Liturgy: "an act of utter uselessness"

Ted Mellor

(A revised and edited version of a series of talks originally given at the Parish of St. Mary in Palms, Los Angeles, Lent 2002.)

I. Dappled Things

I want first to touch on a couple of features of liturgical worship that may make it difficult for us 21st Century folks to enter into the spirit of that ongoing, 2,000 year-old worship.

First, we live in a secular culture that is relentlessly utilitarian. We value things only, it seems, when we can use them for something, when we can get some benefit for ourselves out of them. Even other human beings are expected to be "productive" and "efficient" at the risk of being discarded like so much "useless" waste, "failures" -- off our radar screens. Or even worse, seen as mere hindrances to be brushed aside, "in the way", obstacles to our own plans for ourselves and for the world. All too often, I'm afraid, we carry our utilitarian culture over into our worship. We want the liturgy to do something obviously useful for us, something which the liturgy, being an expression of fundamentally different values, simply does not set out to do.

The liturgy is about worship -- "worth-ship" -- ascribing to God the worth, the value, that is God's by right and God's alone. To ask, "What good does it do us? What's in it for me?" is to ask the wrong question. The liturgy does not exist, for example, to instruct us, to educate us, to entertain us, to inspire us, to comfort us, to make us feel good (or bad) about ourselves, or even to aid us in our own individual "spiritual lives". Still less is it one more means of "self-expression" or a marketing tool designed to fill the pews with prospective pledgers. Liturgy may, of course, do all of those things and often does, but always as a sort of by-product, always as an added blessing, a grace not expected or planned for.

Dance Ken Leech puts it well: "At its core, liturgy is praise. Praise is an emptying-out of self towards God in an act of utter uselessness . . . [Liturgy] is a Godward activity, a turning toward that which is beyond in an act of praise." "Liturgy is useless," he says, "in the same way that poetry is useless. Yet, as in poetry, liturgy involves a quest for images and symbols that are adequate to our predicament."

The liturgy is a great paean of gratitude and praise, an outpouring of thanksgiving offered for, and on behalf of, all of God's creation. It is deeply rooted in that creation, and its songs of thankfulness and praise are sung over simple, material things -- bread, wine, oil, water. Through them we are led into the awesome presence of God.

And that lands us in the midst of another difficulty for us 21st century folk. We live in a very literal-minded culture, one that values clear-cut signs -- billboards, brand names, corporate logos -- far more than it does the rich ambiguity of poetry and symbol. It entertains us with spectacles, pageantry, awes us with "special effects", wows us with technology. It never invites us, as the liturgy does, to enter ourselves into the richer, deeper, more ambiguous world of symbols, make it our own, and frolic in it. The liturgy is best celebrated by singers, poets, and audacious lovers. It is not well-served by those who see nothing in God's creation but "raw materials" and "natural resources".

Have we, in our "conquest" of nature, lost our ability to be poets and theologians, to see ordinary, everyday things -- our food, drink, bread, wine, oil, water, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing -- as symbols, as vehicles of God's grace and presence in our everyday lives? If we have, then we are going to have a hard time responding when the liturgy invites us to sing and dance with them to the glory of God.

An on-line correspondent, Ford Elms, familiar with another, older culture, recently wrote from Newfoundland:

"There is a large collection of Celtic prayers, collected about a hundred years ago in the Hebrides, the Carmina Gaedelica . . . There's prayers for getting up, for going to sleep, for lighting the fire, for going out in boat, for milking, and on and on. Some of the traditions made it to Newfoundland. I can remember my mother always making the sign of the cross over her bread when she put it to rise (and this from someone who had grown up Methodist and was a very 'protestant' Anglican) I've even known Fundamentalist (Pentecostal) women in Newfoundland to do this. Bread is always made with three 'buns' in each pan, one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Spirit . . .

"Many of the older people still preface any expression of the future with "please God" and many other small things like that. It's all about bringing the Divine nearer, about maintaining a consciousness of God's presence always. . .

"Another theme is of the presence of God in nature. It is said that even now in the Hebrides, the old people will walk off along the beach by themselves to pray, as though being surrounded by the natural creation brings them closer to God."

In light of Ford's comments, I'm going to suggest some homework to help us prepare for our liturgical celebrations. Turn off the television set. Play with symbols. Maybe bake some bread. Make it in three buns in honor of the Trinity; make the sign of the cross over it as you set it to rise. Bring God into your everyday conversation -- never to curse, only to bless. Immerse yourself in symbols -- go to a play or a live concert, listen to the music, watch the orchestra -- play in the orchestra -- we'll talk more about orchestras later. And read some poetry.

Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Pied Beauty" is a rich cascade of symbols, of the beauty of things which, like the liturgy, the Church, and humanity itself, are not all of a dull sameness, but rich in their many-colored variety:

GLORY be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
Praise God indeed, not only on Sunday, but all week long.

If you were to ask me what is the single most important thing any parish can do to improve its Sunday liturgy, I would have to say that it would be for all of its members to lead rich, full, prayer-filled lives on the other six days of the week. If we don't, we are coming to the feast half-starved. We shall always be hungry for more than the liturgy can ever be expected to provide, and we shall always be complaining that our personal spiritual needs are being neglected. As, of course, they are.

Value silence. It's not "dead air" that needs to be filled, as the media teaches us to think, but pregnant air, already rich with the presence of God. Walk along a deserted beach, if you can find one, and let God's ocean do the talking.

And finally, liturgy is a social act; it's something we do together. Look around you. Can we at least try to see other human beings, without exception, not as means to an end, or "in the way," but as "fathered-forth" creatures and children of God, glowing with God's presence and bright with God's beauty? The 17th Century poet and mystic Thomas Traherne saw them this way. "How do you tell people," he asks, "That they are all shining inside?" The next time you exchange the peace, or go to the mall or the supermarket, tell somebody they're all shining inside. Because they are.

And so are you.

II. Dances with Books

Anglo-Catholics have sometimes been criticized -- by other Anglo-Catholics -- for teaching the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in such a way as to imply the Real Absence of Christ everywhere else. And there's a good deal of truth in that criticism, I think.

The pre-eminent symbol of the Real Presence of Christ in the Liturgy of the Word is the Book of the Gospels. From the earliest times the Gospel book or scroll was held in high honor. Deacons and readers kept the sacred texts in a safe place at home, and many gave their lives to keep them out of the hands of those who would destroy them. A reminder of this may survive in the liturgy as the deacon carries the Gospel Book into the church during the entrance procession and, with a thankful little smile, lays it on the altar. The cops didn't get their hands on it this week!

Another reminder of the great veneration in which the Book of the Gospels was held survives in the Alleluias sung before the singing or reading of the Gospel. Many historians think this originated in spontaneous shouts of "alleluia!" "Praise Yahweh!" that arose in the basilicas as the deacon carried the Gospel text to the place where it was to be proclaimed.

Gospel BookThe Gospel Book is carried with a great deal of festivity -- a kind of "dancing with the Torah" -- to the place where the Gospel is to be proclaimed. The Prayer Book says the Book itself should be "of appropriate size and beauty". In many churches the Book is richly ornamented, with icons of Christ and the four Evangelists on the cover. Candles may be carried in front of it and flank it during the reading, and the Book may be censed to honor Christ's presence in His Word.

Rose Macaulay once remarked that Anglican Catholics are just like Roman Catholics, except they get to use their imaginations more. A good example of this is that the Roman Rite directs that the Gospel always be proclaimed from the same lectern or ambo where the earlier lessons have been read. This is undoubtedly the most ancient practice, and a venerable one. Our Prayer Book, however, gives us some choices: "It is desirable, " it says, "that the Gospel be read from the same lectern, or from the pulpit, or from the midst of the congregation."

The Gospel proclamation is an event in which we participate and it is the total liturgical event, not just the text, that matters. As Charles Marson put it, "The Word became Flesh, not print." In and through the Gospel proclamation we hear the voice of the Anointed One who proclaims his mission and ours: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . he has sent me to announce the good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners . . . to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

Can we joyfully embrace God's Good News to the Poor? Dance with it?

Or does it, perhaps, strike us as all right in church, but impractical, irrelevant to the real world of wealth and power, privilege and prisons, a world whose broken victims may be pitied, even sent a little "aid" now and then, but never allowed to go free? Authentic Gospel is, of course, "impractical". It is of no possible use to the principalities and powers of this or any age. It is of no possible use if what we are looking for is a well-armed lifeboat for ourselves, instead of an Ark of Justness for all the peoples of God's earth.

The Gospel, however, is anything but irrelevant. The 20th Century Czech theologian, Joseph Hromadka, saw this. "The Gospel", he writes, "gives the most real insight into the very depths of human life and the most comprehensive understanding of society and history, and especially of the future. The Gospel unites us with the first witnesses of the Old Testament and with the sufferings of the present moment, but it directs our thinking ever toward the future. The Church is not a static institution bound to the established order . . . [Rather it] is a community of believers always on the move, who radiate an atmosphere of humility towards the God of holiness and mercy. The Church is ever mindful of man, in all his strengths and weaknesses, in his joys and despairs. All this helps us to believe that he who leads us defenseless to the shadow of his cross, is and will be the final victor."

