What if liturgy is not what we always assumed? What if instead of burdening us, liturgy freed us to live a life of grace?
Earth Filled With Heaven
By Aaron Damiani
What are your associations with liturgy and liturgical churches? Many Christians appreciate worship services that connect them with Jesus. But the use of liturgy in those services might feel:
- Dead, like a brick in your backpack. Liturgy has no use, it’s just heavy, useless dead weight that loads your soul and church with heavy forms of legalism.
- Boring, like a wet blanket. You have passion for God that burns bright. Free-form worship stokes that flame higher. Yet for you, liturgy extinguishes it through endless repetition.
- Strange, like Grandma’s parlor room. Some grandparents have rooms with plastic-covered couches, pictures of the dearly departed, artifacts from their lives, and a list of protocols for how to act when you are in that room. Like your grandma’s parlor room, you might associate liturgical services with strange sights, smells, and meanings. The whole environment makes you feel uncomfortable, confused, or obligated. Your whole body screams, “Get me out of here!” You would never invite your friends or neighbors over to hang out in that room with you.
Is it true that liturgy is dead, boring, and strange? Does it load up a life of grace with useless works, nitpicky rules, and funky smells that would turn off the friends and neighbors we want to reach with the gospel? If so, let us be rid of liturgy!
But what if liturgy is not what we always assumed?
What if instead of burdening us, liturgy freed us to live a life of grace?
What if instead of boring us, liturgy, rightly practiced, could usher us into joy?
What if instead of alienating us from the presence of God, liturgical services caught us up into the throne room of God with confidence?
Misconception #1: Liturgy Is a Dead Religion
Response: Liturgy makes us alive.
Liturgy is any activity of the body that shapes the soul. Liturgy is “the work of the people” that works on the people. It will involve repetition, effort, and discomfort. Yet far from being dead religion, liturgy makes us alive and spiritually awake. In other words, liturgy is meant to be a grace-filled training program that can leave us better prepared to face the trials God allows in our life.
Growing up, I loved basketball. When I reached tenth grade, I was thrilled to join the varsity basketball team. My joy evaporated at the first practice. My first reality check was the conditioning: a whistle would blow, and we went running up and down the court. Another whistle: more running. Whistle, run, whistle, run, whistle, run— sometimes to the garbage can where some would deposit their lunch from earlier in the day.
Yet I will never forget our first game of the season. We were the clear underdogs. Though we were scrappier and smaller than our opponents, we could outrun them without getting winded. So this is what our coach had in mind, I remember thinking. Maybe all those drills had a point! We were alive for the game because we had submitted to the training.
When I look back on the process that shaped our basketball team, I am reminded of the early church. They, too, had their own version of conditioning, drills, and plays that prepared them for victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil. These became known as the “Christian habitus,” a battery of liturgies and exercises involving mind, body, memory, and community. Though their world was dangerous and the times unpredictable, their liturgical habits readied ordinary people to stand in Christ no matter what they faced. It was passed on to each generation, whether kids or converts. If you wanted to join the church, the habitus was the first thing you learned. And it made the Christian church shine like stars in the universe—it made them alive, not dead.
Are our non-liturgical Christian practices really making us alive for the moment?
We stand in need of life-giving rituals that can impart healing for the soul, training in prayer, and good gospel theology, all in the powerful presence of Jesus Christ. In other words, liturgy isn’t just a brick in the backpack. Christian liturgy, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is a habitus for our day. Gospel-filled liturgy strengthens the heart, enlivens the will, and exercises the soul.
Misconception #2: Liturgy Is Boring
Response: Liturgy is joy.
Have you ever participated in a joy-filled wedding? Chances are that liturgy was involved somehow. Traditionally, the liturgical movement begins far in advance with a proposal (“Will you marry me?” on bended knee), followed by the father of the bride walking his daughter down the aisle, parting a sea of loved ones who stand in awe of her beauty.
The pastor asks pointed liturgical questions: “Will you have this woman to be your wife? . . . Will you love her, honor her, comfort and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” We all know the correct liturgical response: “I do.” Vows are taken, rings are exchanged, a kiss-to-end-all-kisses, on the mouth, is kissed, a newly married couple is introduced. Cheers erupt.
Whatever the celebration, liturgy does not compete with joy. In most cases, liturgy clarifies the joy. Liturgy helps us channel our joy. Joy and liturgy go together like a bride and groom.
Did you know that each Sunday is like a joyful wedding feast? That is how many of the first pastors of the church thought of it: our beloved groom Jesus Christ gave His life to be united with His bride, the church. He loves us with a love stronger than death. His blood covers our offenses and makes us worthy to stand in a pure wedding dress, without spot or wrinkle, in great splendor. As we approach Him each Sunday, our Groom sings over us, speaks His love over us, and is quite ready to embrace us in love.
Each line of the liturgy, every time we say “Amen,” every full-throated “Alleluia! Alleluia!” during Easter, and every time we lift the chalice and drink the new wine of His covenant comprises our joyful “I do.”
Misconception #3: Liturgy Is Strange
Response: Liturgy is a cultural bridge, a citizenship class for heaven, strange on purpose.
This common concern contains some truth. Consider the following strange elements of a worship service at the church I lead (Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago):
- I wear a white robe. Few people in Chicago, especially grown men, wear a white robe in public. What’s more, a cloth hangs around my neck that is color-coded to the liturgical season we are in.
- People worship with their bodies. They make the sign of the cross (sometimes over their lips!), kneel, bow, stand, raise up their hands, and drink from a common cup.
- I engage in a formal call-and-response with the congregation. We talk to each other, like actors in a drama, using lines from Scripture.
In our modern world, who does this? Who talks like this? Why wouldn’t we use more casual, off-the-cuff, less formal language? And what purpose is there in strange sights, funny clothes, and processions? No wonder people leave confused.
Of all the charges against liturgy that could be made, this one might land. Liturgy is strange—it’s strange on purpose. Liturgy trains us for citizenship in our true home and city, the New Jerusalem. We are learning the language and customs in advance. It feels awkward at first, but over time it enculturates us to the city where we will live forever.
Of all the places you or I could travel, heaven itself might be the strangest. The throne room of God is a distinct place with unique, stunning, even terrifying features. Each person given access is never the same. When Isaiah received a vision of God’s throne room (Isa. 6:1–13), he saw the Lord exalted and clothed in splendor. Otherworldly creatures with six wings made gestures and sang a liturgical song about God’s holiness. If this wasn’t unnerving enough, the sound of God’s voice thundered, causing an earthquake beneath Isaiah’s feet as the room filled with smoke.
Heaven’s strangeness shook Isaiah’s body. It shook Isaiah’s soul. This was not a user-friendly worship experience that left him ready to fill out a connection card.
The liturgy ended with a call-and-response: the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send? And who will go with me?” Isaiah responded with a vow of willing service: “Here am I; send me.” Isaiah left the vision and went into the world ready to fulfill his calling.
If a door to heaven opened before you, would you walk through it? Would you visit this strange and wonderful place, this terrifying realm? If so, what do you imagine you would see? How might it change you?
The door is open, my friend. The door to heaven’s glory and heaven’s liturgy has been opened to you by the blood of Jesus. Enter it. Follow the voice to the throne. Join the liturgical assembly, bow down, and rejoice.