Friday, December 5, 2008

Liturgy: What's the point of all this, again?

As promised, a run-down of my class this week on Eucharistic liturgy. But first, a word of explanation: I like liturgy. I really do. But it worries me—especially when seminarians and their professors put so much time and thought into liturgy that it leaves the people in the pews behind completely. The thing that bothers me is when pastors, professors and seminarians get so caught up in their ideas of how liturgy should be practiced, how it should be understood, that we forget about how it actually is practiced and understood. Take an example from my class this week; we discussed how it's very important not to give the impression that some magic is happening during the Eucharistic prayer. In other words, when the pastor speaks the Words of Institution ("In the night in which he was betrayed...") or invokes the Holy Spirit, he or she is not, by those words, causing a mystical change in the bread and wine. God's promises, through the action of the Holy Spirit, are what makes the bread and wine become something extraordinary at Communion. I agree with this idea... but then, why are we so careful about the words we speak? If the words of the pastor are not the essential thing, why are we all so uptight about making mistakes? I think the answer to this question is fairly simple: we get stage fright. We don't want to mess up, don't want to be seen making mistakes. It's very personal and natural. But—and here is the heart of the problem—it doesn't matter what the pastor believes; if he or she is uptight about saying the right words, the people in the pews are naturally going to be led to believe that the words themselves are the important thing.

I'm not saying by any means that the people who sit in the pews on Sunday morning are not as intelligent as the clergy. But the clergy get so lost in their ideals and theology and theory, that they forget the experience of the people who haven't gone to seminary. So we talk at length about how the Eucharist should be, but not about how it looks from the other side. That's why I'd like to talk about Eucharistic liturgy in this post, because I think if we're doing something for a certain reason, we should just tell people what the reason is, instead of hoping they'll pick up on the signals we're sending.

Okay, now that my rather lengthy introduction is out of the way, I'll actually talk about Eucharistic liturgy. The liturgy that's being taught in Lutheran seminaries and practiced (to a greater or lesser extent) in Lutheran churches is based on the movement of liturgical renewal. In short, liturgical renewal is an attempt to return to the roots of Christian practice, and as such relies on the documents of the early Christian church. In even the earliest accounts of Communion meals (going all the way back to the New Testament), there is a discernible "four-fold shape". This four-fold shape is described by the terms Bring, Bless, Break, and Share. Current liturgy attempts to reflect this shape. The first part, Bring, refers to the offering; this offering is not primarily gifts of money (though it may often appear that way in many churches), but it is the bringing forward of wine and bread by the community, for the community. In the understanding of Communion as truly a meal, the offering is the same as people bringing food together to share with one another.

The second part of the four-fold shape is the most predominant: the blessing of the bread and wine. This is, in its most basic sense, saying grace over the food just as you would say grace at the dinner table. Thanks and praise are given to God for giving us the food that we eat. In addition, the Last Supper is remembered in the Words of Institution, and the Holy Spirit is invoked. The third and fourth parts, Breaking and Sharing, are more utilitarian; the bread has to be broken before it can be eaten, and the sharing is the act of distributing the food to the people.

The important idea in this view of the Eucharist is that it is a meal. Just as Jesus ate with his disciples at his Last Supper, just as the crowds ate when Jesus fed them, and especially just as Jesus met his disciples over meals after the resurrection, Christians today come together to share a meal on Sunday mornings. To be certain, it is an extraordinary meal, because Jesus is present with us in it. The point is, it's not a bizarre ritual; it's based in our real experience. The liturgy surrounding the Eucharist may seem unnecessarily ritualistic, but it's there to preserve the important aspects and shape of Communion.

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