Authority is the bedrock upon which my confidence in the Church rests. But my pilgrimage was deeply affected by liturgy—or as I would have expressed it at the time, by a yearning for transcendence in worship; for Heaven and earth to meet. Reverent worship is powerfully evangelical.
In the town where I lived in California, I often drove past a church that had a sign out front: The church for people who hate church. But I don’t hate church! I love church. Church has always been a special place for me—from the summers when I marched into Baptist Vacation Bible School with the other children, singing “Holy Holy Holy,” right up to and including my last opportunity to participate in solemn liturgy.
The Extraordinary Behind the Ordinary
Others have written better and at more length about what follows.¹ But in the liturgy, in a very real sense, Heaven touches earth. We are brought into contact with the extraordinary behind the ordinary; the Supernatural just the other side of the natural. The only testimony I can offer here is that of the woman’s at the well . . . “Come and see” (John 4:29). If “come and see” is the test, then what has Catholic liturgy shown me?
One thing Catholic liturgy has taught me is that symbols and ceremony often say more than words. For example, I remember the funeral of former President Gerald Ford. Eight young military men slowly carried the casket bearing the body of the former President up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Ford’s 88 year old wife stood at the top of the steps, enduring the cold night air, on the arm of a Major General. No words could have better said, “This is my husband, whom I so dearly loved.” “This is my fallen Commander-in-Chief.” “This is our declaration of love and honor for him.”
Liturgy is Not a Spectator Sport
Moreover, liturgy involves us. We don’t simply sit and listen, standing occasionally to sing a hymn. Some translate leitourgeo as the “the work of the people.” Acts 13:2 captures this idea when it says, “They ministered (leitourgeo) to the Lord” (“ministered” is the KJV translation); others say, “While they were worshipping the Lord.”
Liturgy also incorporates the senses. Christ took on human flesh. Our bodies matter to God. Because they do, one consequence is that our bodies also can be used in worship. In Catholic worship all five senses are joyously engaged.
- I kneel before God, smelling the incense representing the prayers of the saints (Revelation 8:3-4 and elsewhere).
- I see a “visual Bible,” Christ and the communion of the saints in scenes represented in the windows and the statues around me (John 3:13-15 and Numbers 21:8, Hebrews 12:1-2 and more).
- I hear God’s Word read and preached, accompanied by the organist, congregation, and choir praising God (Colossians 3:16 and many other places).
- I touch others while offering them the “Peace of the Lord” (1 Peter 5:14).
- And by God’s grace, I receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, during which the fifth sense is employed (taste, Psalm 34:9, John 6:54-56 and elsewhere).
Liturgy Protects the Faith
In addition, liturgy protects us against each generation’s limitations. Step back and remember the Catholic Church has endured for 2,000 years. The Church has transcended illiteracy, language barriers, war, plague, poverty, the rise and fall of empires, and more.
Perhaps we think of our own times and imagine, “But we no longer face most of those limitations.” Really? May I differ? One of the limitations we face in our day is a dangerous overconfidence in our own understanding of the world, coupled with a limited sense of mystery. Liturgy rebalances our view of ourselves and the world. Without that balance, we risk having a limited grasp of reality—the real (both “seen and unseen,” as The Nicene Creed says). Liturgy helps us focus on the unseen as something much more than just an abstract or intellectual exercise.
Finally, contemporary Christianity sometimes shows a lack of propriety. I would gently suggest that kneeling in Christian worship is more spiritually fruitful than watching a drummer in headphones sitting in a Plexiglas drum cage built to improve the sound mix for a “worship band.” I can find similar-sounding music in most nightclubs. I can also listen to a speaker wearing a business suit (or a Hawaiian shirt) at a corporate offsite.
Where—except in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”²—will we find majesty, mystery, and transcendence? God be thanked, all are found in the Church’s liturgy! Psalm 63:6 “My soul will be filled as if by rich food” (Jerusalem Bible translation).
Reverence, abundance, transcendence, majesty, and sovereignty in worship: the extraordinary behind the ordinary!
That is Christianity Richly.
¹ See particularly The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Joseph Ratzinger (subsequently Pope Benedict XVI) and the essays in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, edited by Alcuin Reed.
² From The Nicene Creed.