a single difference in the manner of its offering, renewed. She does it next by means of the sacraments, those special channels through which men are made partakers in the supernatural life. She does it, finally, by offering to God, all Good and Great, the daily tribute of her prayer of praise.

The liturgy is thus the public worship of the Church, the means by which Christ’s saving work, his “priestly mission,” is carried out and continued. By the Church’s sacred rites, the faithful encounter Jesus Christ Himself, joining themselves in communion with him, and with one another. This communion with the God-Man is a sine qua non for understanding the Tradition of the Church. For one cannot think with the Church if he is not joined to her Head.

The sacred liturgy of the Church is the fullest expression of her life, a life animated and sustained by the Holy Spirit. The faithful not only come in contact with the Living God who allows them, through his grace, to understand the Tradition, but in fact this very Tradition is mani-fested and communicated. The liturgy is the environment within which the Holy Spirit works to enlighten the hearts of the faithful, and confirm them in the truth of Christ. Yet, as Congar relates: “The entry into these truths is not by way of discussion or argument, but through the intimacy of living experience.” This living experience is the act of the Church “remembering” the words of her Master, not by simply recalling them as words of the past, but by making those very words, and the reality they represent, present. But the Church cannot accomplish this without the Spirit, whom she has received until the end of time by divine institution. This remembrance (anamnesis) of the Church finds expression in the sacred liturgy, and thus: “It is in the liturgy that the children of God encounter the memory of their family history, and this is a work of the Spirit.” Once again, the memory of the Church is not a certain fondness for the things of the past, but a participation in the mysteries of salvation in the present. For the words and deeds of God, which constitute the content of Tradition, while occurring in a particular spatio-temporal context by the very power of Christ, become present to every time and place.

In her prayer, the Church reveals what she believes, and thus the ancient axiom holds true: lex orandi, lex credendi. Human persons left to their own devices could not hold the Church together and preserve the truth of the Gospel inviolate. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that this is accomplished. The Holy Spirit is, then, the guarantee that “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” be guarded and passed down in the Church, the divinely-instituted society that is the heir to the promise of Christ: “the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” The Transcendent Subject of Tradition ensures the fidelity of the visible and historical subject. It is true that when we consider the Church in terms of her earthly sojourners, there is a constant battle between the wheat and the chaff, as it were, and thus a constant need for purification and renewal in the truth. Even still, our Lord promised her fidelity until the end, so that the Church, as such, will never fail or lead her children into error. The liturgical rites of the Church are not random combinations and sequences of prayers, gestures, and movements. As Aidan Nichols says:

[I]n this assemblage of texts and gestures, we see the Church’s self-understanding (and thus Tradition) unfolding before our eyes. The liturgy permits us to hear the Church interpreting her own faith in the best way she knows how.

Her self-understanding is informed by the Spirit who reminds her always of her divine mission: the bringing of all mankind to the joy of Christ’s truth, and the salvation of souls. In the sacred liturgy, the reality which is the end of her work, namely, heavenly glory, is signified and really brought about, a foretaste and a down payment of the good things to come.

The liturgy is not only the meeting place of the two subjects of Tradition, but it also provides an educative experience for the faithful. We have mentioned already the interior illumination that takes place through the grace of the Holy Spirit. In addition to this, the liturgy contains a wealth of signs and symbols, gestures and actions, which point to truths of the faith. Consider the gesture that is perhaps the most basic in the life of Christian prayer: the sign of the Cross. This sign, despite its simplicity, is pregnant with meaning. “It is a way of confessing Christ crucified with one’s very body,” as Joseph Ratzinger says. It at once confesses faith in the crucified Jesus, the Messiah who died for our salvation, and the Holy Trinity, the very central mystery of our faith. “Thus we can say that in the sign of the Cross, together with the invocation of the Trinity, the whole essence of Christianity is summed up; it displays what is distinctively Christian.” We see then how the Tradition of the Church, the Tradition which proclaims the truth of the crucified and risen Christ, the reality of Personhood in the one God, and the hope of salvation for those who suffer for Christ’s sake, is expressed in the sacred liturgy. Take another example, the form or posture of prayer in the liturgy. In the West, it is customary to genuflect before the Holy Eucharist contained in the tabernacle, and to kneel at appointed times during Holy Mass. In the East, while kneeling and genuflecting are not part of their patrimony, oftentimes the faithful bow reverently. These postures point to the reality of the sacred liturgy as the means by which Christ makes himself present to his people, most especially in the Blessed Sacrament.

