By. Rev. James Long
“As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the chiefest is this–that there is a STANDARD governing the matter, whereas there is nothing of the kind. Each man’s own preference is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept, the only one which can command him.” —Samuel Clemens
Clemens could say this about cigars, but it won’t do to think of worship that way. Those who have ventured even three pages into Scripture will be aware that while heaven leaves us a good deal of liberty on a good many things, it is particular about the aroma of worship. Even before there was a bible there was a divine and discernible standard for worship. Those called together to meet with their Creator could know it, making ignorance on that account a function of cavalier carelessness at best, or at worst deliberate disdain. Ignorance that came of ignoring the accorded means of enlightenment was culpable, so that to fall short of “well doing” in worship was to meet with divine rejection. The worship ordinances in the stewardship of the New Testament Church keep her similarly subject to a standard transcending personal or even collective preferences. A liturgy is important, because not all worship is acceptable to the Deity.
The first liturgical miscarriage post-fall was that of Cain who, going somehow out of bounds at offering time was flatly if not finally rejected. If it is suggested that this was a heart problem as opposed to a form problem and thus beyond the remedy of liturgical constraints and constructions, then let it also be suggested that the text, by detailing the differences between the offerings of Cain and Abel draws us to the brothers’ spiritual disparity via the physical disparity in their offerings. Heart and hands are two sides of one coin. Cain’s whole endeavor was a kind of sacrament in reverse, an earthly sign of a hellish reality, and the inadequacy of his offering expressed the inadequacy of his faith. Where did that faith rest? Upon an idol, for we learn here at the very first departure from the prescribed pattern that the spirit of idolatry goes beyond merely the worship of false gods, to include false worship of the true God, since this, as much as the building of images, is manmade and man-centered religion. Ultimately such religion, while purporting to worship God, rests on the idol of oneself. And, as Cain’s innovatively humanistic religion moved away from the sacred realm of the altar and into the realm of the commonplace, death, difficulty and alienation were in its wake. The competitive spirit that compared Cain’s offering to Abel’s rather than to God’s standard brought frustration into the sanctuary, then bore worse fruit in the field where the lack of blood at worship was more than made up for. The liturgy is important, then, because the pattern of worship is the pattern for life.
Every promoter of liturgical renewal quotes the Latin words, “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” The liturgy is important they say, because the way you pray not only reflects belief but shapes it. This we affirm—liturgy is a teacher—but there is another part to the Latin saying that is often left off. The complete statement is, “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi,” which we can paraphrase, “As we worship, so we believe, and so we live.” It is not a stretch to say that the shape of the cultus becomes the shape of the culture. Cain went from a botched offering to a botching of the cultural mandate, in which context he bloodied his brother, built his city and spawned the opposite of godly offspring in a line of infamy stretching clear to the flood. “Without the shedding of blood is no remission of sin,” yes, but we might also say that without the remission of sin there is always a shedding of blood a la Cain and Lamech in a scarlet thread stretching to Calvary. A positive example of liturgy-shaped life is our Lord Jesus, from whose dying lips rolled the set prayers of the Psalter (Ps. 22 & 31:5). There was a wonderful symmetry between the prayer he had taught the disciples to say and his own, “thy will be done” approaching Golgotha, and, “Father, forgive them…,” as he hung there. As we worship, so we believe, and so we live, which is why a liturgy is important. Right liturgy plays not a note, but a chord of three notes: worship, belief, and life.
And what is liturgy? It is sometimes defined as the “work of the people in worship,” which work, no less than other works God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in (Eph.2:10). Liturgy used thus is synonymous with “worship service.” Of course, it is first and foremost God’s own work which is accessed and shown forth in that meeting Hebrews warns us not to neglect. Worship enabled and initiated by God is always a meeting with him so that as we walk in this “work” that serves his glory and our edification, we find that while our feet are on earth, yet our spirits have been swept up to heaven. The Irish imagine “thin places” in their emerald isle where the membrane between heaven and earth is barely felt. The liturgy is the pathway and the protocol for a journey to a place where that membrane for a moment melts away, and we taste heaven’s bread and behold its Lamb.
Abraham Kuyper describes liturgy as “a certain standard form for the worship service to which he (i.e., the minister) …is bound (Our Worship, p. 11),” which leads us to the more narrow idea of liturgy as set prayers, psalms, postures in a scripted dialogical order. A liturgy is important because it enables those who rule in the church as the sons of Aaron did in Israel to establish and monitor at least the observable aspect of corporate worship in strict accordance with divine prescription. The public reading of Scripture, the baptismal rubric, and the Eucharistic drama, are fairly explicit liturgical prescriptions. And, Scripture’s liturgical descriptions are ignored only at our peril and to our impoverishment.
Liturgical worship is the pattern of the heavenly ideal described in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4-5. The spirits of just men made perfect bear witness. If worship in spirit and in truth requires the stripping away of liturgical forms and symbols, then someone had best inform the heavenly host, because the saints and angels alike have missed the announcement. Around the throne the Sanctus rings on, the incense wafts, and the prostrations continue on interval. The antiphons echo in time and the “amen” is never missing. Hebrews 12 places the church militant there with the church triumphant in theocentric and cruciform chorus. A liturgy is important because heaven, not Rome or Westminster is the supreme standard for comparison. Past Roman accretions, pilgrim deletions, and charismatic distractions lies the via media of Zion. Therefore, with angels, and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious name, saying, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory…