Number 4 in a series of 5
A pilgrimage and discovery of the Five Marks of Christ’s Church…
Is there a connection between the worship found today in American evangelical Christianity and the shampoo aisle at your favorite shopping store? Sounds like no connection at all right? Worship? Shampoo? What gives? Well, actually, a lot. Once upon a time my wife asked me to accomplish a “simple” task for her, to pick up one bottle of shampoo at the local store. This seemed like a very reasonable and easy mission to accomplish, and to make it even more doable, my wife wrote down the name of the shampoo, and luckily I looked at that name before I left… something about “Lustre Highlights”. So in the time that it took for me to get into the car and make my way to the store, the note that was “pinned to my outfit” somehow got lost. But still I was confident, realizing that as college grad with a Masters degree I could certainly improvise and accomplish my mission – remember – I did know that it was “Lustre…” something or other. So imagine the utter blow my mind and psyche took when I finally arrived in the “land of shampoo”in aisle 22 when I saw hundreds, no maybe a thousand bottles, tubes, jars and boxes of the stuff. I’m talking shelves of it on both sides, stacked three feet deep and eight feet tall. And things only got worse when I asked a clerk for help. I mean how hard can this be right? Shampoo is basically soap (sodium lauryl – something or other) with coloring dyes and a fragrance mixed in, but in America we don’t just have shampoo – we have boatloads of choices which serve only to confuse and paralyze a consumer in the end. So many varieties, so many choices, how do I find the right one? Or do I just create one that suites my fancy… I think now you get the point.
The point is this: Have we so commercialized worship today that we can’t recognize it, let alone find the right one in the midst of all the choices?
Not so the early church, or The Church that continues that tradition today over two thousand years and still running strong. The worship of the Church was one, it was a worship built on the ritual and structure of the Old Testament, with priests, altar, chanting, praying – and then fully realized in its fullness with the Passover Meal becoming now the Lord’s Supper – the Body and Blood of Christ Himself, the Paschal Lamb, for the salvation of all who partake. This worship form given to the Church was not about being culturally sensitive, in fact the worship of the Church has always been counter-cultural just as Jesus and His disciples were. Worship in the church is an encounter with the Divine, a taste and experience of heaven on earth. We leave the ways and trends of this world and enter sacred ground, a holy place where God dwells, instead of a service that looks and feels like the fads and gimmicks of culture and modern Cine-plex entertainment. The worship of the Church was never intended to be “innovated, or changed” to “meet people’s needs and wants”, but rather was a gift from the Holy Spirit, to the apostles, to the Church and then to each succeeding generation of believers. Apostolic worship transcends cultures, and trends, and modern realities – it’s ageless and timeless (it’s not of this world) – it is the language, actions, and words of The Church – not pollsters or our emotions, and thus we receive it, live it, rejoice in it, defend it and then deliver it unsullied to the next generation. In a world that is constantly changing, it is immensely comforting to know that One Thing remains unchangeable, that One Thing remains historic and ancient, that One Thing remains relevant no matter what happens, that One Thing remains true, right and good… and that One Thing is the worship of the Church. It sounds so un-American NOT to have choices and options for whatever we want, since we are the fast food “have it your way” nation, but when it comes to the way the Church worships , it transcends all things and all people – the liturgy is ours not by right – but by gift. And each week we gather in One place as the One Church, singing the One liturgy that millions have sung over the years – and that millions both in heaven and on earth are singing even now. The continuation of the Liturgy is a mark of the true Church.
Here’s what Thomas Howard writes:
Fourth, the liturgy of the Church confronts and judges me. That seems like an odd way of putting it. In what sense can anyone say that the liturgy “judges” me? Certainly it does not condemn me or pass any sort of explicit judgement on me. But if only by virtue of its extreme antiquity and universality, it constitutes some sort of touchstone for the whole topic of Christian worship. Often the topic is approached as though it were a matter of taste: John likes fancy worship – smells and bells – and Bill likes simplicity and spontaneity and informality. There’s the end of the discussion. And certainly, as I mentioned before, God receives any efforts, however halting and homespun, which anyone offers as worship, just as any father or mother will receive the offering of a limp fistful of dandelions as a bouquet from a tiny child. On the other hand, two considerations might be put forward at this point.
First, what did the Church from the beginning, understand by worship – that is, by its corporate, regular act of worship? The Book of Acts gives us little light on the precise shape or content of the Christians’ gatherings. The apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers are mentioned. St. Paul’s epistles do not spell out what is to be done. We have to look to other early writings if we are curious about the apostolic church’s worship. And what we find when we do so is the Eucharistic Liturgy formed by Word and Sacrament. This, apparently was what they did as worship. If we think we have improved on that pattern, we may wish to submit our innovations for scrutiny to the early Church in order to discover whether our innovations have in fact been improvements.
Which brings us to the second consideration: the content of the Eucharistic liturgy. From the beginning, the Church seems to have followed a given sequence: readings from Scripture, then prayers, and then the so-called ‘anaphora’ – the’offering’ or, as it was also called ‘The Great Thanksgiving’. This was the Eucharistic Prayer which took on a fairly exact shape at the outset, (see the 1c. document called The Didache) which you may still hear if you listen to the liturgy in any of the ancient churches. Psalmody, canticles and hymns also came to be included, and certain acclamations like the ‘Kyrie Eleison’. The whole presents a shape of such rich perfection that one wonders what exactly is the task of the ‘coordinator of worship’ on the staff of various churches. The worship of the ancient Church is far from being a matter of endless tinkering, experimenting and innovating. The entire mystery of revelation and redemption is unfurled for us in the church’s liturgy. That liturgy is here in all of its plentitude, majesty, and magnificence, judging us.