Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sacred Language... the vocabulary of worship...

I have commented before on how far away the language of worship has crept both from the Scriptures and the high prose and poetry of a previous era.  Some of the words of worship have become downright pedestrian -- bordering on the crude and vulgar.  It is as if we are working to make worship as commonplace an activity as possible and flaunting this casual approach with a vocabulary that is shockingly earthy and mundane.

The notice of this began for me with the publishing of the Worship Supplement (1969) by the LCMS Commission on Worship.  The Holy Eucharist I was largely unscathed by this movement and even kept the response "And with your spirit."  Move deeper into the liturgical section and the other side of the book is revealed.  In The Holy Eucharist II we had the height of the glorification of the trite, trivial, and mundane.  "We are here... in the name of Jesus Christ."  Duh.  "We are here because we are men..."  Now that is a lofty and poetic and noble statement.  Pick up the book (starting about page 59) and you will breathe a sigh of relief that this part of the book never made it into any completed hymnal.  Thankfully this is about the worst in that book and that no hymnal published after this descended into the realm of the trendy and banal as did WS 69.

If we moved back from the cliff then, it only slowed the descent instead of halting it.  Rome came out with an English language Latin Mass that was posited upon the same idea of simple, earthy, common language and vocabulary.  Perhaps the worst of it all were the collects.  Many liturgical scholars have lamented these two or three line prayers that spent most of their time telling God what He knows and then asking of Him the most foolish things.  What a waste of the opportunity -- to stand in the presence of God and be tongue tied in our desire to be relevant! 

If we have done this with liturgical language, it is also true that we have done it with the language of Scripture as well.  The brutality of the form of the words of many translations has masked the eloquence and eternal inherent in those words.  We may not understand as readily the language of the old KJV but we know it sounds like it belongs to the liturgical assembly when some of the translations used today are wooden and dull in their attempt to be simple.

While the language we use to witness to those outside the Church may be granted a higher degree of latitude and discretion, the language used inside the Church and in worship is and has always been a liturgical language that uses the fullest resources of vocabulary and syntax.  The public language of the Church at prayer is by nature different than the common language of the people on the street.  We should not be surprised or embarrassed by this.  Karl Barth, hardly a liturgical scholar or advocate, once said that in speaking outside the Church we must use the language of "everyman" but in speaking in worship within the Christian assembly we use the "queer" language of the faith  (paraphrased and I cannot for the life of me find the actual quote).  He hits the mark squarely on the head.

Liturgical language—the language of the Church assembled in worship— is by nature different from the language of the marketplace or public square or even the home. Liturgical language deliberately abandons the idiom of the familiar in order to focus upon the sacred.  While there is in theory a noble desire to bring the sacred into the ordinary (profane might have too many negative connotations to be used here), it fails in two ways.  On the one hand, it erases distinctions that flow from the first commandment affirmation that God is God and we are not.  He comes to us but He comes not to make His home with us.  He comes to dwell with us that we might dwell with Him.  Secondly, the effect of couching the sacred in the most common language of people is that the sacred is diluted and lost to us.  Sin has done its work well.  We are so curved in on our selves that when we hear the sound of the common it reinforces this inward focus instead of drawing us out.

Just as what happens in worship elevates us, so liturgical language is meant to elevate.  Heaven comes to us in the moment but it comes to draw us away from ourselves and to Him who brings heaven to us.  That is the context of what happens in the Divine Service.  We are bidden by God to come to Him.  He clothes us in the wedding garments.  He serves us in His own House with the gifts of His very self.  It happens here on earth but it has a eschatalogical and transcendent focus.  The language of the Divine Service is one of the means by which this is preserved and encouraged among us.

What failed to catch on for Lutherans in the experimental age of the 1960s and 1970s has entered via the contemporary worship and music movement.  Even in services that follow a liturgical pattern, we cannot stop the incessant commentary that makes Pastor into an emcee who entertains, who keeps it going, who directs us to the changes coming, and who introduces the starring players.  In the end God is almost an afterthought to the action so rooted in self and in the moment.  While liturgical language alone cannot prevent this, it is one of the powerful tools to prevent worship from becoming man centered and entertainment oriented.  The vocabulary and syntax of the Divine Service is no small part of this hedge against the natural inclination in us to make it always and all about us.

For the life of me I cannot figure out why we are so accommodating to the peculiar language and vocabulary of our earthly professions, interests, and ethnicities while disdaining the noble speech of Scripture and liturgy meant to be spoken and heard within the assembly that is the Church, the body of Christ.  All of this could and should also apply to the choice of translation used for the Scripture spoken in the liturgy and in the language of hymn, chant, and song in service to worship.

1 comment:

Janis Williams said...

I agree, Fr. Peters. Where we avoided the cliff, we turned, but not 180 degrees.

Music is far more emotional than Liturgical languages. We live on and or emotions. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World had it right. Instead of gum we chew in services to heighten the emotion, we have music.

Style does matter. The 20-something young woman singing the Jesus is my boyfriend song borders often on the erotic. Pastors, choirs and congregations chanting the Liturgy are just not to be mistaken as sexual.

I apologize if I offend anyone for the earthy intimations. And please be advised I don't mean the Liturgy is the opposite: bland.