I grew up understanding liturgy as a mystery, that is, as Dennis Covington defines mystery, “not the absence of meaning but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.” As our pastors and church teachers explained Lutheran liturgy, we came to view certain worship-related theological phrases and explanations as “right” and others as misleading or frankly wrong, but none of them could ever be fully adequate. The expectations for my own liturgical practices as a member of the laity on Sunday mornings were clear enough; the mystery was in the divine. It was that aspect that made it liturgy rather than theater or play-acting. Our clergy led us with liturgical clothing, words, and actions, but we, holding as Lutherans do to the “priesthood of all believers,” were also equally responsible to engage with the sacred at a less visible level, with our whole hearts and minds. I thought much about liturgy as a child and wrote liturgies for my dolls. As I understood it, in Christianity as in many religions, liturgy was engagement in ritual that used basic material substances to give shape to a sacred dwelling space, a cosmic “reality.” To participating believers, this was no artificial construction of reality, but rather engagement in a reality that went far beyond the self, yet remained independent of the self, whether we knew it or not. For us, liturgies and sacraments were neither symbols nor reminders; they were not even something that we effected. They were engagements that, effected from the beginning of time, invited us to enter. Engaging with elementary substances of service and sacraments in what was tangible, the liturgical event marked my presence in a space intangible yet “literal,” beyond my imagining or any potential for petty manipulation. Liturgical space invited reception. It was a place where, against all the odds, what I did was truly heard, understood, and mattered. You are on holy ground, God told Moses at the bush. A sketch of Moses’s shoes, separated from his feet, can still be seen and touched in the Byzantine synagogue mosaic at ancient Sepphoris in Galilee. To follow God was to enter a liturgy imaged by fire: through the Red Sea and on the altar in the Holy of Holies. Open your mouth, God told Isaiah; let this holy coal from the altar change the molecular configuration and performance of your lips. My brother donned the red robe and white surplice of an altar boy, lighting the altar candles, holy flames that never once gave me a nightmare.
Holy fire moves, summoning us inward, upward. In the church that my family attended in the late 1970s, the sun streamed through an enormous, clear, four-part window behind the altar down the central aisle during the Sunday liturgies. The light was divided only by two crossshaped beams that met above and behind the altar. Along the shadowed cross-beam the sun drew us each week with its rising, moving the boundaries of light ever forward and upward across the polished floor to the altar. The brilliance of that sun warmed the raw edges of my soul. To engage with this white-flamed immanence touched me in ways that changed me forever. I still believe that liturgy is an engagement in mystery.
There is a sense in which liturgy is like the moving light and shadow of that silhouetted cross on the church floor. It is not only a “vertical” engagement between me and the divine, but its arms also move horizontally, across the community, held out to draw in, to receive, to welcome, and to define the boundaries of the physical self who engages in service in the here and now. Those who are wholly alone rarely stand with arms outstretched; the position has meaning only in relation to others.
Being a natural introvert, it took me years to appreciate the close relationship between the public social action that made it so painful for me to serve poor families hour after hour, day after day, in a public clinic, and the similarly difficult challenge I faced when given the chance to enter into more explicitly public liturgical practices. This became most obvious when I decided that as someone who studies the early church in the Greek-speaking Byzantine world I really ought to know more about contemporary eastern Orthodox worship. Although many of my friends were Orthodox, my initial visits to Orthodox parishes were a profound physical shock, not just at first but for many months, quite apart from the usual tensions of visiting a community of strangers. The parish I visited most often has a sanctuary in the round, with no pews and just a few chairs against the walls. Orthodox worship in such a setting is very kinetic indeed, and without the synchronized and uniform actions I knew from Protestant and Roman Catholic experiences. Here, instead, everyone did things a little differently. This gave me some liberty, but there were certain things everyone did that I had never done before. These included public veneration of icons, liturgical kissing of various objects, and (in Lent) full-body prostrations, a ritual in which you kneel down in order to lie wholly, face down, on the ground, and then rise up again, repetitively, either during the Sunday liturgy or once a year in a direct personal encounter with each of your fellow parishioners as part of a ritual request for mutual forgiveness. In the first few weeks of my Orthodox visits, I could sit in the shadows and watch, but my physical stillness made me painfully obvious. Besides, I was convinced that I could understand this tradition only if I worked at understanding it with my whole body. Yet I felt almost catatonically reticent in such public space. This reticence had nothing to do with theology. I had done my homework and knew that, intellectually anyway, I was willing to bow, kneel, kiss icons, and even perform occasional full prostrations, if required. I was not prepared, however, to do these things in the presence of other people. It did not matter that they were, more or less, doing the same thing. I longed for everyone—just for those moments—to disappear so that, as C. S. Lewis put it in his defense of liturgical prostration, “the body should do its homage.” I began to come to church early to try this physical worship with as few people present as possible. I persisted only because, to my surprise, I found it deeply moving.
Deciding next to reach out to be more physically engaging in my own tradition, I found that more familiar liturgical practices were almost equally difficult. I encountered exactly the same discomfort during a year as a liturgical cupbearer in a small Episcopal chapel, as I faced weekly internal agonies at being in front and full view of the surprisingly large number of parishioners who turned out at eight o’clock every Sunday morning. As was also true in my Orthodox ventures, the only part that was easy was saying the words, conditioned as I was by decades of verbal liturgy and church music. But as I physically forced my body to engage in the intimacy of serving communion in full view of the crowds, with one of several priests whom I deeply respected, my hands and voice following theirs as I offered holy cup and holy words, a privilege and a service, I wanted nothing more than to disappear completely. Others tell me they experience the same fraught tension in the mere act of moving up to the front of the church to receive communion.
The public reticence of my own experience may be extreme, but it has taught me that affirming the Christian doctrine of the incarnation requires more than an intellectual exercise within our usual comfortable physical routines. It requires more than adjusting our external resources, to “live more simply,” “give more generously,” or “be more intentionally hospitable.”
Affirming incarnation mindful of the embodied nature of those in need and suffering from violence and injustice begins at the level of our own body cells, our own nerve endings, and our own volitional, nonverbal behavior, not just in relation to other people but also in relation to ourselves and how we worship, how we listen to our body, and how we pray. Our awareness on these many levels may have profound implications for how we address global issues of need and injustice.