Thursday, May 31, 2012
Ritual is, as it were, a solemnized habit.
It would seem that liturgical churches walk a fine line between ritual we do without thinking and and regular review of that ritual to make certain we know what it is we are doing. I expect that this is the genius of the liturgy -- that it is common enough to be habit, albeit solemnized habit, and yet ever fresh and new because the words convey the very things they sign and symbolize. All in all that is the tension in which we live.
Habits can be good or bad. Habit is a neutral term. Some do not like habits. They wish to be spontaneous at all times. We all know this is an impossibility. Spontaneity is an even more onerous vice than predictability and one surely harder to satisfy. We cannot avoid habit. From the moment we get up in the morning until the last sigh before sleep overtakes us, we are creatures of habit who follow the ruts of our habits (good or bad). Ritual is, as Peter Berger put it, solemnized habit. This is good habit. This habit allows the potential for a community to speak and act together and on cue. It keeps us from the proverbial invention of the wheel all over again. By following the commonly known path, we all walk together. None of us need to stop and figure out the way. The way is what allows us to act in concert with one another.
I like habits and routine. They are the comfortable boundaries that allow me the security to extend myself and the refuge I return to when that experiment goes awry. I guess this is exactly why the liturgy is so important. It is the family and comfortable habit of the faithful that allows us the security to expend ourselves before the world in witness and service. It also is the very place where we return when our foray into the world fails to bear our hoped fruit and it is the means of our sustenance that equips us to try again to bear the good fruit of the kingdom that endures.
Some churches have decided that what was old is by definition bad. Because they can sing a new song to the Lord they must sing only new songs. They are so intent upon preventing robotic repetition of the familiar sacred texts that the have done away with most all of those holy words and actions. In doing so, they have created a familiar ritual of the new, which is not entirely unpredictable but rather routine as well. It is not that they think too little of worship but make too much of it. Worship becomes the only thing so it is packed with everything that could be done (without bothering to think what should be done). Half the time is spent in music to address the heart. It is music chosen for the feeling it imparts and used to create a mood or setting they think conducive to worship. It involves all kinds of visual stimulus. Because we can do so much with technology and theater, we must do it. So the new is predictably filled with dance and drama -- thoroughly documented and directed by video and its soundtrack. Finally there is the message. The messenger is dressed for the part with either the tailored cut of a fine suit or the casual look of the latest fashion from one of the purveyors of current style (A & F, Gap, etc.). It is new but predictably new -- habit has a way of creeping up on even the most creative.
In contrast, the liturgical churches do not invest a lot in worship. The forms and postures and ritual are just, well, there. It is neither the reason nor the goal but it all points to Christ. It is predictable simply because Christ is predictable. We do not guess where He is this Sunday or what He might say to us. We know. So the worship is about Christ, it points to Him and not to itself. We do not disdain habit. We honor the good habit that directs us to that which is good and right and true. We fall out into the form as people finding their place -- not because our place is so important but because Christ is. We know who we are and we know the predictable path that has brought us here and where our gathering will lead. More importantly, we know who Christ is and where He has made Himself accessible to us. The Word and Sacraments are heart and core of what we do and of who we are as Christians because these belong to Christ and convey Christ, the bearer of His good gifts and grace to His people.
What makes it fresh and new is not that Christ surprises us with something unpredictable, but that He is predictable. He is always where He has promised to always be. Amid a world of disappointment and broken promises, this is our refreshing joy. Jesus is where He has pledged to be, He gives what He has promised to give, and He does what He has promised to do. Period. The ritualized habit called liturgy keeps us on the same page... Christ's page. Simple enough. Every now and then we do need to be cautioned about becoming too casual about the familiar and every now and then, when we long for something new, we need to be pointed to the one and only thing that is new -- Christ's gracious and merciful gifts where He has placed His name (Word, water, and meal).
Just a few thoughts on the solemn routine that is fresh every Sunday morning...