Sunday, February 18, 2007

Words Mean Things

From "In the Divine Service"...

As we look more and more closely at the what and why of our liturgy, we must remind ourselves of a principle that on the face of it seems absurdly obvious: Words mean things.

What the pastor says to you in the name of the Lord, and what you say to the Lord with or through the pastor, is at the most basic level a bunch of words. But words have meaning. At least in truly spiritual worship, they do. They are not magical incantations muttered to appease a demanding deity. They are not just so much hot air that you must endure as a kind of penance.

Nor are these words so meaningless that it doesn’t matter what we say. Some people—preachers and hearers—seem to think the meaning of words doesn’t matter. All they care about is that emotions are stirred, and everyone takes away a feeling of being in touch with something spiritual. But making a feeling of “uplift” the end-all-be-all, allows a false teacher win your heart by manipulating your feelings. And a faithful teacher is despised if he doesn’t always “connect.”

But words have meaning, and the meaning matters. Every syllable of liturgy must proclaim God’s Word: both Law (urging you to repent) and Gospel (inviting you to trust Christ the crucified). And it is vital that the liturgy convey a real message, and be held accountable to proclaim God’s Word in truth and purity.

So liturgy does not merely mouth generic Praise the Lords or bland clichés. It specifically, purposefully, and urgently delivers a distinctive message. It points to Christ. It teaches Law and Gospel. It is filled with real meaning: doctrine and praise, repentant prayer and thanksgiving. Otherwise it would be a waste of time.

On the other hand, it is in the nature of liturgy to be repetitive and structured. Parts of it are the same every week, other parts come back each year. But this is not “vain repetition.” Such repeated texts convey real meaning and teach important lessons, and by returning to them regularly we learn them by heart.

Plus, each time we review the same readings or propers (like the introit or Gospel for the day) we see a new facet of it, we explore it more deeply and grow in our understanding. Liturgy is important for our instruction and faith formation. Without structure and repetition we would never get past the level of a “first read-through,” into the meat of the thing. We would be so caught up in figuring out what’s coming next, we wouldn’t have time to ponder the words and take them to heart.

Not to be structured or repeat the same things, defeats the purpose of liturgy. In fact, it goes against its very essence. To let “worship leaders” decide what scriptures to look at and create “liturgy” to go with it, is to put ourselves in subjection to the mind of men rather than the mind of God. We cannot be sure we are getting the full counsel of God, rather than pastor’s pet subject or the liturgist’s whimsy.

Following a cycle of prescribed texts is a discipline that requires your pastor to seek the meaning in words, so he is not merely grinding his own personal axe. It is a commitment to be subject to the Word of God and let Him instruct us in wisdom far above the fickle urgings of fashion, or the feeble understandings of man.

IMAGE: Master of the Berthold Sacramentary (13th Century). Decorative initial C. Missal of Weingarten Abbey, Germany, c.1200-1232. M.710, f.17. Location: The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, NY, U.S.A. Photo Credit: The Pierpont Morgan Library / Art Resource, NY

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