Further, sacred (liturgical) art and architecture have a profound educative significance. The reality of the Incarnation changes everything, so that we can represent the Son of God, His holy Mother, and the saints and angels in artwork. As Aidan Nichols says, “That God had revealed himself definitively through a human being meant that henceforth true belief about the divine could be expressed in works of art.” The use of art was especially helpful in ages of illiteracy, when the Word of God was appropriated not by reading Sacred Scripture, but by hearing it preached, and seeing it come alive on the very walls and structures of the church building itself. Artwork has the power to communicate in a profound manner the truths of the faith. The experience of sacred artwork is one of wonder and awe before something reflecting the beauty of God, and one also of instructive significance. “The continuing history of Christian art as an attempt to re-express revelation in aesthetic terms is, therefore, one of the ways in which Tradition operates.” In the age of the early Church, for instance, there were the simple forms and symbols that covered the walls of the catacombs, the beautiful historical narratives on the walls of basilicas that told of the mighty works of God in salvation history, and the portraits of holy persons, most especially our Lord and our Lady. The Church seeks artists in every age who wish to show forth something of the beauty and majesty of God through their talent, a talent used not for self-aggrandizement or boasting, but for the glory of God, the good of Holy Mother Church, and the illumination of her children.

Not only art, but also architecture can have an educative value. The orientation of a church, its shape, and its inner furnishings can all lift the minds of the faithful toward the contemplation of the divine. Consider, for instance, the beauty of the iconostasis. While used primarily in the Eastern rites (mainly in Byzantine Churches), this structure is both an architectural feature, and a work of art. It should not be regarded as an obstacle, a wall separating the congregation from what happens at the holy altar. Instead, it is a gate of sorts, a doorway to the Holy of Holies. As Joan Roccasalvo puts it:

It links the space, where the heavenly mysteries are enacted, with the earth, where the Church lives and struggles. The icon screen brings the universal Church together.

The icon screen thus proclaims truths of the faith, most especially the Communion of Saints, that is, the unity of the Church on earth with the Church in heavenly glory. It highlights the central feature of the Divine Liturgy, namely, that it is the place where heaven and earth meet, where God comes with his saints and angels to dwell with his people, and give them supernatural life. That the sanctuary is the place behind the iconostasis is no accident, for on the altar Jesus Christ is made present, and heavenly realities are made manifest. These elements of art and architecture, while in some sense “extrinsic” to the liturgy itself, are intimately bound up with its celebration.

Another way in which liturgy acts as a monument of Tradition is by means of something more intrinsic, the very texts and prayers of the liturgy itself, especially the Holy Mass. The prayers contain many direct quotes from, and allusions to, Sacred Scripture, such that the celebration of Mass immerses one into the holy texts. The Church, too, over the course of the centuries, has formulated texts that express her self-understanding. These developed not in committees, or in quick fashion, but organically, and over time. Through the liturgy’s use of the texts of Sacred Scripture, it gives interpretation to them; through its use of other texts, it expresses truths not contained formally in the Bible.

Yves Congar mentions a series of doctrines held by the Church that have been proclaimed through the celebration of the liturgy from the very beginning, and yet are not contained as such in Sacred Scripture. The first is the aforementioned doctrine of the Communion of Saints. This reality was kept in the memory of the faithful, so that they came to understand the efficaciousness of intercession by the blessed in heaven. Veneration of their images, moreover, became quite natural, and of great spiritual benefit to the faithful. These led to “a certain practice of the remission of temporal punishment, or indulgences: these are so many points not formally attested in the Scriptures, although the foundation or indications of them are found there, or at least their basic principle (in the idea of the Mystical Body and the communion of saints).” In addition, the principles which make Marian devotion intelligible were found in the liturgy from the earliest centuries, where the faithful venerated the Mother of God with the greatest devotion, praised her sweetness, and asked for her prayers.

When the liturgy does employ the Scriptures, it works to interpret them within the community of faith. In her wisdom, the Church may link particular texts with certain feasts during the liturgical year, therefore bringing to the fore a meaning not readily apprehended by the faithful. It may also join two texts together, one from the Old Testament, and one from the New, in order to show that a profound continuity exists between the two, and that their ultimate meaning is realized in Jesus Christ. This method is itself a continuation of the art of the first Christians, who would make such comparisons on the walls of the catacombs. The early Church preserved the Scriptures not in individual Christian homes, but in the sacred liturgy. As Scott Hahn says:

Indeed, the books we know as the New Testament were canonized not so much for devotional reading—which was rare in those days before the printing press—but for liturgical proclamation.

