Friday, September 11, 2009

Liturgy and Me

Raise your hand if the word "liturgy" brings up all sorts of feelings.

Now, raise your hand if you can give me a precise definition of what "liturgy" actually means.

The point of this exercise is to point out that there is something about the word liturgy that raises strong opinions and prejudices, but we don't quite know what it is that we're talking about. (The other point of this exercise is that I get a kick out of the idea of people sitting at their computers by themselves raising their hands. Even better if there's a confused family member or pet watching.  I know that no one actually raised their hands, but the idea amuses me.)

As usual on this blog, when I say "we", I mean primarily "me".  I say "we" because it makes me feel better.  All I can tell you is that I didn't know exactly how to define liturgy for a long time.  I was comfortable with the word, but I didn't quite know what it was.  The simple definition of liturgy is the form of public worship.

I can think of two people in particular that I know that have some very negative connotations of liturgy.  One, my cousin L, was trying to get a handle on it and asked if I meant the order that they do specific things in.  Actually, that is a pretty precise definition.  Another told me that she had been to Masses before at weddings, and she really didn't like them because everything was out of a book.  She didn't feel that there was any "room for the Spirit to move."  As I think about it, there're several Christian fiction authors that portray liturgical churches as dead churches with people blindly moving through the motions, but never finding God.  They seem to see liturgy as dry, dusty rules and formulaic prayers that almost act as a shield to keep the true life and grace of Christ from reaching the people.


Sorry to yell at you like that, but these are the things that want to come bursting out when I'm having these conversations or reading these books.  For the sake of politeness in conversation, and because I like to maintain a facade of sanity when I'm sitting quietly reading, I push those feelings back in.  Here, they have to come out.

Let's talk about the form of public worship.  If you write it all out, it sounds like a bunch of rules.  Liturgy is not about rules, it's about praying as a community.  By following this form, we can all worship as one throughout the world.  I will never forget one Sunday when I was in one state, my parents, grandparents and 3 siblings were in three other states, and two of my sisters were in Germany.  It occurred to me at that time that we all had the same Mass that day.  We all had the same readings, we all worshipped together, even while we were separate. That is one of the many beauties of having a formal type of worship.  

(As a note, I have not traveled out of the country, but my sisters have been to Germany and Mexico, and they point out that they always know where they are in the Mass, even if they don't precisely understand the words.)

For some reason, people get the hives about anything with to do with religion (whoops, excuse me; that's a naughty word) anything to do with their relationship with Christ being "routine", no matter how sacred that routine is.  But think about it for a minute.  Friday night before football, there is a routine.  Tape and dress at 5. Pep talk.  Stretches at 6. Line up to go out on the field by 6:30.  Specific warm up routine on the field.  Timed. Precise. Orderly.

Why?  Because they are acting as a team.  They are preparing to go out as a unit.  This familiar routine helps them to get focused and warmed up for the big event that they've been preparing for all week.  Why wouldn't we take the same care and preparation in getting ready to worship God?  Why couldn't those same principles of order help us to get mentally and spiritually focused?

One final thing.  I think that people tend to dislike the liturgy because they think of it as nothing but external ritual that has nothing to do with true worship.  What precisely do you think that worship is? It can't simply be a feeling.  Worship is something that we should be able to offer to God no matter what we're thinking or feeling.  It is true that without a relationship with God and without knowledge of the Bible, the liturgy will never come to life.  It is NOT true that a personal relationship with Jesus and a knowledge of the Bible renders liturgy superfluous.  It's exactly the opposite. Once the innermost part of you is set on fire with the Word of God, then that can overflow into the external ritual, and every last part of that ritual becomes a part of the worship.  Finally the liturgy begins to make a little sense, and you start to see it for what it really is: a glimpse into heaven.



  1. I have to fully, whole-heartedly agree with you on this. A lot of Protestant churches do have liturgy, but I would guess that most don't, and most look upon it negatively. They are missing out on SO much. The depth, the history, the beauty of liturgy...

    After college, when I became disillusioned with so much of what I saw in Christians of all types around the world, it was liturgy that brought me back to the main point of it all..

  2. You described it perfectly! A lot of people don't realize how wonderfully comforting it is knowing that we can be anywhere in the world and will be worshiping in unison with other Catholics everywhere. The sense of "community" is so beautiful. Liturgy and ritual is often seen as dry and devoid of the Holy Spirit when people either don't understand it or because they themselves are dry inside. A lot of the protestant difficulty with the idea of liturgy is mainly based on misunderstanding, misinformation and (sometimes) a prejudice against the denomination of Catholicism as a whole. I love talking about things like that with my protestant friends who are open to the exchange of information on the various ways we worship the God we both serve.

  3. I really enjoyed this post.

    Somewhere else I read that in liturgical services, the focus is on God, while in contemporary services, the focus is on the people. I thought that was a very interesting way of looking at it.

    Not to completely bash "contemporary" worship - I think it does have a place. But it's more of a supplemental place. Not that liturgy needs a supplement... I guess more of just an optional addition. Like if I feel really excited and want to praise God in the middle of the week, I'll rock out to some contemporary Christian music. But on Sunday morning I'd prefer to worship with a liturgy that, as you pointed out, is being shared by millions of people around the world.

    Sorry - sometimes I babble!

  4. Great post - I have to say I love the Catholic liturgy. We have a constant form of worship and a constant God. I like knowing I can be myself and not feel like I have to have an emotional experience or act a certain way. God meets me where I am and appreciates that I have come to worship with Him no matter what state I am in at the moment.