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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Liturgical Theology 101 - A Brief Study on Why We Do What We Do as Catholic Christians

I first want to sincerely apologize for my absence this year and not doing as many teachings online - it has been a little crazy working on grad school projects, in particular learning Koine Greek this summer (which you will be seeing me put to use here), so I haven't had as much time to write as I normally do.  Today though, I want to begin a series of articles that will introduce some basic things to you in regard to essential practices of the Anglo-Catholic and other liturgical traditions.

The purpose of the following is twofold.  First, it helps new converts understand the liturgy better.  Second, it will introduce our non-Catholic friends (many of whom are fellow Christians) to liturgy and also clear up some misunderstandings about it they may have.  Some of our Fundamentalist friends, for instance, almost cringe at anything they see that "smacks" of "Roman" to them, but they fail to realize some significant things.  First, although they claim the heritage of the Reformers, they fail in understanding that many of the Reformers didn't have a problem with basic Catholic doctrine to begin with - they protested abuses, not practices.  Therefore, if you read the works of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and to a lesser extent Zwingli, you will find that all of them believed in Mary being ever-Virgin, and all except Zwingli believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Many of the significant departures from the sacramental/liturgical tradition you see in contemporary Evangelicalism were not the fault of the Reformers, but rather their later followers.  That being said, it is also interesting to note that our Roman Catholic friends got themselves into a heap of trouble when they tried to explain the Real Presence with the word transubstantiation. The Real Presence should in reality be viewed as a "mystery of faith," meaning that the recipient knows they are receiving Jesus but explanation cannot be offered as for how, because that is not what is important - the important factor is that the communicant has received the Lord, and instead of over-analyzing it one should receive the Eucharist with humility and joy. That being said, let us now begin.

I want to first do a little word study as to how these terms came to be used.  The first is the word liturgy itself.  To put my limited knowledge of Greek to use, the word liturgy comes from two different Greek words, laos meaning "people" and ergon meaning "work."  Combine those with what is called the genitive article (denoting possession), which is in Greek tou, and it creates a word leitourgon.  The meaning of the word then is "the people's work," and it is called that, as Dom Gregory Dix notes in his classic text, On The Shape of the Liturgy, because it is the act of taking part in the solemn corporate worship of God by the "priestly" (in this case, the priesthood of all believers rather than the ordained clergy, although they are part of that) society of Christians (Dom Gregory Dix, On The Shape of the Liturgy {London: A and C Black, 1945} p. 1).  Therefore, what the liturgy is basically consists of corporate works of worship by God's people.  This actually has two Scriptural precedents to it. One is the necessity of corporate worship, as we are admonished in Hebrews 10:25 to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.  Why?  Because according to both Romans 12:4-5 and I Corinthians 12, we are a Body, not an individual, and one aspect I noted of this from my study of Ephesians is that there are two component relationships to our Christianity - how we relate to God (worship) and how we relate to the Body (fellowship).   The liturgy is both.  It is because of that we now introduce a second term, this one a Latin word, that is often used predominantly in the Western Church to denote the liturgy, and that is the term "Mass."  Mass, of course, comes from the Latin word missae, a verb which means to "collect or assemble."   It actually has a connection to another Greek word, sunago, which means the same thing - it is from the Greek term, as a matter of fact, that we get the term "synagogue."  Thus, we also have the introduction of a Hebraic concept that the Church inherited from Israel, as the synagogue and its tradition was established by the post-exilic Jewish communities in lieu of the Temple being destroyed and the diaspora of the people.  Of course, the center of this is another practice that we as Catholic Christians have called the Eucharist, which of course is the climactic act of the liturgy, and we will talk about that momentarily.  The second Scriptural precedent relates to the two roots of the word "liturgy" in particular, and it is found in James 2:17:  "Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."  Many of our postmodern, Emergent friends tend to confuse this verse with activism and Christian humanitarianism, which says that in order for a Christian to have vibrant faith they must go out and serve soup at a homeless shelter, etc.  However, as noble and as good as that is, and indeed we should help the less fortunate, those who place that interpretation on this verse miss something - our faith and worship are to be focused on the Lord Jesus Christ, and the verse in discussion is talking about worship, not service.   As a matter of fact, if you don't have true worship, your service is in vain - there are millions of activists who do a lot of good service but are going to hell unless they find the Savior.  Hence, the ultimate act of works as it relates to faith comes from worship of God, both corporately and individually - therefore, regular attendance of the Liturgy and reception of the Eucharist nourish the soul and help us grow. 

