The Wellsprings of Worship

 by Father Jean Corbon

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We are honored to be able to present to you, our readers, with the permission of the Paulist Press, several excerpts from the seminal work of Fr. Jean Corbon, TheWellspring of Worship. This book is a admirable contribution to liturgy and theology, the contribution of a characteristically Byzantine holistically spiritual statement in the overall liturgical revival movement. Fr. Corbon, a Melkite Catholic priest, also has contributed to the composition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church  and has been active in the quest for Christian unity on behalf of the Middle East Council of Catholic Bishops.

We hope that you will enjoy the excerpts (pp. 3, 9-12, 35-43, 184-185 and accompanying notes) presented below. At the time of posting of this page (September 2000), The Wellspring of Worship was out of print.  Paulist Press, the publisher, gave its permission to the Society to publish these excerpts.  Paulist Press subsequently transferred the publishing rights to Ignatius Press, which has reprinted this important book in an attractive new edition.  If you enjoy these excerpts and would like to obtain a copy of the entire book, you may contact Ignatius Press  directly from here, or contact them at the numbers given below in the copyright notice, to express your interest in purchasing a copy. Your expressions of interest will aid in their decision about whether or not to issue a new printing.

The Wellspring of Worship
 by Fr. Jean Corbon

Excerpts taken from The Wellspring of Worship, originally published as Liturgie de Source by Les Editions Du Cerf, Paris, Copyright © 1980 by Les Editions Du Cerf. English translation© 1988 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York. Used by permission of Paulist Press, 997 Macarthur Boulevard, Mahwah, New Jersey, 07430, 1-800-218-1903 ; Second edition published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, in 2005 with permission of Les Editions du Cerf, ISBN 1-58617-022-8;


In the liturgical springtime which most of the Churches are experiencing today, there is one question that young people, adults, educators, and even pastors cannot evade: Do our celebrations, lively though they may be, change the lives of Christians? Where is the vital link -- or, possibly, the divorce -- between liturgy and life? The question is one of the most serious a mature Christian can ask. It is no less serious for the communion of Churches, since in the springtime of which I speak the mystery of the liturgy seems to be the basis for the unity that is taking shape.

My purpose in this book is to help readers rediscover the unity of liturgy and life in Christ and not be satisfied with the mere parallelism or even divergence they mistakenly think exists between the two. We will be engaged less in a learned inquiry than in a prayerful discovery of the wellspring of worship. Our guide will be the experience of the Church: an experience that is at once liturgical and spiritual, personal and communal, and is illumined by the Bible and the Fathers.

This means that the book is also ecumenical in its inspiration. Each ecclesial tradition will be able to recognize itself in the common, undivided tradition. There may be more frequent references to the Byzantine tradition, but I have tried to remain on the original level at which the liturgies of both East and West embody the Christian liturgy. (1)

A symbol: the river of life (Rev 22: 1f) will serve to light the way for our gradual discovery. I ask the readers to let themselves be carried along by this river's slow but deep running current. Each chapter, at times more contemplative, at times more didactic, will help reveal the mystery of the source; the wellspring is ever the same, but the living water that flows from it is ever new.

Beside the Well

Human beings thirst and look for water wherever they think they will find it. As they wander without any horizon in sight and no way of escape they dig a well each time they pitch their tent. The wonderful thing is that the history of their salvation always begins with the digging of a well. "We find the patriarchs constantly digging wells." (1) We ourselves are these patriarchs, traversing a promised land as strangers in our own inheritance. Beside their wells they also build altars to their gods: their religion, their ideology, their money, their power. Human beings are thirsty: how could they fail to dig where they think they may find water?

Even the denials that spring up from our atheistic unconsciousness betray our nostalgia. "They say that they thirst not; they say that this is not a well, that this is not water. They say that this is not a well of water as they have imagined it to be, and they say there is no water." (2) But these same human beings, so sure of themselves, cannot but continue to be still expectant, for to stop thirsting would mean they were already sunk in the sleep of death.

