Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Mass As Discourse

Below is the term paper I presented for our course on Ricoeur, under Dr. Leovino Ma. Garcia. It is an attempt to apply Paul Ricoeur's narrative theory as a way of understanding liturgy so that it is able to recuperate once again, its narrative potency of allowing us to enter into the Christ-event and allowing the Christ event to permeate our lives, in a threefold anamnesis. Using this framework, the paper also tackles three outstanding liturgical problematics: Circle, Identity and Tradition.

The Mass as Discourse
Paul Ricoeur’s Narrative Theory as Framework for a Theology of the Liturgy

Leo R. Ocampo

The Passover Seder meal, from which the Christian Mass originates, is essentially a storytelling ritual. In its central and most cherished part, the youngest child begins to ask the Mah Nishtanah[1] and the leader of the Seder, usually the father, begins to recount to all who are present the full story of Israel’s liberation from slavery as they then partake of the ritual food and share in the religious experience of their forefathers, so that it is said: Every person in every generation must regard himself as having been personally freed from Egypt.”[2]

Mingling however with the glorious and elaborate ceremonial of the Roman court, the Christian liturgy attained greater grandeur but to the detriment of its power to recreate the indelible experience of the disciples who gathered for that Passover meal on the night before the Lord suffered and died. The height of this triumphalism finds expression in the Tridentine Liturgy with all its solemnity and splendor that elevates the soul yet at the same time blurs the fundamental reality of the Eucharist as a true meal amid the complex intricacies of ritual that put more emphasis on its complementary aspect of sacrifice.

The Second Vatican Council, however, reaffirmed the didactic nature of the liturgy and sought to strengthen it so that it may be able to lead the faithful once again to a truly profound and intimate encounter with God “for in the liturgy God speaks to His people and Christ is still proclaiming His gospel.”[3] To recuperate the narrative potency of the Christian liturgy, we wager on Paul Ricoeur’s narrative theory as a framework for understanding the Mass, in hopeful pursuit of his ever-inquisitive dialogue brought now to the field of liturgy.

The Challenge of Authentic Liturgy

In 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a very controversial document with an equally provocative title: Liturgiam Authenticam—authentic liturgy, dealing with the translation of the Latin ritual books into the local vernacular languages. The said document caused a remarkable stir among liturgists particularly because of its severe stress on maintaining “the identity and unitary expression of the Roman Rite”[4] insisting on “fidelity and exactness with respect to the original texts”[5] by translating the original text “integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.”[6]

The said document received strong criticism from many reputable contemporary liturgists, a critique Chupungco succinctly encapsulates: “In its obsession for lexical accuracy and verbal fidelity to the original text, the method of formal correspondence ignores the culture of the recipient or the people for whom translation is made.”[7] Nonetheless, a revised translation of the Order of the Mass in English has already been prepared, voted upon by the bishops and has been forwarded to the Holy See for its approval to be followed by implementation in the English-speaking dioceses, anytime soon.

This problem of Liturgiam Authenticam is indeed illustrative, not only of sentimentality for the old rites with its antique text and ceremonial, but also of a certain pervasive allergic to the post-conciliar progress in line with the thrust of the Second Vatican Council to attune the Church to the context of the people of our time. In search of an authentic liturgy, must we revert and cling to the past? Is the liturgy, handed down to us, not open to future adaptations?

Language as Discourse

Paul Ricoeur, in his hermeneutics, takes off from the Saussurian distinction between language as langue (code) and as parole (speech). While language as langue is self-referential i.e., a system that revolves around and works within itself, language as parole remains open to the being-in-the-world from which it arises and to which it ever returns. The idea of a “sacral vernacular” that Liturgiam Authenticam posits closely follows this paradigm of language as code:

While the translation must transmit the perennial treasury of orations by means of language understandable in the cultural context for which it is intended, it should also be guided by the conviction that liturgical prayer not only is formed by the genius of a culture, but itself contributes to the development of that culture. Consequently it should cause no surprise that such language differs somewhat from ordinary speech. Liturgical translation that takes due account of the authority and integral content of the original texts will facilitate the development of a sacral vernacular, characterized by a vocabulary, syntax and grammar that are proper to divine worship... (49)

Language as code, being self-referential, can afford to make sense only within its own conceptual framework, without any reference to the world outside itself. Language as speech on the other hand is not merely confined within its own conceptual framework, with a reference beyond itself, although it bears its own inadequacy once we begin to limit the scope of its meaning.