That all being said, let us now talk about the central act of the liturgy for Christians, which is the Eucharist.  The term comes from a Greek word meaning "giving thanks," and it denotes primarily the prayer of consecration over the elements, which are transformed into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus which is then partaken of by us as a "mystical Supper," to use an Eastern Church term.  It is the ultimate Thanksgiving feast, because it is a meal that brings true life to the people who receive it.  This too, as Roman Catholic writer Brant Pitre notes, has a Hebraic root to it - it is lifted right out of the Passover, which we do see as an antecedent and allegory of Christ.  Pitre notes that an interesting thing about the original Passover sacrifice was that the Passover lamb was often prepared by skewering the whole carcass - which could not be dismembered or eaten raw or boiled, but had to be fire-roasted - on two rods.  One rod was inserted through the neck area to the tail, and the other through the two front legs, giving it a cruciform shape (interesting!).  This was called in Hebrew a todah, or "thank offering," (Hmmm!) as appreciation for being delivered from death.  And, only members of the covenant community could partake of it (Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist {New York: Doubleday, 2011} pp. 56-57).  Now, look at how that relates to the Christian Church.   In Greek, the word paska means "I suffer," and it is used as a cognate of the Hebrew word pesach, which means of course "to pass over."  In the Christian East, as a matter of fact, Easter is still called Paska based on this.  And, it is here that we introduce one of the Latin names for Jesus, the Agnus Dei, meaning the "Lamb of God."  The Agnus Dei is also a part of the traditional Western Liturgies, and is often chanted just before the Eucharist is received with the Latin words "Agnus Dei, que tollis peccata Mundi, miserari Nobis."  The ancient form of this, still used in traditional Latin Roman Masses, is a beautiful hymn in adoration of Jesus as the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world.   At the end of the reception of the Eucharist, a prayer is often said in thanksgiving by all traditions of the Christian Church which in essence expresses thanks to God for partaking of the "mystical Supper" (meaning of course that we received something much more significant than mere bread and wine - it is the Body and Blood of our Lord!), and that we may take what we have received and witness that to the world around us.  Now, as Pitre noted about the original Passover only being partaken by those of covenant community, so it is with the Eucharist as well.  I once heard a professor at a Pentecostal college flippantly say that he would give the Eucharist to all, both saved and unsaved, and I was flabbergasted at how crass that was from a supposedly educated man who knows the Bible.  The Eucharist is not an open meal for just anyone to partake - it must be taken in covenant, meaning that in a Christian context, only one who has been validly baptized, sealed (by the sacrament of Chrismation/Confirmation - more on that in another study), and also believes that what they are receiving is the Body and Blood of our Lord can partake of it - serious consequences await those who violate that basic teaching.  That, unfortunately, is a huge downfall of much of the postmodern church however - in their careless disregard and deconstruction of Christian theology, people who are Emergent bastardize the sacramental aspects of our faith, oftentimes having the twin result of reinforcing Fundamentalist prejudices and also giving those of us who know better headaches over the misappropriation of something holy.  Many of these Emergents often do start out with a sincere desire to have a more vibrant spirituality, but then they get careless with sacred things and end up mixing them with mysticism and esoteric understandings of Christian spirituality that are contradictory to both Scripture and sacred Tradition.  Then, it is up to those of us who know our faith to straighten out the mess these people create, and that can be a challenge.  Let us take a few moments to address that, as it signifies perfectly what liturgy and the Eucharist are not.

