In the last two years I have found myself often on the move and far from home, my centre of gravity having shifted quite suddenly to the Middle East. Frequent travel is now a fact of academia, and with too many project commitments making claims on our time, I doubt I am the only academic who has pondered the discomfiture of being delocalised and the difficulties of ‘settling in.’
And the Middle East poses some particular challenges. As countless rockets began descending on the South of Israel this summer, and the wailing sound of the sirens in my workplace became a thrice-daily disruption, travel was increasingly ill-advised and we were enjoined to remain within a minute’s sprint of the nearest shelter. I had to decide whether I would take the risk of maintaining regular attendance at my Church in Jerusalem during this time of turmoil.
“I am the bread of life”
It seems we are more than willing to spend our days scrambling for whatever we can find to feel fulfilled and alive: friends and family, food and drink, ambitious busyness or faddish therapies—sometimes forced into our lives like sharp injections to anaesthetise a sense of quiet desperation. In excess of the many good things which the mass of men might broadly affirm and enjoy, what novelty can the Christian bring to the table for a hunger still unsatisfied and a thirst as yet unquenched? In the end, the sages agree, none of the goods of this world will satisfy us, either as we taste them in experience or imagine them to be in a better world.
Where then shall we seek the true bread of life, in this world or beyond, and what are we willing to chance to obtain it? We might draw solace from a sermon or a song about Jesus. We might enjoy the fellowship of the like-minded, for a short while. We might pray for joy, and even feel happy for a season. There is also the hope of a new heaven and a new earth to dwell upon, deferred to the so-called eschaton. And yet, “It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobs Lucy to Aslan, when she must leave this magic land and return to the mundane. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
Christians would generally agree that it is God that man needs, and it is God that he is somehow to be given in the person of Jesus Christ: ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst’. But where shall we find such bread? In printed Bibles, assuredly; in each other, sometimes; in our hearts, perhaps. Indeed, there may be many modes in which the divine might deign to disclose itself, and popular theology (alongside the ‘alternative spirituality’ literature) is rife with formulae and suggestions for inducing spiritual experiences.
On the other hand, some would urge us simply to accept the existential angst and the sense of absence that the Lucys of this world lament, along with the Enlightened (whether Humean, Kantian, or Presbyterian), reducing mysticism and spirituality to discipline and morality, and lowering our existential expectations accordingly. This is admittedly a tempting alternative: A good deal of silliness on the subject of religious experience might undoubtedly be avoided by refusing either to admit its possibility or to discuss the subject at all. We might stick instead to the pleasures we know best, genuflecting to the God ‘who gives us all things for our enjoyment’ if we find ourselves theologically inclined.
An Illusive Presence
Historically, however, Christian faith throughout the centuries has embodied a mystical tradition that admits no such reduction, drawing upon deep roots that run through the Jewish temple: There is no steering clear of the fog of Shekinah that manifested God’s glory in the tabernacle along this ancient path. Indeed, classical Christianity, as we will call it here, has consistently concerned itself with states of the soul and modes of divine indwelling that have little reference to the goods of this world. The covenant presence of Yahweh among His people, as described in the Jewish Scriptures, was a living reality that could be strengthened or diminished by devotional conformity to a highly particular scheme of behaviours and observances laid out in the laws of ritual purity. Beyond the abstract question of how an individual is to be ‘justified’ in the sight of God, the Torah is intensely concerned with the practical question of how God’s living presence in the community should be hallowed and maintained.
In this divine economy, the role of the temple with its sacrifices was of central significance. Perhaps a rough analogy for moderns might be one that I heard in Jerusalem using the vehicle of a ‘WiFi network’: Without a correctly functioning router (temple) with a strong radio signal (God’s presence in the community) there could be no viable connection (faith and ritual) for the devices (worshipers) to hook up to the internet (God’s life and power) and communicate with each other (religious fellowship). The spiritual and mystical life of this community was entangled in a matrix of liturgy and ritual, scripture and theology, worship and practice, in a way that is almost unintelligible to the modern individualist.
