Friday, August 14, 2020
The beauty and language of the liturgy and prayer. . .
There are those who would insist that the language of the liturgy and of the collects and, perhaps, even of the hymns is too high brow. It expects and requires a level of education and understanding not commonly found in the pews. I would agree that the language of the Divine Service (in all of its forms) is hardly simplistic but neither would I admit that it is beyond the folks in the pew. But then the language of worship should not be pedestrian. The goal is not to reach the lowest common denominator but to elevate, enlighten, and encourage the people and the richest use of language is one of the tools used in that goal.
Throw away liturgies require rather basic language since they are used once and may never be heard or spoken again. But the Divine Service is language that is repeated and over a longer term contributes to the understanding and growth of the worshiper. The elevated language of the Divine Service is not exclusive in its appeal nor is it targeted to the few. It uses all the richness of language and the tools of poetry and a largely Biblical vocabulary to awaken both understanding and appreciation in the hearts and minds of the people who sing and speak and pray its words. The language of the liturgy and liturgical prayer is by its very nature is something solemn, noble, and gracious. The dumbing down of worship has not resulted in either heightened understanding or appreciation for the mystery of faith nor has it encouraged greater attendance. In fact, it may have done just the opposite. By framing our encounter with God in the casual speech of conversation, it makes worship into something casual and ordinary. To be truthful, it is the height of arrogance for those who craft those words and who are charged with the stewardship of the Divine Service to treat the folks in the pews as fragile or dense and therefore incapable of anything but the most basic level of language and grammar. How condescending!
When the language of the Divine Service is relegated to the “lowest common denominator” and it is rendered flat and ordinary, then the very thing that language speaks about is also rendered ordinary and common. The wondrous entrance of God into space and time to deliver His people from their self-chosen path of rebellion, sin, and death is anything but casual and to frame the place where in Word and Supper the Lord delivers the fruits of our Savior's redeeming work as common and ordinary is an affront to God and His mercy. There are those who would suggest that those who live in poverty or lack education have more urgent needs than beauty in language or in the physical setting where this divine encounter takes place is the worst kind of elitism.
We are not the first to challenge this idea of utilitarianism. “She has done a beautiful thing for me... The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always” (Mt 26:10f) With those words, Jesus not only does not discourage such affection and extravagance but insists that her act will not be forgotten. There are those who suggest that only those who can afford it or can appreciate it are worth the extravagance of setting or liturgical service. In fact, some openly mock liturgical worship with its vestments, solemnity, and elegant language as being irrelevant or out of touch with the folks in the pews. It is just the opposite. Those who know best the ugliness of the world and its injustice and hypocrisy long most of all for an entrance into the wonder of God's tabernacle with man in the Divine Service.
Strangely enough, those who complain that the language of the liturgy and prayer is beyond the people in the pew or that the reverence that shapes both the building and what happens within that space, are not unwilling to spend money on the best technology available in pursuit of a different form of elitism. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit but I have noticed that many of those who produce such services both in person and online use only the best and we all know what the best costs. When there is no budget in pursuit of worship and the music of worship that merely echoes what people hear all day long on their playlists, it is hard to complain that people are spending money to building lasting structures worthy of the Divine Service and to craft language that refuses trend and fad to speak eloquently of the things of God.