I have watched and read some wonderful material by some capable apologists - many Reformed Evangelicals - who do expose a lot of the dangers of Emergent Christianity and its apostasy. People like Elliot Netsch, Warren Smith, and James Sungenis do a great service to Christianity as a whole with sounding the alarm regarding these trends.  However, they are also coming from a Reformed perspective, and often let their own bias cause them to target this as being some sort of "Catholic aberration" or something.  Therefore, some misrepresentations of the Desert Fathers have been appropriated by the Emergent crowd, and their critics then assume that the Desert Fathers taught mysticism and heresies.  Let me straighten that out now - first, if the Desert Fathers were alive today, they would be turning over in their graves at what people like Brian McLaren and Rob "No Hell" Bell are doing in their name.   The Desert Fathers were completely orthodox in doctrine, and they never wrote or said that any practices they had were binding or normative for all Christians - as a matter of fact, it could be argued that many of these Fathers were so sincere in their faith that they would do almost anything to be closer to Jesus, and there is nothing wrong with that at all.  Emergents today are not necessarily doing that - they are redefining and deconstructing Christianity in order to remake it in their own image, and that is not something any Patristic writer, Desert Father or otherwise, would tolerate.  I am not going to spend much more time on this other than to say that perhaps some of our Reformed Evangelical friends would do well to "study to show themselves approved," without lumping Emergent Church people in with traditionalist Catholic Christians based on some Romophobic biases that they themselves need to overcome.  It is time that many of our Reformed Evangelical friends realize that we who are traditionalists are on the same side, and we share the same concerns, but nothing will be accomplished by a flippant dismissal of liturgical/sacramental theology based on some bastardizations by Emerging Church people.  In the future, I want to actually write something addressing that more in detail, but now we should get back to the subject at hand.

 We have talked about the basic Scriptural and linguistic roots and background of liturgy, so now let us address how liturgy came to be as it is.  Our Evangelical friends will often reason that if "liturgy" means "the people's work," then why all the ceremony?  The Emergents and other postmoderns do the same thing, but then they revise things to such a degree that "liturgy" for them becomes mere social activism. Both cases are wrong.  The liturgy, as most of us celebrate it as Catholic Christians, has its roots in Hebraic worship, and indeed it does not take much to see the continuity between the way we "do" liturgy and the worship of the ancient Temple - I would argue that the Temple was both a picture of the throne room in heaven as well as a foreshadow of the Church.  And, being many of the earliest Christians were themselves Jewish, they appropriated the worship they knew - which was Biblical - into the worship of the Church.  Therefore, as early as the first century AD, we have already a basic liturgical form, and essentially it consisted of two parts.  The first part is called usually the Liturgy of the Word, and in that the lessons from Scripture are read and expounded by the minister, and there is a confession of sin, prayers for those in need, etc.  In an ancient document called the Didache, it spells out the rhyme and reason for this simply - in order to prepare for the receiving of the Eucharist, one had to be instructed in the Word and also be reconciled to God and to each other as a Body.  Here is what it says in regard to that:

And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together to break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure.  And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled. (, accessed 6/19/2013)

In other words, there again is the earliest confirmation that not just anyone could receive the Eucharist, which is probably why the liturgy was called a "work," because it took some effort to prepare for it!  At the conclusion of the first part of the liturgy, the catechumens (those who had not yet been baptized) and the unbelievers were dismissed, but not without a sort of "altar call," if you will.  The best preserved example of this can be found in the American 1928 Book of Common Prayer in a section of the liturgy called "the Comfortable Words," and here is the excerpt of that:

Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all who truly turn to Him.  Come unto me, all ye that are heavy laden, and I will refresh you (Matthew 11:28).  So God loved the world, that He gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
Hear also what Saint Paul saith.  This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (I Timothy 1:15).
Hear also what Saint John saith.  If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:1-2)
(The Book of Common Prayer, In the English Parochial Tradition, According to Orthodox Catholic Usage {Glendale, CO: Lancelot Andrewes Press, 2009} p. 495)

This traditional Anglican part of the Liturgy was more than likely also used by John Wesley, a committed and devout Anglo-Catholic, as part of an altar call during his meetings in the Great Awakening.  Its purpose in the liturgy at this point was evangelical - it proclaimed the Gospel to the unconverted who may be in the church, but it also served to instruct the catechumens before they were dismissed.  After this point, the catechumens are dismissed, and they receive instruction in the faith from that point.  And, it starts the second part of the Liturgy, known as the Communion of the Faithful.