Nor does he sleep who placed in the human soul both the thirst and the expectation. Indeed, he is the first to thirst and to set out in search of us, to the point of joining us beside our pathetic wells. "Start with these wells, traverse the scriptures in search of wells, and reach the Gospels. There you will find the well beside which our Savior was resting, wearied by his journey, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water from it. (3)

It is beside the well that he waits for us. The conversation always leads, by way of our evasions and hostilities, to the unavoidable question of the temple or place of encounter between God and human beings, and of water and the thirst for it. "Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem": Where, then, is the place of the new liturgy, the infinitely rich place where life rediscovers its source?

For some people the only wells in question are their own. The fountain of living water? "They have abandoned ... the fountain of living water, and dug water-tanks for themselves, cracked water tanks that hold no water" (Jer 2:13). Thus for the activists inspired by love the Gospel is action and must be taken seriously: the Lazarus of the parable is at our doors; why then should they waste time at the symbolic festival of the evil rich? Then there are the purists of class struggle: they refuse to enter because it would be a lie for them to share the agape with the sinners who oppress the poor outside the temple. Finally, there are the solitary mystics, averse to all forms of celebration: in their view Christ transcended this whole business with his ideal of "worship in spirit and truth"; angels are not interested in fountains.

Beside the well Christ also awaits the Samaritan women of the new covenant. These realize that the spring of water exists and they are looking for it, but they have forgotten that it wells up in him who asks them for a drink. The fountain has become a mirage. In this group we find the manufacturers of liturgies and the tireless composers; they are fascinated by life and anxious for authenticity and therefore on each occasion they invent anew the celebration of their life. Then too there are the lovers of the archaic and the purists who focus on form: the way to the fountain is enough for them, because for centuries it has guided believers. Also on this path where security is the main concern we find those who have fled from the vale of tears; they forget real life for a moment and immerse themselves in a heavenly liturgy -- but what kind of heavenly liturgy is it?

This leaves these -- undoubtedly the majority of the faithful -- who do not ask so many questions and pass in a very simple way from sabbath to resurrection. Their attachment to Sunday and its paschal Eucharist is really astounding when we realize that they are unable to say why they are attached. It is precisely this "why," perhaps recalcitrant, perhaps sly, that so many young people ask of their practicing parents; when the answers are unsatisfactory because legalistic or moralistic, the result is a disaffection that is logical for the young and painful for their elders. But neither group can say what role the liturgy is meant to play in their lives.

There is, finally, another kind of astonishment: that of the young themselves when a meeting happens to bring participation in a vital celebration that is open to the mystery. If the liturgy were always like this (they say on such occasions), we would be ready to go back to church once more. We sense, however, that for this really to happen their faith would have to be deepened and they would have to rediscover with clarity and conviction the true nature of life and liturgy; and this clarity and conviction perhaps do not shine out brightly enough in their elders.

When thus cut off from the source, a liturgical celebration becomes self-contained, as it were, without any vital link to before and after. Finding it foreign to them, some turn their backs on it and return to life, their own life. Others persist in crossing the threshold into this foreign world in order that their life may be absorbed into it for a moment or to give their experience dramatic expression. To the former the liturgy is unimportant because their desire is to remain in real life; but what is the life they regard as real? To the latter, life is meant to find its meaning in the liturgy; but in what kind of liturgy do they seek this meaning? The distance remains; the gap is not bridged.

In fact, the unity of liturgy and life is offered to us -- "if we only knew what God is offering!" -- but it must be discovered and experienced. If it is ignored or rejected, this is because it has not been grasped in its source; for this there may be many reasons, not all of which have to do with the quality of the celebration.

One of these reasons may well be a confusion, hardly realized, between liturgy and liturgical celebration. This confusion is shared by those who continue to practice and those who have ceased to practice. It is even shared by fervent leaders of the liturgical renewal, who focus their entire effort on the celebration and its forms and expressions, the life of the assembly, the texts and movements, the singing and active participation of all. It is necessary, of course, that attention be given to all these; but sometimes they forget what is being celebrated, as if it could be taken for granted. 

