The Centrality of Liturgy

Most Christian traditions share the same belief that the worship and enjoyment of God is the purpose of our existence.  The famous Westminster Catechism, for example, states this in Question 1 as the very “chief end of man.”  The way in which this truth is expressed varies greatly, however.  Most Evangelicals today, for example, see worship and liturgy as secondary or even tertiary issues when it comes to Christian teaching and formation.  The more traditional, historic, or Catholic view, however, is that liturgy is much more central to the life of the Church, and our Christian identity.

I want to commend to you this article over on the blog First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/03/liturgy-and-interchangeable-sexes
It is a brilliant re-introduction to the concepts of liturgy, ministry, and worship which most Evangelicals never get to hear.  Peter Leithart takes us back to the beginning of the story of the human race, in the Garden of Eden.  He describes it thus:

Nearly every feature indicates that the garden is a temple. Like other biblical sanctuaries, it’s oriented to the east. It’s a well-watered spot, a place of life-giving food, a sacred place where Yahweh is present to his creatures. After the fall, cherubim are stationed at the gate, anticipating the cherubic guardians of the tabernacle and temple. Later sanctuaries are reconstituted gardens; the garden is a proto-sanctuary.

Viewing the Garden as a Temple also calls for viewing mankind as priests in the Temple.

Adam is created first and commanded to “cultivate and keep” the garden—or, better, to “serve and guard” it. Both terms describe priestly ministry. Priests are guardians of holy places and household servants of the Great King of Israel, and Adam is the first of the line.

Yahweh’s “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a helper suitable for him” should be understood in this context. What Adam needs is not a friend, but a liturgical partner—a hearer and speaker to converse about the word of Yahweh, a singer to harmonize his praise, a respondent to his versicles, a table companion to break bread with him in the presence of God. Once Yahweh forms Eve, Adam is to guard and serve her too. He speaks Yahweh’s word to her and shares fruit from the tree of life. Paul says elsewhere that the woman is the glory of the man, and, in guarding Eve, Adam guards a bright radiance of glory.

These images of worship are timeless.  There are Old Testament and New Testament links in the speaking of God’s Word, in singing God’s praise, in antiphonal (call-and-response) worship, in breaking bread, and feasting together.  It’s because there’s an underlying pattern: no matter the century, no matter the covenant in force at the time, all worship on earth is patterned on the worship of God in heaven.  I’ve written about that in more detail a couple years ago.

Let’s go back to the Garden image for a moment.  Oftentimes, when we look at the Garden of Eden, or Paradise, we think that’s the home of mankind; that’s where man and woman are (or at least were) supposed to live.  That was our home, and we got kicked out of it because of our sin.  Along with that is the idea that the Temple in Jerusalem, which was built with lots of garden imagery, was supposed to point us back to the garden, and bring us back to that original paradise in some way.

But the reality is the reverse.  The garden was not our home, it was God’s home.  It was the original Temple!  The Temple in Jerusalem was built to point back to that garden, not because the garden was our home where we belonged; but because it was God’s home where God belonged.  We got kicked out because we did not obey the liturgy of the garden.  We did not fulfill the correct role as God’s priests in God’s house.  So the Temple is a replacement for the Garden of Eden, and eventually thus also the Church is the new Temple – the dwelling place of God where we are re-gathered to worship Him according to the new liturgy, which is headed and perfected by Christ, our Great High Priest.

The purpose of human existence is to enjoy and glorify God – to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  From the beginning, this worship has taken on liturgical patterns: we gather in God’s temple, we’re led by priests, and we share a common pattern of words and songs and feasting both to celebrate God and to celebrate with God.  Simply put, if the purpose of life is to worship God, then liturgy is central to the Christian life.  Leithart takes this fact for granted at the end of his article:

If the sexes are interchangeable at the center of life, in the liturgy, why aren’t they interchangeable everywhere?

His article is focusing on gender issues in the Church, which are the besides the point I’m reflecting on right now.  I just want to point out here that he can and does describe liturgy as the “center of life.”  To most Protestants today, that doesn’t make much sense, because the use of the images of Temple, Priesthood, and Liturgy have somehow been disconnected in popular teaching over the past few centuries.  Even many people in the Catholic traditions have lost this connection, and are simply carried on by “tradition,” not realizing how deeply biblical it is to have a house of worship, a priesthood, and a liturgy.

I feel it is one of the focuses of my life’s ministry to help people reclaim both a knowledge and a love for this paradigm of Temple/Priesthood/Liturgy, so that their Christian lives can be enriched and nourished more deeply from the riches of the Church, given by the Holy Spirit.  Or, to be more hip about it by using alliteration: place/people/practice.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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