Friday, March 25, 2011
How to nurture a sense of reverence....
The Church is the entrance into the holy city, the New Jerusalem, through which even in this present moment we glimpse the everlasting life and light that is the fruit of His sacrificial self-offering on the cross and His life-giving resurrection. As Ephesians reminds us, Jesus is the source from which all things come and the one in whom all things find their fulfillment, not in the least of which is you and me. Worship is not something that comes naturally to us, although the desire to know God and live in His presence is certainly still with us, though distorted since the Fall. Therefore God must first teach us, as He has done through His Word, so that we might know where to know Him and where He has made Himself known. And those who know Him in His Word and Sacraments are then given the holy task of teaching this sacred domain and the means of grace to those outside the community of faith and to the children who are nurtured in their young lives of faith within that community.
Part of this task is the teaching of reverence. Reverence is the training of the mind and also the body for the holy task and gracious privilege of worship. It is not simply outward ritual, gesture, or posture but uniting both the outward form with the inward posture of the heart (we call it faith). Part of this training in reverence involves learning a pattern of prayer. Historically, the daily office was significant in shaping the life of prayer of the individual within the community life together of the Church. But a pattern of prayer that involves a familiar form and a commitment or discipline may be adapted from a variety of sources. Many are available within the Lutheran tradition (not in the least of which is the Treasury of Daily Prayer).
Familiarity and comfort with the House of God is also very helpful. When we become at home within the church building and what goes on in the Sanctuary, then we become free to focus more deeply and completely upon the Word of God and the gifts of grace imparted to us within our Sacrament life together. It is very difficult to nurture a sense of reverence when the surroundings and what takes place within them is new and unfamiliar to us. In this way the rhythm of the Church Year and the uniformity of the liturgical ordinary are powerful tools that both foster and encourage this reverence.
We might say that the same is true of the ritual gestures of the liturgy. Part of the value of these liturgical actions is that they become a part of us, an extension of our inward piety and devotion. When we make the sign of the cross upon us at the invocation, benediction, and all the points in between, we express outwardly our constant identity as a baptized child of God. When these gestures become instinctive, then they flow naturally from the prompting of the liturgy or the shape of our private prayer -- reminding us of the grace that first called us to faith and the grace that sustains us. The more comfortable we are with them, the less they awkwardness we feel with them and the less they become simply an outward act or show. The fruit of these liturgical actions is the posture of reverence.
Good church architecture provides focal points for our eyes in the rich tapestry of liturgical art. It begins with the crucifix where we are repeatedly confronted with the all sufficient sacrifice of Christ that is both the cardinal teaching of our faith and the source of all the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation that God has generously bestowed upon us. As one author put it, when the cross is no longer a scandal it no longer speaks of Christ. Part of seeing Him as the Suffering Savior is remembering not only the gift but the scandal through which that gift comes to us. Stained glass with its sacred images and stories framed in a window functions in the same way as prompter and shaper of our thoughts and prayer.
The truth is that when the focus is mostly on what we do or what others do, the worship service is at odds with the sense of reverence that is meant to flow from the place where we enjoin our life together with Christ and all those who bear His name. When the only time we spend in the Sanctuary is time spent "doing worship," reverence is hard to find and, if found, difficult to sustain. For this reason it is a good thing to come early enough to kneel for a time in prayer, to look around at the sacred images and religious art all around us, to read through the hymns before we sing them, and to become familiar with the lessons for the day before they are read out loud. This godly preparation bears good fruit for us and for the faith that is nurtured by the means of grace within the context of our life together -- called, gathered, and enlightened by the Spirit at work in this place.
Just a few devotional thoughts about reverence and how to nurture it...