Is it surprising, then, that after so much effort the liturgy still seems to have taken no hold on the lives of Christians? The channels have been repaired indeed, but what about the fountain?

It seems that the vision with which all these groups start focuses exclusively on liturgical phenomena. But why not begin with the hidden reality, the liturgical mystery? It is possible that a certain type of sacramental theology, the legitimate heir of long centuries of reflection, plays a distorting role in this area. 

For a long time now, and especially since the sixteenth century, the West has given a privileged place to the idea of efficacy or causality in the sacraments. That the sacraments are indeed efficacious is an established truth, and there is no question of rejecting it. In our own time, however, people are becoming more responsive to the idea of sign; the modern liturgical movement, in fact, owes the best of its pastoral and spiritual advances to it. But were we to limit ourselves to this category we would imprison ourselves in the celebration without any hope of escape.

Let us return to Origen. Before speaking of ourselves and our celebration let us begin by listening to him who celebrates and is celebrated. Lest we begin digging our own wells once more, let us welcome him who offers us the living fountain. "For he is here, this Word of God, and his present work is to remove the earth from the souls of each of you in order that your fountain may flow. This fountain is in you and does not come from outside, like the kingdom of God which is also within you." (4) Before being a celebration, the liturgy is an event. The real question is not "celebration and life" but "liturgy and life." The all-embracing event of Christ is far greater in its breadth and depth, and constitutes "the mystery."

Chapter 4

The Ascension and the Eternal Liturgy

''The river of life, rising from the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev 22:1), flowed hidden in the passage of the time of the promises and God's patience. But "when the completion of the time came" (Gal 4:4), that is, when the incarnation occurred, the river entered into our world and assumed our flesh. In the "hour" of the cross and the resurrection it sprang forth from the incorruptible and life-giving body of Christ. From that moment on it has been and is liturgy. A new period thus began within "the present time" (1) in which after its decisive defeat death carries on its war on all fronts but in which, at the same time, the Passage of the Lord continues to penetrate the depths of humanity and history. We are in "the last times." (2)

Just as the hour of Jesus has his cross and his resurrection as inseparable phases, so too the "moment" or "date" (kairos) (3) which begins the "last times" has the Lord's ascension and the outpouring of his Spirit as inseparable phases. The relation between the "hour" and this special date or moment is to be looked for not in their chronological succession (to look for it there would be to remain at the level of dead time [4]) but in the exercise of the divino-human energy whereby the river of life becomes liturgy. 

Jesus died and rose "once and for all," and that event now lives on through all of history and sustains it. But when in his humanity he takes his place beside the Father and from there pours out the life-giving gift of the Spirit, he does not cease to manifest and carry out the liturgy. There is but a single Passover or Passage but its mighty energy is displayed in a continual ascension and Pentecost.

It is highly regrettable that the majority of the faithful pay so little heed to the ascension of the Lord. Their lack of appreciation of it is closely connected with their lack of appreciation of the mystery of the liturgy. A superficial reading of the end of the Synoptic Gospels and the first chapter of Acts can give the impression that Christ simply departed. In the mind of readers not submissive to the Spirit a page has been turned; they now begin to think of Jesus as in the past and to speak of what "he said" and what "he did." 

They have carefully sealed up the tomb again and filled up the fountain with sand; they continue to "look among the dead for someone who is alive" and they return to their narrow lives in which some things have to do with morality and others with cult, as in the case of the upright men and women of the old covenant. But in fact the ascension is a decisive turning point. It does indeed mark the end of something that is not simply to be cast aside: the end of a relationship to Jesus that is still wholly external. Above all, however, it marks the beginning of an entirely new relationship of faith and of a new time: the liturgy of the last times.

