Liturgical Participation – What does it mean?
By B. D. Kennedy, B.A., M.Div., Th.M., B.Ed.
Protodeacon, Eparchy of Toronto, UGCC

First we need to be clear about what the liturgy is. Liturgy is the glorification of God the Father by the only-begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, through the most Holy and Life-Giving Spirit. Thus liturgical action is a Trinitarian action. It is an action within the Trinity that is from all eternity and also made present to us in the economy of salvation. Jesus Christ’s essential liturgical action within the economy of salvation is his passion, death, burial and resurrection – namely His Paschal Mystery. Through and by this Mystery that was unknown even unto the angels, the Father is glorified and salvation is opened up unto all of creation. Liturgy is part of the salvific action of God: for not only is God glorified but we can be sanctified. Since in God all is eternal, even what Jesus Christ does in the economy of salvation becomes eternal. Thus His Paschal Mystery is more than an historical event from the past but is an eternal ever-present reality. This eternal ever-present reality of the glorification of God and the sanctification of mankind is made present through ritual action in the here and now when the Church engages in the liturgy.
The Church is Christ’s Body and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. It is because of this graced reality that human persons who have entered into Christ’s Paschal Mystery through the mysteries [sacraments] of initiation [baptism, chrismation, and Holy Communion] can and must participate in the life of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The candidate for baptism is asked, Do you join yourself to Christ? and he or she answers, I join myself to Christ. This is an act of the will in which each person is joined freely to Christ. To be joined to Christ is to enter into His life. We enter into His passion, death and burial in order to rise with Him. And when we have put on Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit: Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. [The words of the celebrant as he anoints the newly baptized with the sacred chrism.] And all of this requires a very active participation. It requires a death to self, the old Adam who has fallen by sin away from communion with God, in order to live in Christ the new Adam who has restored communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ has restored communion by his passion, death, burial and resurrection. Each one who has been baptized into Christ, who has put on Christ, must without reservation participate in Christ’s Paschal Mystery. It is through participation in the death of Christ that we rise with Christ. I do not do this alone. I do it in the Church in her liturgical life. It is in the Church, especially in the mysteries [sacraments] that I am united to Christ. Being united to Christ, I am united to all the other members of His Body. It is in the Body of Christ that I can glorify the Father and be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
The Church is a corporate reality, hierarchically structured. It is a communion of persons in Christ, united by the Holy Spirit. Being a member of the Church is not like being a member of any human society, institution, club or organization. St. Paul refers to the Church as a body. A body is organic. The members of the body are the various organs and cells. None are superfluous in Christ’s Body, rather all are essentially necessary. The hand does not say to the foot, I do not need you. Participation in Christ’s Body is not just about me and Jesus. It is more complex than I can possibly understand for it involves all who are in Christ: this is all that is being redeemed in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Because the Church is a corporate reality hierarchically structured, the liturgical life is also corporate and hierarchically structured. The hierarchical structure is manifested in the various “orders” in the Church: namely the catechumens, photozomenoi, baptized and chrismated, penitents, readers, cantors, subdeacons, deacons, presbyters, bishops. This however is not a ladder where those on the bottom are less than those on the top, but an organic body. When we think of the Church along the lines of secular institutions and the ranks and grades of a worldly society we make grave errors. We must always refer to the Church in biblical language, in the language of the apostles: Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit, Bride of Christ. However, the hierarchical structure does mean that each order in the Church participates in the liturgical ritual action that manifests the Paschal Mystery in ways that are particular to each order. Hands do not do what feet do, even though you can walk on your hands, it is much preferred to walk on your feet. Do not expect the eyes to do what the ears do. Each member is needed for each person is unrepeatable and irreplaceable. This is manifested in the liturgical ritual action.
When we turn to the received official liturgical books which are used in the liturgical services we see how each order is to actively participate in the divine services. None of this is arbitrary or left to individual whims and tastes. Each of the orders is given a distinct liturgical role and all of these roles are necessary for a dignified and fitting celebration. Reductionism and minimalism not only harms the liturgical celebration, they are an affront to the very nature of the Church as the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Every liturgical celebration is to be celebrated fully. Liturgy is never private: it is a corporate action of Christ and His Body. It is incumbent upon us all to know these texts well and to participate according to our particular order as best we can.
Liturgical participation is always to be active. When the celebrant [bishop or priest] address the assembly with Peace to all, the whole of the assembly is to respond And with your spirit. To be part of the Body of Christ is to be an active member of the liturgical assembly. One cannot be there simply as a spectator. The purpose of liturgy on the human level is not to generate feelings but to make a change: to become an active participant in Christ’s Paschal Mystery.
Liturgical participation is both interior and exterior. It is never sufficient to sing words without meaning what one is singing. The exterior participation is straightforward, e.g. the deacon chants Bow your heads to the Lord and the assembly responds To You O Lord. The interior participation means that I must really submit myself to the Lord in all of my life. These are dangerous words. I must mean what I say and do what I say. When I submit myself to the Lord both in word and action I enter into the Paschal Mystery. It is by entry into the Paschal Mystery that I can enter into communion with God.
Liturgical participation is demanding. It requires me to enter fully, actively and consciously enter into Christ’s passion, death, burial and resurrection. This is much more than ceremony and ritual. It is a reality that in many ways in incomprehensible. It is a reality that asks nothing less than everything. Think of how one ritually participates in baptism in an exterior manner and apply it to the interior heart: one is stripped of his or her clothes, one is immersed naked into the water of the font and this is much more than a washing of sins, especially when the head is submerged for this action speaks of death, yet one is lifted out of the font by the celebrant as Christ lifted the old Adam and Eve out of Hades in His resurrection. Liturgical participation is dying to be born again in Christ.