The liturgy is the solemn celebration of a post-Resurrection people, a people, motivated by charity, who have come to a deeper understanding of the mission of Christ. And, indeed, it was Christ Himself who explained to the disciples the meaning of the Scriptures in light of his own death and Resurrection. As Congar says so well: “The liturgy has inherited the information he communicated to his disciples.” The Scriptures come to life and find full expression in the sacred liturgy. They come together with the other texts of the liturgy to become a great prayer of praise to God. As Nichols explains, “The liturgy is the poetry of the Church, and just as poetry is language at its most expressive, so in the liturgy we hear the Church’s voice at its most eloquent.” This poetry expresses the inner nature of the Church, the identity of which is bound up with the glorification of God and the sanctification of man.

Just as Tradition is that which is handed down, so too is the liturgy transmitted from generation to generation. It is for this reason that no individual within the Church may claim dominion over it, as though it were his possession, something artificial and therefore manipulatable. The Christian people pass on this liturgical heritage with a spirit of faith and love, for they wish others to share in the richness of the same experience. The faithful have an acute sense of what is happening in the sacred liturgy, even if they are unable to articulate it, or explain it to others. And, indeed, even persons educated in the faith, or in the theological sciences, cannot express the mystery in its completeness. Let us hear once again from Congar, who explicates this point well:

I have pointed out a number of times already that it is the special property of action, as also of symbols and rites, to embody the whole of a reality in a more complete way than the mind can grasp, even confusedly. Likewise, it is the special prerogative of the faithful carrying out of the Church’s worship to be able to retain and pass on again its heritage, in its entirety, no matter how fragmentary may be our awareness of its actual content.

In brief, while the mystery entered into is far too dense for human comprehension, the grace offered far too bountiful for complete human acquisition, even still the people of God hand on with joy what they have received, be it the faith itself, or the intimate living out of that faith in the sacred liturgy.

The more the unity and interconnectedness of the elements of the Church’s life are discovered, the more the brilliant plan of God is made manifest. This is true especially of the sacred liturgy as a witness, or monument, of Tradition. As St. John Paul II says in his Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen:

Tradition is never pure nostalgia for things or forms past, nor regret for lost privileges, but the living memory of the Bride, kept eternally youthful by the Love that dwells within her.

It is the liturgy that is the living memory of the Church, and thus, also Tradition living and showing itself in the life of the Christian people. If the Church is to retain this vitality, and fulfill her divine mandate to bring all mankind to the love and truth of Christ, she must be sustained by the sacred liturgy. This is why the Second Vatican Council proclaimed in Sacrosanctum Concilium:

[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.

The liturgy is thus the lifeblood of Tradition.

But tradition is only living tradition insofar as it is consecrated in the liturgy. This is what Christians mean when they appeal to tradition’s great and golden law: Lex orandi, lex credendi.

Having shown how the sacred liturgy is the meeting place of the two subjects of Tradition, an educative experience for the faithful, and a means of expressing truths not contained formally in Scripture, while also bringing out the meaning of Scripture itself, it should be clear that the sacred liturgy is a monument, or witness, of Tradition, even the primary and preeminent witness.

Aaron D. Henderson About Aaron D. Henderson

Aaron D. Henderson is originally from a small town in southeastern Missouri. He received a B.A. degrees in Theology and Philosophy at Benedictine College. He holds a M.A. degree in Theology from the University of Dallas, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology at Ave Maria University, a pursuit for which he asks many prayers.


  1. Matthew Minerd, Ph.D. Matthew Minerd, Ph.D. says:

    Glory to Jesus Christ!

    Dear Aaron,
    Many thanks for this article – interesting that it coincides with conversations I have had recently on this very topic. Be sure to look at the comments (for good or ill) of Cipriano Vagaggini on this topic. Also,
    do not totally believe what is said concerning the old treatises De locis theologicis. There are such texts that acknowledge liturgy as a locus theologicus. As just one example, be sure to look into Joachim Joseph Berthier’s treatise from 1888. Just sharing in case you are in the midst of academic work on this topic in your studies!

    I would add, though, that this also is a reason for having grave reservations concerning willy nilly changes to liturgical texts. The Roman Rite is faced with particular problems in this regard, given the significant changes in her liturgy in recent history. No judgments in that regard. Just a thought from someone who straddles the worlds of West and East and often thinks about this very topic.

    Blessings on your studies and in all things!



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