During Lent, we had been fasting. We had remembered our sins. We had just rehearsed the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, and the Crucifixion on Good Friday. Now, as the vigil progressed, I could almost taste the new life in Christ that was about to be proclaimed during the acclamation, when the priest shouts: “Christ is risen!” and the congregation thunders back, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
In our congregation, just before the acclamation, one of our men sings “He’s Alive” (written by Don Franciso, made famous by Dolly Parton). Given our make-up—lots of college students and 20-somethings—and our ethos—charismatic Anglican—we enjoy a few whoops and some cheering as the song comes to its climax. This year, between the cheering generated by “He’s Alive” and a malfunctioning microphone, when the priest began the acclamation, nobody heard. After trying again, he gave up and just joined in the cheering and started ringing his bell—after which the usual holy pandemonium of bell ringing and cheering broke loose.
I was downcast! I couldn’t believe we hadn’t said the acclamation. I didn’t realize until that moment how much I had looked forward to that little liturgical response. It is for me the moment in the year when the resurrection of Christ becomes ever more deeply rooted in my soul.
Such is the nature of liturgy and ritual. The simplest response can drill down deep into us, so that at certain times and seasons we hunger and thirst to hear it, to participate in a congregation that chants it together. It can make or break our year.
A move toward informal and spontaneous worship is clearly a world trend (as witnessed by the growth of Pentecostalism), yet at the same time, the majority of Christians in the world today are Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and high-church Protestants in mainline churches. The liturgy—whose basic outline is the same in all these traditions—remains the staple of Sunday worship and daily prayer for millions for a reason: It allows people to enter into an enduring story that makes sense of life, and allows them to enter into communion with God in a way that touches body, mind, and soul. So it’s no surprise than an increasing number of even low-church evangelicals are exploring liturgical worship, as noted in the recent cover story in Christianity Today, “The Future Lies in the Past.”
The liturgy is attractive to the mind. There is a coherence, an internal logic, an order to the service that can engage us intellectually.
The liturgy is also attractive to the heart. Who could not be moved by the pageantry, the flickering candles, the rich tapestry of color, the communal chanting of ancient prayers, and the participation in deeply symbolic acts?
C.S. Lewis spoke of imagination in this way when he wrote, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” That is, some aspects of reality cannot be conveyed except through imagination. This is the type of knowledge Paul wants the Ephesians to have when he prays “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.”
Oxford scholar Stratford Caldecott aptly called it sobria ebrietas (“drunken” sobriety)—both “ecstatic, rapturous,” and at the same time “measured, ordered, dignified. It is an encounter with the Other which takes the heart out of itself and places it in another center.”
It is, in other words, the “knowledge” the Bible usually talks about, deeply personally, so deep it is mysterious, so personal that it manifests love.
Such imagination is not easily developed. It requires years of practice, submitting oneself to spiritual disciplines and routines—the chief one being corporate worship. Liturgical worship, because it traffics in words and symbols and holy actions that not only point to God but manifest him, is an unparalleled gift to people who want to know God in the biblical sense.
The liturgy is no magic bullet, of course. Some of the most dreary and empty worship services I’ve attend have been steeped in liturgy. Liturgy can be used to actually block the vitality of God.
But the liturgy itself is not the point. We get nowhere in the spiritual life if we enter worship primarily to enjoy a particular religious experience, to be edified, or even to be instructed morally or theologically. When we enter our faces are pointed to God. In the Christian tradition, that means we look to the Father who has manifested himself in his Son and now makes himself known in the Spirit in and through his church and its worship.
Many of us have found that if we participate with this focus, and do so for weeks and years, during spiritual high and spiritual droughts, slowly we find the soul growing in its own intelligence. We find ourselves apprehending things the mind and heart cannot fathom, entering into a presence that can only be described as divine, and sensing that in some mysterious way, that divine presence is entering us.