Liturgy Versus Lecture – Part 2: Common Criticism of Formal Worship
In the first part of this study an investigation was made into the evidence available on what the earliest Christian worship communities were like, as opposed to a common misconception in many Western congregations that it was extemporaneous and non-liturgical; and all degraded into nominal rigidness and hierarchical corruption after the legalization of the faith under Constantine. Having addressed this presupposition, attention will now be given to the purpose and meaning behind a seemingly antiquated and out-dated method of adhering to the Christian faith here in the twenty-first century.
OBJECTIONS TO LITURGY
One common grievance espoused by Christians who are very troubled with the rigid formality of liturgical worship is the use of such exalted and flowery language. Why can’t we just speak in the common, understandable vernacular of our time instead of insisting that being in church means we talk like Shakespeare? Going back to Jewish worship, it is interesting that when Jesus went to worship in the synagogue, Hebrew was spoken. But by this late part of the second temple period, Hebrew had become extinct in common society for about 300 years.[i] In Rome, Greek continued to be used in worship for the first several centuries of Christianity even though Latin had become the common tongue, and even after Latin began to be used in Western services it still retained a vocabulary unique to its context that simply cannot undergo translation, and this is the case even in the most informal congregations today; Hebrew words such as “amen” and “alleluia” are such examples.[ii] The point here is not that we need to keep doing things merely because it is the way it was always done, but rather that Church life has always had distinctive, transcendent language and practices that have no place in this world because they are designed to draw us out of the common, often vulgar social structure of society and propel us into an experience of the sacred, of true and enlightened life in communion with God.
As for formal or written prayers being stale and insincere, Father Thomas Hopko of blessed memory often explained that the spirit behind them is to help us reorient ourselves from our prideful preoccupation with personal baggage as well as misconceptions about God and faith into the life and mind of Christ through His Church. Rather than trying – and falling so short – to put our mouth where our distracted and confused mind is, we should instead let these historic prayers wash over us and try putting our mind where our mouth is. Prayer, especially the prayers of Scripture, is equally pedagogical to us as it is supplicatory to our Lord. Additionally, C.S. Lewis made an excellent point as to why extemporaneous prayer is inappropriate in a corporate context, as it demands those listening to the one praying to accomplish an impossible feat.[iii] One must listen extremely carefully to the prayers since they do not know what is coming. This invites a flood of distracting thoughts and fixation on certain phrases. While listening they must conduct a thorough analysis of what is being said to ensure it is not heretical or inappropriate, causing an unsurety as to whether one can join in. Then one must give their “amen,” (without which it is not a corporate prayer), when there is simply no way to be sure one can affirm and embrace it so quickly. Lewis also pointed out that formal prayer “prevents any service getting too completely eaten up by whatever happens to be the preoccupation of the moment (a war, an election, or what not)” and that ex tempore prayer “has a great tendency to direct attention to the minister rather than to God.”[iv]
Of course there have been changes and developments of various traditions in worship over the past two millennia, and no one in any congregation can believably argue that the way their church does things is to the tee exactly what the first Christians did right after Pentecost. However, Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth, and scripture clearly demonstrates that true and proper worship consists of involvement in the worship of heaven. While the liturgy of the Church may have grown up as it became established, as my priest would say: when an acorn matures into an oak tree, it nonetheless retains the same DNA. It is not reinvented according to the whims of society or as the result of extensive demographic research on the target audience of our local parish. Christian worship has a historical structure to it, the apex of which lies in the visual realization of the ultimate temple sacrifice, the body and blood of Christ given by the celebrant, the icon of Christ, to his sheep for the healing of soul and body. In contrast, the focus of contemporary worship services seem to consistently revolve around the sermon — rating churches based on how inspirational the performance is that conveys ideas about God, rather than pursuing a direct experience of God sacramentally.
TOO MANY SMELLS AND BELLS!
