Liturgical Man

The proper study of Mankind is Man

Alexander Pope

The Owl remembers hearing that Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931–2019), preaching on the true value of human beings, said that if we but knew the reality of Jesus Christ to be seen in each one, we might have to spend our lives on our faces in worshipful reverence for every one we met. If he did say that, he was flying against  the overly facile beliefs most people have about the dignity of man. Agreeing more with Tutu and not with Alexander Pope in the above epigram, the Owl posits Liturgical Man.

Liturgy comes from Greek roots, meaning the proper work of an individual, according to his or her place, or rank, or office in a public context, particularly the clerical and lay roles in Christian worship, prescribed by tradition. In the Episcopal Church the liturgy is set forth in the Book of Common Prayer; the Roman Catholic Church has missals for the same purpose. Practically all the denominations’ worship includes some form for Eucharist, or Communion.

Much as Christians love to rhapsodize and argue about the religious rite, faith in Jesus Christ seldom comes into the conversation as clearly as it does in the saying of Archbishop Tutu. Without that, it is nothing more than public ritual, of which we have a surfeit in many areas of our civic lives.

Faith vs. Religion

We just used the word religious. That was a deliberate choice. We take for our use the definition of Jacques Ellul (paraphrasing):

a sacral system, an order of feelings, experiences, objects, rites charged with potential or inexpressible energy, or explanatory potential. On [its] basis we find order in the world relative to three aspects of human life: space, time, and society. Finding ourselves in an incoherent, menacing, and incomprehensible space, we set up coordination points. As concerns time, all days are not alike. There are sacred times that give meaning to all time. Relative to society the sacred produces the integration of individuals. It gives individuals an incontestable place.

The sacred may not be impregnable, but when it is questioned, criticized, and then destroyed in a society, another form of it arises. It is recreated, and although it has a different character, it assumes the same functions. [1]

Christianity can be practiced as a religion, but Judeo-Christian faith is the supreme antagonist of sacral systems and religions. Ellul goes on:

Everyone knows that in the Jewish Bible there is a violent attack on the religions. Often this is viewed very simplistically as a battle of religions. In fact, the battle is against the sacred. The gods that are resisted and rejected are the gods of nature: the moon goddess, the god of reproduction, the god of thunder, etc. . . . The Hebrew text abounds in irony that is designed to show that the sacred powers of nature do not exist.

         Above all, consider the accusations that were brought against the early Christians. They were regarded as atheists and destroyers of religion. For the Romans nascent Christianity was not at all a new religion. It was “antireligion.” This view was well founded. What the first Christian generations were putting on trial was every religion in the known world.

Faith is etymologically related to the Latin fidere, trust, but that is far from satisfactory. It is easier to say what faith is not. Faith is not a doctrinal system, a set of beliefs, nor an opinion that some particular assertion is true. Faith is not an emotion, not even about God.

Faith as we will speak of it here is not any human act or attribute. It is an act of God toward us, not vice versa. God has the initiative. “In the beginning, God.” He is the first to act. If we keep this firmly in mind, the discourse cannot go very far astray. The beginning of faith is “I shall be your god, and you shall be my people.” The Hebrew people  did not choose Jhwh; he chose them, and they soon wished he had not. Job on his part rages,[2]

         Let me alone, for my days are but a breath.
What is man that You exalt him
         and You give him Your attention,
that You visit him each morning,
         and You test him every moment?
How long till You turn aside from me
         and release me for an instant?

Colloquial and Liturgical Christianity

Having said those things, we might tease out a general definition of liturgy: our response to God’s gift of faith. Whatever we do in response to God’s action in our lives is our proper work. You don’t need a Book of Common Prayer or a special place for the purpose. Whatever we do because of some other pressures real or imagined, must be some other kind of work—improper work, let’s call it; work that does not properly belong to us if we know ourselves aright; in other words, when we are in our right minds.

So far we have left out the public aspect of liturgy, our proper work, something exceptional, having its own standards of propriety, dignity, and decorum. There are high and low liturgies, both proper in their places. Unfortunately, a sort of faddish lowering has become a bad habit: coarse vestments, reading and preaching from the floor, not the pulpit, folksy colloquialism. One begins to long for something more.

•                •                •

In the Basilica di San Marco, Venezia, there is one pulpit made of precious porphyry on the south side for preaching and another on the north which is two storeys high, with an elaborate canopy over it. The Old Testament lesson is read from the lower storey, and the Gospel from the higher. The procession for that entails a lector, a thurifer, and two candle-bearers. They climb two flights of stairs; then cense the done in three directions before the reading begins.

Contrast that with an Episcopal parish in the Los Angeles diocese. The collect for the day having concluded, a lay person steps up to the one pulpit, and reads from the Old Testament in a timid tone. The process is repeated for the Epistle. Then a cleric, sometimes with a crucifer, brings the Gospel down the center aisle to the people.

Where do these contrasting customs, raising the Gospel high in Venice, and bringing it low here at home, originate? The first recalls the episode in Exodus when people were cured of an attack of serpents by seeing a bronze serpent lifted high. The Gospel of John makes explicit the connection between this and Christ lifted up on the cross.[3] The pulpit in Venice makes the Gospel both magnificent and visible; accessible and efficacious by raising it high before the people.

The other recalls something more like a daytime TV personality who dramatize his spurious intimacy with his audience by walking down the studio aisle, giving the members a moment on camera. The pandering is obvious, the exchanges of words perfectly banal. Yet this has apparently become the way we symbolize connection between the Personality and some anonymous woman in the audience. What a travesty it is to imitate this in church.

Is the cleric who reads an important personality whose proximity sheds some extra importance on worshipers? Of course answer is clear as soon as the question is asked. We came to confront the Lord; or better, to be confronted by him. Therefore the more transparent the leader can be, the better. The more foreground space is left free of smiling faces, shaking hands, and tangled microphone cords, the better.

There is a renaissance painting which shows this vividly: the Portinari Altarpiece (1475) in the Gallerie degli Uffizi , in Florence. The subject is the Adoration of the Shepherds.[4] The infant Jesus lies on bare earth at the center of an awed company of the Virgin, Joseph, shepherds, angels, and beasts. The perspective is so constructed that the viewer is drawn forward to make it come right. One leans into the picture space.

•                •                •

At home, it may sometimes be appropriate to fill the center aisle with a sense of intimacy between the leader and the congregation, serves a specific liturgical or pastoral purpose. But the Owl suggests a certain decorum suffers if the clergy fill it routinely, figuratively tugging on our sleeves. The practice evinces not the joy of the Gospel or the confidence of faith, but the anxiety of marketeers. If the market is our true root, it is one to which the axe should be laid.


[1]        Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids), 1986 (translation of La subversion du christianisme, 1984). These phrases are compiled from pp. 52 – 55 and 10 – 13.

[2]        Exodus 16.2–3; Job 7.16–19, trans. Robert Gordis, in Robert Gordis, The Book of God and Man: a study of Job (University of Chicago Press, Chicago), 1965.

[3] Numbers 21.4–9; John 3.14

[4] History of Italian Renaissance Art; Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, third edition, by Frederick Hartt (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York) 1987, p.340, pl. 357.

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