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Sunday Liturgy Call to Self-Giving: Dies Domini, John Paul II and Virgil Michel, O.S.B.

In an apostolic letter on Sunday observance (July 30, 1998), Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II encourages Christians “to rediscover the meaning of Sunday: its mystery, its celebration, its significance for Christian and human life.” Fundamentally a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, Sunday observance invites believers to relive “the experience of the two disciples at Emmaus, who felt their hearts ‘burn within them’ as the risen Lord walked with them” and to share in “the joy which the apostles experience in the evening of that very day when they were visited by the risen Jesus and received the gifts of His peace and Spirit.”

Such gospel images prefigure a central theme of the letter: itself God’s ultimate gift to humankind, resurrected Christ-life is to be celebrated and shared among the faithful as the greatest of gifts. At Emmaus the disciples encounter the risen Christ in their sharing of hospitality with a travelling stranger (Lk 24:13f). Also, the gifts of Christ’s peace and Spirit were accompanied by the call to apostolic works springing from these gifts (cf. Jn 20:21, Acts 2:43f). We are also reminded of the risen Lord’s response to Peter, calling upon him to bear the fruits of love at a personal cost, “tend my sheep” (Jn 21:15f). Developing these Gospel accounts, the Pope understands that with the gifts of Christ’s death and resurrection as well as the gift of its communal celebration come an apostolic responsibility to transform our entire lives into gifts extended towards God in our neighbors. Because of its nature as ‘gift,’ the pope proclaims a Eucharistic celebration “which does not stop at the church’s door.”

In addition to the Eucharist as gift, the pope emphasizes its essential sacrificial nature. In eucharistic communion Christ’s own sacrifice becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his body: “The lives of the faithful, their praise, their sufferings, prayer and work are united with those of Christ and so acquire a new value.” The faithful are called to participation in the Sunday liturgy in a much more self-giving sense than is observed in our present custom of the ‘weekend.’ Christians ought to choose Sunday activities “which are most in keeping with a life lived in obedience to the percepts of the Gospel” such as those offering opportunities for spiritual enrichment, the deepening of relationships and works of charity. While acknowledging the genuine human need for rest and relaxation, the pope exclaims, “Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ!” That is, do not be afraid of the mystery of the Cross, in which we lose life only to find it. Thus, we discover in the sacrificial character of the Eucharist not only a profound need to rejoice in and give thanks for Christ’s eternal sacrifice but also an accompanying desire to offer up our own lives to God and neighbor.

A third concept undergirds the Church’s understanding of Sunday liturgy, the Mystical Body of Christ. This pauline model of the faithful as members in Christ’s body expresses the harmony between individual vocation and communal obligation. “It is important to be ever mindful that communion with Christ is deeply tied to communion with our brothers and sisters.” The pope describes our salvation as collective in nature, “[the baptized] are not saved as individuals alone, but as members of the mystical body, having become part of the people of God.” This supernatural solidarity of human persons lies at the root of our calling to love and serve our neighbor. The Church fathers proclaim this truth as forcefully as does Matthew 25. Saint John Chrysostom, for example, strongly rebukes us when we act as though our attendance at Sunday liturgy were alone sufficient to our Christian vocation: “Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness.” Thus, the pope proclaims Sunday not only as a special day for works of mercy but also as the source of “a tide of charity destined to spread into the whole life of the faithful.”

Sharing themes in common with “Dies Domini,” the work of Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B. connected social consciousness to the communal nature of eucharistic liturgy. Michel was a friend and influence of the early Catholic Worker movement as well as the leading figure in the American Liturgical Movement of the early twentieth century. In the Fall 1997 issue ofCommunio, in an article entitled, “Reintroducing Virgil Michel: Towards a Counter Tradition of Catholic Social Ethics in the United States,” Fr. Michael J. Baxter emphasizes this connection between liturgy and social responsibility, placing it in the context of the Mystical Body of Christ.

With his central notion of the ‘Mystical Body of Christ,’ Michel called forth a spiritual regeneration with its fruits in social action. Our responsibility for the well-being of our neighbor flows from our connection in the body of Christ.

Fr. Michel thought not only that any program of social transformation must be preceded by a spiritual renewal but also that the supernatural relationship of humans united in Christ is itself the ideal model for all social transformation. For example, all members share in common the gifts of created life and redemption in Christ. This is the spiritual basis for a life of fraternal solidarity and the free sharing of material goods. Whereas the ultimate end of free-market capitalism is personal gain and profit, Christianity conceives of material goods as a means to the supernatural end of human development. Michel’s big idea is that eucharistic liturgy provides a concrete model of fellowship and responsibility among individuals. This model, the body of Christ, brought to life in its sacramental presence, is also to be lived out in our actions and social structures.

In Michel’s notion of liturgy, teaching is inseparable from practice. Catholic action becomes “a prolongation of worship, a continuation of the sacrificial offering to God and others at the Mass.” In this way the Eucharist is extended beyond its supernatural presence to a truly living presence in our Christ-actions. So, like Pope John Paul II, who sees Sunday liturgy as the source of ‘a tide of charity destined to spread into the whole life,’ Fr. Virgil Michel envisioned a liturgy which at once consists of both sacramental worship and works of mercy.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 7, December 1998.