Thursday, November 23, 2006

On Not Getting Anything Out of the Liturgy, 3

When asked to explain the reasons for the historic liturgy, my friend and former professor Lester Ruth, will often respond by asking, "What is Jesus doing?" After getting some answers, he invites his questioner to look at Hebrews 8:1-2,

Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. (NAS)

What Jesus is doing right now is ministering in the sanctuary of the true tabernacle in heaven. According to Hebrews, the earthly tabernacle/temple was a shadow of the true tabernacle/temple in heaven. So Jesus is fulfilling his messianic role as High Priest even as I write this blog post.

Hebrews 8:2 calls Jesus a "minister" in the heavenly sanctuary. The Greek for minister is
leitourgos. This is where we get our English word liturgy. Jesus is literally the liturgist in the heavenly tabernacle/temple. Jesus is the celebrant of the liturgy in the heavenly tabernacle/temple. Jesus is the lead worshipper in the heavenly tabernacle/temple.

Liturgy literally means a work for the people. In ancient Rome public works were often built by persons of prominence with their own wealth. If a tribune named Flavius built a bridge on the road leading out of Philippi, this work would have been called a liturgy. (c.f. The Catholic Encyclopedia.) Over time, this word came to be used of worship in the temple, because the priestly worship was service to God on behalf of the people.

Christ's liturgy involves the totality of his messianic vocation. His life, death, resurrection, ascension and eventually his return is a work done for all people. His liturgy also involves what he is doing right now in the heavenly temple. He is the High Priest who brings before the Father the offering of himself by blood for all people.

Our liturgy is a participation in Christ's liturgy. When we do the liturgy on the Lord's Day, we dare to believe that we are going into the heavenly places with Christ. (St. Paul tells us we are seated there already. Cf., Ephesians 2:6.) We see this in the Communion prayer itself. The prayer begins with an interaction between the celebrant and congregation called the Sursum Corda. Sursum Corda means lift up your hearts. Why do we lift up our hearts? Because we need to remember where we are going -- to heaven! We lift our hearts up to the Lord that we might participate in the Lord's liturgy. The communion prayer also invites to, "Join our voices with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven." The assumption is that worship is going on in heaven and we are joining the host of heaven in its worship before the throne of God. Only one person worships God perfectly: Jesus. Worship is something we do in Christ. He is the one true worshipper. By virtue of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit we are able to join our offering to Christ's offering and give praise to the Father.

The central act of participation is the Holy Communion. The bread and wine signify Christ's broken body and shed blood. As we saw in the previous post, these signs are acts of remembrance in that they take us back to the upper room and especially to the cross. These signs are also acts of participation. When we ask the Holy Spirit to, "Descend upon these gifts and make them to be for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ," we are asking him to mystically sweep these signs and ourselves into the heavens that we might feed on the broken body and shed blood of the risen and ascended Christ. He is alive now. He is ascended now. He feeds us now. Through this feeding, we become part of Christ's self-offering to the Father. By joining ourselves Christ's offering, we can come with bold confidence before the Father's throne because we know we are fully accepted in him.

The liturgy is one unfolding act of grace. In that unfolding act of grace we participate in the liturgy of Christ -- his work on our behalf. Alleluia!

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