Why the Liturgy Matters

Wow. The “internet age,” while offering so many destructive dangers, also has its “upside.” Recently on an exam question at SSW, I was asked to elaborate, as if I were writing an article for the church newsletter, on why the liturgy matters. Here, copied and pasted from my actual test response, is how I responded:

Dear friends at and friends of (the Church of the) Epiphany,

It is quite obvious to all of us (and painfully obvious to some of us) that, here at Epiphany we are pretty excited about this thing – this way of being, this way of ordering our lives individually and corporately – called “liturgy.” Why? Why is this church so committed to living this way? During this Easter season – and please remember that according to the ancient church as well as our liturgy, the “paschal mystery” of Christ includes both his death and his resurrection since these two are utterly inseperable – I wanted to take this opportunity to share some thoughts with you about how our liturgy grounds our lives as Christians in the death and resurrection of Christ.

First, simply look at the shape of our Eucharistic liturgy, both in whole and in part. Seen from the “zoomed out lens” of the entire service (also called “the Divine Service”) we can see that the very shape or structure of this ritual is that of death and resurrection. I don’t know if you are like me, but confessing my sins is not one of the most pleasurable activities of my day or week. In fact, when done with sobriety and humility (as our prayer book enjoins) it can often feel like a death. And death it is, according to St. Paul’s writings, where over and over again he tells us to give up on our own ways, our own desires, our own agendas, and to participate in Christ’s death and passion in part through laying down – sacrificing – our lives to him. And then there is the reading and preaching of God’s Word.  Have you ever felt that the preacher’s convicting words were directed specifically to you? Perhaps you have an existential awareness of Christ “walking in the midst” of his people, much as is described in the opening section of the book of Revelation, rendering by his Spirit the judgment  so necessary for true holiness.  None of this is a coincidence! Such “death” – also prefigured in a thousand ways in that second part of the Eucharist knows as the Anaphora – is a necessary prerequisite for the “resurrection life” of feasting like kings drinking wine and then being sent out with real energy into a hurting and broken world.

This ritual movement through time, however, gives rise to yet another way in which God’s time is redeemed in our lives. It’s not simply that we shape our worship on the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection, but actually that we begin to participate in that very paschal event or sequence. Truly, the Eucharist is like a time machine which allows us to touch, to taste, to live into, the very mystery of the universe: that God himself has died and bled for us, thereby “trampling down death by death,” as they say in the East, in his glorious and utterly shocking resurrection. One of the most ancient words used to describe this mysterious transfiguration of time is the word anamnesis, from which derives our English verb “to remember.” Because of liturgical reality – that is, because the true nature of the cosmos is liturgical – when we remember Christ’s death and passion it is not simply that we have a picture of the “cross event” in our minds, but rather that the members of his body are being gathered, or literally re-membered. (So much for bringing the past into our “now.” With more time and space than I have I could elaborate on the fancy word prolepsis – the opposite, if you will, of anamnesis, how this Eucharist also brings us to the end of the world, when we are, by the “first fruits” of the Holy Spirit, feasting with all the saints at the banquet supper of the victorious Lamb of God.”)

You see, friends, the Eucharist is, quite literally, a re-membering of the body of Christ. His scarred, fish-eating resurrection body (known in the ancient church as the soma typicon or “typological body”) which hung on the cross, becomes the living members of his true body (corpus verum), you and me. Theologians call this “participation,” but as is painfully obvious, there quite simply are no words to describe this. In a way which transcends the “one flesh union” of my wife and me, we quite simply are members of Christ. We are his body. We are his body for the world and for the world’s life. Which is why the Eucharist involves a third body as well: what the ancients knew as the “mystical body:” the corpus mysticum. This bread, together with the wine, imports the world into the church: the world of harvesting, the world of threshing, the world of trade and commerce, the world of civilized humanity created as God’s image-bearing cultivators of his good world. And so, do you see? As members of his body, we are enacting the world’s true culture and civilization. We are brining about the new world of the living, victorious Christ.

In these ways and so many more, my friends, we are truly living a mystery in doing what we do in the Eucharist. It is the mystery that lies at the heart of the world, the axis mundi. Truly, our liturgy grounds us and our lives as Christians in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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