Ricoeur thus takes this further by following Emile Beneveniste in his theory of language as discours (discourse). By discourse as “the event of language”[8], Ricoeur points out the dynamic openness of language as “a temporal phenomenon of exchange, the establishment of a dialogue that can be started, continued or interrupted.”[9]

Discourse therefore is an event with an enduring meaning that not only goes beyond the confines of its own language but even surpasses the ephemeral speech-act or locutionary act. “An act of discourse is not merely transitory and vanishing, however. It may be identified and reidentified as the same so that we may say it again or in other words.”[10] Discourse then has an abiding capability to be told, told all over again, and even while remaining the same, told in another way.

Liturgy as Discourse

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ; in particular, his passion, death and rising to new life is the divine “instance of discourse” par-excellence, an event that occurred “in the fullness of time,”[11] “once and for all”[12] but has since passed on to us in the sacred liturgy, which is the bloodless celebration of the same liturgy of Calvary where Christ our High Priest gives himself to the Father for our sakes, in anticipation of the eternal and all-encompassing heavenly liturgy.

This definitive moment of God’s revealing himself, his self-predication to us in the Word made flesh, was realized temporally more than two thousand years ago, but overflows to us who remember his dying and rising while breaking the bread and blessing the cup as he bid us do in memory of him. In the broken bread and wine outpoured, God reveals to us the depths of his love here and now, as once he did by the death and resurrection of his Son.

There has been however a lot of misunderstanding as to how this communication of the Christ-event to people of all times and places transpires. Many before took the liturgy as a kind of magic ritual that elicits the presence of the divine by the proper and precise utterance of the mystic words Hoc est enim corpus meum. This explains the above-mentioned case of the proponents of Liturgiam Authenticam struggling to preserve the Latin text of the liturgy in an exact and identical way even in the event of its translation into other languages.

On the other hand, many now reduce the Eucharist to a merely symbolic reenactment devoid of the real presence of Christ. Taken in this sense, the Mass is considered in essence, no more than some Christmas nativity play for adults, with no capacity to communicate the Christ-event in its full meaning and potency.

To these two opposite extremes: rigid formulism and simplistic symbolism, a way of understanding the liturgy as an act of discourse and applying Paul Ricoeur’s threefold mimesis to the liturgy seems to offer a viable solution.

Threefold Mimesis and Threefold Anamnesis

The text taken as Discours (Mimesis2) is open on both sides: to the being-in-life from which it arises (Mimesis1) and also to the being-in-life to which it ever returns (Mimesis3). The text is therefore a locus of encounter between narrator and narratee so that the historical and spatial gap is bridged through the act of reading—“the unity of the traversal from Mimesis1 to Mimesis3, by way of Mimesis2.”[13] If we are to take the liturgy as Discours, then the story of our salvation can be told again to the people of our time and in a new way as the Second Vatican Council expressly envisioned, by the mediation of the liturgy, in a threefold mimesis, or to use a liturgical equivalent, threefold anamnesis.

In the sacred liturgy, we commemorate Christ and his work of redemption once realized when he died and rose again: the discourse event from which the liturgy arises (Anamnesis1) where the meaning of our salvation is already pre-figured, although not yet fully revealed. By way of the liturgical celebration (Anamnesis2) in which the mysteries of our salvation are configured in perceptible signs, comes the possibility of a traversal similar to that which happens between Mimesis1 and Mimesis3 by way of Mimesis2, of which Ricoeur speaks.

