“Because it’s always been the bedrock of worship.” “Because it’s scriptural.” “Because it’s trustworthy.” “Because we’ve been using it for centuries.” “Because if we don’t use it, we’ll descend into chaos.”
These are some of the answers I found when asking the question, “Why do we use a liturgy for our Sunday corporate worship?” Some answers were really helpful, such as, “Liturgy passes on the faith,” and, “Liturgy connects us to something larger than ourselves.” Others were less so, like, “We’ve always done it that way,” or, “It’s what makes us Lutheran.” But underneath all the answers–helpful or not–it seems to me that liturgy, as rich and full as it is, doesn’t do anything that can’t be done by other means equally well. Many things pass on the faith–some much better than liturgy. Actually mentoring a young person in the faith comes to mind. And there are lots of things that tie us to the church catholic–scripture kind of being an obvious one.
So, “Why liturgy?”
I have a nasty habit of questioning things that sometimes seem to be taken for granted. “In the Lutheran tradition, we talk a lot about trusting the priesthood of all believers. So why should I wear a clerical collar when it’s origins are all about separating clergy from laity?” (Scotland, 17th century). “Why is some level of understanding a pre-requisite to receiving Holy Communion? I don’t understand gravity, but it still works.” “Since the efficacy of the Eucharist rests in God alone (again, Lutheran tradition), why does an ordained clergy-person need to preside?” It gets me into trouble sometimes, but launches some great conversations. I keep asking and studying and listening until I am satisfied with an answer that seems to work scripturally, missionally and contextually–at least for now. If I can’t discern a legitimate answer, I tend to do what makes sense scripturally, missionally, and contextually. Just so, “Why liturgy?”
Here’s where I am today: the great ordo around which liturgy is framed (gathering, word, meal, sending) makes sense because it is real life. We gather at the breakfast table, talk about our plans for the day, eat our pancakes, and send each other off to work/school. Then we do it again at work/school, then we do it again when we get home at night. There are innumerable “mini-ordos” that happen throughout the day as well, e.g., water-cooler conversations, meetings, homework study groups, and so on.
If liturgy is to be part of our daily discipleship, it should reflect daily life. The ordo does that. But it needs to go both ways. Our daily life needs to inform our liturgy as well. Together, our Sunday gathering and our daily living need to form a continuum that relates one to the other at a deep and significant level. When there is a disconnect between liturgy and life, Sunday corporate worship becomes irrelevant (anyone every hear that criticism before?). When the order or form of liturgy takes on a life of its own apart from Monday-Saturday, that liturgy has failed. It serves only to separate God from our lives instead of reveal God in the real rhythm of daily living. Unfortunately, too many of us have come to revere (or even idolize) the comfort of classic liturgy for its own sake.
So what would liturgy look like if informed by daily life? How about using the language of daily life as our liturgy. Try this on for size.
In my tradition, the “Gathering” of the ordo includes an invocation, kyrie, gloria patri, and prayer. What if the invocation served to simply ask God to be with us? Like a prayer we could say when we first get out of bed Monday morning, “Bless our day, Holy God. Help us serve you and follow you today.”
“Kyrie,” Greek for “Lord” (and short for Kyrie Eleison, or “Lord, have mercy”), could allow for individuals to bring into the assembly those things causing them anxiety, stress, or concern. Those who wish could say out loud, “Today I’m really worried about [the health of my Aunt Sylvia]. Lord, have mercy.” And the assembly responds, “Christ, have mercy.” A real-life Kyrie.
In the same way, a “Gloria” could follow a similar pattern, “Today, I’m grateful for [my homeless friend Henry moving into his first apartment]. Glory to God!” And the assembly responds, “Glory to God in the highest!” Get the picture?
In the “Word” portion of the ordo, centered around scripture, there is a gospel acclamation, a fanfare revealing the importance of the gospel being read among us. How about everyone shouting (or singing), “Get ready, everyone! Jesus is entering our conversation! Let’s listen!” Be sure to invite households to do something similar at home when they are planning their day ahead.
During the “Meal” part of worship, we often utilize a Great Thanksgiving, including the words of institution over the bread and wine. What if, as the Great Thanksgiving, we together prayed, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen!” What would happen at home the next time children prayed that table prayer?
The “Sending” at the end of liturgy includes a benediction and a dismissal. Can we consider as our sending making a bunch of peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the homeless?
If we step back a bit, acknowledge the false idol many of us have regarding a particular form of liturgy, we can use this ancient corporate worship framework to actually help us live as disciples, joining God in the world during the week. Liturgy informed by daily life according to the rhythm of the ordo: gathering, word, meal, sending.
But, again, this has to go both ways. If life informs liturgy, liturgy must also inform life. What would daily life look like when informed by, rather than separated from, liturgy?
We could wake up and ask for God to be with us today (invocation). We could automatically plead for Jesus to have mercy when we are anxious (kyrie). We could thank God for working in the world without even thinking about it (gloria patri). We could recognize the presence of Jesus in our everyday conversations (gospel acclamation). We could be aware of God’s grace and presence in the school cafeteria (great thanksgiving). We could plan, as a household, a day to volunteer at a local homeless shelter (sending), or together collect a portion of our allowance/salary to help eradicate malaria (offering).
When our Sunday corporate worship gatherings become part of the purpose of the church rather than a separate, sacred silo that cannot be touched, liturgy is doing what it was intended to do. When the lines between our secular, daily lives and our sacred, Sunday morning time become blurred, liturgy is serving the church well. Alleluia, Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia!