On Liturgy and Worship 1 – the Beginning

I had been writing a weekly reflection on the lectionary for more than a year when I was moved to do something different. It isn’t that I lost interest in the lectionary, it’s just that at that time in my life I was terribly and wonderfully caught up in what I was finding in the liturgy that I celebrated every Sunday. This series on Worship was my attempt to share some of what I was enjoying.

It began this way:

Most of the folks on this mailing list are Episcopalians of one sort or another (with one notable exception, my good friend, “Mary in the Prairie…”) but I have no idea as to the readership of the Preaching Peace blog, so I hope this digression won’t be too burdensome.  I’ll work my way weekly through the Eucharist, from front to back, and then return to the Lections, unless something else pops up.  I do hope, though, that you’ll find as many unseen riches in these new looks at the liturgy as I have.

Of course, many of you may look at what I write and say, “Well, DUH!”  I may be the only one out here for whom the liturgy really became a stumbling block over the years.  I didn’t know it at first.  The repetition of stuff that was familiar, that echoed some of the happiest parts of my childhood (especially when I got to say Rite One) seemed like a blessing.  It did sustain me, in a meager sort of way, for years and years.  I didn’t know it was meager, but then I didn’t know any better.

Once I began to suspect what worship could be for me, and for all Episcopalians, I began to see the liturgy as a barrier.  The old words and formulas had failed for so long to create space for true worship that I really thought they were incapable of it.  Still, God in His mercy kept me plugging away at the traditional liturgies, and slowly I allowed Him to open my eyes to the wealth hidden there.

This is not to say that I think the liturgies of the church are working well for the vast majority of Episcopalians.  Honestly, I don’t.  My experience of the church is that we are, for the most part, surviving on the meager gleanings left to us by our forebears, whose appreciation for the texts of the Prayer Book was rooted in Tradition, not in Jesus.  Of course this isn’t true for all of them, but enough that almost all the children of the Episcopal Church learned to expect very little of worship. 

I honestly do not know the state of mind of those who composed the prayers I’ll be writing about.  I suspect that some of them would say “Well, of course!” to what I’m about to put down.  I hope so, but it doesn’t matter.  What is true is that I see the Church working hard at her liturgies (when they’re not just reciting them by rote) but missing out on the glories revealed therein.  Lately, I’ve been caught up to the “heavenlies” on many an occasion using the old words, and I write to invite you all to explore Jacob’s ladder with me.

This week, I want to begin at the beginning.  I’ll bounce through the liturgy a little, to show how this theme repeats itself in places, but the beginning seems to be a good starting place.  Just to discipline myself, I’ll work my way through the Eucharist more-or-less in order, just to make sure I don’t overlook something.  (Unless I just get TOO excited about something else and HAVE to jump…)

But this week, I start at the starting place. 

Cleanse our hearts, O God, by Thy daily visitation.  That our Lord Jesus Christ, at His coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for Himself, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever.  Amen.

That’s where I start.

Every Sunday, before the first service, I begin by praying that prayer with the Eucharistic Minister appointed for that week.  It’s an old version of the collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent that I learned from the first priest under whom I worked when I got out of seminary.  He used it as a prayer of preparation, and I liked it, so I’ve been doing it ever since.

Before starting worship, I start off asking God to cleanse my heart so that I might be a suitable dwelling place for His Son.

Then, before I can turn around good, I’m into the service and I’m asking again, this time on behalf of the whole congregation.  (Modern language this time…)

“Cleanse our hearts, O God, by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

And then, just in case I missed the point twice before, when I get finished preparing the Table at the Offertory, I find myself praying again (as the acolyte washes my hands), “Cleanse my heart, O God, as You cleanse My hands, that I might be made worthy to celebrate His holy Sacrifice.  Amen.”

Wow, that’s a lot of cleansing.

I used to think that was about purity, about being made pure enough to touch things that were too holy to be touched or speak things too holy to be spoken by unclean humankind.

And indeed, that’s what the priest who taught me the prayer thought.  And it’s what a lot of clergy and laity think about that first collect we hear in the liturgy.  “God, cleanse our hearts so that we can be worthy to sing Your praises!”  But that’s not what it says at all.  The collect asks that God cleanse our hearts so that we might “perfectly love” God, and “worthily magnify His holy Name.”  That doesn’t mean change our purity status, it means making us CAPABLE of rendering the perfect love He deserves, and rendering worship that is WORTHY of His steadfast love!

“Oh, Lord!  Our sins accuse us!  Jesus died to take them away, but our faith is so small, and the accusations stand between us and the love we want to give back to you!  Cleanse our hearts!  Clear the dance floor so that we can dance for You!  Silence the accusations so that we can sing to you without fear of the great critic!  Open our hearts, Lord, to sing Your praise, because we can’t open them the way we want to!”

This has nothing at all to do with being “made worthy” to render thanksgiving, and praise, and worship. (Jesus did that on the Cross!)  This collect, and the other two prayers I pray to myself each Sunday are for one thing, and one thing only, to clear the deck so that there’s nothing standing between me and the perfect love I want to show Him.  They invite God to cleanse me afresh so that I can render to Him REAL worship, WORTHY worship, worship worthy of His amazing glory, His astounding mercy.  Every occasion for accusation that there might be from the week past (and of course there are many) is swept away before His desire to restore me to fellowship, and to enjoy my worship as I enjoy His embrace.

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