Fr. Aidan Kavanagh was a professor at Notre Dame and Yale, a Benedictine monk, and one of the world’s leading scholars in liturgical studies and liturgical theology. Kavanagh died in 2006 at the age of 77 and a beautiful obituary published by Yale can be read here. Amongst many other accolades, he was the first Roman Catholic to serve as the Dean of Yale Divinity School (1989-1990) and his works have profoundly influenced my thinking and research.
Fr. Kavanagh is perhaps most known for his book, On Liturgical Theology, his vast and prolific writing corpus, and his research on the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist), liturgical studies, and a pioneer in liturgical theology alongside Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
As I continue to work my way through On Liturgical Theology yet again, I have been struck by Fr. Kavanagh’s profundity. His ability to write seamlessly and accessibly on a complex issue is at once both refreshing and overwhelming.
Remaining in chapter 1, Kavanagh first makes an important proclamation about creation, theology, liturgy, soteriology, and Albert Einstein. Essentially he suggests that our human existence and experience is bound up in the reality that we are embodied beings. That is, our understanding of and words about God cannot be separated from the fact that we are created beings living in creation; theology is not vaguely rational or purely mental, it is tangible because God is really present. He writes:
“Since Christian worship swims in creation as a fish swims in water, theology has no option but to accept the created world as a necessary component of every equation and conclusion it produces. Christian theology cannot talk of God, any more than Einstein could talk of energy, without including the ‘mass’ of the world squared by the constant of God’s eternal will to save in Christ.” – On Liturgical Theology, p. 4.
In speaking of his own convictions as a means on introducing liturgical theology, Kavanagh begins to lay out the boundary markers of liturgy’s primacy and priority in theological enterprises. For him, and for me, liturgy is indeed the “sustained expression” of the church:
“…Liturgical tradition, in whatever Christian idiom, as the dynamic condition within which theological reflection is done, within which the Word of God is appropriately understood. This is because it is in the Church, of which the liturgy is the sustained expression and the life, that the various sources of theology function precisely as sources.” – p. 8
However, liturgy is far more than expressive. It is active. Something is accomplished in and through the liturgy as the church gathers weekly to celebrate and participate. This accomplishment is the transaction of faith before a loving and present God. “Thus a church’s worship does not merely reflect or express its repertoire of faith. It transacts the church’s faith in God under the condition of God’s real presence in both church and world,” (p. 8).
Finally, I share Fr. Kavanagh’s conviction that while God is present in and with his church and creation in a multitude of ways, it is through worship that the church comes to know most fully the life of God.
“Therefore the liturgy is not merely one ecclesiastical ‘work’ or one theological datum among others. It is simply the church living it’s ‘bread and butter’ life of faith under grace, a life in which God in Christ is encountered regularly and dependably as in no other way for the life of the world.” – p. 8