Liturgy: Our Pageant

Liturgy: Our Pageant

O where are kings and empires now,
Of old that went and came?
But, Lord, thy Church is praying yet,
A thousand years the same.

Liturgy allows His people to worship the God of order in an orderly way. It lets us enter into His purpose in history of restoring peace to a world drunk on sin. It grants us a foretaste of glory divine.

We worship according to a liturgy because it plunges us into the deep traditions of our faith and carries us to the heights where our King sits on His throne. It sweeps us up in the old, old story of God and His creation and His redemption of it. No longer must we live in the clichés of culture or the innovations of pop traditions or under the tyranny of the self.

Liturgy tells and retells the one story that is always true and good and beautiful, never in need of revision. It puts us in God’s story and makes sense of everything around us, up and down; east and west; past, present and future. It puts us in the company of fellow travelers in His story and molds us together by holding our gaze stayed on Him. It shows us, every day, God as Trinity, God incarnate, God our Judge, Comforter, Hope and Salvation. It reminds us He is all in all.

It causes us to put first things first. “`You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.’” (Luke 10:27) Brotherhood and benevolence, mission and ministry proceed from our love for God. When we love Him as we must we are able to love our neighbor as ourselves, because such is God’s command.

When one enters the liturgy from another way of worship, it soon seems silly that God would desire worship according to human whimsy rather than divine decree. He is about the business of gathering a people to Himself and the manner in which we assemble, the posture in which we approach the throne of grace, speaks much about how we know the One who sits upon that throne.

In liturgical worship, we express our submission to God’s way as superior to any we might devise. He gave His people Israel a detailed handbook on how to worship Him, complete with more directions than a rocket ship assembly kit. He is less specific in instructing His people the church not because He is less concerned with order in worship but because those who have more revelation are expected to have more spiritual maturity. We should know how to approach the throne in a way that is at once joyous and dignified.

Our worship should be a sonnet, not free verse.

The liturgy is the vehicle by which the Christian enters into worship of a holy God in a holy way. It is the outward expression of an inner life controlled by the Holy Spirit, a way of being which marks the Christian as different from the worldly man. A life lived out in the sweet cadences of sacred time should not produce mundane worship but worship worthy of a priesthood of believers as well as the One they serve.

It binds us not only to God but also to those who live inside it today in Nigeria and New Zealand, those who tilted heavenward and lifted up prayers 1,000 years ago. It is God’s glory that attracts our worship and our worship must be that which gives Him the greatest glory. Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, instituted Holy Communion and commanded baptism. The Apostle Paul established leaders to guide worship, set rules to preserve order, mandated interpreters when any spoke in tongues, passed on the tradition of Holy Communion and taught church leaders to study and prepare. “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40), he told the church. The words that attended the ritual must proceed not from the imagination of men but the will of God. When God’s people gathered in worship they would renew their covenant with Him, re-enacting Christ’s sacrifice and their acceptance of it. They must not hold common a sacred thing.

They knew His instructions were not confined to the Old Testament. The final book of the Bible is a book of worship and it oozes the apocalyptic imagery of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah. Of the 404 verses in the 22 chapters of Revelation, 278 contain at least one allusion to an Old Testament passage. Revelation is a worship manual grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, even to the repetition of the trisagion – “holy, holy, holy” of Isaiah 6.

The early church was in no doubt. A liturgy took root wherever Christ was proclaimed. Where it was perverted, as in Corinth, rebuke came quickly. By the middle of the second century the liturgical pattern was fixed and it continues in much the same pattern to our own day. The elements and even the order remain constant to a remarkable extent even across the lines of traditions and denominations. The liturgy is flexible enough to absorb different languages, worship accents and musical styles and strong enough to bring to all of those an order that flows out as an aroma pleasing to God.

It is not, of course, a magic incantation. Liturgical worship can be and has been as dead as a church mouse that ran afoul of the vicar’s calico cat. If we do not approach the throne with hearts overflowing with gratitude – the Greek word underlying our “Eucharist” means thanksgiving – no formula will make our praise and prayers acceptable to God. When we lift up our hearts as well as our words, He receives glory and our joy is made complete. And all the people of God join their voices in a swelling “Holy! Holy! Holy!” that echoes in every corner of the world and down the corridors of time, and all that remains to say is “Amen!” Ω

The Reverend Edward W. Fowler