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What liturgy is for

January 11, 2011

St. Paul's, K Street

On Sunday evening, St. Paul’s Church on K Street in Washington observed Epiphanytide with a service of lessons and carols for the season. Inside the building, all of the greens were still up, still fresh, and I must admit that I was surprised. I had been to church services both over that weekend and on the previous Wednesday, and no greenery was in evidence; indeed the church I had visited was decorated much the same as during 50 of the 52 weeks of the year.

We seem quick, even in the Church, to take down our decorations as soon as the holiday is past, and in doing so we mirror––however unwittingly––the commercial schedule of Fifth Avenue, where the snowflake disappears shortly after New Year’s Day and Tiffany’s replaces its holiday advertising with Valentine’s Day copy almost before January has gotten underway. But of course the Christmas season lasts well nigh until the Epiphany, and Epiphanytide itself may be properly considered a part of the Christmas season (Candlemas falls 40 days after Christmas).

And what an important moment the Epiphany is for us gentiles! Christ’s manifestation to wise men from the East makes real the proclamation of the angel on Christmas night, that the Messiah comes not to redeem the Jews alone, but that news of his birth are “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Christ came to save sinners, and not just the chosen few.

It is often imagined within the Church that the liturgical and the pastoral are two separate expressions of the Church’s mission. Perhaps the sermon, or a laying-on of hands, might be considered pastoral moments within a church service. But, it is thought, the formal structure of the liturgy is basically not suited to offer spiritual guidance to the modern Christian. This assumption could not be further from the truth.

More than Bible study, more than personal devotions, liturgy is the primary tool by which a Christian community is grounded in the observance of a way of life––which is to say an intellectual, spiritual, and social identity––that is very much removed from the tit-for-tat, exchange-value based religion of the world in which most of us live in the twenty-first century. The pastoral component of worship is a place where the old adage, lex orandi, lex credendi, “the law of prayer is the law of belief,” is most perfectly apt. In 1905, the Diocese of New York’s Sunday school commission published a volume entitled The Story of the Christian Year, in which the Christian faith was taught to the young by means of explaining the theology the underlies the liturgical year. Of course this is fitting. Liturgy and worship provide the framework for the Christian life of remembrance, observation, devotion, and service to which we are each called. And since humans live through our senses, it is neither inappropriate nor unwise that our senses be engaged in church.

To enter off of K Street and see St. Paul’s brilliantly decorated, although Christmas is past and the new year is upon us, is to be taken aback and taken simultaneously into the the Christian year. This accomplishment marks a victory for the Church, as being taken aback almost always engages the mind. Most churches will remove their greenery and other Christmas decorations immediately following whatever service marks the second Sunday after Christmas. So then to enter into St. Paul’s and see the building still fully festooned (pictured above right) must set the space apart for all who enter. The message could not be more clear: that what goes on within the walls is set apart from what goes on without, organized according to a different rhythm, and a different principle.

Without grounding in liturgy and worship, it is easy to believe that the Christian life consists entirely in counseling, pot luck, and soup kitchens. These are all worthy, but they are extraneous to the mission of the Church (here we observe a difference between the lives of Christians and the corporate life of the Church). The purpose of the Church is, as the Prayer Book puts it, to celebrate “the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.”1 Put another way, we are to worship, and we are to let that worship be our meat as we strive to do good in a broken and sinful world. The liturgy of worship reminds us continually of the Christian fundamentals, without which we really are nowhere.

The bulletin provided for the service on K Street makes clear the links between the liturgical year and the pastoral responsibility of the Church.

At Saint Paul’s Parish, our annual Procession with Carols on Advent Sunday is a beloved marker the the journey of the liturgical year. Our custom there is to focus entirely on Advent themes within the four weeks of that season. During the twelve days of Christmas, our familiar readings and music are thus more appreciated by way of anticipation. Tonight’s service is slightly adapted to focus still further on the theme of Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ unto all peoples.

Wherever Lessons and Carols are heard and however adapted, the pattern and strength of the service derives from the lessons and not the music.2 The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God seen through the windows and words of the Bible. Local interests appear in the bidding prayer, and personal circumstances give point to different parts of the service. Many of those who took part in the first service [in King’s College, 1918] must have recalled those killed in the Great War when it came to the famous passage ‘all those who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light.’ The center of the service is still found by those who ‘go in heart and mind’ and who consent to follow where the story leads. Then they may see revealed the God who is among us, and worship.

1. Communion office, Book of Common Prayer (1928)
2. The six lessons chosen, from first to last, were as follows: Matthew 1:18–23; Luke 2:9–20; Matthew 2:1–12; Matthew 2:13–18; Luke 2:21–32; Matthew 3:1–3, 5–6, 11–17.

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