The liturgy, understood in this way, becomes a privileged place of encounter for us to truly meet the person of Christ and personally experience his redemption—the essence indeed of liturgical anamnesis wherein the recalling of past events makes real, active and present the meaning and power of the salvific event. In this sense, we come to understand why the Council stated that “in the liturgy God speaks to His people and Christ is still proclaiming His gospel,”[14] meaning it not only in a figurative sense but in a very real way.

By way of the liturgical celebration, we are able to return to and draw from the source of our salvation and at the same time allow the transforming power of the Christ-event to permeate our world and become refigured in us who are present here and now (Anamnesis3). Far from an escape from the mundane to the heavenly, it is more kin to what Gaddamer calls “a fusion of horizons”, two worlds coinciding in the same narrative world. Using this framework, we shall now attempt to tackle three outstanding liturgical problematics.

The Problem of the Circle

Now, Paul Ricoeur tackles the emerging problem of a mimetic circle that is potentially a vicious cycle that ever turns back on itself without making progress. This problematic may also be raised concerning the Christian liturgical year in which the salvific events of Christ’s life: his birth, death and resurrection are commemorated within a cycle that always begins anew after going full circle. In fact, the criticism has already been raised about the futility of liturgical commemoration—that we are just repeating the same memorials and the same rituals over and over again to no avail.

Responding to this, Ricoeur first acknowledges that the circular characteristic of the mimetic circle is indeed indisputable. However, he presents the possibility of “an endless spiral that would carry the mediation past the same point a number of times, but at different altitudes.”[15] On the other hand, ritual is characteristically repetitive. And here we can also experience the questions that Paul Ricoeur raises as the possible source of this problematic of circularity: regarding the violence of interpretation and the likelihood of redundance.

As we endlessly repeat the Circle of Anamnesis, are we doing justice to the Christ-event as we continually interpret it in the liturgy? The problem is very real especially when the liturgy is reinterpreted according to the context of our time—an activity that we have already established to be possible, if not essential. Liberation Theology for example has pointed out a dimension of the liturgy as an expression of the struggle for social justice. As we endlessly celebrate the same memorials and repeat the same rituals, are we making any real sense at all?

Ricoeur attempts to resolve the problem by pointing out our existential human experience of “(as yet) untold stories”[16], of potential stories, even those within a grand story, that are waiting to be told. Configuring the narrative is a necessary function of discourse—putting together dissimilar elements to create one meaningful plot, a synthesis of the heterogenous. By putting together liturgy and the struggle for social justice, a new meaning comes out of the union of the two. By repeating the same rituals in a different time and place, the same story of salvation that is being told puts on a new meaning refigured in life—strength in the beginning of adulthood, joy at a marriage, comfort in times of bereavement. Thus, the Anamnetic Circle, not only goes around, but is able to spiral upward like its mimetic counterpart.

Because of the enduring meaning and power of the Christ event, it has the capacity to be told and retold, and told in another way, without exhausting its meaning and power. In this way, Paul Ricoeur’s theory of the narrative responds not only to the task of translating the liturgical texts but likewise to the task of inculturating the liturgy, which is a way of celebrating the same liturgy in another way to respond to another age or culture. Thus, we now have an African liturgy with much more song and even dance, a Chinese liturgy that incorporates the veneration of ancestors, and albeit unofficially, a Filipino liturgy complete with clapping and clasping of hands.

The Leonine formula captures concisely the “distantiation” of the liturgy from that finite historical event to make the Christ-event an encounter that is henceforth possible for people of all times and all places. Quod itaque Redemptoris nostri conspicuum fuit, in sacramenta transivit[17]. Christ need not die and rise over and over again and everywhere. The liturgy is now the “text” of the Paschal Mystery made accessible to all—the same sacrifice of Calvary although not identical to its bloody manner, the same divine discourse able to be told in a different way.