We also struggle to understand how, at its height, the presence of Yahweh should prove so hazardous to those He intended to bless, when the proper protocols were not observed. Uzzah’s illicit attempt to steady the Ark of the Covenant, with its fatal consequences, is a case in point. This divine fastidiousness is in sharp contrast with the laissez faire approach to spirituality frequently adopted today, though in the early Church we witness similar peril in the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. It would appear that God’s presence, strongly manifest in the ministry of the apostles, was as inimical to (unrepented) sin as it was to the sickness it cured and the demons it expelled in the mere passing of St. Peter’s shadow. Yahweh had not changed in his demand for holiness, and where piety was diminished, it was safer that the divine presence should withdraw. But how did the early followers of Christ seek to approach the Holy One of Israel, and where did they look for guidance in matters of worship, ritual, and piety?
In the Shadow of the Temple
The spiritual life of Israel revolved around the celebration of its Feast Days with their corresponding offerings, and the book of Leviticus provides detailed instruction about what should take place on each occasion. At the heart of the Temple, however, lay the altar and the sacrifice that was to take away the sins of the people once again and reconcile them to God.
From the earliest days of the Church, in the prescriptions of the Didache at the time of the apostles and the writings of the apostolic fathers that followed them, Christians have employed the language of sacrifice in connection with the Eucharist, affirming its central role in the regular gathering of God’s people. For the early believers, the Eucharist was readily explicable within an existing doxological framework: a pattern of worship to be fulfilled but not abolished, derived from the Jewish temple. Setting aside the metaphysical locutions of the Medieval church and the question of propitiatory language with reference to the elements, the recurring invocation of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice in the priestly act of communion is a unifying feature of the apostolic churches.
The Shape of Christian Worship
At the core of the relativism that characterises contemporary culture, however, is a rigid insistence on the total plasticity of the forms that shape thought, behaviour and reality, and our right to mould them as we please. In contrast, for orthodox Christianity, committed to Christ as ‘the way’, created reality admits a definite topology. When it comes to the subject of worship and our approach to God, classical Christianity is united in adopting liturgical patterns that are temple-shaped, in which the act of communion is clearly and lovingly maintained at the centre in lieu of the temple sacrifice—the very apex to which the service ascends, lingering on bended knee to receive sacraments of bread and wine, before making its withdrawal in final benediction. In the paradigm of the temple, there is the expectation of meeting God in sacred space.
Nevertheless, this archetype has not been accepted by everybody who seeks to embrace the historic Christian faith. Whilst rejecting the spirit of relativism and its corrosive effects on the doctrinal content of worship, it is a common contention among evangelicals that there are (almost) no facts of the matter about how it ought to be done: Nowhere in the Epistles or the Acts of the Apostles do we see a liturgy laid out for the Churches. Arguing on the basis of this silence many have concluded that Christian worship is not prescriptive. In a strange twist from their Jewish roots, the forms of acceptable worship have become a relativistic matter of personal taste and pragmatics. Curiously, evangelical worship services seem to conform to a small number of readily identifiable templates nonetheless. Indeed, for many Protestants the principle service of the week has come to share the structurally defining feature of being centred on a sermon from the pulpit. According to this pedagogical paradigm, the congregants are gathered principally to hear a message.
The absence of any formal prescription for worship inside this canon-within-a-canon, however, is perhaps not particularly surprising, granted a certain reading of Church history: The worship of the people of God had been structured in the law of Moses for the Tabernacle, which was understood to be a (partial) reflection of the eternal worship of heaven; it was adorned and embellished in the first and second temples, most notably with the psalms of David, but not substantially altered; Yeshua himself was a devout Jew who worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem, and there is good reason to suppose that early disciples of Yeshua did not perceive their Jewish religion as being fundamentally set aside but rather reaffirmed in what followed: ‘I did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.’ For Jewish believers—that is, for almost all of the New Testament writers—the essential shape and features of acceptable worship were simply presumed. The Law must be reinterpreted, of course, the Faith globalized, the Temple delocalised, and various injunctions relaxed for the Gentiles, but the roots were without question to be retained. Though a ‘parting of the ways’ is evident in documents as early as the Didache (‘let not your fastings be with the hypocrites’) it is important to note just how it is effected (‘for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation day’): The template of prayer and fasting, for example, is inherited unchanged.