One final issue that should be addressed is the aesthetic element of worship. Several months ago I attended a very small, “plain-jane” Orthodox parish, with only a couple of women, no men, in the choir, and found myself distracted, uncomfortable, and unable to focus on worshiping simply because it was not very beautiful like I was used to in my home parish. I was convicted about idolizing aesthetics as being the important factor of worship, when in fact this is the least important aspect. I have met a parishioner who attends this “plain-jane” parish whose wife used to be uninterested in Orthodoxy until they began to attend there and then she was able to feel more at home. I also have loved ones who find all the fancy aesthetic elements extremely off-putting, gaudy, and unnecessary; and that’s okay because these things are not what is important in worship. The reason behind them being there, however, is nicely explained in the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his book, For the Life of the World:
“The liturgy is, before everything else, the joyous gathering of those who are to meet the risen Lord and to enter with him into the bridal chamber. And it is this joy of expectation and this expectation of joy that are expressed in singing and ritual, in vestments and in censing, in that whole ‘beauty’ of the liturgy which has so often been denounced as unnecessary and even sinful. Unnecessary it is indeed, for we are beyond the categories of the ‘necessary.’ Beauty is never ‘necessary,’ ‘functional,’ or ‘useful.’ And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy . . . As long as Christians will love the Kingdom of God, and not only discuss it, they will ‘represent’ it and signify it, in art and beauty. And the celebrant of the sacrament of joy will appear in a beautiful chasuble, because he is vested in the glory of the Kingdom, because even in the form of man God appears in glory. In the Eucharist we are standing in the presence of Christ, and like Moses before God, we are to be covered with his glory.”[v]
What is important to worship is that we lay aside ourselves – as if worship were something for us to consume as a mere self-help session – by following the basic pattern inaugurated by Christ, taught by the Apostles, and preserved by their successors. This is so that we may truly participate in what Christ called “anamnesis”, the uniting of ourselves with the Kingdom of God and making that our home by “bringing into the present” the reality of Christ. This is the word used when Christ told us to partake of communion in remembrance of Him. This phrase is given emphasis by those who would hold communion to be a memorial service only, but unfortunately the richness of this deep and mystical phrase just cannot be captured by simply reminiscing about a historical event.
WHY BE STUCK IN THE PAST?
Why fantasize with such antiquated, unnecessary, and, to outsiders, weird archaiphilia? Liturgy has never been about nostalgia or mere anachronism, trying to hold on to the threads of a bygone era. Since its deliverance to the Israelites liturgy has always been about participation in heavenly worship, transcending all transient and passing fads and innovations of the fallen world, going deeper than the mere appearance of things on the surface to perceive the eternal and ultimate realities of the Kingdom of God that has penetrated and is healing the world, and beholding and worshiping the Lamb that was slain on the altar. Without that mystical supper there is no penetration of the eternal Kingdom into the present for the salvation Christ offers us to become a personal, fully formed reality in our lives. It is interesting that Revelation describes this climactic unveiling as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” (Rev. 13:8 NKJV). Clearly Jesus was not crucified at the beginning of time, so this verse is not speaking about chronological time. The slain Lamb is an ultimate, eternal reality that transcends mere human history. This word anamnesis calls us to bring that which is ultimate, that which is beyond the things of earth (which grow strangely dim) into the present to make it our own, to attend and center our mind in the present, so that we can meet God there. As long as we keep our heads focused on the past or the future, we will not perceive the Lord. This ultimate reality is something we immerse ourselves within, denying ourselves, in order to participate in His pure and Holy Life. Again, Father Alexander Schmemann articulates this beautifully:
“We offered the bread in remembrance of Christ because we know that Christ is Life, and all food, therefore, must lead us to Him. And now when we receive this bread from His hands, we know that he has taken up all life, filled it with Himself, made it what it was meant to be: communion with God, sacrament of His presence and love. Only in the Kingdom can we confess with St. Basil that ‘this bread is in very truth the precious body of our Lord, this wine the precious blood of Christ.’ What is ‘supernatural’ here, in this world, is revealed as ‘natural’ there. And it is always in order to lead us ‘there’ and to make us what we are that the Church fulfills herself in liturgy.”[vi]