The first part of this section of the liturgy begins with what is called the Sanctus - "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and Earth are filled with Thy Glory, Glory be to Thee oh Lord most High. Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest!"    This hearkens back to both to the vision in Isaiah 6, but also to St. John the Revelator's vision in Revelation 4:8.  With the ringing of bells, it signifies that we as believers are about to enter into one of the holiest parts of worship - the presence of the Lord Himself, in this case the Eucharist.  We are to approach this with great humility - none of us are worthy to receive it except through the Blood of Jesus, and we are reminded of that by the Sanctus, which tells us whose presence we are in and that we need to show the proper respect, if you will.  It is also a picture of the heavenly worship we will one day, provided we remain faithful to the Lord, experience.  In the Christian East, we see this more dramatically, as the iconography, the vestments of the clergy and lay ministers, etc., reflect the worship of the heavenly temple.  From the Sanctus, the elements of bread and wine are consecrated by the celebrating priest, and at the point of consecration, they become Jesus Himself.  There are two dramatic ways that consecration is noted.  In the Christian East, the priest will often simulate with his hands the flapping of a dove's wings, symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Jesus coming to the Eucharistic species.  In the Anglican tradition, it is symbolized by the ringing of a bell thrice, drawing the worshipper's attention to the fact something important is happening - the King has come!  There is an eschatological dimension to this as well, which Scott Hahn elaborates more upon in his excellent book The Lamb's Supper (New York: Random House, 1999), but to simplify it's this - the liturgy, and the Eucharist, give us a picture of the Second Coming of Christ, and in doing so, it can be looked at as a "dress rehearsal" for when the King returns for us one day.   This is the same thing that Gospel legend Bill Gaither sought to capture in his classic song, "The King Is Coming," and indeed, I would not be opposed for using this (in particular the Pfeifers' rendition of it - wow!) as a Communion hymn.   This Eucharistic consecration is the pinnacle of the liturgy, and the central focus of the liturgy is placed where it should be at this point - on Jesus.  And, Jesus then comes to each of us when we receive the Eucharist - it is a reaffirmation that He is in us, and we are in Him.  Understanding it this way, I cannot fathom anymore worship without the Eucharist - Jesus becomes really present to me personally in a tangible way, and with that presence also comes healing, cleansing from sin, and spiritual life.   So, is Jesus really present in the Eucharist?  You better believe it!  But, beware - there are dire warnings in Scripture about taking this Holy Supper unworthily, and for those that do, God help them literally!  That is why the good professor's remarks about just giving it to anybody were so disturbing - it is not for just anyone, but rather those who are called, baptized, and sealed by His Spirit

As can be seen, the Eucharist and liturgy are often used interchangeably, but they are not quite the same - rather, they are intimately connected to each other.   And, although more could be said, this will give you a basic understanding of liturgical theology, and I hope that those of you who feel the need to pursue a deeper walk in your Christianity, perhaps this is something you should start to consider and study more.  However, don't just assume that because you are already a Christian that it automatically qualifies you to receive the Eucharist - there is much more to it than that.  For one thing, you need to receive the full sacraments of initiation - including Confirmation/Chrismation - to be fully part of the Church.  And, they must be received at the hand of a validly-ordained minister - we take Apostolic authority seriously in our churches, and this must be understood before anyone can receive.  It sounds exclusive, and no offense to other Christians is intended at all - getting into heaven here is not the issue, but rather a fuller communion of faith with the Church Christ has established.  Many have been saved by Jesus, and baptized, but they lack the fullness of the Church and its communion, which is what this is all about.  So, for those of you who may not be Chrismated into the Church, you are always welcome, but just remember to understand that you will not be able to fully partake in the sacramental life of the Church until you understand her authority Christ has given her.  God bless until next time.