Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why the Liturgy?

A little while ago, I had a dream in which I received an unexpected answer to the question, "Why do we observe the church year?" The answer, which I heard come out of my own mouth just as I woke up, was: "It is not our time; it is God's time. We do not give it to Him; He gives it to us."

A sense of the strangeness, yet aptness, of this answer still lingers in my mind. Consciously, I would have come up with a number of other answers to the question, "Why do we use the liturgy?" (Specifically, the traditional Lutheran liturgy, substantially as passed down from Catholic Christianity before the Reformation. More generally, this includes the Church Year and its cycle of Scripture readings.) Those words from my dream would answer this question just as well. Still, I have been spurred by conversation with other bright lights in the Lutheran Church to give additional answers that also suit the question, "Why use the liturgy?"
  1. The liturgy, by its repetitive nature, is an aid to memory: a teaching tool. The more repetitive it is, the better it serves this function. So, in my opinion, a one-year lectionary is more useful than a three-year lectionary. The more deeply its contents are ingrained in our hearts, the more it can provide us comfort in times of trouble, answers when our faith is questioned, and confidence in the face of death.
  2. The liturgy is the shape of our faith: a confession, a kind of creed. It is easy to say that the church believes and teaches according to the Bible. What can be much harder is to pin down exactly what that belief and teaching is. Groups claiming to believe what the Bible says have taught all kinds of things. What we believe and confess takes particular shape in the way we worship. What we mean by "what the Bible teaches" becomes evident in our liturgy.
  3. The liturgy proclaims the whole counsel of God. It protects us from our own itching ears, as well as our preacher's pet ideas, provided that (again) we use the lectionary as the basis for our proclamation. In particular, the liturgy proclaims Law and Gospel. It ensures that we invariably hear a call to repentance. It is also, however, filled with the healing power of God's forgiveness.
  4. The liturgy is a setting for the jewels of Baptism, Lord's Supper, and Absolution. The words and actions of the liturgy show what regard we have for the Sacraments, and what we believe about them. The liturgy instructs us in how to think about these means of grace, how to prepare ourselves to use them, what benefits to expect from them, and who is acting in them. The liturgy convinces us that the Sacraments are the Gospel, giving us forgiveness and faith.
  5. The liturgy is saturated with the Word of God. It is made not of the word of men, but of God's Word. Nearly every phrase of the liturgy comes directly from Scripture. Its primary focus is on the reading and teaching of the Word, which is living and powerful, nourishing and life-giving, and which armors us against the power of Satan and the poison of sin. We do not know for certain whether any strategy or program devised by men will succeed; but we believe that God's Word (and Sacraments) will go to work and do what He promises, according to His gracious will.
  6. The liturgy is a mark of distinction. It sets aside the worship hour, the worship place, and the worshipers as holy time, holy space, and holy people, devoted to the Lord alone. It separates us from those who believe and teach otherwise. At the same time, it unites us with those around the world, and across the ages, who teach and believe as we do. It makes our faithfulness to the Word of Christ evident to anyone who cares to know where such a community of faith can be found.
  7. The liturgy glorifies the one true God. It directs our prayers and praises to the God revealed in Christ: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It honors Christ, specifically as He has been revealed on the cross. It directs our hearts, ears, minds, and lips toward the present Christ, placing our trust in His promises as to where He is to be found. And since it takes, by and large, from His Word the words that we say back to Him in worship and prayer, the liturgy gives us a firm basis for our confidence that God is pleased to receive it.
  8. The liturgy does evangelism and mission work. Don't be fooled. Missionaries have been visiting some countries for decades, almost a century even, while nothing like a church has taken root. A week, a month, a year after the last missionary has been recalled from a given field, and the sands will close without a mark over the church where they have been leading Bible studies, or teaching English as a second language, or giving malaria shots, or what have you, for howsoever many years. But let the local leaders begin to preach, baptize, absolve, and commune—especially when they can train and ordain their own pastors—and there will be a church. When you can visit a country you have scarcely heard of and find a congregation singing hymns you recognize, and using a worship form you can follow by heart even though you don't understand the language, then you too will bear witness that wherever the liturgy spreads, so spreads the church.
  9. The liturgy is a demon repellent. It is difficult for one who is fully occupied in the liturgy to entertain evil in his heart. Not that it's impossible; Martin Luther himself could not say an Our Father straight through without noticing that his mind was wandering, even into impure thoughts. Nor does the performing of the liturgy make us holy or righteous as such. But since it is God's Word (which combats sin and the devil), and especially insofar as it is set to music (which also, according to Scripture, drives away foul spirits), we can enjoy in the liturgy a certain shelter, even if only for a short time, against the daily darts of the devil.
And of course, by way of bringing these theses to a nice, round, Reformational number, I will go back to the words of my dream and anoint them as Thesis 9.5: We use the liturgy, after all, not because we created it, or because we chose it, or because it pleases us, but because it is a blessing freely given to us by God. He does not call us to be equals with Himself, or as individuals into a one-on-one relationship with Him, but as subjects—all together in one body—of His Kingdom, Dominion, and Headship. It is not for us to fashion our own "style" or "mode" of interfacing with God. Rather, we receive together the form of worship that has been passed down to us, and we pass it on in turn, as the manner in which we have been called to meet Him as members of one body, whose Head is Christ.

NOTE: The images are from LCMS churches in Fort Wayne, Ind., that I have visited and admired. From the top: Zion, St. Paul, and Redeemer; I think the statues of the Apostles are also from St. Paul's. And yes, I know that I have done a "Why liturgy?" post before. At that time, Thesis #1 (Liturgy is an aid to memory) was all I had to say about it.

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