Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Audience is Waiting

Johnny Dee at Fides Quaerens Intellectum offers up a most interesting post on what church service is about. Wait! Don't stop reading; this is interesting, I promise. Dee writes:
I think the problem is that evangelicals have lost sight of the theology of worship. If you want to test this out, ask any evangelical what they think about worship. Immediately they begin talking about "styles" and what they "prefer" and "don’t like". All of this seems entirely wrongheaded. Worship should be about ascribing worth to God. Quite honestly, it shouldn't’ be about our preferences, and it shouldn’'t be a promotional tool for reaching those who don’t like church. This reminds me of Kierkegaard’'s parable about the prompters. Kierkegaard explained that there are three types of people at a play: prompters, actors, and audience. Prompters are the people who whisper lines and directions to the actors. Actors are the people putting the show on the stage. The audience are those who watch and judge the play. Kierkegaard thought many people saw worship incorrectly, that they considered God to be the prompter, the clergy to be the actors, and the congregation as the audience. (I think this same problem persists in evangelical churches.) Kierkegaard thought that worship ought to fit his analogy this way: the clergy are the prompters, the members of the congregation are the actors, and God is the audience.
I think Dee has this exactly right. When Rebecca and I attended that pro life fundraising diner a few weeks ago, our table was split almost exactly 50% Catholic and 50% Evangelical. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Evangelicals were from different types of churches and they started asking about worship styles almost right away. When it was our turn to address the issue, all we could say is that a Roman Catholic Mass is a Roman Catholic Mass. It doesn't matter much which church you go to. Anywhere in the world, the readings will be exactly the same. The service should also be pretty much the same. The only difference will be in the homily that the priest gives after the readings are done. That is the only place where he can really add a personal touch. I think this is a good system. As I mentioned in the New Year's post, the system for determining the readings ensures that virtually the entire Bible is covered over the space of three years. It means that you will not neglect some parts in order to hear another part that your pastor really likes, or has issues with. I think this helps turn us to God, rather than God to us, or, what is even worse, only those parts of God we happen to like because they don't bother us too much. With most of the choreography taken care of, a preist can concentrate on trying to wring meaning from the text. This debate reminds me of a very funny story our Father Glen Dionne told us as Ash Wednesday was approaching last year. He said that one year he had been at some sort of ecumenical gathering and the subject of Ash Wednesday came up. So he described what it was. I'll do the same, for those not in the know. When Jesus came to Jerusalem to begin his ministry he was greeted as hero, with huge crowds cheering him as he came. In a sign of recognition, the crowds laid palm leaves before him, so that his feet would not have to touch the ground (to this day, feet are considered dirty in that part of the world). Of course, we know what happens later. Only days later, the crowds turn on him and he is horribly killed. On Palm Sunday, palm leaves are distributed at the church at the end of Mass. The following year, as ash Wednesday approaches, they are brought back and burnt. The burnt palms form the ash that is then used to inscribe the sign of the cross on the people's foreheads. The symbolism is quite powerful - showing how we are all mortal and will die, but through God we can be reborn. It is also a powerful reminder of original sin, bringing to mind how, left to our own devices, we can so quickly turn viscous on one another. The pastors were impressed with the story Father Dionne told, and so he invited them to observe when the day came. Afterwards, they expressed admiration for the ceremony and asked, "However did you come up with all that?"

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