P Most merciful God,
C we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
– from the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness, in Lutheran Book of Worship
I said these words nearly every Sunday during my childhood. For years I confessed that I am in bondage to sin, and cannot free myself. These words, repeated weekly in community and by hundreds of thousands of Christians across the whole church, formed me in a way that no Sunday School lesson, no retreat, no single worship experience could. That's the power of liturgy – repeated, patterned, intentional words spoken and sung, to give birth to faith and shape to the Christian life.
Since my early twenties I have been part of congregations that use variable worship texts, usually from Sundays and Seasons (and the wonderful website, www.sundaysandseasons.com). Though I haven't carefully studied its methodology or nuances, Sundays and Seasons seems to offer texts for seven liturgical elements: Confession of Sins, Greeting, Offering Prayer, Invitation to the Table, Prayer after Communtion, Blessing, and Dismissal. These texts seem to be designated seasonally, and written carefully to reflect the season. For example, the Advent texts reflect the season's waiting and hopeful sentiments; the Lenten season's texts embrace a more penitential tone. As someone who loves the cycle of the church year I find these texts to be very helpful in articulating the meaning of the church seasons and drawing out the faith experience of those seasons.
BUT . . . (there's always a but)
But what we gain in highlighting the seasons with variable texts we lose in the weekly repetition of carefully crafted texts. One of the strengths of the liturgy is its consistency, and when we frequently change the liturgy we risk weakening the liturgy's power to speak to our souls. The texts of the old Lutheran Book of Worship liturgies – and their deeper meanings – were drilled into my bone marrow after many years of worshiping and praying with them. These liturgies formed me – at first subconsciously, of course – and to this day are the framework on which my understanding of faith and church are formed. If these texts change several times per year, do we receive the same benefit?
As a hospital chaplain I noted two types of patients who drew considerable strength and comfort from their faith – Roman Catholics, and Evangelicals. The Roman Catholic patients would spend time reciting prayers from Mass, saying the rosary, and welcoming the priest into their room to share sacraments. These are people whose faith was formed by liturgy, and who in times of need drew strength from the liturgical prayers and practices that had been part of their life for many years. The Evangelical patients were not reciting liturgical prayers, but repeating memorized Scripture and singing beloved hymns that had been part of their faith practice for many years. For both the Catholic and the Evangelical, long-practiced disciplines of faith (disciplines often poo-pooed by those who would seek to be "contemporary," "relevant," or "contextual") came to be sources of comfort in times of distress.
Whatever disciplines we practice or liturgical texts we use, may we use them in a way that fosters faith formation and helps our churches fulfill their mission to be the Body of Christ proclaiming the Gospel and sharing the sacraments faithfully and graciously.