Saturday, March 13, 2010

New wine...

Then John's disciples came and asked him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

Matthew 9:14-17

I'm a member of a liturgical tribe. I'm an Episcopalian to be more specific. If one is trying to make a family tree of Western Christianity, the Episcopal tradition is the American expression of the Anglican tradition, or Church of England. It is a direct offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church. It has all the calisthenics of the RCC, but it generally takes itself a bit less seriously.

When someone not familiar with the liturgy might visit, they would note the better part of the congregation seems to know, without visible communication, when to sit, stand, kneel, or say a particular prayer, in unison. Oh gentle visitor, don't be fooled. This not a spontaneous demonstration of group telepathy. It is a result of practice, literally centuries of practice. Our tribe is playing out a script passed down to us by our fore bearers. These prayers, with their physical expressions of standing or kneeling, are result of generations of accumulated traditions. Granted, we do occasionally modify them, but they have deep roots in our history.

Sometimes these processes are viewed as the necessary and right way to conduct worship. It's almost as if they are expressions of some sort of Platonic form, that exists in the heavens, and we participate in their shadow forms, to the best of our abilities, here on earth. We should strive to find the most original, ancient, form of practice and adhere to it to make sure we are doing it right.

I'm not so sure that's the best way to look at liturgy. Anything, even ancient, was new at one time. Even something as basic to our faith as the Lord's Prayer had a genesis. There was a day when it was not. These prayers and practices were invented by good people, often times I believe, people led by the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus, moved in their lives, they were changed. They were stretched like wine skins are by the fermentation of new wine. The operation of God's presence in their lives worked itself out in new forms of piety, new ways of living, new prayers, new liturgies. These practices are where their love for their Savior led them. It is not where they began, it is where they arrived on their journey.

Is this a finished task? Has the new wine done all it can do in shaping the lives and practice of God's people? Are the prayers, practices, and liturgy that we have inherited the pinnacle, upon which we can either choose to stand or from which any movement requires descending?

Growing numbers of us don't think so. We choose to remain members of our respective tribes, understanding the value of tradition in making us who we are. But we also choose not to be constrained by the religious forms of the past as if they are writ in stone on the side of a mountain.

It's time to experiment. Some of us are going to celebrate Maundy Thursday with a meal and a new liturgy. If I survive I intend to post a synopsis of the result here.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Great post & I agree withb your balanced cautious approach to updating liturgy. I have run into those that worship the liturgy (or so it seemed to me) above the God it focused upon. Church starting. I look forward to reading ypur synopsis.