Liturgy and Justice

The Justice Dimension of Our Prayers

January 15, 2008


Jesus Took up His CrossReflection on the justice dimensions of the liturgy throws up a simple question: Do the parts of the Mass invite us to be a people of social justice? More precisely for this article, what do our rites of gathering have to say to us about the Eucharist we celebrate each Sunday and the Christian commitment to justice? Let us ask three questions:

Who are we before God?
With whom do we identify as we gather?
With whom does Jesus stand?

Who Are We before God?

We will attempt to answer who we are before God by using the opening prayer. Fortunately, the history and structure of the prayer tell us much more than we might think! The collect is a petition. We, the assembly gathered, stand before God, make silent petition, name an attribute of God, in trust seek divine help, and place the entire prayer before God through Christ.

We "stand" to pray the collect. This may seem a trivial detail, yet bodily posture in the liturgy carries meaning. "Standing" is a typically Christian position in the liturgy, one borrowed from our Jewish forebears in faith. In Genesis there is a beautiful narrative of a meeting between Abraham and his God (Gen 18:22-33). God is about to investigate Sodom, with a view to its destruction. Yet Abraham remonstrates with God in that famous bargaining passage: Perhaps there are fifty just men …? Abraham declares himself on the side of the just, and does so before the very face of God. The passage begins in an unusual way: Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Why this slight detail? Why doesn’t Abraham kneel, shield his face, take off his shoes? There is a deep familiarity between this man and the divinity. In all this, God grants the nomad a place in the divine heart and guarantees it to his children and their children’s children. Standing before the Almighty One is a sign of God’s covenant love.

When we stand in the liturgy, we do so in light of the covenant God has made with us. Standing is an expression of our dignity as adopted children of God by baptism. In the Eucharist we are familiar with God, something that is God’s doing, not ours.

There are clear social ramifications from our "standing" in prayer. We look at the gathered assembly and give different social "standing" to rich, poor, old, young, educated, uneducated. Is not such divisiveness completely arbitrary, since it is so foreign to the mind, heart and intentions of God? Male or female or Asian, African, European, Anglo, Celtic, Indian, Aboriginal; the collect prayer (the fact of standing and making petition itself) asks why do these differentiations mean so much to us when they mean nothing to God. In fact they obscure God’s ways. And further, are we not then impelled to remove such prejudice from our society and culture?

With Whom Do We Identify as We Gather?

When we gather in the opening rites of the Mass, with whom do we identify? Whose words do we echo? Whose values do we reflect? It is time to investigate the layers of meaning in the Kyrie eleison, the Lord have mercy.

First to its root meaning. The kyrie prayer whose deepest sense is petition.is a "standing" In it we seek God’s help. The sense is: Lord in your pity/mercy grant us what we need .... A review of the prayers liturgical history adds further dimensions.

The kyrie took its place in the entrance rites of Latin Roman worship well after Greek was a forgotten liturgical tongue in the city of Rome. Nor was it translated into Latin. What can this tell us?

The introduction of a Greek prayer in a thoroughly Latin liturgy immediately signaled to the worshippers in the great city that there are different cultures. They alone did not constitute the "World," a great temptation for the citizens of that once mighty centre. As well, it had the potential to enable the assembly to accept Christians in their midst who were from different languages and cultures.

Yet whose words are we echoing when we say the prayer? With whom do we stand? The Greek oration resonates with some New Testament passages, such as the cures of blind men (Mk 10:47-48, Mt 9:27). However, the most exact correspondence is found in Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman who pleads with Jesus: Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon (Mt 15:22). Jesus refuses; after all, she is a not from the House of Israel, but a foreigner! Her persistence pays off. While her name is lost to us, her faith is legendary. Her imposition on Jesus is rightly challenged! After all she is a foreigner and a woman. She has a daughter, not a son. The child is ill, a sign that the mother or the family has sinned. In the New Testament era, sickness is a moral problem.

Yet it is her plea, her prayer, that we echo Sunday after Sunday at the Eucharist. We take up her words. Do we dare stand with her? Will we identify with her sufferings? Will we be brothers and sisters of the foreign workers in our midst, the oppressed women, the suffering parents of sick children? Will we "stand beside" the woman who has taught us to pray?

With Whom Did Jesus Stand?

Currently, our Eucharist begins with the Sign of the Cross. This is a more recent addition to the gathering rites, but it seems so fitting and normal. The instructions are important. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal directs that the priest and people, standing, sign themselves together (GIRM 50). The Sign of the Cross is a common action, the first of the entire gathered assembly. Over this bodily marking are said the words of our baptism.

When we mark our bodies with this sign, what are we doing? In terms of social justice, do we not suggest that we will stand, with our bodies, where Jesus stood? That where his cross is, there we will be? This may be a more challenging task than at first we imagine. It is worth revisiting the last days of Jesus' earthly life to discover what it means to be at his cross.

Jesus’ passion involved a violent, relentless stripping of his identity as a human being. Scourged, mocked and naked, the path he took led him into solidarity with those in society who are outcasts and the recipients of our derision. In all this he was left friendless. He stood with the abandoned. Carrying his own cross, he became a public spectacle for his own people. His rejection was complete. His death was a public sport. His religious leaders betrayed him. His crucifixion was at the hands of the enemy and in the midst of criminals. The burial was rushed, with less than proper arrangements, without custom or dignity. Even in death Jesus was a nuisance, disrupting the temple worship. It fell to a non-believer to provide for him.

When we mark our bodies with this sign, we symbolize the physical suffering of Christ. And we should also symbolize that we commit ourselves to those in the same position as Jesus. In his passion, Jesus was stripped of human dignity. In the Sign of the Cross, we make a commitment to those whose human dignity is under threat. In the passion, Jesus endured the wrath of the mob, the violence of society, and the desertion of his companions. In the Sign of the Cross, we ask about the underside of our own society, the scapegoating, the violence, the cowardice. We declare that it should cease. In his death, Jesus is amongst the criminals, the helpless bystanders, the powerless women. In the Sign of the Cross, we say that these shall never be without help, our help.

Through the Sign of the Cross, the gathered assembly marks itself as dedicated by baptism to stand by the cross of Jesus. It is an action fraught with justice consequences.


The Collect, the Kyrie and the Sign of the Cross invite us, or rather impel us, to be people of justice. They are simply an introduction to the way that the rites and prayers of the Eucharist call us to build a just and true world.

Gerard Moore is Associate Professor and Director of Research at Sydney College of Divinity, NSW, Australia and is the author of Understanding the General Instruction of the Roman Missal(Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2007) ISBN 978-0809144525; and Why the Mass Matters(Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006) ISBN 978-0819883094.

Image: "Jesus took up his Cross" from Stations of the Cross at Christ the Teacher Chapel at the University of Portland; photo credit: Johan van Parys, Minneapolis, MN


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