Liturgy as Missio Dei

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Originally published in Resonance: A Theological Journal for their issue on the Trinity.

“Alleluia, Alleluia. Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirt. Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia.”[1] These words, or something very similar, are exclaimed on Sunday mornings throughout the world as the gathered faithful are dismissed from the liturgy of the Eucharist and ushered, nay catapulted, back into the world from the nave. Too often, though, this dismissal is nothing more than an ending to the liturgy rather than an invitation into deeper, more robust gospel living. The disconnect between Sunday worship and daily life often feels as though it is getting wider rather than narrower; the (false) dichotomy between sacred and secular or holy and profane is growing rather than diminishing. All too often we hear comments about public spheres and private life as though the two are somehow mutually exclusive. As Christians, we struggle to effectively be both in the world but not of the world, and to answer the question: what does this [liturgy/worship] mean for my “ordinary” life?

Liturgy can all too quickly be relegated to that which we do on a Sunday morning or a text to be read during the week for study and examination. This misses the mark entirely and we have no one to blame but ourselves. At some point along the way, and it does not matter from whom or whence this came, liturgy ceased being the experience of heaven and earth meeting at the altar and instead became a structured form used for right praise and thanksgiving. Liturgy as a noun will always be understood this way, but what if liturgy was understood and experienced as an action, as a verb, as a mission? This essay will explore liturgy as an action event, one which contains language about the missio dei, because ultimately the liturgy we celebrate on Sunday is tied explicitly to the leitourgia of Jesus.

One result of the Reformation has been the (almost) universal translation among Protestants of liturgy as “the work of the people.” The culmination of this interpretation can be seen through the documents of the Second Vatican Council, specifically Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC).  While SC was produced and is used authoritatively by the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestants have seen it as the validation for their earlier shift in liturgical understanding. SC highlights the participatory role of the laity in the liturgy, giving further (if only unintentional) credence to the Reformation claim.[2] Unfortunately, though, this translation is not the most accurate understanding of leitourgia. The ergon of the people in leitourgia is robbed of great meaning if it is resigned solely to referring to the laity. In Jesus we find a different understanding.

Leitourgia was used during the centuries before and after the time of Jesus, particularly in Greece, to mean a “public work of an individual/people on behalf of the whole.”[3] Often this would take the form of a wealthy benefactor paying for a road to be used by a community, city, province, or something similar. The addition of “on behalf” to “of” locates the focus of the work as being two-fold rather than singularly absorbed. The question for us becomes two-fold: who is performing the work and for whom?

Sunday liturgy is first and foremost about the worship of the triune God. If our liturgical worship is not doxological in telos then it is not Christian and should not be enacted. In addition to being a focused form of doxology, liturgy is performed by the Church on behalf of the world. Not only does the liturgy give us clues as to essence and meaning of the missio dei, it is also a microcosm of the missio dei enacted and embodied. Liturgy reflects the heart, activity, and mission of God because it flows directly from Christ’s own leitourgia on behalf of the world. The structural elements of liturgical worship, the very nature of worship itself, points to this reality: what we do in worship as doxology is meant to flow into everyday living as praxis. Who we are meant to be, who we are in Christ, is formed, shaped, and expressed presently and eschatologically in eucharistic celebration.

The Lord’s Day liturgy begins even before the faithful gather in the nave on Sunday morning.[4] The liturgy actually begins with the prompting invitation of the Holy Spirit and the response of men, women and children to come and engage in the worship of Almighty God together. If God’s mission is to redeem and restore all of creation, then the gathering up of his people from the ends of the earth (read city, county, etc.) is part of that mission. Even before the opening acclamation, God and humanity have been engaging in the dialogue of call and response, and just as God’s word does not return empty (Isaiah 55), so too should we see that those who are part of the throng on Sunday morning have in some way responded to God by grace and in faith.