We can only wonder at, and try to recapture for ourselves, the insight shown by the early Christians and by Christians down to the beginning of the second millennium, who placed the Christ of the ascension in the dome of their churches.  When the faithful gathered to manifest and become the body of Christ, they saw their Lord both as present and as coming. He is the head and draws his body toward the Father while giving it life through his Spirit.

The iconography of the churches of both East and West during that period was as it were an extension of the mystery, of the ascension throughout the entire visible church. Christ, the Lord of all" (Pantocrator), is "the cornerstone which the builders had rejected"; (5) when he is raised up on the cross, he is in fact being raised to the Father's side and, in his life-giving humanity, becomes with the Father the wellspring of the river of life. (6)

In the vault of the apse there was also to be seen the Woman and her Child (Rev 12); that single vision embraces both the Virgin who gives birth and the Church in the wilderness. In the sanctuary were to be seen the angels of the ascension or other expressions of the theophanies of the Holy Spirit. (7) Finally, on the walls of the church were the living stones: the throng of saints, the "cloud of witnesses," the Church of the "firstborn" (Heb 12:23). 

The ascension of the Lord was thus really the new space for the liturgy of the last times, and the iconography of the church built of stone was its transparent symbol. (8) In his ascension, then, Christ did not at all disappear; on the contrary, he began to appear and to come. For this reason, the hymns we use in our churches sing of him as "the Sun of justice" that rises in the East. He who is the splendor of the Father and who once descended into the depths of our darkness is now exalted and fills all things with his light. 

Our last times are located between that first ascension and the ascension that will carry him to the zenith of his glorious parousia. The Lord has not gone away to rest from his redemptive toil; his "work" (Jn 5:17) continues, but now at the Father's side, and because he is there he is now much closer to us, "very near to us," (9) in the work that is the liturgy of the last times. "He leads captives," namely, us, to the new world of his resurrection, and bestows his "gifts," his Spirit, on human beings (see Eph 4:7-10). His ascension is a progressive movement, "from beginning to beginning." (10)

Jesus is, of course, at his Father's side. If, however, we reduce this "ascent" to a particular moment in our mortal history, we simply forget that beginning with the hour of his cross and resurrection Jesus and the human race are henceforth one. He became a son of man in order that we might become children of God. The ascension is progressive "until we all ... form the perfect Man fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself" (Eph 4:13). 

The movement of the ascension will be complete only when all the members of his body have been drawn to the Father and brought to life by his Spirit. Is that not the meaning of the answer the angels gave to the disciples: "Why are you Galileans standing here looking into the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way as you have seen him go to heaven" (Acts 1:11). The ascension does not show us in advance the setting of the final parousia; it is rather the activation of the paschal energy of Christ who "fills all things" (Eph 4: 1 0). It is the ever-new "moment" of his coming.

The Heavenly Liturgy

What, then, is this "work" by which the conqueror of death pours out his life in abundance? What is this energy with which the Father and the risen Son henceforth "still go on working" (Jn 5:17)? It is the fontal liturgy in which the life-giving humanity of the incarnate Word joins with the Father to send forth the river of life; it is the heavenly liturgy. (11) In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, "the principal point of all that we have said is that we have a high priest [who... has taken his seat at the right of the throne of divine Majesty in heaven, and is the minister of the divine sanctuary and of the true Tent which the Lord, and not any man, set up" (Heb 8:1-2). (12) This liturgy is eternal (inasmuch as the body of Christ remains incorruptible) and will not pass away; on the contrary, it is this liturgy that "causes" the present world "to pass" into the glory of the Father in an ever more efficacious great Pasch.

This mystery could not be revealed until its consummation was at hand. That is the meaning conveyed by the final book of the Bible, the Apocalypse or "revelation" of the complete mystery of Christ. To us who are living in the last times this book makes known the hidden face of history. There are many hypotheses to explain the book in its final form, but none denies the noteworthy fact that the vision of faith expressed in the book develops consistently on two levels. 