The Problem of Identity

Now, inculturated liturgies again pose the problem of Roman liturgical identity. How can a local liturgy remain Catholic, i.e. synchronically and diachronically reaching out to believers of every time and place, while at the same time be thoroughly attuned to the idiom of its own time and place? This problem even becomes more serious if we take into consideration the ancient axiom lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of worship expresses the law of faith, corresponding liturgical identity to the very identity of the Church. To respond to this question, we continue with Paul Ricoeur’s theory of narrative identity.

Owing to the configuration of discourse in the activity of narrative emplotment which occurs not only in Mimesis2 but throughout the entire Mimetic Circle, encompassing Mimesis1 and Mimesis3 a story is put together not solely as the final text itself but even in the plot already prefigured in the being-in-the-world from which it originates and figured again when it reverts to being-in-the-world. By way of the configured text, the seminal narrative prefigured in life is able to be refigured in life through the activity of the reader who receives the text.

Similarly, in our Anamnetic Circle, the same story of Christ distilled in the liturgy is able to be figured in life by the activity of the celebrating community, again and in other ways, remaining the same even if not identical.

Paul Ricoeur makes the important distinction between identity as same (idem) and identity as self (ipse). Identity as same has four senses: uniqueness in contrast with plurality, reidentification versus difference, uninterrupted continuity, and permanence in time. That the Roman Rite is distinctive of the Church is not really a terrible problem. The characteristic way we celebrate the liturgy in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass immediately identifies us as Catholics even in the face of communities of other religious persuasions that possess very similar rites.

Considering the rest of the criteria however is a little bit more complicated. When one goes to different churches, even within the same region, one finds that the Masses in every particular church differ in varying degrees from the others in much of its music, mood and manner of celebration. Then again, even this is not really so difficult because the text used is nevertheless pretty much the same.

Looking at history however, one finds that the Mass has changed a lot through the years so that reidentification sometimes comes only after a careful study. Recent findings of liturgical historians have revealed such examples that may even be shocking to those with delicate liturgical sensibilities such as five-minute Masses during times of persecution and even in fact, female presiders[18]. Uninterrupted continuity is thus a very serious problem, and consequently, even more so is permanence in time. What could be at the root of this difficulty?

“The break between self (ipse) and same (idem) ultimately expresses that more fundamental break between Dasein and ready-to-hand/present-at-hand.”[19] The idea of uniqueness, reidentification and continuity presupposes that identity is something that is already given from the beginning, even if only as a substratum barely discernible underneath. Given the difficulty then of identifying, reidentifying and continuing selfhood as the same from beginning to present and to the end, we nonetheless find that “the self intersects with the same at one precise point: permanence in time”[20] However, there is need to clarify what this permanence really is; in liturgy, what Liturgiam Authenticam speaks of as “the identity and unitary expression of the Roman Rite”[21]

Here Ricoeur picks up beginning with what Dilthey calls the “coherence of life”, which ironically presents itself in the narrative as “a new level of lucidity and also of perplexity”[22], discordant concordance and concordant discordance. Applying this now to liturgy, we can thus discern some unity even amid the diversity of liturgical traditions within the same Roman Rite; “imaginative variations on an invariant”[23], possibilities even within a highly-institutionalized tradition.

Ricoeur affirms the reality of sameness and alterity as “two correlative existentials”[24]: one can undergo changes and still remain the same by an active struggle to maintain the self seen in fidelity to character and keeping one’s word.

In the Church, we also have communion, seen in the bond of the local churches with the Pope and in the bond of local communities with their bishop, clearly expressed in all the Eucharistic Prayers where their names are explicitly mentioned, as well as in the unity of faith that is professed in the Creed.

Thus, even if there are many and different ways of breaking the One Bread, the Church remains united as One People in the One Lord[25]. In the memory of the Lord who broke bread and poured out wine for his friends, who offered his body and blood on the Cross for our redemption, the Church of every time and place finds her identity as self although not necessarily same.

