The joy of liturgy

A few hours after I created a post about classical music, I came across this post by Truth and Tolerance, by way of InsanityBytes. The topic is also music, although it is focused more on music in the Christian Church and especially in worship. The topic is, in fact, the most classical of all music, the traditional music of the Christian liturgy.

I completely agree with everything T&T wrote (although I might have used gentler language). The central point of her post (and hence of this post) is that the Divine Service is not meant to be edited so that it appeals to younger people. The traditions of the Church have developed over time, not because of negotiations with the lowest common denominator or with the next generation, but because the power of those traditions communicates the message of Christ and his Church in a way that is tried, tested, and proven. Making changes because of the felt needs of the worshipers does not work for two reasons. First, the needs they feel are not their deepest needs. Christ knows their deepest needs, and his Church is designed to meet those needs. Second, once the elements of worship become negotiable, worship itself becomes negotiable for the worshipers. Worship attendance in the United States has dropped over the last fifty years, not because churches have not tried hard enough to give people what they want, but because churches have tried too hard to give people what they want.

Children instinctively distinguish between what is important and what is fun. Tell a child, “This is going to be fun,” and the child hears, “This is just to entertain you; it doesn’t really matter.” Sunday School has gradually changed from “bring up these children in the faith so that when they are older they will not depart from it” to “entertain these children and make church seem fun so they will want to keep coming when they are older.” As a result, the children learn nearly nothing about their faith in Sunday School; if their parents are not teaching them the faith at home, no one is telling them what it means to be a Christian.

A few years ago I was in a meeting of church workers. Running the meeting was a progressive church planter, the kind of minister who says that the last words of a congregation are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Several quotes were stenciled on the walls of the meeting room, and he noticed one that said, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” The church planter pointed to that saying and told us to take it to heart, that if we cling to our traditions, we are clinging to death instead of life. I responded, “I rather like the idea of democracy that includes the dead. It’s nice to know that, when we worship, we are joining with all the saints who have gone before us.” I reminded him of one of the phrase in our traditional liturgy: “that with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and praise thy glorious name…” “All the company of heaven” includes every believer who has died and is in Paradise with Jesus. Ancient heroes of the faith are there. My grandparents and other Christians I have loved are there. When I partake in the traditional divine service, the Lord hears my voice mingled with their voices in one vast Christian choir.

New music can enter the old traditions, provided that the new music does not refocus those traditions away from the Lord. Great hymns (no matter what century they were written) lead people to know Jesus, not only as the awesome God worshiped by all creation, but particularly as the Savior who has claimed his people, rescued them from their sins, and reconciled them to himself. I’m fine with Contemporary Christian Music on the radio and in my music collection. Very little of it is suitable for the divine service, because its focus is not the same as that of the traditional liturgy.

The liturgy is not culturally bound. It is not merely a European way of worshiping God; it developed from the Jewish worship of the synagogue, and its development happened largely in western Asia and northern Africa. The liturgy is not bound by time. It unites Christians of three or four generations during each service, and it unites Christians of dozens of generations spreading over two thousand years. The liturgy is not bound by the age of the worshipers. Children who have not yet begun to read can learn the liturgy by hearing it every week. Mothers of young children can speak and sing the liturgy without needing to balance a hymnal and a worship folder and a baby in the same two hands. Elderly people whose eyesight is not as good as it used to be can speak and sing the liturgy; it is engrained in their memories so thoroughly that it often survives intact even when those elderly people no longer recognize their own children.

When the preacher’s sermon is poor—and every preacher has a bad Sunday now and then—the liturgy still proclaims the message of the Church. When a worshiper’s mind is wandering, the liturgy brings him or her back again to the message of the Church. When a visitor is sitting in church for the first time, the liturgy tells that visitor what the congregation is doing. No, the liturgy will not be familiar to the visitor during the first visit, or even the tenth time he or she returns. But that unfamiliar liturgy will speak to the visitor more eloquently than any cheerful greeting, telling the visitor what the Church is doing in the service. (One of the most beautiful things I have seen happen in a church happened when a man in his seventies changed pews to share hymnals with a first-time visitor in her twenties.)

If a child is brought to church every Sunday for his or her first five years, that child will have heard the liturgy two hundred fifty times. The familiar pattern of worship will be more comforting to that child than the most entertaining praise song or film clip or (shudder!) puppet show. Families that worship together grow spiritually together. May this weekend’s services be, for each of us, a delight to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. J.

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