It seems at first glance that, as with icons, we have a lower level (earth) and a higher level (heaven). But we must not let ourselves be misled by the literary device. In the increasingly dramatic movement of the last times these two levels are co-inherent. The one that is more obvious unveils the carnival of death being celebrated by the prince of this world; the one that is more hidden takes us into the presence of him who holds the keys of death. The experience in both cases is an experience of the liturgy.

As the very name makes clear, (13) the liturgy essentially involves action and energy; the heavenly liturgy tells us of all the actors in the drama: Christ and the Father, the Holy Spirit, the angels and all living things, the people of God (whether already enjoying incorruptible life or still living through the great tribulation), the prince of this world, and the powers which worship him. The heavenly liturgy is "apocalyptic" in the original sense of this word: it " reveals" everything in the very moment in which it brings it to pass. When the event is present, prophecy becomes "apocalyptic."

The Return to the Father

"I saw a throne standing in heaven, and the One who was sitting on the throne" (Rev 4:2). At the heart of the liturgy, at its very source, there is the Father! He is obviously the fountain both in eternity and since the beginning of time: "the fountain of life, the fountain of immortality, the fountain of all grace and all truth", (14) the fountain that the patriarchs were looking for when they dug wells, the one that the people abandoned for cracked water-tanks, the one that drew the Samaritan woman, the one for which the dying Jesus thirsted. But at this point there was no liturgy as yet.

Only "when the life that burst from the tomb had become liturgy could the liturgy finally be celebrated -- only when the river returned to its fountainhead, the Father. The liturgy begins in this movement of return. The energy of the gift in which the Father committed himself unreservedly from the beginning; the suffering love with which he handed over his Son and his Spirit; the kenoses (emptying) that had marked the river of life since creation; the promise; the incarnation that included even death on a cross and burial in a tomb: all this faithful and patient "tradition" of the Father's agape at last bursts forth in its fruit. The liturgy is this vast reflux of love in which everything turns into life. That love had always cast its seed in pure unmerited generosity; now is the everlasting time for giving thanks. "For his love is everlasting!"

"If you only knew what God is offering!" If we only knew how to enter, without any merit on our part, through the "door open in heaven" (Rev 4:1) into the joy of the Father! For the liturgy is the celebration of the Father's joy. He whom we used to fear as Adam did when he hid far from his face (Gen 3:8); of whom we had a mistaken idea, like the two sons in the parable (Lk 15:11-31); or whose ineffable name -- "I AM" (Ex 3:14) -- we used to murmur amid the cloud -- now at last we can recognize him: "He is, he was, and he is to come" (Rev 1:4), and "worship him in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshiper the Father seeks" (Jn 4:23). The joy we give to the Father by letting him find us inspires the exultation that keeps the liturgy ever alive. How could he, the wellspring, not be filled with wonder when he sees human beings becoming a wellspring in their turn and responding to his eternal thirst?

Transcending the parables in which Jesus gave a glimpse of this jubilation ("There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting" Lk 15:7) is the reality now attained: the eternal joy of the Father at the return of his beloved Son. The latter had gone forth as the only Son; now he returns in the flesh, bringing the Father's adoptive children: "Look, I and the children whom God has given me" (Heb 2:13). The Father's indescribable joy has taken concrete form and embodiment in the countless faces that mirror the face of his beloved Son. In them the joy of the wellspring can break out and leap up and sing like so many echoes and accents made possible by pure grace, and each of them is unique: "In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing among the angels of God"  (Lk 15:10).

"God's glory is the living human being." (15) The glorification of the Father began in the hour in which the Son of man was glorified (Jn 12:28). From that point on it continues without intermission. (16) The reason is not only that he has "brought everything together" in Christ "to the praise of the glory of his grace" (Eph 1:3-14), but also that, to his joy, new adopted children are born at each moment as they emerge from the great tribulation. 

