Thursday, February 17, 2011

on unchurchmanly attitudes toward the liturgy

Tradition does not excuse the man of the church from having to think for himself.  In fact, approaching his churchly tasks thoughtfully, vigilantly, and critically is his duty.  At the same time, it is a great privilege to work within the liturgical parameters of the church's tradition.  This is a great gift, and one which does not stifle, but opens up ever new possibilities for ministering the Word of God to and for Christ's holy Bride, the Church. 

With that thought in mind, I must say, with respect, that it brings me pause when Confessional Lutheran churchmen, even relatively traditionalist ones, openly espouse opinions against this or that aspect of the traditional church year, especially when in some cases these opinions take on such harsh tones.  A prominent and perennial example comes up around this time of year, as we enter Septuagesimatide, the season which this year begins next Sunday (with First Vespers the previous evening) and culminates two weeks and two days later on Fat Tuesday.  It is a transition into the great season of Lent, and is rich in what it offers us, devotionally, homiletically, etc. 

The point of the present reflection is not to expound on the riches and meaning of Septuagesimatide, but let me just throw in one sort of parenthetical thought.  One of the benefits of, if not the reason for, fasting is that when certain things are removed from one's diet, the body learns anew to more fully appreciate the other parts, the more basic and essential aspects of the diet.  Even apart from churchly fasting, we all know that if one reduces, say, salt from his diet, he eventually improves his ability to appreciate the natural saltiness in his food.  Likewise, while the Lenten fast begins only after Fat Tuesday (which is a whole weekend or more of joyous parades and fun in some parts of the world, such as the American treasure of New Orleans), nevertheless, there is what I would call a sort of liturgical fast in Lent, which comes to us in degrees, the first stage of which begins with Septuagesima, the final stage being Passiontide, culminating with the triduum sacrum.  While much is made of how this liturgical fast signals a more somber and sorrowful tone and emphasis, it is also worth exploring the converse reality, namely, what is gained by these liturgical deletions.  What is gained is that we learn to more fully appreciate everything else that remains in the church's liturgical celebration.  And when we finally get to Passiontide, we are made ready for a liturgical diet that is so pure that it actually resembles the liturgy of the early church as no other season does.  This all begins with the dropping of the alleluia the third Lord's Day before Lent.

In the age when we now have options, oh, glorious options and freedom, the pastor who chooses to follow the traditional church year will at times give in to the temptation to think, and speak, of his choosing the old one year model, and of how impressed we should be because he has sifted through all the options and has, of his own accord, chosen a certain route.  And even when he follows the traditional liturgical year, maybe even because he does so, he (this "he" does not mean all, but some men sometimes, though maybe also a certain streak within the fallen man in each of us) will feel he has the right to speak out about the deficiencies of this or that aspect of it.  I have seen this take place in literally hateful terms.  Let me emphasize I have no one in particular in mind, but just to draw a hypothetical scenario, he might say, I follow it because over all it is the right way, or because everyone in my circuit or town follows it, but let me tell you what I really think of the pre-lenten cycle, or of dropping alleluias in Lent, or anytime, etc.

Your people are on the Internet.  They are on Facebook.  Their view of the tradition of the church will be bent, and eventually shaped, by your ridicule of this or that point of the church year, whether it be expressed as vitriol or as erudition.  Martin Luther himself criticized aspects or practices of the church year, some are quick to point out.  First, God gives a Martin Luther to the church, it seems, only once every couple of millennia.  You are not Martin Luther.  Not unless you know the Bible literally backwards and forwards, and not merely in the ESV, but in the other three inspired texts, ie., the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  And not unless you know and have lived the liturgy as he did.  Not unless you have studied and practically memorized Gabriel Biel's book on the Mass, as he did.  Not unless you face the manifold spiritual challenges he faced.  Yes, Luther at times can be found to criticize certain practices.  It is also true that there is often a marked difference between these criticisms in the class room, or in a book, on the one hand, and his actual practice on the other hand.  And besides all this, some of the language used against this pericope, or that season, more closely resembles the violence Luther reserved for real enemies of the Gospel than anything else.  At one point, actually in one of his more amusing passages, Luther riffs on no less an aspect of the church year than the dating of Easter.  He says, as I recall, that it does not merely move, but wobbles.   Nevertheless, he doesn't go off on it every year, as a pet peeve.

There is something arrogant about this attitude. We know you have learned a lot. You went to seminary. You read books. You pondered the historical and practical implications of all of these things. You have seen it played out in field education. You even got yourself declared fit for ministry by all the right men, a skill I never learned. Nevertheless, I call upon you to see yourself as a servant of the liturgy. Let it judge you, rather than you judging it. Let it shape you, rather than you reshaping it. In short, when the man of the church takes the attitude of being a servant of something wiser than himself, that is, the liturgical tradition of the church, he will see that it is the liturgy that serves him, and his hearers, in ways that will be fully appreciated not in seasons and years as much as in terms of decades, generations, and eternity.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

I dare say I would prefer a Pastor who at least follows the liturgy, albeit with qualms and complaints, than one who hesitates to follow it at all, such as I have now. Perhaps it is high time for one of those legitimate "Martin Luther" appearances.