Yet the biblical witness has not been as silent as some suppose on the subject of Christian worship and devotion. Skarsaune’s more careful and contextualised reading of the book of Acts suggests, for instance, that ‘the prayers’ to which the early believers devoted themselves, alongside ‘the breaking of bread’, were sourced from the synagogical liturgies of the time. And outside of Acts and the Epistles, there is ample material for informing biblical worship. For example, the book of Revelation has traditionally been used in classical Christianity as a locus for doxology (rather than a source of dire predictions). In a vision on ‘the Lord’s day’, suggestively reminiscent of Moses’ revelations on Mount Sinai, we are permitted to witness a lavish and sensory worship service in the heavenlies unfolding over the ages, dramatically sweeping together the triumph of heaven with the tortured march of history on earth. It is worth taking the time to tabulate some of the features, which can be correlated with classical Christian liturgies. For instance, we see the use of lampstands (or Menorah) unveiling the presence of the Holy Spirit (Rev. 1:10-12), of long robes adorned with sashes for priests (prebyteroi) set apart for special service (1:12-13; 4:4), and of palm branches and crowns (4:4, 7:9), prominent in the Orthodox tradition. The alleluiah (15:3-4) and the sanctus (4:8) find their source in Revelation. We witness the altar with its censers for burning incense (8:3) and the centrality of the sacrificial Lamb of God (5:6-14). This is the worship of the risen and ascended Lord within the new temple of the mystical body of Christ, in whom the Spirit dwells (1Cor 3:16); its sheer physicality is striking and its liturgy is temple-shaped: At the climax of a heavenly worship service, marked by priestly ritual, is the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Rev. 19:6-10). Even if the idea of a living tradition is rejected for grounding any of the classical Christian forms, the rich resources in the book of Revelation might supply all the validation the biblically faithful could wish for.
Still, for the strictest advocate of sola scriptura who denies that the forms of the past could be prescriptive for the present in the absence of some specific injunction in the letters of Peter or Paul, even the patterns in Hebrews and Revelation may be reduced to a descriptive irrelevance. After all, we are not told to do any of those things: Ergo, we must be free to choose what to do for ourselves (or so the inference goes). Leaving aside the question of whether anyone who insists on sola scriptura (in the strictest sense) consistently applies the principle to their theology, whether it is logically possible for them to do so, and whether they would retain either orthodoxy or consistency if they did, we might ask on what grounds so radical a discontinuity with the pattern of worship in the New Testament (disclosed in Revelation) and the prescriptions of the Old Testament (to which Christ adhered) is to be justified, along with the peculiar form—content split that this departure entails. Perhaps the burden of proof has been misplaced. We might also wonder how, having witnessed a celestial pattern of worship in the New Testament, like Moses on Mount Sinai in the Torah, we may expect to see God’s will on earth if we overlook what we have graciously been permitted to glimpse in heaven. Moreover, it may be that independent theological grounds can be adduced for preserving the paradigm of the temple. Much, perhaps, depends on how we view (and value) the ‘Jewish roots’ of the Christian faith. Much may also depend on what we think a Christian service is for.
