Saturday, November 3, 2012

Liturgy is Anything but Indifferent

I admit it: I’m biased.  I like the Divine Liturgy more than so-called “Contemporary Worship.”  I find traditional hymnody vastly superior to the songs produced by praise bands.  But what I like is not (and should not) be the measure of our practice as Lutherans.  We do not uphold the Liturgy because it is what we are comfortable with.  Arbitrating what we do on Sunday morning by the subjective standard of personal preference runs the risk of trivializing the Divine Service.  It might lead us to believe that the various forms of worship available for our use are adiaphora, or “indifferent things.” 

The dictum “Leitourgia Divina adiaphora non est” (“The Divine Liturgy is not adiaphora”), popularized by Gottesdienst: The Journal of Lutheran Liturgy, is useful in dispelling this philosophy.  The Divine Liturgy is not an indifferent thing, subject to personal whims and stylistic preference.  The Augustana expresses a similar theme when it states:

“Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added to teach the people. For ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned be taught [what they need to know of Christ]” (XXIV:1-4).

So too its Apology:

“At the outset we must again make the preliminary statement that we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it. For among us masses are celebrated every Lord's Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other like things” (XXIV:1-2).

To be sure, there are many individuals who find themselves at a loss when considering these Confessional statements.  Assured that worship forms are adiaphora, they invent ways of working around the Confessions; they claim that these are not “doctrinal” sentiments, thus freeing them from any sort of binding weight that their subscription to these words might have.  Aiding in this confusion is the reality that Christendom is populated with a grand multiplicity of liturgical rites and worship styles, some of which are salutary, others not so much.    And after all, if ceremonies are observed “to this end alone that the unlearned are to be taught,” then why not just use any old ceremony that is fit to teach?  Why do we have to observe the usual public ceremonies?  Why can’t we abolish the Mass?

Key in understanding these questions is the Latin phase lex orandi, lex credendi, which roughly means “the law of prayer is the law of belief.”  In other words, how we worship will reflect what we believe.  Everything we do - every action we take - confesses something, whether consciously, subconsciously, or even unbeknownst to us.  If we worship as the Lutheran Church has always worshiped, chances are likelier that we will believe what the Lutheran Church has always believed.  If we worship like the sects; well, we will undoubtedly begin to think like them too.  When we use the worship materials of heretical and sectarian sources, we run the risk of thinking (or giving the impression) that there is little separating us from them.  When we set up a praise band in the front of the sanctuary, we run the risk of creating a man-centered concert hall inconsistent with a Cross-focused worship setting.  But perhaps even more sadly then this, when we abandon the Liturgy, we are in danger of losing sight of the integral relationship that it has with the Holy Gospel in Word and Sacrament.

When it comes to the Mass, I like to use the analogy of a diamond ring.  The Augsburg Confession states that the Mass is essentially the “giving of the Sacrament” (XXIV:33-34), so the  Holy Supper can be considered like unto a diamond.  It is the chief element of the Mass.  The Liturgy, then, can be considered in terms of the gold ring fitted to hold the diamond.    Without the gold ring, the diamond is still of immense worth, but presenting it is quite a challenge.  So too without the diamond, the gold ring is still extremely valuable, but it is obviously missing something.

“But wait,” one might object,  “How can you liken the liturgy to a gold ring when it is not prescribed by God!?”  It is very true that the Liturgy as we know it today did not come neatly packaged in one book of Sacred Scripture.  Rather, the texts of the Liturgy are comprised of various parts of the Scriptures; the Kyrie, for example, is a refrain of the Psalms and the publican’s plea for mercy (Psalm 123:3, St. Luke 18:13).  The Gloria in Excelsis was sung by the Holy Angels to hail our Lord’s Nativity (Luke 2:14).  The Sanctus is the song the Cherubim sing in endless exultation before the throne of God (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8).  The Benedictus is the prophetic Psalm the people of Jerusalem sang upon our Lord’s triumphal entry (Psalm 118:26; St. Matthew 21:9; 23:39; St. Mark 11:9; St. Luke 13:35; 19:38; St. John 12:13).  The Agnus Dei is St. John the Baptist’s cry acclaiming the Paschal Lamb (St. John 1:29, 36), and the Nunc Dimittis is the canticle St. Simeon sung upon witnessing the Infant Lord in the temple (St. Luke 2:29-32).  These texts are matched in the Communion Liturgy by other readings from Holy Writ which constitute the historic “Propers” that are proper to each day.

Why don’t we abolish the Mass with its usual public ceremonies, the series of lessons and prayers, vestments, and other like things?  Because the Mass is a giving of the Blessed Sacrament and the Liturgy that accompanies it, proclaiming the story of the ages - the Holy Gospel.  

But the Liturgy isn’t static.  As I said earlier, there are a multiplicity of salutary rites out there.  There are the Western and Eastern Rites.  The Church of the Augsburg Confession falls into the former, but that doesn’t make the latter any less venerable.  But even within the Western Rite itself, there are a wide range of variations.  There is the Roman Rite, which, if among us "there is nothing that varies . . . from the Church of Rome," one might rightly consider the Lutheran use.  There is also the Sarum Rite used by the Church of England, which had a significant impact on the formation of the Common Service of American Lutheranism and shares marked similarities with the Rite observed by the Blessed Reformer himself.  One might argue that this is the Rite that American Lutheranism should follow.  Of course, American Lutheranism has additions to the Service all its own, such as moving the Feast of the Transfiguration to the end of Epiphany, or adding the Nunc Dimittis to the end of the Divine Service.  These are all natural adaptations to the Liturgy. 

Without a doubt, this post likely raises more questions than it answers.  In future posts, I hope to struggle with finding our place in the broad landscape of liturgical orthodoxy while avoiding the errors of mimicking the sects and frivolous, offensive departures from the Tradition of our Church. 

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