A Lively Sacrifice: Liturgy in Public Worship

For the celebration of Easter, 2021

“Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”    —2  Peter 2:5

“….to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee”  —from the Methodist, United Evangelical Brethren liturgy            

As we enter this holy Day of Days, how will you celebrate Easter (if you celebrate it at all)?  Far be it from me to tell you how to worship, for there are many styles in many traditions.  They do not conflict with but rather complement one another, all being pathways to the divine. There is the power of salvation proclaimed in energetic and life-changing preaching. There is the “continuing Pentecost” of gospel-style music and the revival spirit of its preaching and worship.  There is the majesty of the great classical musical tradition connected with the church.  There is the energy and freshness of contemporary music linked to the praise of the Lord, for just as 1950s rhythm and blues artists infused that form with their gospel roots, the rock form may be turned around in the other direction to empower worship.  Yet what I am speaking of here is not any of these.  It is the latent power of liturgy.  It is deceptive in that it is difficult to do well, for it is so easy to just go through the form and say the words as if they were some magic talisman.  Far from that—they must be given life, what can be called a numinous quality. 

Numinous, for those who are curious, is a term derived from the Latin numen, meaning “arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring.” The term was given its present sense by the German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto in his influential 1917 German book The Idea of the Holy.  Once entered into, the liturgy must bring forth that elusive spirit of the divine, and that is no small trick.  It is a delicate balancing act between conscious awareness and mystic abandon.  All that prevents this must necessarily be swept away to get to the thing itself.  The ability to bring forth this elusive quality without it seeming routine requires getting oneself out of the way, and is a measure of the ability of the celebrant.  Like the stillness and simplicity of meditation, liturgical worship has a power to form the bridge between this world and the next (for in reality they are one), carrying with it the sense that “this is the other world”.  Various elements may be brought to this task: art in stained glass, sculpture, painting (especially the icons of Orthodox worship); symbols; the printed and spoken word; hymnody, chant, and other music forms; the simple acts of motion and gesture, even walking.

Liturgies exist in many religious traditions, not only the Judeo-Christian.  Typically in Christianity, the term “the liturgy” normally refers to a standardized order of events observed during a religious service.  These have been codified in the various ways, all having much in common.  In the ancient tradition, sacramental liturgy is the participation of the people in the work of God, which is primarily the saving work of Jesus Christ; thus the meaning in Greek “work for the people”.  In the liturgy, Christ continues the work of redemption, and while it is a product of this world and the work of human hands, it seeks to replicate the next.  The early Christians adopted the word to describe their principal act of worship, the Sunday service, referred to as Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, Mass or Divine Liturgy.  It was considered to be a sacrifice and a duty for Christians to perform as a part of their baptism into Christ and participation in His ministry as High Priest. The liturgist may be either lay or ordained.  Often the liturgist may read announcements, scriptures, and calls to worship, while the minister preaches the sermon, offers prayers, and blesses sacraments. The congregation then performs its part as it participates, offering the liturgy to God.  

My discovery of the power of the liturgy occurred many years ago in the small congregation of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Marina, California.  It was the year that the congregation was served by Russell Aldrich, who was completing his internship in filling the position of Pastor.  He possessed an extraordinary ability to draw out the sense of the holy in each action as the service progressed, emphasizing the unique characteristic of each day of the church year.  A sense of wonder contained in reverence unfolded while passing through the order of service.  It recalls to me the words of the hymn, “This is holy ground, We are standing on holy ground, For the Lord is present and where he is is holy.”

I have a few memories which stand out, of which I will give you specific examples: One Maundy Thursday we gathered around a table in a small side room to celebrate a re-creation of the Seder meal, with all the traditional foods and readings from the Jewish Passover ceremony.  I recall Russell saying that that in Jewish congregations the tablecloths used over many years became stained with drops wine spilled in ceremonies of years past, with each succeeding celebration adding to the tapestry of wine and cloth the compose a wonderful remembrance.  I also remember a session where high school aged youth preparing to be acolytes were going through the order of service.  They were practicing the entrance ritual, passing into the sanctuary in silent procession.  A living and sacred tradition was being transmitted to be lived through them, the hope of the future.  Finally, there was the Easter celebration, which I have sought to capture ever since but have not been able to do so in any public worship setting, so I seek to do so in my private worship practice.  My contribution was small but meaningful to me.  At the time I was completing my own internship, assisting at the Seaside Horticulture Center.  We had a small floral department, and on Saturday I placed floral foam on a rough wooden cross I had made.  On it were placed a couple dozen carnations of various colors, filling the cross with their brightness.  Early the next morning I placed it on the altar where all could see it throughout the service.  The fullness of this image in our Easter celebration stayed with me for the rest of the day and into the following week, marking that Sunday as a special event to be savored and remembered.  I am grateful for the experience of this time.  And I remember it still.

May the fullness of this day live with you now and in the days and weeks to come.  Amen.         

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