The Work of the People

"Work of the people" is the literal meaning of "liturgy" in the original Greek.  As a member of the  Episcopal Church -- which combines elements of Protestant and Catholic worship and can tilt in either direction -- I have been exposed to a wide range of liturgical styles, from the decidedly casual to high-church "smells and bells."  Whatever the degree of pomp, I see a lot of people going through the motions, without much sense of what the motions signify. 

One might be tempted to dismiss religious ritual altogether -- until you see it done really well.  I recall in particular a weekend retreat at a Benedictine monastery on the Hudson River near West Point.  I was privileged to hear the monks chant the vespers service, which was glorious.  However, visitors were gently discouraged from joining in and spoiling the deliciously medieval effect.  So much for the work of the people!

Exactly what  are we trying to express in our religious rituals?  I think they are partly animated by the kind of communal impulse that draws people to rock concerts.  Many of the elements are the same: the evocative music, the exotic costumes, the theatrical flourishes.  There is a yearning for transcendence that is literally embodied in the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist.  Much blood was shed in prior centuries over whether the bread and wine of the communion meal were actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  The real issue, in my mind, is whether the communicants comprehend that they are the body of Christ.  Do our religious rituals truly express a sense of communion with God, or do we continue to cower like slaves on the slopes of Mt. Sinai while the God of our ancestors thunders from the heights?

"What only difference lies 'twixt me and God?" wrote the mystical poet Angelus Silesius.  "I'll tell you in a word -- nothing but Otherness."  The plain truth is that whenever we worship a God who exists apart from ourselves, we worship an idol.  It doesn't matter whether the idol is a religious icon or a mental image of God in heaven.  Better to worship nothing at all, because at least you are not lost in delusion.  Better to proclaim yourself the second coming of Christ.  You might get yourself locked away for good, but you would not be far from the truth.  The truth is that you are God -- not the "you" that you think you are but the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  God sits in the pews on a Sunday morning, singing hymns to God and listening to sermons about God and praying to God, never for a moment suspecting that the object of this worship is nothing other than the ground of his own being.

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