What is liturgy? This is the question that we began with during our Advent Wednesday forum last night. It makes sense for us to begin with a question of what liturgy actually is because of the role that it plays in the life of our parish. As Episcopalians, we are the weird ones on the Protestant block because we have held on to the sacramental life of the church in a way that is very different from most of our other Protestant sisters and brothers. We have, as a tradition, sought to conserve the practices and traditions that we have inherited. As such, we are a conservative tradition; in fact, we are probably the most conservative tradition in the landscape of American Christianity. We do our very best to carry forward those traditions that we have received from our ancestors, and we seek to practice our faith life in the ancient traditions of the church. After all, a document from the 3rd century informed much of the revisions made in our current prayer book! It is difficult to understand using something from the 3rd century as anything other than conserving the past by practicing it in the present!
Perhaps the best way to understand liturgy is as something that achieves the very thing that is sought through the liturgy itself. Liturgy is the work of the people (a very literal translation from the Greek root words for people and work or action) in the sense that liturgy is performed by the whole of the gathered body of people for a given rite. The liturgy itself does not have meaning; instead, liturgy is. Liturgy is the service of the people that performs, enacts, enables, manifests, shares, engenders, and habituates the very mystery that we seek to enter into as a people of faith.1 Our hopes and desires for entering into and going deeper in the mysteries of God are realized in the action of the liturgy. The liturgy helps us to participate in the divine mysteries by the very fact that the liturgy itself performs those mysteries through the grace of God in Christ Jesus. As the people that gather and participate in the manifestation of liturgy, we are shaped not simply by the liturgy but also by the mysteries of God into which we enter by way of the liturgy.
Thus, the way that we gather is important. The entrance rite in the liturgy gathers us together not as separate individuals but as a single body that responds to the liturgy. Our responses are not individual responses but a single response being made by Christ through us as the gathered Body of Christ every time we worship. It is as the gathered body that we proclaim and pray. It is as Christ that we proclaim the Gospel. It is as Christ that we proclaim our faith using the words of the creeds. It is as Christ that we pray for the whole state of Christ’s church and the world. It is as Christ that we offer the peace of Christ to each other.2
During this time of year, we gather in preparation and anticipation of the Incarnation on Christmas Day. The preparation that we make happens through the ways that we participate in the mysteries of God in and through the liturgy of the Church. It is the liturgy that helps us to prepare ourselves for the glory of Christmas morning, and it is through the ways that we embody the liturgy differently in the season of Advent that we are formed into the people that are called to be bearers of God’s love out to a world that is hurting and is in need of the very peace that Christ gifts to us in the liturgy.
- Class notes. Liturgy 1310 at Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest. 2012
- Mitchell, Leonel L. Praying Shapes Believing : A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer. Harrisburg, Pa, Morehouse Pub, 2002, pp. 132–138.