III. Standing Around

From at least the Sixth Century, the old Roman Canon contained an intercession for omnium circumadstantium, "for all those standing around here". . . "who offer to you this sacrifice of praise".

Customs changed, the identity of the circumadstantes was gradually forgotten, but the prayer remained. It caused a bit of perplexity, when anybody thought about it, because for several hundred years only the priest was standing at that point in the mass, and only the priest was thought to offer the Sacrifice. Who are these people? About 150 years ago with the birth of the liturgical movement, a startling discovery was made. "Good Heavens! It's us!"

We, all of us, are standing with the priest at the altar; we, all of us, are celebrating the Eucharist together, and this has been true from the earliest times.

Earlier I suggested some images that might help us understand the nature of the assembly that celebrates the Liturgy. Here is another image I like, one Kenneth Leech quotes from the late Stanley Evans, Canon of Southwark Cathedral in London. In a radio interview in the early 1960's, Canon Evans stressed that it is when people come together as a redeemed community that the whole body can be inspired and inflamed, and he went on to say:

They are not ever an audience. They are an expressive community, if you like, an orchestra. Now this does not mean ... that they all play the same instrument or that they all play all the time or at the same time, but they are an orchestra and everybody plays. While the audience-response in a theatre is something of great importance, there is still a distinction between the audience and the players. What I am trying to say is that this distinction does not exist in Christian liturgy. We have built up an area in which it does exist and we have destroyed Christian liturgy in doing so.
Pews, of course, are a great modern convenience -- my tired old bones love them. But pews are a very bad symbol. They just shout out "audience" --- "stage", "participants" --- "spectators". They work against our seeing ourselves as players rather than watchers or listeners, and our grasping that the whole body of the church building is the place where the liturgical event occurs.

Throughout the entire liturgy, including the Eucharistic Prayer, priest and ministers are members of the orchestra -- not a substitute for it.

orchestraI like the image of an orchestra because an orchestra is one body, but it does not submerge our differences -- our personhood -- into a faceless mass of uniformity. We play on our own instruments, with our own parts. At the same time we play together for the sake of a beautiful whole, and in so doing our own individual gifts and talents find a fuller and richer expression than they ever could achieve in isolation.

When we come forward in procession to receive Communion, each of us has a little solo part, a brief moment when all the saints and angels in heaven rejoice as Elizabeth or Martha or Peter or John or even Ted receives the Bread that gives Life. But we are still an orchestra. Christians come to God's table as a community of equals and share the Body and Blood as members of one family.

How different this is from the so-called "individualism" -- actually a kind of radical separateness -- that permeates so much of our secular culture. A separateness that ultimately leaves us so rootless and insecure that we're easy marks for whatever the opinion-makers are trying to sell us, for the age-old illusion that if we accept their terms we can be part of a "winning team". We don't actually get to play on the team, of course. Mainly we watch it on television. In the end, the only liberty that remains is the "liberty" to line up and cheer, no matter what is being done in our name.

The liturgy treats us with more respect. It is as members of a new people, a redeemed community, that we find our deep roots in the praise and worship of God. Secure in those roots we have the wisdom and the strength and the freedom to say "no" when justice -- and simple common sense -- demand it. To speak and act out of gratitude and love for a God, who, as the liturgy puts before us again and again, thinks nothing of all the wealth and power of the rulers of Egypt, but calls as God's own people a rag-tag brick makers' union, out on strike against it. A God who becomes Incarnate not at Rome, the center of the power of Empire, but way off on its fringes, dying as one of its thousands of crucified victims. And rises again, bringing to the world the good news of its own resurrection, its own exodus from every Egypt, material and spiritual, past, present, and to come.

Our Paschal celebrations, particularly the Great Vigil of Easter, recall those acts of God in the past, proclaim that the same God is still acting in the present, and, in a strange and wonderful way, remember the future. We will experience the Kingdom, in a kind of foretaste, right here and now, and we will know that something better is possible for this tired old world. We can see it; we can taste it; we can smell it.

"Liturgy," Aidan Kavanagh has written, "is doing the world as God would have it done."

What if we took that seriously? What if we took what we have enacted in the Mass and put it into practice, individually and socially, in the world outside these doors? What if we really lived as if the world and everything in it belonged to God, instead of treating it as our own private possession? What if we treated all the peoples of the world as valued members of an orchestra rather than as means to be used for own ends, or obstacles to be brushed aside or crushed into oblivion? What if we humbly broke bread with the poor, as a community of equals? What if we began to greet one another with the sign of peace?

"We beg you," asks an ancient Eucharistic prayer, "make us truly alive."

What if we came to life?

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