I’ve never agreed with the statement that familiarity breeds contempt. I have found that all too often familiarity breeds inattention, not apathy or callousness so much as forgetful neglect. Unfortunately, we humans all too often take for granted that which is most precious and familiar to us.
And it’s not just “stuff” we do that with, is it? We do it with practices, traditions, rituals and even beliefs. We get so familiar with them that we stop noticing. And then a child asks “Is God real?”, or a friend asks “Why is God silent in my grief?”, or a neighbor asks “Why are you Lutheran?” In order to follow Peter’s injunction to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) we are forced to notice again that which we ceased truly seeing.
I wasn’t raised Lutheran. I chose Lutheranism after first studying Reformation history in graduate school and then actually worshiping at a Lutheran church, so I was forced to think through many of those aspects of our faith traditions that we tend to take for granted. As we begin this new church year, I thought I would begin an informal series on why I am Lutheran, both as a way of helping me to refresh my own faith journey and, hopefully, as a way to help others revisit and re-encounter their own.
From the title, it may look like I have a systematic plan for this series, but in reality I chose this title after I saw where my thoughts were going, and I have no idea what aspect I may focus on next. Other Lutherans may have different priorities and preferences, but liturgical worship was one of the most powerful factors that drew me towards Lutheranism.
As Jesus taught, the only “right” way to worship God is “in Spirit and Truth,” (John 4:24) so I don’t want to imply that liturgical worship is the One True worship. There are liturgical churches, like the Roman Catholic, where I do not feel I could worship God “in Truth” because of profound doctrinal differences. I do not think liturgical worship is—in and of itself—somehow superior; however, I do feel it has within its form the potential to be more rich, connected and elemental than more modern forms of worship.
Too often those who are unfamiliar with it argue that liturgical worship is dead or canned or overly ritualistic or boring. As Simon Chan, in Liturgical Theology, argues, these “concerns should not be dismissed lightly, as [they] grew out of the deeply spiritual sense that the Spirit can not be domesticated.” (126) However, any worship that is not “in Spirit and Truth” is dead, period.
Before I even knew it, I was drawn to liturgical worship by its “work.” In The Church’s Liturgy, Michael Kunzler explains that in its profane origins “Literally translated ‘liturgy’ means ‘work of the people/ for the people’.” However, “on account of the unique character of Christian worship people at first… avoided a general concept for it. When ‘liturgy’ was adopted for it, it was not however forgotten… that liturgy first of all is the work of God, who brings about salvation in the world through Christ in the Holy Spirit.” (13)
There are actually two senses in which the term liturgy is commonly used, and this sometimes causes confusion. In the more specific and formal sense, it is restricted to the Holy Eucharist. When an Eastern Orthodox Christian speaks of the liturgy he is most likely referring only to the Eucharist Service, what Roman Catholics refer to as the Sacrifice of the Mass, and what Lutherans and other Protestants might call The Great Thanksgiving.
On the other hand, especially in Protestant churches, “liturgy often means the whole complex of official services, all the rites, ceremonies, prayers, and sacraments of the Church, as opposed to private devotions. In this sense we speak of the arrangement of all these services in certain set forms, used officially by any local church, as the liturgy of that church. So a service of evening prayer is also part of the liturgy.”
The Lutheran church uses both in theologically meaningful ways. Thus, in the more formal sense, the liturgy refers to the part of our service devoted to communion and is the work of Christ alone on the cross. However, the liturgy is also “the work of the people,” not as a means of grace but as a “duty and delight,” in a worship and thanksgiving response to the work of God through Christ.
If a Lutheran service often feels like a lot of work it is and should be. Too often we think of work as either a bothersome chore or a theologically dirty word. In the sense of the work of worship and praise as a response to God’s grace, it’s neither. We are, after all, God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Eph 2:10)
Properly done, liturgical worship is embodied worship. As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, it is appropriate to see worship as an act which involves more than our minds and spirits. It is an offering of our “bod[ies] as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God,” which is our “spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1) It engages our bodies and senses as well as our thoughts, words and feelings.
We truly are like children (in all ways both good and bad). As any teacher will tell you, if you engage children’s bodies and senses they’ll learn more than if they just sat there and listened. Learning is work, so is worship. School is full of ritual, so is worship, even in non-liturgical worship. The best way to keep living ritual from becoming dead rote is to engage the whole person in the work of worship and thanksgiving that “is indeed right and salutary” in response to the work of God through Christ Jesus.
By changing the theology without discarding the ancient and common mode of corporate worship, Lutheranism allows me to most closely approach in this life the perfect worship in Spirit and Truth that I will only truly be capable of in the next.
Note: While I differ from Catholics substantially, many of them, like Merton, Nouwen, and Neuhaus, have had a profound influence upon my spiritual development. One way I do not differ is in my love of liturgical worship. Read “…But Isn’t Liturgical Worship Dead” to see a Catholic brother’s (David Bennett) viewpoint on this topic.