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Liturgy - The Proclamation of the Holiness of God as a Form of Witness
Carmine Di Sante
Liturgical worship can be defined in many ways. A definition which takes the best account of linguistic and anthropological aspects is as follows:
... a special language of ritual symbolism which expresses the faith relationship of a believing community with God.
From this point of view liturgy, like every other language, cannot be, according to its own inner logic, witness. Witness means the direct and personal experience that an individual has of a thing or a happening as against another form of indirect and mediate knowledge. He who is present at a happening or who shares in a undertaking is automatically a witness
— he knows without any mediation. The profound meaning of witness is the negation of distance between the happening and the subject and the position of the subject vis-à-vis and within the happening.
Jewish and Christian liturgies with their complex universe of prayer formulas, of symbols and rites, place the believer before God who makes him his witness: a sharer in his mystery and his mercy. Here the believing community does not speak by hearsay, but from what it hears and feels within itself (cf. the famous today of the liturgy).
One of the most important and most beautiful prayers of the Jewish liturgy is the Kedushah on which, according to talmudic tradition, the whole world is built:
Since the destruction of the Temple the world
is sustained by Kedushah. (Sot. 49a)
The Kedushah is an integral part of the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions) or Tefillah (the prayer), also known as the Amidah because it is prayed standing. It forms the last of the three benedictions with which this fundamental text of the Jewish liturgy begins:
Reader: We will sanctify thy Name in the world even as they sanctify it in the highest heavens, as it is written by the hand of the Prophet: And they called one unto the other and said,
Congregation: HOLY, HOLY, HOLY IS THE LORD OF HOSTS: THE WHOLE EARTH IS FULL OF HIS GLORY.
Reader: Those over against them say, Blessed — Congregation: BLESSED BE THE GLORY OF THE LORD FROM HIS PLACE.
Reader: And in thy Holy Words it is written, saying
Congregation: THE LORD SHALL REIGN FOREVER, THY GOD, O ZION, UNTO ALL GENERATIONS. PRAISE YE THE LORD. 1
In this prayer Israel proclaims the holiness of God, uniting its voice to that of the angels who forever confess the ineffable sovereignty of God:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.
What is the meaning of this holiness which Israel proclaims and to which, through this proclamation, it witnesses? Holiness (from the root qds, usually interpreted as to separate, to divide), expresses the unfathomable mystery of God and therefore, his freedom and autonomy with regard to the understanding and the projects of the human person.
God is holy for man because he cannot be subjected to the will of man and to his desire to possess and dominate. The deep significance of the holiness of God (which is related to the prohibition of making an image or calling him by his own Name) is summed up in this simple affirmation: man cannot use God, rather he should serve him. This statement is as simple as it is revolutionary if we consider how many times religious man has used God instead of serving him.
To this statement must be added another one more important still: the holiness of God is something very different from the transcendence of philosophy. It does not imply a cold distance but a complete and intimate closeness. God is "separate" from man, not because he is distant, but because he brings him into being through his love. Just as the root transcends the trunk because it makes it fruitful, as the womb transcends the unborn infant because it envelops it, so in this sense God transcends man and history because he creates and inspires them. For this reason the Bible does not invite us to speculate about and to contemplate the holiness of God, but to imitate him and act as he does:
You shall be holy;
for I, the Lord your God, am holy.
To imitate the holiness of God means, according to the rabbis:
"As God clothes the naked, so you should clothethe naked, as he visits the sick, so you should do the same; as he comforts the afflicted, so you should also comfort those who mourn." 2
These two aspects of Kedushah, which testify to the freedom and creativity of divine love, are also found in the heart of Christian liturgy, in what is known as the Eucharistic Prayer which incorporates the text of Isaiah word for word. In this way the believing community testifies to the holiness of God who, in Jesus dead and risen, has conquered death and reaffirmed the triumph of life. The link between resurrection and holiness is already present in the benediction of the Shemoneh Esreh which precedes the Kedushah and which proclaims five times that God is he who raises the dead and restores life.
The Sanctus/Kedushah of Christian liturgy which is found between the Preface (in which God is praised as the giver of life and the conqueror of death) and the anamnesis/epiclesis (in which a memorial is made of the death and resurrection of Jesus) makes this link clear: the holiness of God is his activity which raises to life. He is proclaimed thrice holy — kadosh — because "he has raised Jesus from the dead".
A witness is one who personally shares in a happening. In the liturgy, above all through the prayer of the Kedushah, the two peoples of the promise, Jews and Christians, share in the holiness of God. In this way they witness that he is the living God (Jos. 3:10) and the fountain of life (Ps. 36:9), not only for themselves but for the whole human race.
1. Joseph H. Hertz, ed. The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, Bloch Publishing Co. New York 1965, pp. 135-37.
2. D. Lattes: Aspetti e Problemi dell'Ebraismo, Borla, Torino 1970, p. 184.