Liturgy as Poised Resistance

We often read newspaper accounts of firefighters rescuing nearly-dead victims or policemen employing brave tactics to deter violence.   When reporters ask how these heroes were able to perform under such dangerous conditions, the response is frequently that “our training kicked in.” Repetition, discipline, and purposeful routines in the past are able to produce clear thinking and swift action in the moment.

The firefighter, for instance, endures extensive training to become a firefighter and to remain one. The rhythms of his life are centered on his need to be ready. He studies the city for the best routes to potential blazes. The drills at his station keep his mind sharp and his muscles poised. He is a firefighter, and all his activities are aimed toward this identity.

We would be right in saying that our firefighter is a liturgical animal. His liturgies reinforce his readiness to put out fires. Often he faces distractions and social pressure from friends and strangers to relax his routines and to pause his habits. Why must he always carry his radio to concerts? Why must he often sleep at the fire house, next to the pole? Why must he work weekends? Why must he watch his diet? We can call these counter-liturgies, for they seek to deform and devalue his identity. But our firefighter is vigilant; he must not only hold fast to his commitment to the formative rhythms that constitute a firefighter, he must also resist the deformative pressures that call him away from his role.

For us, the firefighter concept is just a picture or placeholder for the gathered church. Like him, we are concerned with the cumulative effects of our liturgy and the temptations brought by the counter-liturgies of the world.

The liturgies of the gathered church are deeply formative, and what they form is profoundly unique in the history of the world. By liturgies we mean both the thick and thin practices that shape our identity, reinforce our beliefs, and aim our desires. An intentional Christian life is a matrix of Biblically-informed liturgies such as Sabbath gathering, sacraments, singing, confessions, creeds, praying, reading, listening, and dining. Some are thicker than others. Baptism and communion, for example, are bursting with formative intent, while praying before breakfast cereal may seem unimportant by comparison. Yet, as researcher James K.A. Smith observes, most of the impact from our liturgies are precognitive and pre-reflective; they hum along under the surface until we are willing to audit them.

The wisdom of God applied to anthropology here is staggering: humans are embodied creatures of desire, and we find in Scripture ample evidence that God directs us within these limitations. We are not primarily thinking creatures (brains on sticks) or even primarily spiritual creatures (souls on sticks). Instead, we live through our bodies, and our bodies inhabit the world through thick and thin practices. But our bodies are not simply husks to house and transport the important parts of human existence. No, our bodies shape us even as we try to shape them. This is because we are desiring creatures (fleshy ones!) and the hearts are the locus of our actions. We simply do what we want. And this is a fine scenario in Eden’s temple or the New Jerusalem, but we live in the middle, where our desires are easily twisted, deformed, and pointed at evil. So then how do we aim our desires at what is good? Embodied liturgical rhythms seem to be the divine prescription.

In the Old Testament, God handed His people these embodied liturgies and aimed them particularly at the Temple. Consider how an Israelite’s body and desires were involved in the sacrifices. He selects an unblemished lamb from his flock or purchases one at great cost (a rare commodity within a community all looking for the same thing). Then he carries it to the Temple on his back, taking care not to scrape or injure it during the journey, which would restart the process. The temple priest inspects the animal, probing and prodding its fur and spine, because there can be no mistakes when atonement is made. Next the priest instructs the Israelite to place his hands on the animals head. The lamb is held between the men while the Israelite begins to confess his sins and the sins of his family. Here is the great transfer. The Israelite is careful not to forget any of his wrong-doing; he has been rehearsing these words since he left his home, and every heavy step of his journey has acted as a reminder of the weight of his sins. After this was finished, the animal is killed, portioned, and burned in front of the Israelite. Depending on the calendar, the meat may be shared among the nearby confessors and priests. The fragrance and ascending smoke would reassure the Israelite that God had accepted the life of the lamb in his place, and he would return home in thanksgiving.

