Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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New wine in new wineskins
by Father Jan Larson
(From the , 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Some years ago Father Eugene Walsh, a liturgist, wrote about the difficulties involved in using new forms of worship if one’s fundamental understanding of Church and sacraments remains in need of renewal. Using the Biblical reference, Father Walsh called this an attempt to put old wine into new wineskins. Vatican II seems to be ancient history to many older Catholics, and many others had not yet been born during those years of liturgical renewal in the early ’60s. Several decades later we are all familiar with the new forms of worship – the “new wineskins” – but for many, there is still a need to renew understanding of Church and sacraments, a need for “new wine” to put into the new wineskins. Sometimes this new wine is called the “new” theology, a way of looking at Church and sacraments, thinking about Church and sacraments, celebrating the reality of Church and sacraments, in a different way than we may be used to. Theology is a speculative science, always attempting to look at theological issues in new and better ways, so there will always be “new wine” available.
Perhaps we could simplify and summarize the “new theology” by making three statements.
First of all, sacraments are not “things” that one person does for another. They are actions that are done by persons, actions done by Christ and by all of us. Thus, the full sign of the Eucharist is not bread and wine that have been changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The full sign of the Eucharist is persons eating and drinking the consecrated bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper. Sacraments are actions, not objects, and these actions are performed by the Church, in the Church, and for the Church. The Church that we speak of so often is not priests or bishops or the Vatican, but rather each and every one of us in union with the risen Christ.
Second, the old sacramental theology, still often used today, distinguishes between those who “give” or “administer” the sacraments and those who “receive” them. This distinction needs to be set aside. It is more accurate to say that all celebrate the sacraments, and within each liturgical celebration there are different ministries, each person taking an active role that somehow contributes to making a good liturgical celebration. Thus, every person is truly a celebrant, because each person celebrates fully and actively.
The third point to be made is that the risen Christ celebrates sacraments with us, and we with him. He continues his mission and ministry through us, who have become his body. And here, of course, we begin to understand the mystery and power of good liturgy. As Father Walsh used to explain, “Jesus uses us, our bodies, our human experience, the human signs we make, to reach us. We are his body, his face, his voice. The part of people, our part, in the joint enterprise we call sacraments is to make the signs by which Jesus enters our lives, the signs by which Jesus communicates with us. Celebrating sacraments is truly a joint enterprise between Jesus and his people. If we do our part poorly, then we interfere with the work of Jesus. We have the power to enhance his work. We have the power to interfere with his work. It is an awesome responsibility.”
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle. This article originally appeared in the Aug. 21, 2008 edition of the Inland Register.)