The Problem of Tradition

With a liturgy that becomes adapted to the context of every time and age, continuing to be the same even if not remaining identical, what then should be our attitude toward tradition? On the one hand, many are anxious and apprehensive about creativity in liturgy, rigidly stressing on the careful and exact observance of rubrics and custom. Conversely, there are some whose creativity runs unbridled so that their celebration of the liturgy becomes very idiosyncratic, almost unrecognizable.

To respond to this question, we take a cue from how Ricoeur describes his way of interpreting Aristotle’s original mimesis: “seriously”[26] and yet at the same time “playfully”[27]. The interpretation of texts needs to be serious out of a profound respect for the text itself and even for its narrator. At the same time it is playful because the narratee as reader is never detached from the text. The interpretation of texts then is an interaction marked both by esteem and candor. Likewise, liturgical activity is a threefold anamnesis that is at the same time “serious” and “playful”. While we always need to be faithful and adhere to the Christ-event, there remains the potential for a story to be told in another way, the capability for the liturgy to be celebrated, always again and anew.

Liturgical creativity is therefore not synonymous with invention, nor is it a simplistic and strict adherence to tradition, but works within a broad range of solutions between servile repetition and (un)calculated deviance, “passing by way of all the degrees of ordered distortion[28]. As Ricoeur himself describes it, tradition is not “a sealed package we pass from hand to hand, without ever opening, but rather a treasure from which we draw by the handful and which by this very act is replenished. Every tradition lives by the grace of interpretation, and it is at this price that it continues, that is, remains living.”[29]


In an attempt to imitate the exemplary Ricoeurian fashion, we now summarize the points we have made so far. By way of introduction, we began by affirming the roots of the Eucharistic liturgy in the Jewish Passover Seder which is basically a narrative ritual. We tried to illustrate how much of the power to recreate the profound religious experience of the disciples who encountered the Lord has been lost amid the complexities of ritual so that the Eucharist has in fact become more sacrifice than meal.

Liturgiam Authenticam posed a crucial problematic about the openness of liturgy to being told in another way, proposing a liturgy that is detached from the world of our ordinary life—a possible elevation from our mundane existence into heavenly realities, but also an escape with no relevance to our being-in-the-world.

Viewing liturgy as discourse however opens the liturgy to the possibility of being told otherwise attuned to the context of every age and culture to recreate for all people the experience of the redemptive Christ-event with its meaning and power, just as the Second Vatican Council expressly envisioned.

This happens by way of a threefold anamnesis, a way of following Ricoeur’s own threefold mimesis. The liturgy prefigured in the sacrifice of Christ in the actual historical event of his dying and rising is refigured in the present through the activity of the celebrating community that is thus enabled to truly enter into the saving events of our salvation and experience its meaning and power for our time.

Using Ricoeur’s narrative theory, and the liturgical framework we derived from it, we then had to face three crucial questions, from both the hermeneutic side and the liturgical side: the Problem of the Circle, the Problem of Identity and the Problem of Tradition.

We unraveled the problem of the closed Circle by opening it to the possibility of an upward spiral, owing to the telling of stories yet untold and to the unique act of emplotment that happens in the unique instance of refiguration in life so that ritual is never really redundant, despite its characteristic repetitiveness.

Responding to the Problem of Identity, we then went into Ricoeur’s theory of narrative identity. We saw that Identity as self is possible; sameness can be maintained even without remaining identical.

Pursuing the previous problem, we then went into the perennial question of maintaining tradition. Taking the cue from Ricoeur’s own way of interpreting Aristotle’s mimesis, interpretation is to be done in a manner that is at once “serious” and “playful”, careful and candid. Hence, creativity in liturgical celebration is neither servile repetition nor uncalculated deviance but rather an ordered distortion, which constitutes an intelligent assimilation of tradition in a manner that is at once faithful and at the same time innovative.

