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BRIGHTON — Many of us attend Mass each week without giving the liturgy much thought or without realizing the meaning behind the postures we take or the prayers we recite during Mass. Father Aidan Nichols, OP, spoke at St. John’s Seminary Jan. 31 on the depth of the sacrament of the liturgy, which we often take at face value.
Many attended the lecture given by Father Nichols, who is Prior of the Blackfriars, a Dominican convent in Cambridge, England, which traces its history back to the Middle Ages.
Father Nichols has taught at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, and St. Mary’s College, Oscott and Blackfriars Hall in Oxford, both in England. He is also an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Father Nichols is an accomplished author having written approximately 30 books and more than 70 articles. He travels the world giving talks on spirituality, Catholic renewal and theology.
In his lecture entitled, “Signs of Salvation: St. Thomas and the Liturgy of the Church,” he spoke of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, who he said saw “the sacramental liturgy as belonging to the order of signs.”
The signs represented in the Mass “speak to our senses” and draw us closer to God, said Father Nichols. According to St. Thomas, the signs “express the reality of the holy as pertinent to human salvation. The definition of the word ‘sacrament’ for St. Thomas is the sign of a holy reality insofar as it makes humans holy,” he said.
"The primary saving sign for St. Thomas is the humanity of the word and flesh," stated Father Nichols. The fact that God became man gave the body a role in salvation, he said.
"The body is the fulcrum of salvation," he explained. "St. Thomas was going against the grain when he insisted that the human body was integral to the human person. Man is a single reality of the body and soul together ... it is the body that renders man a concrete reality."
The body and the soul are “what befits man to the possible entrance into the world of grace,” he said. “The work of the mind depends on the body … and the knowledge of the divine salvation has its origins in the senses.”
In the bible, Father Nichols said, we receive an awareness of the spiritual through signs and sacred actions and events are signified by the sacraments. “Man is a body, soul composite,” he stated. “We recognize God through the visible, so that we may be drawn to Him to love the invisible.”
By using signs in the liturgy, said Father Nichols “Man’s mind might be aroused to the spiritual things that connect him to God … through words and gestures the mind is moved to apprehend and desire God.”
Because God created man, he is born with a desire to return to Him, Father Nichols stated. “We are on a course of return, but it is a course of impeded return … sin impedes this return.”
But man’s hope, according to St. Thomas, is that “We are saved by the humanity of Christ — that is man’s salvation through God. The body, soul unity of Christ is the very means of divine salvation reaching us,” Father Nichols said.
"Salvation reaches us through the causal relations of visible signs," according to St. Thomas, Father Nichols continued. "By assuming human nature God placed Himself in the order of the signs."
"The liturgy is the sacramental sign of this incarnation," said Father Nichols. "The worship of God in Christ and through Christ began by Him for the benefit of us and His Church, who take part in His worship."
"The liturgy is nothing more or less than an exercise in the priestly function of Jesus Christ," he continued.
The liturgy and the sacrament of the Eucharist “signify the sacrifice of Christ in His Passion,” said Father Nichols. “The sacramental cross and the sacramental Mass are identical. A sacrament is a sign that commemorates what precedes it — Christ’s Passion.”
Father Nichols received a strong ovation from the crowd in attendance, which was comprised of priests, seminarians and lay people including students from Boston College.
It was the second time Danielle Huntley, a junior studying philosophy at BC, had heard Father Nichols speak.
"Father Nichols has a real grasp for the importance of the liturgy and how central it is to the foundation of the Catholic Church," she said after the lecture. "One way to renew the Church is by increasing devotion to the liturgy and protecting it from unnecessary changes that take away from the beauty and reverence of it."
Seminarian Anthony Hpagi, a third-year theology student from the Worcester Diocese, found Father Nichols’ talk a call to renewed devotion to God through the liturgy.
"His link between the liturgy and how to portray it in the world today as praise of God was very interesting," said Hpagi, who is originally from Uganda. "Man must respond to that praise as he lives his life and there is a call to always respond more."