The liturgical language of the Church has from the beginning expressed this glorification in a term that we are rediscovering today: "doxology." The liturgy is essentially doxological" in its celebration of the wellspring. (17) The astounding thing is that he from whom the energy of the Gift proceeds eternally should now reveal himself as also an energy of acceptance: from all creatures who are conformed to his Son he accepts the jubilant reflux of the river of life. The celebration of the eternal liturgy consists in this ever new ebb and flow of the trinitarian communion as shared by all of creation: the angels before his face, the living creatures, all the "times" (Rev 4: 4-11).

"Ebb and flow": because the Father does not keep this joy for himself when he receives it but causes it to flow forth anew in still greater love and life. The eternal liturgy is thus the celebration of the sharing in which each is wholly for the others. The mystery of holiness has at last turned into liturgy because it is shared and communicated. In its source and in its unfolding the celebration is entirely bathed in this radiant holiness: "holy, holy holy...... It takes the form of adoration.

The Lord of History

Once we have realized that the ascension of Jesus is the reflux of the river of life to its fountainhead, the return of the Word to the heart of the Father after having accomplished its mission (Is 55:11), we will see how the various biblical images converge, especially those of the Apocalypse, which speaks of the heavenly liturgy in its present operation. The heavenly liturgy celebrates the ongoing event of the return of the Son -- and of all others in him -- to the Father's house. It is the feast, the banquet, even the marriage, of the beloved and his bride. All is not yet completed, but the great event of history is now present at the heart of the Trinity; there, one with the Father, it becomes a wellspring.

This covenant at the wellspring is expressed in the central symbol of the Book of Revelation: the Lamb. "Then I saw, [standing] in the middle of the throne with its four living creatures and the circle of the elders, a Lamb that seemed to have been sacrificed" (Rev 5:6). Christ is risen ("standing") but he carries the signs of his passage through our death ("sacrificed"). His key action in the heavenly liturgy is to take the scroll from the right hand of him who sits on the throne; no one except the Lamb is able to break the seals and open the scroll (Rev 5). 

Only Jesus, by his victory over death, has accomplished the event that writes history and deciphers its meaning. Apart from his Pasch-Passage everything is meaningless. Human beings can write history, while other human beings think of themselves as making it. But only he who brings time to -- its completion can reveal the "meaning of history" by rending the veil of death and deceit. He is the meaning of our history because he is the event that makes it. He is the Lord of history.

All this means that the liturgy of Christ's ascension is the harvest feast not only of the history before the ascension but also of ongoing history: the paschal event is constantly bearing its eternal fruit in the history that we experience. For the Lord of history is still the "trustworthy" and "true" knight who "in uprightness ... makes war," whose "cloak [is] soaked in blood, and whose name is "the Word of God" (Rev 19:11-21). His liturgy is the concrete extension of his victory in the struggle of the last times: "Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look -- I am alive for ever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades" (Rev 1: 17-18). 

The heavenly liturgy is the gestation of the new creation because our history is sustained by Christ who is now in the bosom of the Blessed Trinity. It is there that the Lord of history is at every moment the Savior of his body and of the least of his brothers and sisters: he calls and feeds them, heals them and makes them grow, forgives and transforms them, delivers and divinizes them, tells them that they are loved by the Father and are being increasingly united to him until they reach their full stature in the kingdom.

The energy which Christ exerts in the heavenly liturgy is summed up by the Letter to the Hebrews in a title which the Letter intends should convey the whole newness of the paschal event: Jesus is our high priest. "'Look, I and the children whom God has given me.' Since all the children share in the same human nature, he too shared equally in it, so that by his death he could set aside him who held the power of death, namely the devil.... It was essential that he should in this way be in made completely like his brothers so that he could become a compassionate and trustworthy high priest for their relationship to God" (Heb 2:13-17). "He became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation" (Heb 5:9). "His power to save those who come to God through him is absolute, since he lives for ever to intercede for them" (Heb 7:25). "As the high priest of all the blessings which were to come ... he has entered the sanctuary once and for all, taking with him ... his own blood, having won an eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12). "This he did once and for all by offering himself" (Heb 7:27).