Recuperating a Living Liturgy

Inheriting a beautiful body of ritual that has somehow grown dull and tasteless through the years, becoming more of a sacrifice that has to be offered, or even suffered, we face the task of recuperating an authentic liturgy, a liturgy that truly springs from Christ, its life-giving source and is able to refresh the life that we live here and now in this world, by way of the activity of the celebrating community that commemorates the salvific events of the Paschal Mystery.

Faced with this overwhelming task, we found an opportunity for renewal in Paul Ricoeur’s theory of the narrative that springs from life and ever returns to life, as a way to a liturgy that comes from Life and is able to lead us into Life.

Far from a liturgy that has to be preserved in static fashion, the liturgy is dynamic and attains its true efficacy with the continual activity of interpretation attuned at once to tradition, but also at the same time to the context of every time and age. This work of interpretation transpires in every celebration of the gathered community of believers that here and now tells over and over and unceasingly the mirabilia Dei—the wonders that God has wrought.

Everywhere we proclaim your mighty works
for you called us out of darkness
into your own wonderful light.

By way of the liturgical celebration, we are able to cross over from this world to encounter the Savior, in his redeeming activity that has since passed on to us in the sacraments of the Church, not however as a stagnant preserve but as a living heritage pregnant with meaning and power to transform our life. Indeed, it is a wonderful crossing-over by way of anamnesis from our being-in-the-world to the very being of God. Celebrating the liturgy then is not just performing a sacrifice but entering into a locus of privileged encounter where we intimately meet the person of Christ and Christ is able to permeate our life. By telling the story of our redemption, we are led to refigure the story of Christ in our lives as the ultimate consummation of the liturgy in a catharsis of charity.

Therefore we yearn for a liturgy that is able to let us enter anew the mysteries of Christ’s life, death and resurrection so that every Christian, of every generation, may also be able to say that he has been personally redeemed by Christ.


[1] A series of four questions, all beginning with Mah Nistanah which translates: “Why is it different?”, beginning with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The ritual for the Jewish Passover commemoration is contained in the ceremonial book Haggadah, which literally means telling—in reference to the Scriptural injunction “tell your son” (Deut 6: 21) of the wonders God has wrought for his people.
[2] Mishnah Pesachim 10, 5.
[3] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 33.
[4] Fifth Instruction for the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, Liturgiam Authenticam, 5
[5] Liturgiam Authenticam, 21.
[6] Liturgiam Authenticam, 20. Instead of continuing the use of the principle of dynamic equivalence in the translation of liturgical texts originally laid down in the 1969 instruction Comme le prevoit, the document strongly insisted on an exact transliteration of the Latin, even to the extent of retaining certain manners of speech which even it acknowledges to have become “somewhat obsolete in daily usage” (27). Moreover, it also undoes much of the significant progress made since the first edition of the vernacular translations such as the use of more inclusive language, which it now puts aside as ideologically motivated (See Liturgiam Authenticam, no. 30 and ff.)
[7] Anscar J. Chupungco, OSB. Liturgiam Authenticam and Inculturation. (
[8] IT, 9.
[9] FTA, 78
[10] IT, 9
[11] Gal 4: 4
[12] Rom 6: 10; Heb 9: 12, 26
[13] TN1, 53.
[14] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 33.
[15] TN1, 72.
[16] TN1, 74.
[17] What was visible in our Savior has passed on in the sacraments. Saint Leo the Great. Sermo LXXIV. De Ascensione Domini II, c. 2: PL 54, 398
[18] Long before churches were built, the Eucharist was celebrated in the homes of the leaders of the Christian communities. The owner of the house, which is also the leader of the community, usually presided and there are credible accounts of women who were leaders of Christian communities and who presided at the celebration of the liturgy.
[19] OPR, 190.
[20] OPR, 190.
[21] Liturgiam Authenticam, 5
[22] OPR, 195
[23] OPR, 196
[24] OPR, 197
[25] cf. 1 Cor 10: 17
[26] TN1, 53.
[27] TN1, 53.
[28] OPR, 25
[29] CINT, 27; CI, 31.
[30] From the Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time I


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