The Meaning of the Liturgy

As Episcopalians, we’re pretty good at explaining what the liturgy is, and how it works, but fail at explaining why it’s essential to our ways of worship, or what it’s supposed to mean in the lives of parishioners. It’s pointless to turn to Hachett, Dix, or any of the dozens of academics who have blessed us with their studied insights. Ordinary Episcopalians have no interest in being saddled with erudite tomes. They just want to know what it means.

An old friend wandered away from the Episcopal Church a few years ago, saying the liturgy had become meaningless. He’s recently returned after faithfully exploring other worship opportunities, but I’m guessing still without an understanding of the meaning and purpose of our liturgy. Following in his footsteps, another friend has also wandered off with more or less the same complaint, but added to it an admission that, after thirty years of Episcopal worship, she still has no idea what it means to be an Episcopalian in contrast to any other denomination. We’re fond of saying that what Episcopalians believe is revealed in the liturgy of our worship. Apparently it’s a revelation not all that apparent to many.

It says something about how poorly we’ve guided folks sitting in the pews to a deeper understanding of what it means to be Episcopalian, and how the liturgy functions to enrich the experience of God’s presence. Mea culpa. Adult Christian education was my passion. Well attended classes dove into scripture and traversed the theological history of Western Christianity. Those interested were given the opportunity to learn all about the structure of the liturgy, but I suspect learned little of its deeper meaning.

The whole purpose of liturgy is to serve as a conduit through which participants move, body and soul, from the secular world into God’s presence, there to be fed with holy food and drink, before being sent back into the world to do God’s work. If that’s not what it does, it’s not good liturgy, and if parishioners don’t understand the meaning of their role in it, it doesn’t matter how good it is.

Consider the prelude. It’s not the warm up for the main act, but an invitation to reorient body and mind in preparation for entrance into holy time and space, which we do symbolically through the opening hymn and procession. The intentionality of prayers for cleansed thoughts, songs of praise to God, and collects focusing attention, prepare the way to hear more clearly. Our lengthy readings from the Hebrew scriptures, Psalms, epistles and gospel are intended to help us hear the Word of God speaking through the ancient texts. The Episcopal tradition of relatively short sermons is meant to guide worshipers toward a deeper understanding of the Word revealed in scripture for their own lives and the conditions in which they live.

Affirming the faith of the church in the words of the Nicene Creed draws an extraordinarily large and permeable circle of what we understand Christianity to be. The prayers of the people are elements of a community wide conversation with God, something like a town hall meeting, in which questions and concerns for the welfare of the church, community, nation and world are raised, along with more personal cares.

Our general confession of sins certainly brings to mind personal failures, but it’s really our confession that we, as the community of the faithful, have not lived up to our own standards of loving God and neighbor. We, as the community, ask not only for God’s forgiveness, but for God’s blessing that we might do better. Our first step in that direction is to offer to one another a sign of God’s peace.

My own take is that the announcements that often follow the peace are part of the offertory, an offering of our shared ministries to the glory of God’s name. They are part and parcel with ‘passing the plate’ and bringing the elements of Holy Communion to the altar.

Finally, it’s time to celebrate Holy Communion, that moment to which the liturgy has been leading. We have been made ready to receive the holy food and drink of new and unending life, in which we recognize the true presence of Christ for us, with us, and in us. It is the holiest of our time in holy time and space. Renewed and restored, we are sent out to do the work God has given us to do.

We’re only human. There are some days when our liturgical form of worship renders to us the fullness of all it intends. There are some days when burdened by other concerns it just doesn’t. There are many days when we grasp moments of God’s transcendent presence, but our minds wander hither and yon to who knows where. That’s life.

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