Liturgy as Political Event-Stringfellow

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  • 8/13/2019 Liturgy as Political Event-Stringfellow


    Christianity, in the rise of the secular in recenttimes, in the shrinking proportion of Christians inthe world by virtue of the population explosion.

    Further, when with respect to these conditionsthings were the reverse of what they are now, Godsupposedly was at work then too. He was in the 19thcentury progress of Christianity, in its formerwidespread influence and acknowledgment in theWest, in its worldwide expansion, and so on. Inshort, God is in the peace and God is in the war;God is in what is stable and God is in what isrevolutionary; God is in the good and God is in thebad. And where does all this wise and knowing talkreally leave us? It leaves us where we've always

    + WE LIVE in a time when the church of JesusChrist is pathetically afflicted with worldly distinctions of class, race and nationality; beset by historicschisms and inherited divisions of other sortsboth among the separated communions, denomina

    tions and sects and within each of them. We are allwitnesses to the brokenness of the body of Christ inthis world.

    At the same time, we live in a time of somehumility and good will and, I think, adventure; atime in which the many who call themselvesChristians acknowledge each other's presence andsincere intention, when they have at least begun tolisten to each other's claims to orthodoxy andauthority; a time when Christians Protestant andEastern Orthodox and Roman Catholichaveeven been beheld embracing in public! God knows

    what such Christians may be up to in private IThanksgiving for the contemporary friendly

    disposition among Christians and among the severalchurches should, however, tempt no one to minimize either the profundity or the pathology of theestrangement to which all who are baptized areheir. The experience of renewed contact andmutual respect should not lead the conscience ofany Christian to be easily appeased; rather, itshould provoke in all Christians an uneasy conscience about the unhappy divisions which still

    A New York attorney, Mr. Stringfellow has long beenactive as a concerned layman in the affairs of his own(Protestant Episcopal) and other churches

    been largely ignorant but full of hope in the Godwho rules and overrules.

    The prophet put it this way: My thoughts are notyour thoughts; neither are your ways my ways, saiththe Lord. Professor Ian Ramsey puts it somewhatdifferently: "Let us never talk as if we hadprivileged access to the diaries of God's private lifeor expert insight into his descriptive psychology sothat we may say quite cheerfully why God did what,when and where."7Whether put the prophet's wayor Ramsey's way, this is something well worthremembering.

    7 From Religious Language, by Ian Ramsey. Student Christian MovementPress. Quoted by permission. (Reprinted in paperback form by Macmillanin 1963.)

    aggravate the body of Christ in this world, andabout the poignant consequences for the world ofthat disunity. In truth, all of us meet in shame andscandal and we will continue to do so until thatday when every baptized person is welcomed to any

    altar in the church of Christ, until, in the end,every person is baptized.

    This is obviously one way of affirming that themission and witness of the church to the worldconsists essentially of the unity and wholeness of thechurch in the world. The urgency of the modernecumenical enterprise stems not from the need toenhance the grandeur and influence of the church,as if the churches were called to organic reunionmerely for the sake of the church as church;biblically speaking, it stems from the need for thechurch to become the pioneer and the archetype of

    that unity in society which the world so desperatelyneeds. The ecumenical hope is that the church maylivein the midst of this world's fragmentation,conflict and alienationas the one reconciledcommunity in which the world can see and foreseethe reconciliation vouchsafed for all the world inChrist.

    At no other point in the church's witness to theworld is its integrity as such a reconciled communitymore edifying and more self-evident, more radicaland more cogent, than in the liturgy. For theliturgy is both the precedent and the consummation

    of that service which the church of Christ and itsmembers render to the world.

    I recognize that some Christians regard the

    Liturgy as Political EventIn its true observation our humanity, as well as

    that of all other men, is sacramentally affirmed.


