Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Case for the Liturgy

We repeat what should never be forgotten. -- St. Caesarius of Arles, Homily 9 Those were a part of a quote on the blog of my esteemed colleague Pastor Will Weedon. As I read them I was struck both by the simplicity of this statement and its eloquence.

About the author: St. Caesarius (d. 542 AD) was from Gaul. He entered the Monastery at Lerins at age 13 but lived in conflict with them over the level of austerity appropriate to monastic life. When a protest fast proved harmful to his health, he was sent to Arles where he found kinship with the Bishop and established a monastery there. The issue of the time was semi-Pelagianism and his prominence as a theologian was shown when he presided over the Council of Orange (529) which dealt with grace and good works. Among other things, he published several volumes of sermons, from which the short quote was taken.

Not having read the entire sermon, I limit my comment to how well this brief sentence puts the case for the liturgy. We repeat what should never be forgotten. Period. Almost immediately my mind is drawn back to the Nagel Introduction to Lutheran Worship (the hymnal):

Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God. Saying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Mos true and sure is his name, which he put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are his. This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service. Where his name is, there is he. Before him, we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words he has used to make himself known to us...

Like the child who repeats to himself what he has been sent on the errand to get, all to make sure that he does not forget and therefore fail in his appointed duty, so do we as the Church gather where God has bidden us, to repeat back to Him what is most sure, and to make sure that we never forget it. Where His name is, there is He. This is not some mere formulaic "We are here in the name of..." but our acknowledgement of where He has placed His name and for what purpose He has placed His name. Where He has placed His name is not in feelings but in water, bread, and wine. So when Jesus says "Where two or three are gathered in My name..." Jesus is Himself referring to the gathered guests around the Word and Table of the Lord. We call this worship or the Divine Service or the Liturgy or the Mass. This is where He is, where His name is, and where He has made Himself accessible to us. This is where the fruits of His righteous life, life-giving death, and tomb rending resurrection are made available to us.

It is recognizable by the Word and the Table but also by the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Table. Just as we do not invent the Word or the Table but have been received this gift from the Lord (as St. Paul said, "I delivered to you what was entrusted to me... on the night when our Lord was betrayed..."). It is the testament of the Lord and not the gift of the Church that bids us come and meet here the means of grace that deliver to us what they promise. Therefore we keep not only the broad, general outline of the Divine Service but the specific words (the Verba and the Our Father among them).

These words we repeat. This is not the incantation of words meant as magical spell nor are they a mantra to cleanse and clear us for a deeper spiritual connection. We repeat them because they are Testament -- the anamnesis or remembrance our Lord has commanded us to make and the means through which He works His promise to us, among us, and through us.

We repeat what should never be forgotten. That is the case for the liturgy -- for a measured consistency that allows us to remember what we dare never forget. As long as what happens on Sunday morning is new and different, the people are deprived of their opportunity to repeat and remember. As long as worship entertains with people (and musicians) that perform, the people are deprived of their opportunity to repeat and remember. As along as the music sings about my feelings instead of His Word and Gospel, the people are deprived of their opportunity to repeat and remember. As long as the preacher is the focus (or anyone else), the people are deprived of their opportunity to repeat and remember.

Why do we exercise such are in changing the form of the creed or keep the antiquated language of the familiar Our Father? Why do we keep the Words of Institution the same instead of varying them? Why? Because, as even the most outspoken voices for change admit, there are sacred words which we cannot change or we deprive the people of what is theirs. What we as Lutherans have said from the beginning is that the words of the Mass (Divine Service) are also those words, which, with the Our Father and Verba, belong not to the presider or the people but to the Lord and His Church. We repeat them back to Him and in doing so we say what is most true, most sure, most relevant -- the Words that will not pass away even when heaven and earth are gone. We repeat them back to Him but we also repeat them so we never forget them.

The danger of the wholesale tinkering with what happens on Sunday morning is that we forget... we forget what the Word that gives us life, that does what it says, that one thing in life that must be remembered and never forgotten.

We repeat what should never be forgotten. -- St. Caesarius of Arles, Homily 9 . . . He got it right in just a few words. . . do you suppose we will get it right in our own time?

BTW if you liked the above try Wax on, Wax off or 7 Reasons Why No "I Just Want to Worship"

1 comment:

Janis Williams said...

I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis said. This isn't a quote, but the gist of it is; if I'm worried about what the pastor/worship leader/praise team are going to do next, I'm not concentrating on the service/Liturgy. Innovation in church services (God serving us, not we serving Him or each other) is a great attention stealer.

If the Israelites could forget God and His Word both of command and promise so easily, why do we think we should do any better?