I recently insulted my friend Derek, who blogs over at haligweorc. He has described the liturgy as a true path to knowing the Living Jesus. And Derek is not alone. Many Christians – not just Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics or disciples of Gordon Lathrop – are dedicated to the liturgy as the chief ministry of the church and primary practice by which Christians are formed.
I don’t necessarily disagree, but I offended my friend (and husband of a dear old childhood friend) when I suggested (in a comment on this post) that a heavy emphasis on liturgy might miss out on God’s presence and activity beyond the church walls. "What does your tradition, or liturgical theology in general, say about the experience of God beyond liturgy?" I asked.
He replied with an impressive litany of quotes from the liturgy highlighting God’s activity in the world. And he is right – our liturgy indeed proclaims and professes much about God’s presence in the world. However . . .
I would suggest that the liturgy enacts and represents various aspects of life, faith and the divine/human encounter. Enact and represent.
When I say enact, I mean that in the liturgy things happen. In the liturgy we encounter the living God in the prayers, the sacraments, and the proclamation of the Word. This is true and real. God comes to us in the liturgy. Yet also in the liturgy the people of God give a tithe or offering – not simply to pay the electric and gas bills, but to provide for the church’s ministry of the Word and to give to the poor. Concrete things happen in the liturgy.
However, much is also represented in the liturgy. In the liturgy we share the peace and are truly reconciled to those who are gathered for worship, but the liturgy doesn’t mediate a Middle East crisis or provide shelter for victims of domestic violence. In the liturgy those who are present gather around a common table without concern to race, class, or status, but the liturgy itself does not work for justice in the world. In the liturgy we proclaim Creation’s praise of God, but the liturgy itself does not protect or preserve nature. The liturgy does not do these things – it propels us out into the world to do these things, but the liturgy itself does not do these things.
Thus the liturgy is both Jesus and John the Baptist. It is Jesus in that we truly meet God face-to-face in the liturgy, and it is John the Baptist in that the liturgy points us towards God, directing us to God’s presence in the world.
So, respectfully, here’s my problem with any claim that the practice of the liturgy is a sufficient path to knowledge of God: We know God by doing the liturgy and doing what we liturgy calls us to do (ie, sharing the peace and working for peace; hearing/proclaiming God’s work to lift up the lowly and working to lift up the lowly; meeting God in the church and seeking God in the stranger). Or put another way, a truth path to knowing the Living Jesus is the path of liturgy and the path that the liturgy calls us to travel.
Even though a professed emphasis on the practice of the liturgy might assume the practices that flow from it – love for, care of and service to the world – I would suggest that these daily life, in the world Christian practices need to be cited along with the liturgy when describing a path to knowing God. Sin being what it is, I don’t think we can leave it to liturgy alone to guide the Christian life, nor can we assume that faith practices simply naturally flow from the liturgy like water from a spring. I believe we must enunciate those practices that the liturgy calls us to, those practices that propel us into the world, those practices that lead us to Christ in the world and lead us to be Christ in the world.
Of course, we’re talking here about "knowing God" and the practices of the Christian life – things that would be considered Third Use of the Law, or Sanctification. Salvation is a different matter – salvation is given in baptism and doesn’t require works to be effective. But when we’re talking about those practices that lead us into a deeper knowledge of God, I believe we must talk not only about liturgical faith practices, but also about those non-liturgical faith practices through which God forms us, meets us and blesses us beyond our church walls.