Liturgy matters, and never more so than in a season like Advent
- Liturgy tells stories in ways that make us live them
People make sense of the world through storytelling, which allow us to build and shape memory. We tell stories in different ways, sometimes through words but also through action. Ritual and behavior are singularly effective ways of telling a story. A liturgy like the Christian Eucharist also tells a story in order to preserve and pass on the church’s memory.
- Liturgy uses performance to tell stories
Without embarrassment, I use the theatrical word “performance.” As in any theatrical performance, liturgy uses cues to move to different phases — some moments and events signify beginnings and endings, calling you to be onstage. Like any play too there are ups and downs, an ascent to a climax and then a return to something like normal. In a Eucharist particularly, we share different actions and experiences appropriate to different phases of the event. And there are clearly distinct portions, different “acts.”
- Liturgy unites and binds things that otherwise are wholly separate
Liturgy is sacramental, in that it uses many different kinds of material symbol and object to carry spiritual truths. It also unites the mind and the bodily senses. It is not just rational and book-centered. It uses physical beauty as a means of presenting and reinforcing truth. Readings and texts are integrated into the larger “performance,” with its changing moods and lessons.
- Liturgy consecrates time — or else time consecrates liturgy
Stories and performances all have their appropriate times and settings. Liturgical actions, likewise, depend wholly on the cycles of the church year. Participating in liturgy means we share in this cycle, we join its beginnings and share the route to its end. Much of this journey involves non-literate means, including seasonally appropriate colors and lights.
Finally, and shockingly:
- Liturgy allows earth to become heaven, however briefly
The Bible repeatedly describes liturgical actions, on Earth and in heaven, at God’s court. We see this especially in books like Isaiah and Revelation. In turn, those scriptural passages have had a huge impact on the actual practice and language of earthly churches. In a prayer like the Sanctus, the “Holy,” humans celebrate with angels, breaking down divisions between natural and supernatural, Earth and heaven. That is the central theme of the Eucharist.
And those are my nine laws. Another person might have three or 300, and they would probably be just as valid.
Philip Jenkins is a distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and is the author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.
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