Sunday, August 31, 2008

More About Worship

There was a core issue of worship which finally set in motion my leaving the “successful” pastoral position I had (and the salary contract that went with it). It was an issue that even compelled my willingness to embrace a radical shift of identity (that some people in what has been our circle of close relationships still seem unable to handle — the prejudice of Evangelicals toward Catholics is quite real, with concern whether Catholics are “real” Christians, and if they are it is said that it’s in spite of the Church).

Anyway, as I began to read more extensively in the early Fathers it became apparent that there was a particular focus in Christian worship from the beginning. The clear practice of the early Church (in the NT, and then extending into the second, third, fourth, etc. centuries) testifies to Christian worship culminating in the Eucharist. Likewise, there is a particular understanding of the Bread and the Cup in the earliest writings. Jesus himself uses literalist language in John 6 that offended the sensibilities of his hearers. The Epistles give a practical testimony to the ultimate sacredness of the Eucharist when Paul tells the Corinthians that those who partake without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves (2Cor 11:29). This is hardly the kind of warning one would expect from God about a “symbol.” That the Church embraced this literalist understanding of Real Presence from the beginning is confirmed in a letter written by Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 35–107), whose life overlapped that of the Apostle John (so Ignatius, a respected leader in the Church, would not have been wrong in what follows):

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. .. . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins. . .” (Epistle to the Smyraens, VI, VII; in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: William D. Eerdmans Publishing, 1979], 89).
One generation later we have a description of Christian worship given by Justin Martyr:
On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors [give assistance to] the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.
Yet I found myself, as an Evangelical pastor in the “free-church” tradition,” essentially trying to re-invent the wheel every week as I labored to construct a "meaningful worship service.” And no matter what I did, I knew it was out of bounds in my tradition (because no ecclesial community is free of the effect of a tradition of some kind) to have weekly Communion. And if, by chance, the congregation would have been willing to go there it still would not have been a Communion recognizing the Real Presence of Jesus in the Bread and Cup. So I was compelled by what I believe to be the truth of the Church — which is traceable to the very beginning — to embrace the Eucharist as the core of Christian worship.

As I began to express my questions and sentiments prior to my “big decision,” people would say, “Oh, we shouldn’t have Communion too often or it will lose its meaning.” I knew there was nothing to be gained by argument, yet became even more convinced that the meaning of Communion goes beyond the subjective sentiment of the person in the pew. I have also heard, repeatedly, the criticism directed by free-church Evangelicals toward Catholics (and even other liturgical Protestants): “Doing the same old thing is so boring....”

A bit over a year ago, with this fresh on my mind at the time, I made the following entry in my journal (which I’ve edited a bit for here):

This past Saturday found me again in worship and the Communion liturgy. It was one of those times when earth rises to heaven, and our earthly offerings of worship were explicitly connected to the imagery of John's Revelation (chapters 4&5). From the Trinitarian greeting and confession of sin, going into the Glory (always a high point for me), then seeing the drama of redemption acted out by the priest presenting the Bread and Cup, followed by the Holy, Holy and then Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world... have mercy on us.... This is worship — taking the very imagery God has given us, embracing it and then giving it back in a way that says, "This is reality.... this is where my hope lies.... this is the essence of Christian Faith."

I enter the sanctuary (and get there early enough not to be hurried) and consciously affirm my baptism — “I belong to you, my Lord” (and I tell myself each time not to let myself make it a mindless, mechanical gesture). I bow, remembering that the very physical presence of Jesus is in this place. I quiet my heart, inviting the Holy Spirit to work his life into me yet again. I sing when the procession begins, letting my voice give tangible expression to what I have prayed.

"But it's so repetitive," critics say. "It is so mechanical. It gets so boring just doing the same thing..."

The next day found my wife and me in the intimacy that we have shared together so consistently for over thirty years. I found myself telling her that it never gets "old." She is new and wonderful to me every time. This one woman that I have looked upon through her self-giving only becomes more beautiful, in spite of passing decades. Why doesn't she become boring to me? (That’s what the world accuses marriage of being, or at least it’s the justification for bailing out when “she doesn’t make me happy anymore”).

Surely this is part of the mystery of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and his Church. "Innovative worship" seems to be to be a sign of misplaced focus, as if "worship" was about keeping us entertained instead of entering, again and again, into the age-old delight of the Lover of our souls and finding our deepest joy and hope in the wonder of a redemption that is beyond anything we could have imagined on our own. Love is what keeps "repetitive" and "mechanical" from displacing beauty and wonder. And like little children who cannot get enough of a father's playful attention, we go into the mystery of Communion with the need to say to our heavenly Father, "Do it again, Daddy, do it again."

This is not boredom with the "same old thing." This is entering the Mystery that cannot be exhausted. And until He comes, we need to do it again and again.

When true Christian worship (and by this I mean the forms passed down through the Church) is “boring,” the problem is not with the form of worship. The real problem is found by looking in a mirror. And then we need to find a time and place to pray...

I have taken my eyes off your cross...
I have allowed my own desires and/or agenda to distract my heart....
My love has grown cold...
Show me your glory....

Is worship boring to you? Do you know what is wrong? Look in the mirror.

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