Aspects of Christian Liturgy
Liturgy, as we will use the term here, refers to the structure of the service—a pattern of activities and designations that characterises what happens when an ecclesial community gathers around Word and sacrament. Each church has a liturgy, though it may or may not be formalised. Within a classical Christian framework, in congregating on a Sunday we come together as thinking, feeling, sensate creatures to worship, to serve, to have fellowship, and to realign ourselves with the presence of one whom we acknowledge as the source of goodness, beauty and truth in our broken world. We also assemble as a witness for those who do not believe and an invitation into the life and mystery of the Holy Trinity, joining a heavenly Jerusalem by the Spirit in ‘festal gathering’ to proclaim the unshakeable kingdom of Christ, in which the Father’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Our service should reflect these affirmations, and this requires rather more than inspired preaching from the pulpit. Among other things, it requires the employment of ritual: Set forms that are carefully constructed and rehearsed offer a means of corporate involvement, spiritual formation, and the prospect of learning through doing. They also afford us the opportunity to reflect the beauty of the Trinitarian God in how we enact them, expanding solitary devotion into a common space of embodied symbolism and shared meaning. By shifting attention away from isolated performers, they can serve to diminish the pre-eminence of potentially dominating personalities—a perennial problem in evangelical culture. Sound liturgy implements a form that fosters the potential for increased awareness of God’s presence in the midst of his people and permits Christian worship to be ‘catholic’ (universal), connecting local assemblies in concrete expressions of fellowship with the Church throughout time and space and affirming the unity of the body of Christ, however far we may find ourselves from home.
Traditionally, much of this has been achieved by focusing on the act of communion, incorporating within the proceedings a ritualised progression towards the communion table, guided by biblical and historical forms, during which a devotional mood is permitted to develop without distraction. In classical Christian liturgy, shaped by the paradigm of the temple, the efforts of the preacher and the celebrants, whilst important, are not determinative, and the service need not stand or fall on the strength of the sermon: It is God himself who speaks to us through the Scriptures; it is God himself we have come to meet in Holy Communion.
The Logic of the Forms
Up till now, we have been discussing liturgy as if form and content could simply be separated. It is far from clear, however, that this is the case. Certain forms are more ‘fitting’ than others for the substance they disclose. It is doubtful, for example, whether the same meaning would be conveyed if the words, ‘Jesus loves you’, were written first in ink, and then in excrement.
What we believe to be the meaning of Christian kerygma must surely inform the substance of our worship. For classical Christians, the heart of the Faith we profess is not an explanation, a sensation, or a sermon (though it gives rise to all these things), but a sacrifice that we share and seek ourselves to embody: The self-giving of a God who enters human existence, and with his own flesh and blood, broken and shed for us, creates and sustains a new community across the world, called to walk in His way. It is the way of ‘my life for yours.’ And indeed, we enact that principle on many occasions, when we sit down at the table to dine together—to receive and to share life, from the life of something else. For “this sitting down at the table with our family or with our guests,” writes Thomas Howard,
“is an act in which we may perceive and mark and celebrate the thing which is true: that our fellowship with each other is most literally a matter of eating together, since it is here that we not only profess, but also enact, our common indebtedness to the order of exchanged life… the whole thing is caught up in the biggest transaction of all, of which these smaller transactions are but examples, namely, the life of the Lamb of God laid down so that we might live”.
I began my musings by asking, ‘what novelty—of food or drink—can the Christian bring to the table?’ Let me end with this reply: What God offers to us is not a novelty as yet untasted within our troubled world, nor an esoteric state that we must somehow reach beyond it; He gives to us Himself in bread and wine. In this sacred supper we enter the worship of heaven-on-earth and witness the reconciliation of many things so often opposed elsewhere: of the spiritual and the natural; of mysticism and materialism; of the sacred and the mundane. Nature and grace have coalesced on a dining room table, where God and man have both sat down. In this act of communion, creation mediates Creator to creation, discloses its true purpose, and is satisfied.
I am ill qualified to till such sacred ground and will tread no further but to suggest that the worship of the saints solicits both the sanctuary and intelligibility bestowed by the paradigm of the temple. The bread of life has not been given to us merely to be talked about, but to be consumed. For now, we must content ourselves with the smallest morsels. However, to supplant the place of Holy Communion with pedagogy, though sound teaching is sorely needed, is to suggest that the substance of Christian faith lies in our appropriating a set of ideas, instead of being sustained by God’s grace. If a priesthood for ministering the sacraments runs the risk of placing a few men between God and His people, how much greater the danger when we allow the altar to be replaced by the lectern, permitting our worship to revolve around the preacher instead of the Real Presence.
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