Beginning with the standard, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his Kingdom, now and for ever. Amen,”[5] we can see that the telos of liturgical worship is the Kingdom of the triune God. That is, worship is ever moving toward something, God is ever inviting and drawing creation toward a specific end. When the Kingdom of God is the goal or destination of worship, our prayers and praises, laments and confessions, thanksgivings and silences are all part of the journey to and from the Kingdom as we are shaped and transformed by God into agents of the mission dei.[6]

The whole liturgy is a dually-climactic pilgrimage as we move “further up and further in.”[7] In constant motion forward, in consistent movement toward the goal, we first reach one climax in the sermon. The people of God who are on mission with God cannot be separated from the Word of God. Through the public reading of God’s Word and the further proclamation of the Gospel through the Sermon, the Church is instructed, illuminated, challenged, convicted, encouraged, exhorted, and so much more. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present as the Word in the word, and the readings and sermon provide the hermeneutical foundation for Kingdom work. Simply put, upon further reflection of letters from Paul, proclamations from the prophets and kings, the wisdom of the Psalms, and the Gospel accounts themselves, the sermon turns from exposition toward explication, beckoning the listener toward discipleship, relationship with Jesus, and mission in the world.

However, the journey does not end with the sermon. Contrary to perception of many evangelical worship services, the point of the sermon is not to fill our heads with religious ideology before walking out of church, stepping over the beggar on the doorstep, and moving on with our public lives until we gather again next week for another information download. The sermon is always or should always be pointing toward the Table. Again, not to belabor the point here, Eucharist is not Table against or over Word but is instead the union of the Liturgy of Word and Table. Each interprets the other, each acts upon and grounds the other that our thoughts and actions, our words and embodiment, might all praise God.

The transition from Word to Table is important and not to be missed. A standard progression from one liturgy to the next includes the Nicene Creed, the Prayers of the People, the Confession of Sin, and the Exchange of the Peace. These elements are far more than liturgical time killers or clerical vamping; in fact, these elements speak directly to the mission God is carrying out in creation and into which we are invited.

The proclamation of the Nicene Creed during the Eucharist is not only a statement of doctrinal certainty and clarity, it (re)tells the soteriological story and mission of God from creation through fall and redemption and on toward the hopeful anticipation of consummation in the Kingdom. The Creed alerts those who are affirming their faith to the fact that in and through Jesus of Nazareth, the one who is both fully God and fully man, the world is being put to rights. “For us and for our salvation…and his kingdom will have no end…”[8] These are the words we say publicly, corporately, and expectantly every Sunday and they carry with them the imbibed hope and meaning of a people already redeemed joining in the work of redemption and reconciliation.

The Prayers of the People provide the first explicit opportunity for our worship to extend beyond the gathered faithful and to encompass the whole of the cosmos. While worship is the gathering up of creation’s praise and directing it back to the Creator, these prayers allow the worshippers to bring before Almighty God every relationship, every person, place, thing, job, city, etc. and to lay them upon the altar of grace and mercy. The prayers are offered—offered as part of the Eucharistic/anaphoric journey—for the Church, nation, the just use of creation, civil leaders, specific prayer requests and thanksgivings, and for the departed. There is not a single area or layer of life which is not represented in these prayers and that is the point: the mission of God encompasses the totality of life so that there is no false dichotomy between public and private or sacred and profane, and the Prayers of the People reflect this truth, too.

God’s mission in the world, as seen most clearly and prominently through the Passion, includes reconciling all things unto himself. The liturgy joins in this ministry of reconciliation through the use of public confession of sin and absolution by the priest. Note, it is important to bear in mind here that the priest is not forgiving sins based on her own merit or righteousness but is rather announcing and assuring those present of a forgiveness already graciously bestowed upon them by God. In other words, the priest is extending the forgiveness of sins found upon the cross (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing”) and invites the people to approach the Table as a people of forgiveness. Both being forgiven and extending forgiveness are marks of the Kingdom of God, are integral to the mission of God, and are central to Eucharistic living.

The seal on the confession and absolution of sin can be seen through the lens of the Exchange of the Peace. This is often viewed as a time for greeting one another, making plans for brunch after the completion of the service, or an opportunity to stretch one’s legs after a long sermon. However, the origins of this practice depict a much different scene: we exchange the peace with one another because we have been once again reminded of our reconciliation to God in Christ through the Spirit. If I am reconciled and my brother or sister has also been reconciled unto God, then the natural and theologically appropriate next step is to reconcile one unto another. For how can we heed Paul’s exhortation in his epistle to the church at Corinth, or even approach the Table, if/when we still harbor anger or malice in our heart toward another? At the heart of the Christian life and the mission of God is the understanding that in and through Christ all things are being made new and being drawn toward the Father. The Peace is therefore the final opportunity for individuals to extend or receive forgiveness from a brother or sister before proceeding to the Table and eating and drinking judgment. Ultimately, it is “the peace of God” which we are extending to one another.

