A Quick Primer on Liturgical Theology


Ever wondered how to understand Christian worship?  Here is a quick overview of liturgical theology…

Word and Sacrament


In his masterful book Liturgical Theology, Simon Chan observed that, “[Worship] practices have always returned to two things, Word and sacrament.” Our Sunday worship takes this seriously. The first part of the service is Word and the second is Sacrament. We do this because we believe that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word became flesh. Two natures in one: Word and Sacrament.

We see two, just as we see Christ’s two natures, and yet there is one Son of God. In a mystery, the Word of God and the Grace of God through the means of the sacraments are one. It is a mistake to divide Word and Sacrament in our minds. They aren’t balanced against one another, or held in tension. They are both fully manifested, just as Christ is one person with two natures.

In the Service of the Word, we predominantly are charged to “hear”. In the Service of the Sacrament, to “receive.” The Gospel is heard and received in both word and sacrament.

So for this primer, think of Word and Sacrament as your main headings. Think of these two powerful realities as one full expression of the same Gospel, but with two expressions. Think of them as two ways of hearing and receiving the Death, Burial, and Resurrection power of Jesus Christ.

And then think of the following pairs of subsets that flow from Word and Sacrament, as outlined here:

  • Word and Sacrament
    • Gathering and Sending
    • The Mystery and the Mundane
    • Take, Bless, Break and Give
    • Paradise

These realities overlap and intertwine. But keeping them in mind helps us to understand the formation of our souls that happens in worship.

Gathering and Sending

In each part of our worship, we are gathering and sending. In the service of the Word, we open with Acclamation and Call to Worship. God gathers his people. The Church is called together by the power of the Holy Spirit. True, the Gospel must be preached and the call to worship must go forth through human lips and hearts. But It is God who adds to our number.

As he gathers his people for worship, he is gathering them to shape their hearts and minds with the Gospel.

At the end of the Service of the Word, in our liturgy, we have the Peace. This is a kind of sending. We are being sent to reconcile. As St Paul wrote, we are “agents of reconciliation.” But we are sent into the Service of the Sacrament first.

In Baptism, we must die with Christ. We must be buried. We must rise with him to new life. And in the Eucharist, we must be nourished by his body and blood. So the Great Thanksgiving then gathers us again, this time around the Holy Table. Christ invites us to his meal.

And this ends with the Post-Communion prayer and the Dismissal, which send us out into the world to Love and serve the Lord. So we start with the Gospel. We then have Word and Sacrament. Within those two services we gather and send.

And in a way we renew this each time we sit down for a meal. We gather with family or friends, we bless our food, and we eat together. Then we are nourished to be sent along again on our various callings.

This is what Jesus did over and over again in his earthly ministry. Gather the Twelve, Send them out.  Gather them again, Send them out. Gather them and breathe upon them. Gather them after the Resurrection and commission them to be sent into all the world. Gather them  with the other disciples, in Jerusalem, and send the Holy Spirit upon them. Send them out.

We are continually gathered, and then sent. In all this gathering and sending, there is a great mystery operating, the mystery of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. But there is also us humans and the “mundane” life.

The Mystery of the Mundane: Inward AND outward

God uses physical means of grace and effects spiritual grace too. God uses the visible as well as the invisible. In a great mystery, the mundane matters just as much as the miraculous.

A faithful, well meaning Christian once said to me, “I like it when we leave the Prayer Book behind and just pray. That’s when the Spirit moves.” I can understand that perspective. But we don’t need to try to divide our physical, human nature in worship. Diving up the physical and the spiritual, and equating only the physical with evil or sin is a heresy related to gnosticism.  The Spirit can move through the prayer book, through our spontaneous prayers, and through even our failures to pray. Christ is present in bread and wine. Baptismal water does “save us” through faith by washing our consciences.  (Don’t get mad a me, I’m quoting St. Peter there).

The aspect of mystery is often discussed in liturgical theology. But the mundane, human elements are often ignored.  Yet St Paul wrote about the Church to the Ephesians,

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV)

We are a mystical Body that is spiritual and physical. We are human beings, and we are filled with the Holy Spirit. The Church is founded on human beings, the apostles and prophets and Jesus himself. It is a structure, a historical institution. And yet it is a holy temple, a dwelling place for God. The Church is a mystical communion with all the saints. It is both a great mystery, and a human community at the same time.

So everything we do when we worship is fully human, and yet as the Body of Christ, it is filled with the Holy Spirit. Rather than try to divide up where the human ends as the spiritual begins, Paul wants us to strive to see ourselves as redeemed human beings.

And yet in our modern mode of knowing, we are pulled toward binary thinking. We feel we are supposed to choose whether the church is spiritual or human. But there is a third way, often hidden from us. The third way is the way of seeing these two aspects fully operating together.

This has powerful implications in our theology of worship. The Word of God is read by human readers, with human mouths, and listened to by human, physical ears. It is processed through the English Language, and the brain interprets those sounds and morphemes into concepts that we see with our minds eye.

And yet it is a living, breathing Word, it is powerful, it is inspired, it is the unique written expression of the Story of our Creator God and his redemptive plan. It unlocks human hearts.

The Sacrament is the same. It is bread and wine. It is the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the common made holy.

We, the People of God, we are the common made holy. We remain human beings. And yet the form of this world, its patterns of thinking, its goals, it desires, its ruthlessness and selfishness are passing away. So we are redeemed and being sanctified. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, and yet are being filled. We are sinners, we are saints.

As we take on the high call of leading worship, we are human. Our people are human. We do human things. We sing, we talk, we bow, we eat, we bathe, we drink. Real water, real tables, real wood, real bread and wine.

And yet we participate in the Body and Blood of Christ. And yet we hear the very Word of God speak. And yet we receive his very presence. And yet we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

He moves. He moves in us. He is with us as humans. He is transforming us, not erasing us. Its a great mystery, and at that same time it is part of everyday, human life to worship God.

Take, Bless, Break and Give.

Dom Gregory Dix famously pointed out that the Eucharistic pattern of the early church followed the actions of Christ, described by Matthew:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.

As we gather to worship in Word and Sacrament, we still follow this pattern. We follow it at the Table, yes. We take bread, bless it, break it, and give it along with the wine, the blood of the new covenant.

But he also takes us from the world. He blesses us with his grace and his Holy Spirit. He breaks us through our repentance and faith in baptism and in our continual confession of sin. And he then sends us out into the world. We are his Body, broken in the world. Blessed with his presence. In the world, and yet not of the world.

Finally, Paradise

Alexander Schmemann writes of the joy of the moment of the Sursum Corda (“the Lord be with you”) in the liturgy:

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (Thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the life of paradise. (For the Life of the World, 37)

“Paradise” or “heaven” is not merely somewhere we go after we die, before the Resurrection. The Kingdom of Heaven is within us, among us, around us. Heaven is not something to wait for. Christ is here, and he is manifested to us most powerfully when we are gathered and when we receive his sacraments. We taste heaven. Time stands still. We are at the marriage supper of the lamb. Right here, right now, heaven and earth have come together.

Word and Sacrament. Gathering and Sending. The Mundane and the Miraculous. Take, Bless, Break, and Give. Paradise.

These are ways that Christian worship has long been understood. But worship is practiced and lived out. It isn’t merely theoretical. These concepts help satisfy something of the “what” and “why” or worship. But the act of worshiping God in Christ is simply done. It is the devotion and praise of the faithful, gathered by the Spirit, and sent into the world that is the true heart of worship.

Featured Image:Stained Glass Ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria. By Nikki at Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/nixit/3474016067/ Licensed for use with attribution. 

Published on

March 3, 2015


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