  • 8/13/2019 Liturgy as Political Event-Stringfellow


    liturgy in quite different ways. Some Protestants,for instance, disdain the liturgy as peripheral to theChristian life. Some even ridicule it by boastingthat they have no liturgical life. Such Protestantsonly betray their ignorance of what liturgy means,what it is.

    Put simply, liturgy means style of public life.Thus, in the broadest sense, all of life is liturgical.

    The conventions and ceremonies of courtship are aliturgy articulating and dramatizing, hopefully, thelove between a man and a woman. Or, to cite aneven more mundane example, I recall listeningwith fascination as the chief witness at the so-calledValachi hearings before the United States committee expounded at length on the peculiar actions andsymbols and rituals which constitute the sophisticated liturgical fabric of the Cosa Nostra. All of life,even that of the organized crime syndicate, isliturgical


    So also with the church: all forms of corporatechurchly life from the silence of the Quakermeeting to the venerable and elaborate rites of theEastern Orthodox are liturgical. The only seriousquestion is whether a given liturgical practice hasintegrity in terms of the gospel.

    Some people of the churches, both laymen andclergy, regard liturgy as an essentially religiousexerciseseparate, disjoined, self-contained andconfined to the sanctuary, having nothing to dowith the world. Some even regard liturgy supersti-tiously, as something having an intrinsic efficacy, asa means of procuring indulgences as if God wereso absurd, and so ungodly, as to be appeased by theredundant incantations of men.

    There is, however, nothing either spooky orlucky about the liturgy, nothing magical or mechanistic about its performance. On the contrary, theliturgy of the gospel is a theatrical form of theethical witness of Christians in this world. In thissense, though there may in different times andcultures be much variety in its language, music,

    action and movement, the liturgy is always characterized by certain definitive marks:(1) Scriptural integrity. The liturgy of the gospel

    is the theatricalization of the biblical saga of God'saction in this world, relating concretely the versatility and ubiquity of the Word of God in history tothe consummation of the Word of God in JesusChrist. In other words, liturgy which is at oncebiblically authentic and historically relevant isalways a celebration of the death and resurrectionof the Lord, a celebration in which this mostdecisive event in all history is remembered and

    memorialized in a context wherein God's everyaction in this world since creation is recalled andrehearsed, and by which the hope of the world for

    The scriptural integrity of the liturgy requirethat the laity be not spectators but participants, anthat they participate not as a matter of piety, nomerely for their own sake, but because they gatheas a congregation, as delegates, indeed as advocateof all humanity. That is why the traditionaProtestant "preaching service"even when, occasion, the preaching is an exposition of th

    Word of God and not some religious diatribe

    an impoverished, an inadequate liturgy for thchurch. By the same token, that is why the marecited in the absence of a congregation or, for thamatter, celebrated in a language not familiar to thpeople, represents a compromise of the liturgyscriptural integrity.


    (2) The historicity of the liturgy. The liturgy othe gospel is both a transcendent event and present event. It shatters the categories of time an

    space and location because, on the one hand, recalls and dramatizes the estate of creation in thWord of God and, on the other, it beseeches anforetells the end of this historybecomes for tworld, as it were, a mirror of the eschaton. As transcendent event the liturgy recollects all that haalready happened in this world from the beginninof time and prophesies all that is to come until thend of time.

    But the liturgy is also a contemporary eveninvolving particular persons gathered in a specifplace in a peculiar way. The reconciliation celebrated in the liturgy is not only a reconciliatioremembered from creation or expected eschatologically but also an actual event here and now: threconciliation of those gathered as a congregatioand society within and among themselves anbetween each and all of them and the rest of thworld.

    That is precisely why both the confessions anthe intercessions of the people of the congregatiowithin the context of the liturgy are so indispenable to the integrity of the liturgy. This is the tim

    and this is the place and this is the way, in a mosimmediate sense, in which the whole manifoldexistential involvement of the members of Christbody in the everyday life of the world not onlall that seems good and which men are tempted thonor or praise but also all that seems evil anwhich men are fond of rationalizing or denyingoffered and consecrated for the discretion of Chrishimself, the redeemer of all men and all things.