In the iconography of the ascension the Lord Jesus holds the scroll of history but he also blesses it with his right hand. Being one with the Father, the Lamb is a source of blessing: he pours out the river of life. Because we are "already" in the eternal liturgy, its current carries us along all the more impatiently to its consummation. For at the heart of the heavenly liturgy is to be heard a groaning cry, that of the witnesses "killed on account of the Word of God"; from underneath the altar they shout in a loud voice: "Holy, true Master, how much longer will you wait before you pass sentence?" (Rev 6:9-10). 

History did not come to an end with the ascension; on the contrary it is en route to its final deliverance; the "last times" have begun. Each time that the Lamb breaks a seal on the scroll of history, the same cry echoes -- "Come!" What, then, is this roaring of mighty waters in creation that is undergoing the pangs of childbirth, and in the human body, and even in the depths of the human heart (Rom 8:22-27)? The ebb and flow of the heavenly liturgy ceaselessly draws the world back to its wellspring, and it is then that the river of life gushes forth in its final kenosis: the Holy Spirit.

The Liturgy, Handing On of the Mystery

Mission is not something we must invent for ourselves. It is given to us, and we must carry it out, "celebrate" it. By going back to its source we have found, if we needed to, that neither does the liturgy have to be reinvented; it is for us to enter into it and be carried along by its life-giving stream.

We are in the presence here of the wonder of the mystery of Christ: from the beginning of creation to the full establishment of the kingdom, that mystery is handed on. Holy, living tradition, divine "tradition," is, when all is said and done, the passionate love of the Father who "surrenders" his Word and "pours out" his Breath even to the point of "this is my body, given up for you; this is my blood, shed for you" and "Jesus gave up his spirit." 

The passionate love of the Father for human beings (Jn 3:16) reaches its climax in the passion of his Son and is thenceforth poured out by his Spirit in the divine compassion at the heart of the world, that is, in the Church. And the mystery of tradition is this joint mission of the Word and the Spirit throughout the economy of salvation; now, in the last times, all the torrents of love that pour from the Spirit of Jesus flow together in the great river of life that is the liturgy.

In the economy of salvation tradition first took the form of the gift of saving events; in the liturgy it fulfills and renders present the event that sustains all of history: the passage of Jesus, but it does so with the Church, and this is the central synergy of the epiclesis. In the economy of salvation tradition next showed itself as the revelation of the meaning of the saving events by the prophets and sacred writers; in the liturgy it manifests Christ to the Church and through the Church, and this is the synergy of the memorial. In the economy of salvation tradition was, finally, the participation of the people of God in the saving events; in the liturgy, it is the synergy of communion, in which celebration and life are henceforth inseparable. The channels of divine tradition are those of the "varied graces of God" (1 Pet 4:11), but the living water is always the water of the river "rising from the throne of God and the Lamb and flowing crystal-clear."

The liturgy is the great river into which all the energies and manifestations of the mystery flow together, ever since the very body of the Lord who lives with the Father has been ceaselessly "given up" to human beings in the Church in order that they may have life. The liturgy is not something static, or a mental memorial, a model, a principle of action, a form of self-expression, or an escape into angelism. 

It reaches far beyond the signs in which it manifests itself and the effectiveness it contains. It is not reducible to its celebrations, although it is indivisibly contained in them. It finds expression in the human words of God that are written in the Bible and sung by the Church, but these never exhaust it. It is at home in all cultures and not reducible to any of them. It unites the multitude of local Churches without causing them to lose their originality. It feeds all the children of God, and it is in them that it ceaselessly grows. Although it is constantly being celebrated, it is never repeated but is always new.

If we have entered into the vision of John as he contemplates at the heart of history the onward sweep of the river of life that is the liturgy, all the ways in which we separate celebration and life have been pushed aside and left behind. This omnipotent attraction of the Christ of the ascension is now inscribed in the depths of every human event and is able to illumine it from within and communicate life there. 

