“Good” Liturgy

I hate that term.

It’s meaningless in a Christian setting, at least one that is of the Apostolic and Catholic Faith and Tradition. I say it’s meaningless because Christian liturgy is about Christ and the operation of His Holy Spirit as well as His Body, the Church. In a real sense, all that we have to do is show up.

Show up and utter our collective “Amen.”

What I mean is that, for our liturgy to be effective, we need to be available to God. We need to do the liturgy, which means that someone has to read the scriptures, say the prayers and say “amen.” We don’t have to feel as certain way. (In fact, trying to is rather dangerous, and woe if you succeed.) We don’t have to pray hard. We don’t have to have some magical level on the sincerity meter.

This doesn’t mean that our faith and effort and desires and so forth are irrelevant. Not at all. But we can’t induce God to do anything. He doesn’t need bribing. He doesn’t need wooing. He doesn’t need enticing. (In fact, He’s the one who bribes woos and entices.) And He isn’t a machine or Natural Law whereby – when the various elements come together just right – He automatically does This.

Perish the thought. Christianity isn’t paganism.

God has already done what needs to be done. “It is finished,” said the Victim of the Sacrifice, “once for all.” We need but enter into it. Humility is necessary, as is repentance and faith. But we have these in imperfect quantities. And even if we had them in perfection, it’d not be possible to manipulate God with them. I don’t think that He impresses easily.

In this sense, the liturgy simply is what it is. What little faith and repentance we bring are equal because God is constant, and when He promised that “where two or three are gathered” or “agree on any thing,” He meant it. He’ll do it. He does it.

However, it’s not true that on this earthly plane all things are worked out equally. It’s not true that God’s Word goes forth unimpeded. It’s not true that all liturgy inspires faith and repentance, reverence and prayer, praise and thanksgiving in equal measures. To the extent that God works with the tools that we provide, He works with, in and through us, and we don’t always show up – fully, anyway. It’s a mark of God’s grace that He’ll get done what He needs to get done in spite of us, and for that we’re all grateful. But it’s nice when the physical context of a liturgy outwardly shines forth in humble beauty and simple reverence.

Without attempting to judge their inner workings, I recently attended two liturgies that, to my experience and understanding, seemed exemplary. Not ideal but exemplary.

I took the last two weeks off of my church responsibilities. I hadn’t done so for quite a long time (by choice; no complaint here), and had seen the parish through the summer and winter festal seasons. I was starting to wear thin due to the weakness of the flesh, and knew that the vista of Great Lent was approaching. So, I took time to re-create and renew my strength.

As part of this, I attended two Roman Catholic masses, one alone and one with a friend. Both “featured” music sung my choirs of skilled singers who sang the traditional Gregorian chants along with motets written in sacred polyphony. At the first, settings of the Mass by Palestrina were used. In both, the current Novus Ordo was celebrated, in the first with Latin, in the second in English. Both were celebrated in local parishes that had undertaken recent renovations of their previously-drab facilities.

It’s this last point that I should like to begin with, reflecting that these were, in the physical sense and to my mind, “good” liturgies. Because I believe strongly that the physical space for worship ought to have due attention. It is the least a host can do to clean his apartment before guests arrive. And it’s the least a community of believers can do to see to it that, within their means and within the bounds of local propriety, the house for the Church be conducive to communal prayer. When a place is beautiful without ostentation, it is welcoming. It invites all to enter with a common purpose.

I also believe strongly that there is much ugliness in our world and homes, and churches ought to be built to provide places of beauty that speak of God’s presence. This is an act of charity to this and future generations, as well as to the poor who often do not live amidst beauty. And to the rich who often don’t understand beauty.

In both churches, the presiding presbyters were focused and clear, serving the Mass and saying the prayers with reverence, but a reverence suited to this age. They didn’t mumble as though prayer required the lowest possible decibels, or proclaim the Gospel as though it weren’t a story, or give a homily over the heads or under the feet of the congregation, or in a style divorced from the proceedings. Both honored the traditional gestures of Holy Mass, and had taught their altar servers to do the same. This engendered in me, not a sense of stiff, lifeless and cold formality but of grace and gratitude. These gestures are simply the way that politeness is expressed in church – a politeness that honors the presence of God and His image in fellow celebrants as well as the liturgy itself.

Finally, music in both places was honored as a real vehicle for worship. The choirs stood in lofts behind the congregation where they could be heard and, when required, lead communal singing. But being behind, they could do what they needed to do without distraction. Beauty was taken seriously. It’s impossible to not have a sense of performance in a public service of any style and tradition. It is possible to let that sense overtake all else. But it’s also possible to use beauty as incense is used, and as kneelers are used, and as gestures and vestments and decorum are used: not as an end in itself, but as a tool to serve the greater end of service. This is service to the Blessed Trinity, and part of the outward manifestation of “our reasonable worship.”

About Rdr. John

I'm a musician: I teach piano and am a professional Accompanist (University of Portland). I'm also a music director. I direct the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church choir (Portland, OR), the Francis Street Singers (Community Music Center) as well as for Mock's Crest Productions, which puts on an operetta at the U of P each June. I care deeply about the music and worship in the Orthodox liturgy, and most of my postings will be concerned with that.
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