    Thus the liturgy is the normative but also thmost radical ethical commitment of Christiapeople to the world; it is the epitome of the servic

    which the Christian renders the world. All authentiwitness in the name of Christ, all exemplifying ithe world the virtue of Christ, which Christian

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    precedent in the liturgy celebrated in the gatheredcongregation.

    (3) The sacramental authenticity of the liturgy.This transcendence of time in time and the scriptural integrity of the liturgy of the gospel constitutethe sacramental essence of the liturgy, in which theactual, visible present event retains all its own originality and contemporary significance as a particularreconciled community and at the same time is trans

    figured to embody and convey to the world thecosmic enormity of the reconciling accomplishmentof Jesus Christ.

    Thus the liturgy as sacrament is inherently distinguished from the vanity of mere religious ritualismin which the propriety of the ritual practice itself isall that matters. Such may be sufficient for initiationor elevation in the Masons or the Knights ofColumbus, but ritualistic piety is entirely inappropriate in fact, it is profane in the eucharist.

    Thus, too, the liturgy as sacrament appropriatesas its ingredient symbols, among others, the ordi

    nary things of the common existence of theworld bread, wine, water, money, cloth, color,music, words or whatever else is readily at hand. So,sacramentally, in the liturgy we have a meal whichis basically a real meal and which nourishes thosewho partake of it as a meal. Yet at the same timethis meal portrays for the rest of the world an imageof the Last Supper at which Christ himself was host,and at the same time a foretaste of the eschatologicalbanquet in which Christ is finally recognized as thehost of all men.

    Much the same can be affirmed about the use ofmoney in the liturgy. I suppose many lay people,not to mention clergy or bishops, regard the


    + NOT THEN; and never sinceHave we quite reached the stable, King and Prince,

    Nor clearly seen the mangerAs shepherd saw it, and as money-changer,

    Nor worshiped with our hearts the smallBody which bore the weight of miracle;

    But stand, have stood forever in our nightWhile the beloved Baby made of light

    Sleeps in the stillness that his Father sentWhere animals' eyes are eloquent.

    And if (O God) I move from my self and comeAnd call the stable suddenly heaven and home

    And bend my scarred unvirgin knee:Receive, O Word, dumbstricken me.


    offering of money liturgically as a crude interludein worship, as an appeal for funds of much the samenature as appeals from conventional secular charities.

    But that is not at all the case when the liturgyis observed with appreciation of its sacramentalcharacter. Then the offer of money is sacramen-tally the very offering of our lives: it represents, inthe most lucid and honest way available in our

    society, the total involvement of the people of thechurch in the life of the world. For in the worldtoday virtually every contact of the Christian withthe world is symbolized by the exchange or themention of or at least the regard for money. So it ismost fitting that money be placed upon the altar asan integral part of the liturgy, as a sacrament, inorder to represent concretelyjust as with thebread and wine and water the offering of all thisexistence to God.


    So now we end where we began: the liturgy,wherever it has substance in the gospel, is a living,remarkable, political event. It is the very exampleof salvation. It is the festival of life which foretellsthe fulfillment and maturity of all of life for all oftime. The liturgy is social action because it is thecharacteristic style of life for human beings in thisworld.

    Therefore rejoicelCome and let us beckon all others to do the

    same to the altar of Christ. Come for the fun ofit for this is the way our mere humanity is

    confirmed, the way the humanity of every otherperson is affirmed.


    + AT dawn I saw them rise out of the east,A trinity of figures in the dust:

    In robes of gray, before a jogging beast,A strong-stepped man paced quickly on his way.

    Upon the donkey's backThere rode a dark-eyed, limber girlWrapped round in black.

    Such was their hasteThey seemed to fleeAcross the desertTo a foreign soil.

    They passed so rapidlyI could not see

    If in the woman's armsThere was a child.


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    ^ s

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