Sunday, May 5, 2019
Whither thou goest. . .
The experts in liturgical renewal insisted that this flowery language not only impeded the understanding of the hearer but was preventing those outside the Church from hearing and understanding the faith. Liturgical renewal of the language of worship was then promoted as an apologetic and mission exercise. By bringing the language of the home, street, and workplace into the liturgy, people would feel more at home, would hear more readily, and understand more quickly the love of their God, Creator and Redeemer. Has it proven true?
I am probably biased in this since when we use Divine Service Three (the mostly TLH page 15 rite) I find myself slipping into the old Thees and Thous that have been expunged in favor of the generic "you". I also find myself slipping back into the old words of the Te Deum (when Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man) and the Venite (In His hand are the deep places of the earth). Words may mask clear understanding if understanding is the primary goal but words also elevate both the speech and the experience if the primary function of the liturgy is not education but incarnational, that is, to deliver the mystery of salvation through the means of grace.
In essence, we have decided that the lowest common denominator is best. Target a third grade reading level, if you will. But in doing so we have, as one author put it reduced the language of our sacred rites into the equivalent of a spoonful of pureed carrots and the role of the presider as coaxer of the reluctant (“Here comes the choochoo!”). We have, in essence, forgotten the wisdom of Scripture reminding us that we cannot nurse at the breast forever but must grow up to eat solid food. The liturgy is just this solid food (and at the same time mostly direct or paraphrased verses from Scripture both said and sung).
Furthermore, has our drive toward user friendly worship, bland architecture, and basic language resulted in fuller pews and a more convinced and confident church? You look around and tell me that this is so. Instead we have pandered to every whim of culture in trying to make the faith palatable and the liturgy plain only to find our people more secularized than ever, living not in the center of the faith with its profound Sunday rhythms but hearkening more toward the beat of the world and its music, themes, and priorities. I suspect that our rejection of the lofty language that befits the grand mystery of Christ and His saving presence has, in fact, played a decisive role – though certainly not an exclusive one – in the constant drift of people out of our churches, of men into anything but our seminaries, and the respect for the Church as the House of God as little more than public space. As Peter touches, what is it that we are trying to “understand” in our rites? Mystery.
I well remember when the English translation was changed so that in the Creed the people confessed Christ consubstantial with the Father. The cries went out that nobody understood that word. But who fully understands or is able to comprehend what that means that Christ is of one substance or consubstantial with the Father. The Creed was never meant to explain but to confess the faith and the liturgy was never a tool for education (though certainly it does teach) but the people of God praying back to the Father what He has spoken to them. A certain Norman Nagel wisely crafted just this idea in the introduction to the hymnal Lutheran Worship but I fear his words and the whole idea have gotten lost and now it has become difficult, even near impossible, to restore what has been lost.
The house of God is not a lecture hall and the pulpit is not the place where the professor speaks. The house of God is where His Word and Sacraments are, where the mystery of salvation is delivered to be received by faith and trusted by the heart, and where the pastor or priest preaches the Word of God so that God's people might respond with joy and thanksgiving and might bear the fruit of good works in their lives.