Notice how embodied this temple process is. At no point could our Israelite reflect on these events as mere routine or spiritual exercise. His hands were dirtied, his muscles tired, and his voice worn down from confessing many sins. This was costly, not just for his mind or his emotions, but for his body as well. And what is the result of this liturgy? I imagine that most Israelite fathers returned home with a gratefulness and love that came from knowing that Yahweh accepted another in their place. This year, they would not die for their sins, and God had not cast them out.

The New Testament intentionally organizes Christ’s crucifixion through the lens of the temple sacrifices. He is innocent, inspected by the temple priests, declared unblemished, and then killed after a transfer of sin. His life, death, and resurrection, though, give way to new liturgies and rhythms.

Baptism, for example, is a deeply formative NT liturgy. Here we are concerned with a person’s identity. Both major methods of baptism have equal claim to profoundly embodied rhythms.   For submersions, the individual is literally buried with the world and its practices. Then, just as swiftly, he is brought to life out of the waters. “Dead in sin but alive through Christ” is a tangible reality for the baptized, and so is the new identity being forged through this liturgy. For sprinklings, the rush of water on the individual marks him as cleansed. The dirt and mire of his sin will no longer define him in the eyes of God. Regardless of the method, baptism serves as resistance to the various identity-forming counter-liturgies of the world. Multiple people, ideologies, and enemies seek to claim him for service in their kingdom, but the baptized one is God’s.

It may be said that communion embodies for the community what baptism embodies for the individual[1]. Here is a group liturgy that sets apart the whole congregation from other communities. We alone are to touch and taste the body of Christ and drink the blood. We are implicated in His death, and everyone can see it. This not only an exclusive claim to His promises, but it also creates a longing for His real presence at the Supper of the Lamb when He returns. We are not merely walking through a routine, we are practicing for the New Jerusalem. The message of the table is to wait. Week by week, we are discipled by bread and wine to wait for the King’s timing. Communion, then, uses our bodies to look back to Christ as the Lamb killed in our place and forward to a supper with nothing to confess. When the bread is in our mouths, a future desire is rekindled and a group identity is reinforced.

Other liturgies may be thinner, but they are all formative in shaping the people of God. When we rise on Sunday mornings while the world sleeps, we proclaim a Sabbath liturgy and, in turn, a Sabbath anthropology: six days for labor, one day for gazing upon God. We gather because it’s not good to worship alone: the entire local body is needed. We pray and confess our sins because we cannot help ourselves, and the world’s counter-liturgies of self-help or self-esteem are repelled when we are honest. We give our resources to the work of the church because it shapes our priorities and chips away at the idols of self-reliance and greed.

Some may bristle at the language of liturgies. Often we imagine them as dead traditions – mundane routines that mechanize our interactions with God. And history tells us that this danger is real; liturgies without reflection and purpose may become so familiar that they stop being helpful and start becoming dead rituals. But with intentionality and proper reflection, liturgies return to us a sense of embodiment in our worship. Rightly understood, they aim our loves toward Christ and His kingdom and help us to self-identify as His citizens. If our gathered worship does not address the world’s counter-liturgies in every sense and in every claim, then Christians will be half-formed. Perhaps their emotions will belong to Christ, but their minds belong to another. More likely it will be their habits and desires that are stamped with the world’s seal rather than Christ’s.

Returning to our firefighter metaphor, what does it look like for a Christian’s training to “kick in?” We occupy dangerous territory, and we have an active enemy in a passive world. The cumulative effect of a lifetime of Christian liturgy is that we are uniquely rooted in a kingdom identity and poised to act when the circumstances call for bravery in faithfulness. We may well call our Sunday mornings “cancer practice” or “tragedy drills.” The stakes are far higher than we often imagine, and our character is revealed more clearly through war than in peacetime.

Audit your liturgies and ask them to train you well. Repent of any nonchalance toward Sunday worship. Resist the counter-liturgies of Satan and the world. Ask God to form kingdom desires. And use your whole body.

[1] Don’t push this too far: baptism also joins the individual into the community, and participation in communion is very much a personal matter.

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