We cannot reduce it to a few flashes of communion or to festive moments of communal celebration. The total Christ-event that is the liturgy and in which we are constantly involved extends far beyond the consciousness of faith and the celebrations of believers. It assumes and permeates all of history, as well as all human beings and each of them in all their dimensions, and the whole cosmos and all of creation. We desire to be carried along by this river: may this good fortune be ours now that we have reached its source.



1. In an earlier work, L'Eglise des Arabes (Paris: Cerf, 1977) I promised to develop some aspects of the theology by which the Antiochene Churches still live. The present book is a first essay along these lines.

Beside the Well

1. Origen, Homilies on Genesis 13.

2. Paul Claudel, The Humiliation of the Father, Act 11, scene 2, in Three Plays, trans. J. Heard (Boston, 1945), 185.

3. Origen, Homilies on Numbers 12.

4. Origen, Homilies on Genesis 13, 4.

Chapter 4

1. Paul speaks of "the present time" in contrast to the "age to come."

2. In setting forth the economy of salvation the Bible distinguishes the various "times" that make up its implementation: the beginning of time, the course of time (Old Testament), the fullness or completion of time, the last times, in which we are now living, and the consummation of time.

3. In addition to "times" the Bible distinguishes determining, decisive "moments" or "dates" (kairoi) in the development of the economy of salvation; see Acts 1:7 and The New Jerusalem Bible, p. 1797, note i.

4. By "dead time" I mean time that is characterized by death and that we perceive as the measure of movement.

5. Ps 117 (118):22-23,which is cited in the parable of the murderous winegrowers (Mt 21:42).

6. In the fourth Gospel "raise up" or "lift up" has a double meaning and applies to both the cross and the ascension. See John 3:14 and the note on it in The New Jerusalem Bible.

7. One function of the angels in the Bible, especially "the angel of the Lord," is to give intimations of the mystery of the Holy Spirit. 

8. The organic way in which Vatican II's Constitution on the Church is developed is consistent with this iconographic tradition.

9. Byzantine liturgy of the ascension.

10. The expression is used by Gregory of Nyssa in his eighth Homily on the Song of Songs (PG 44:941c). The entire spiritual life is carried along by this "ascensional" thrust.

11. The expression "heavenly liturgy" is hardly used anymore. Given the concern to demythologize, people prefer to drop it. And yet it expresses a purifying insight of faith that opens us to the mystery of the liturgy. To ignore the heavenly liturgy amounts to rejecting the eschatological tension proper to the Church and either settling down permanently in the present world (secularism) or escaping from it (pietism). This leads in turn to a separation of liturgy from life, for the heavenly liturgy is not a different liturgy that either parallels or serves as exemplar for the liturgy we think of as ours in earthly time. 

If we ignore the heavenly liturgy we are at bottom forgetting that the fullness or completion of time is constantly invading our ancient time and turning it into the "last times." Finally, when we ignore the heavenly liturgy, we are situating ourselves prior to the resurrection and falling back into an "empty" faith. Those who focus on the spatial image in order to reify the heavenly liturgy or reject it are in fact accepting the old religious schema characteristic of the carnal person -- divinity on one side and human beings on the other -- whereas the "kingdom of heaven" is already here in our midst and within us.

12. A reminder of the virginal energy of the Spirit that is at work in the incarnation and the resurrection; the body of Christ is the sanctuary of the new covenant. See also Rev 21:22.

13. We should not create an image of the heavenly liturgy for ourselves by freezing, as it were, the characteristics and attitudes suggested by Chapters 4 and 5 of the Apocalypse. The literary device used there is simply a way of opening a door to the mystery; let us not close that door by applying our imaginations on the earthly pattern.

14. Prayer Book of St. Serapion (fourth century).

15. St. Irenaeus of Lyons.

16. This element of "ceaselessness" in the heavenly liturgy is emphasized in the Apocalypse. See Rev 4:8.

17. "Doxology" is, literally, "expression of praise."

design in left border from Haghia Triada Greek Catholic Cathedral, Athens, Greece

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