The Liturgy of the Word has been pointing toward the Liturgy of the Table from the opening acclamation and the Table seals and interprets the Word as we partake of the bread and wine, body and blood. Jesus’ Passion is recounted here and it is this anamnetic and anaphoric narrative which explicitly details the night that Jesus “was handed over to death” and the end toward which his Passion was pointed. The Church offers herself, her tithes, and her thanksgiving upon the altar as she “remember[s] his death, proclaims his resurrection, and awaits his coming in glory.”[9] The language used in the Eucharistic prayer evokes scenes of willing obedience and submission to the Father, arms stretched out upon the cross for the benefit and salvation of humanity and creation, and the sanctification of both gift and recipient that each may be transformed by the Spirit for holy purpose and use.

It is here, in the middle of recounting Christ’s Passion during the Eucharist, that we see the missio dei explained most fully. This is the point where Schmemann focused his attention for his classic For the Life of the Worldbecause it was through the willing submission to the Father’s will, through the arrest and betrayal and mocking and trial without complaint or resistance, through the cross and resurrection that we see Jesus’ actions were always for the life of the world. While Rome and the religious leaders may have thought they were silencing a troublemaker, and while many may view the crucifixion as nothing more than an execution, the Passion of Jesus is the ultimate affirmation, validation, and vindication of God’s creation. Christ died that all of creation, the whole of the cosmos, might be reconciled unto God; that all might be put back into right relationship with him. This is the Passion and the Passion is the central and defining element of Eucharistic worship.

Just as the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given unto the disciples and those gathered around the table, so too are we a people to be dispersed and distributed among and amidst the world that others might see Christ. The elements are sanctified by the Spirit just as Christ was glorified upon the Cross and then the priest turns her prayer outward toward the congregation an she prays for the Spirit’s sanctifying work upon them as well. To what end? That they might become the body of Christ and be empowered for mission and ministry, of course.

The final act(s) after partaking of the Holy Meal include the final blessing by the priest which is nothing more or less than the acknowledgment of God’s blessing which he has already and always continues to pour out over his people. Finally, they are dismissed with a charge to go into the world, their mission field, as a people sent out.

If we can agree that the liturgy on Sunday is fashioned and formed after the leitourgia of Jesus, then it would follow that everything we do in liturgy is tied directly to the missio dei. In fact, the internal logic of the liturgy—the liturgical coefficient as it was dubbed by Schmemann[10]—shows a consistent and cohesive flow from entrance to dismissal, a flow which reveals to us the nature of our calling and sends us back out into the mission field. Jesus’ leitourgia was a (very) public work performed on behalf of the whole (cosmos) and the call for the church at liturgy is to join in this work: offering her own praise and prayer, thanksgiving and lament, joy and confession, in short her worship on behalf of the world that the world might see Christ and know him fully.


Endnotes

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 366.

[2] SC 14, In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.

[3] “The liturgy was an institution of compulsory public service in the classical Greek world, best known from Athens, in which the wealthiest citizens (and, for certain liturgies, metics) were compelled to shoulder the financial burden of some project or activity of benefit to the polis (MacDowell, 1978, p. 161). When used in Athens in the Early Classical period, the term referred to a set of specific duties designated by law. In the fourth century, however, it began to be used more generally, to designate a service or obligation performed for any beneficiary; our modern comes from its use to refer to religious obligations in the Septuagint (Lewis, 1960, p. 181).” Sterling Garnett, “Liturgy, Greece and Rome” in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History edited by Roger Bagnall et. al. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

[4] Sunday morning is used here as the normative time for Christian worship, but it is acknowledged that churches around the world also meet on Saturday or Sunday evenings as time, space, or circumstances dictate. This essay uses the Eucharistic liturgy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer throughout.

[5] Book of Common Prayer, 355.

[6] “It means that we acknowledge and confess it [the Kingdom] to be our highest and ultimate value, the object of our desire, our love, and our hope. It means that we proclaim it to be the goal of the sacrament—of pilgrimage, ascension, entrance.” Schmemann, The Eucharist, 47.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle.

[8] Book of Common Prayer, 358.

[9] Book of Common Prayer, 368.

[10] Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 19.

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