A few days ago I was given a copy of a recently published book by the MSSP Publications and written by the well-known local liturgist, Fr Martin Cilia MSSP. It is a nationally known fact that the small church at the MSSP Oratory in Birkirkara, in the Island of Malta, has been housing a strong and vibrant community of faith wherein many people, from all over Malta, have started a serious journey of seeking faith within the set up of a celebrating community.
In fact, in the book Living stones: Liturgy as epiphany of communion, Fr Martin takes us back to basics in telling us what is the liturgy and how it is the product of the community of believers which, thanks to its believe in God as Trinity, is taken into the mystery and transformed into a community that actually reflects the bonds of love and communion which hold the Trinity together. Fr Martin does this as he has been experiencing it first-hand throughout these years at the oratory community. The liturgy is celebrated by living people, who, like stones, make up God’s house, the Church. Already the phrase Living stones reminds me of what we encounter in the First Letter of Peter which says to and of the Christian community itself he was writing to: Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pt 2:4-5).
In this beautiful text from the Letter of St Peter we are strongly reminded to keep burning within our hearts the reality that it is Christ, through the Holy Spirit, which is His very Spirit, that builds us up into a spiritual house where God’s glory resides. This insight brings to the fore a profound reflection Pope Francis offered to us during his weekly audience of June 26 2013: “We are the living stones of God’s building, profoundly united to Christ who is the keystone and also the one that sustains us. What does this mean? It means that we are the temple, we are the living Church, the living temple, and with us when we are together is also the Holy Spirit, who helps us to grow as Church. We are not alone, for we are the People of God: this is the Church!”
If there is a place in which we can experience this life-giving sustenance so as to grow in a Church, fully imbued by the power of the Holy Spirit, is certainly the liturgical space and its spirit, the liturgical assembly. However, the liturgical synaxis is animated by the energeia of the sacraments which, as the Catechism of the Catholic tells us, “touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life” (no.1210). Moreover, the sacraments recall our attention to the fact that they “form an organic whole in which each particular sacrament has its own vital place. In this organic whole, the Eucharist occupies a unique place as the ‘Sacrament of sacraments’: ‘all the other sacraments are ordered to it as to their end.’” (no.1211).
Upon reading the book I was personally touched by an interesting quote by Nicholas Cabasilas, which is found on page 53, that shows the unity of the sacraments in the Eucharistic mystery, as the Catechism is saying in numbers 1210 and 1211. “Baptism gives us a new being and a new identity as it grafts us to Christ. His divine nature is given to us. It is the first mystery as it takes dead and corruptible beings and introduces them to the new life of the children of God, then the holy chrism brings to perfection this new life as it transmits divine energies and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist then sustains this new life and makes it grow to its full maturity. This the bread of life that permits us to hold what has been given and that keeps us alive on this journey. This is the new way that we live in Christ”.
But the Eucharist itself does not occur in a vacuum. Christ used the bread and the wine as means to give us fully himself in them, so much so that, thanks to the consecration, they are no longer mere bread and wine but become the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, Our Saviour. As he assumed our humanity to give us His divine life so Christ, in the liturgical celebration celebrated by His believing community in communion with Him as the Head of the Body, the Church, makes use of sacred art to convey to us his transforming Spirit of love, unity and service.
In reality, a prominent feature within the MSSP oratory church at Birkirkara is a set of icons which magnificently portray the Mystery of Christ. As Fr Martin himself wrote in page 104 of his book: “An icon is a spiritual work of art through which the artist uses colour to proclaim the gospel and help people pray in beautiful and meaningful surroundings. In short, icons are to one’s sight what the written text is to one’s hearing”. As a matter of fact, chapter three of the book, which is precisely titled windows on eternity, is completely dedicated to icons. These are the Annunciation, the Birth of Christ, Christ’s Baptism, the Pantocrator, the Transfiguration, the Deposition of Christ in the Tomb and the Icon of the Resurrection. When one looks intently at the brilliant and luminous pictures of these icons and reads the enriching catechesis that is written about them one cannot fail but totally agree with St John of Damascus’ advice when he said: “If a pagan asks you to explain your faith to him, take him to a church and show him the holy icons”. So, those of us who, for some reason or another, cannot or find it extremely hard to understand the Christian faith take a look at the book Living stones: Liturgy as epiphany of communion by Fr Martin Cilia MSSP and visit the MSSP oratory church in Birkirkara and then you gently get your answer.
The journey that the book embarks us on is really fascinating since, after it tells us that we are the living stones, it provides us with a sound mystagogical catechesis on both the sacraments and the liturgical space, explains to us the icons and it ends by instructing us on the liturgical year while giving us an illuminating word on how to prepare a liturgical celebration. The book concludes with that heartfelt invitation passionately levelled by Christ, in the person of the celebrant, for each and everyone of us, both individually and collectively, to go and share the divine beauty, which is Christ himself as encountered within the liturgy, with others outside the church building. Having said that this evangelization can only occur if the person herself and himself is transformed into what he and she has been celebrating. As the quote from St Augustine says on page 226: “What you see being realized symbolically during the liturgy should be realized in your souls. What is achieved in a sacramental way should also be achieved in your life as you are the church of God and your heart should be his altar”.
I highly recommend the book Living Stones: Liturgy as epiphany of communion by Fr Martin Cilia MSSP. It is certainly a great blessing not simply for every parish and community which is trying to improve the quality of its liturgical celebrations but for you and me who direly crave that our hearts are transformed in, with and through Christ in order that we can truly live out, with great joy and commitment, the beauty of our baptismal calling.