The strength of ritual

Sunday liturgies are a critical expression of church community
August 7, 2008

During the Eucharistic prayer, she felt compelled to accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior, a visitor told me on a recent Sunday.

That is not the way we talk around here. It's not the way she talks, either, and she was almost embarrassed to hear the words coming out of her Anglican mouth. But there was no denying what she felt, and it was the liturgy that did it, that opened her to what she believed God wanted to do in her life.

Annie Dillard wrote that liturgical assemblies are like kids with chemistry sets, whipping up batches of TNT. We can blow up people's worlds. Ritual is not a game. Let me give you an example.

In October 2006, the government of North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in direct defiance of a United Nations resolution. As the nations of the world, individually and in council, renounced this apparently hostile act, the government of North Korea led the populace through a series of elaborate, highly sensual and carefully choreographed rites.

These were secular liturgies. By day, thousands of soldiers marched in perfect goosestep before monumental portraits of the president, Kim Jong-Il. By night, hundreds of thousands of marchers, who had been rehearsed for months, arranged themselves, each holding a blazing torch, in perfect formation across the North Korean countryside. None of this was spontaneous. It was highly liturgical.

These demonstrations, like all political demonstrations, were meant to have a twofold effect: to express something and to impress something. The North Korean rituals were designed to express the supposed pride of the people in their government and its nuclear achievement and, at the same time, to impress upon the people pride in their government and its nuclear achievement.

These two effects were not separate in time, but simultaneous. The set of claims that was being expressed by the populace and the set of claims that was being instilled in the populace were identical, and the medium by which they were expressed and instilled was a singular medium.

The dynamic was perfectly symbiotic. As the rite was enacted, one can assume, the Koreans' pride swelled; and as the Koreans' pride swelled, the rites gained a fervor that no amount of rehearsal could ever have fomented. To say, "Which came first, the rite or the pride?" is as senseless as to rule in favor of the chicken or the egg. The ritual expression of pride and the pride itself arose together in one seamless movement.

This same symbiotic dynamic is operative in the Christian liturgy. The relationship between common prayer and common belief is dynamic. The title of Leonel Mitchell's famous book Praying Shapes Believing is true. The converse is also true: Believing shapes praying. And so, as on that day in North Korean, the liturgy both expresses and instills a set of beliefs and, more importantly, a worldview that most of the time is not even conscious to the participants.

Nothing is more important to the life of a community than what happens during that one hour on Sunday. At the most pragmatic level, the Sunday liturgy is the only time in the regular life of a community when everyone gathers.

From Sunday to Sunday, individual members of the community and subgroups within the community live out their particular vocations within the baptismal vocation. On Sunday, however, the body of Christ experiences itself in its totality. The Sunday Eucharist is a pivotal moment, both in the church's expression of what it is and in being formed into what it is.

If the Sunday liturgy is largely a clerical affair done by the priest for the people, so that the people are mere responders or observers rather than key actors, the chances that the parish will grow into a group of integrated, self-starting, empowered ministers is greatly decreased.

The liturgy will have expressed a worldview and simultaneously instilled a belief that "Father knows best" or "the priest has all the power" or "we lay people know how to take care of the nuts and bolts of this operation, but when it comes to God, that's better left to the professionals."

The liturgy is precisely common prayer, expressing and creating a common life. For the majority of the worshipping community, the liturgy's message is not easily resisted.

There always will be those in any Sunday assembly who are not members of the church, but seekers who have come hoping to find something that will give their lives meaning and direction. They are true participants, but they usually keep a safe distance, often literally, from the group. The Sunday Eucharist paints a picture for them of what the church is – or, more truly, what the church aspires to be.

It is not the only place they could explore the church. They could visit the parish soup kitchen and see the church as a force for social change and compassion. They could sit in on a midweek reading group and experience the church as a community of learning and exploration. They could observe the children's Sunday school and see the church as an agency that cares for the vulnerable and includes everyone, regardless of age.

At the Sunday Eucharist, though, all of what the seeker might see in any of those venues is on display at one moment. The Sunday assembly of the church is the most important moment in the church's relationship with itself and in its relationship with the world. Done well, ministering at the Sunday Eucharist facilitates the church's seeing and experiencing itself as the body it is growing into and, at the same time, showing the world an image of how human beings live when God's kingdom comes on earth as in heaven.

Ultimately, all of this depends on God. But, as the catechism says, the sacraments are means of grace, of an encounter with the Divine. They change people, and so they change the world, even on those normal days when hearts are not moved to conversion and worlds do not seem to be blowing up.

The changes usually run deeper than that, more quiet, more subtle, but no less real. We cannot afford to spare energy or imagination in our common prayer, and we surely cannot rely on that greatest of all liturgical principles, "We have always done it this way." Lives are at stake, and nothing less.


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