Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Meaning of "Liturgy"

The term "liturgy" means different things depending on context. Considered as a field of scholarly inquiry, "liturgy" refers to worship in general. A liturgiologist is someone who studies how various religious traditions order their public acts of worship. In this general sense, Baptists are just as "liturgical" as Roman Catholics.

However, in the churches of the catholic tradition (I obviously include Anglicanism in this mix), "liturgy" and "liturgical" take on very definite and specific meanings that are not really applicable to the "free churches" of the Protestant evangelical tradition (e.g. Baptists). In this case the distinction between "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" is valid, and indeed this is what most people instinctively mean when they employ these terms.

Probably some of the best theological material on what the catholic tradition means by "liturgical celebration" is to found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Considered abstractly, "liturgy" refers to the Church's celebration of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, preeminently in the sacraments. Indeed, the catholic tradition holds that the greatest sacrament of all is the "Church at prayer." In this sense, liturgy is the action of the Body of Christ with Christ as its head. The Church is "liturgical" in that it orders or sanctifies (i.e. "sets apart as holy") time, space, and material things for the service of adoration of the Triune God. Liturgy is thus practically synonymous with "Sacramental Economy." More concretely, "a liturgy" or "the liturgy" (with either article) refers to the specific formulaic or normative forms, standards, or conventions of any particular worshiping community at any point in its history (e.g. the 1979 BCP).

Although the Paschal Mystery is rooted in the historical events of Christ's life-death-resurrection-ascension, the Church nonetheless believes that the Paschal Mystery transcends historical event and is "made present" in all times through the Church's liturgical life. Hence, the Church itself transcends history, events, and times. Churches of a "liturgical mindset" thus see themselves as the continuation of the original "apostolic community," historically manifested in apostolic succession (sacramentally in its holy orders), and thus in continuity with apostolic churches of all ages. This continuity is not something to which our evangelical friends can easily lay claim, even though they also participate in such things as baptism and the Lord's Supper.

One example may suffice in demonstrating the difference between the "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" mindsets. Many evangelicals recognize and celebrate Christmas and Easter just as those churches in the catholic tradition do. However, the non-liturgical mindset views these "holidays" as mere annual observances or commemorations on par with other annual observances such as Memorial Day, Thanksgiving or Labor Day. This is not to deny that evangelicals recognize Christmas and Easter as being more important than other annual observances. Indeed, most evangelicals certainly recognize the distinctly Christian nature of Christmas and Easter as opposed to secular holidays. But the difference between, say, Christmas and President's Day (considered as annual observances), is really one of degree of importance and significance, rather than a difference of kind.

In the "liturgical mindset," Christmas and Easter are the two annual cycles around which whole of the Church Year is ordered. In and through these cycles the Church celebrates and relives the various "epochs" of the Paschal Mystery, which epochs are thus "made present" to us sacramentally. This cannot be said of Presidents Day or Memorial Day. So the difference is one of kind not of degree.

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