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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Holiness vs. Casualness

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Here is a well-done reflection upon why liturgical formality is preferable to casualness in worship.

One of the objections that someone had to this line of thought had to do with the perception that ritual, vestments, and formality - while having many good points - are no better and no worse than casualness and a lack of ritual, that reverence can happen regardless of these things.

There is some truth to the last line of this objection.

For example, a poor church may not be able to afford vestments, a nice chalice, or even a floor - and yet the worship in that place can be extremely reverent and fit for a King even in its humility. And by the same token, a glorious cathedral with incense and bells may be leading people away from the truth through false doctrine, empty ritualism, and an idolatry of the service itself.

Both of these extremes are entirely possible.

However, there are very few American Lutheran churches that are not even able to afford a stole or a surplice for the clergy. It costs next to nothing to have a hymn book, and making the sign of the cross and bowing are free. Conversely, the trappings of “contemporary” worship (which often isn’t “contemporary” at all) can be quite expensive: drum kits, guitars, keyboards, a bass, amplifiers, mixing boards, and the people to run all of this. If the “worship center” opts for drama, smoke machines, lasers, or other special effects, the costs will be significant. It is safe to say that most American Lutheran churches that opt for casual worship do not do so out of poverty, but rather out of a desire to use the laid-back culture as a means of outreach, to appeal to unbelievers who might see being “different” as a turnoff. We do, of course, live in times of unprecedented lack of formality.

Indeed, most Americans opt for a lack of ritual and vestments not out of poverty, but out of satiety, and a desire for ever more comfort, entertainment, and the satisfaction of the increasingly shortened attention span and the constant expectation of moving images flashing on a screen.

But the real issue with a casual approach to worship is, I believe, a lack of understanding of holiness.

The word “holy” doesn’t mean what most people think it means, such as extreme moral goodness. Of course, God is holy, and He is indeed morally perfect. But the actual meaning of the word “holy” (קָדוֹשׁ, ἅγιος) is “to be set apart,” to be separated. For something to be holy, it is set apart from the rest, it is only used for certain sacred uses, and nothing else. For a person to be holy is to be set apart from the fallen world by means of his Christian confession and his being called out of this world by the Holy Spirit usually through the sacramental waters of Holy Baptism.

In fact, the assembly of the called-out ones (the set-apart ones) is really what the word “church” (ἐκκλησία) means. The Church is holy because we have been called out of the darkness into the light.

“Contemporary” worship is unholy because it removes the hedge between the sacred and the profane, the between the sanctified and the common.

In the Books of Exodus and Leviticus, God Himself shares His (not our) preferences for worship. There are things like statues of angels, carvings of pomegranates (God must like them!), fine woven fabric, beautifully carved wood overlaid in precious metals, jewels, linen, and priestly vestments, incense, and bells. There is nothing casual about God’s preferences for tabernacle and temple in which His Presence was found. There is formal beauty, and an overwhelming assault upon the senses to where one can only say: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17).

In Holy Scripture, whenever anyone has a physical encounter with God (e.g. Adam, Moses, Job, Isaiah), the reaction to this proximity is never casualness. Similarly, the temple, especially the Holy of Holies, is nothing like the ordinary spaces in which people live and work. The priest is not dressed the same when he is ministering in the temple as he is when he is in the common world carrying out the ordinary life.

As Lutherans, we confess the Real Presence, the actual physical manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ in His flesh according to His Word and promise. In every celebration of the Lord’s Supper, a miracle happens that bring us into the actual proximity with Almighty God. We worship (προσκυνέω) Him - not just intellectually, but bodily, as the Greek word indicates. There is a physicality involved in Christian worship, which is, of course, embedded in the word “is” in the Words of Institution. Like the high priests of old, we baptized priests (Christians) have the privilege to be in the very Presence of God.

Not all Christian confessions believe this.

Calvinists (Presbyterians and Reformed Christians) believe in a spiritual presence, and the descendants of the radical Reformation (Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational Christians) believe in no actual presence at all, but rather a symbolism of Christ’s presence represented by the elements. If one believes Christ is absent, this greatly reduces any sense of holiness. This leads to a general casualness among our Protestant brethren that one ought not find among those of us who confess that Christ is physically Present (along with us Lutherans, this includes Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and the Eastern Orthodox). Indeed, our Lutheran heritage is not only liturgical, but typified by centuries of liturgical practice that would today be considered “high” liturgy.

For if we believe that we - like Moses, like Isaiah, like the high priests - stand in the very physical Presence of God, there is a holiness about that proximity that would make casualness unthinkable. And even when our Lord Jesus unveiled His divine Presence for Peter, James, and John, there was no pretense of casualness, even though Jesus was their dear friend and teacher.

And I believe that this is the crux of the issue for us American Lutherans.

We have been greatly affected by Pietism’s downplay of the sacramental Presence of Christ, not to mention we have been influenced by our desire to “fit in” (the very opposite of what “holiness” means by definition) in a religious culture dominated by Methodists, Baptists, and non-denominational Christians - none of whom confess the physical Presence of Christ in the sacraments.

Concerning the idea that holiness is “separation,” we should be wary of our desire to turn the Divine Service into something ordinary.

For again, “holiness” means, by definition, "separation." It is setting something apart. It is drawing a line around it that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary.

There is that 95% of our lives that is ordinary and pedestrian. Then there is that small part that is set aside for something unique and special.

It would send a strange message if your beloved daughter were getting married and you didn't do anything at all "special." You followed the ordinary daily routine and ate the same ordinary foods, dressed the ordinary way, and just had an ordinary day.

No, we do something special and out of the ordinary! Maybe poverty impedes us from doing much, but we do something out of the ordinary usually something more formal: a special cake “set apart” (holy!) to celebrate a wedding, a special ritual, special music, something that is different than the usual.

We live in a casual society. We fly on planes in jeans and tee shirts, if not sweats and yoga pants. We attend public events in khakis and polos. Ladies almost never wear hats and gloves anymore. We are used to eating on paper plates with plastic utensils. We drink coffee in paper cups.

Holiness is being set apart. We would never fill a communion chalice with dip and use it for nachos at a Super Bowl party.

Its use is holy - set apart from the ordinary.

We would not put on a chasuble to cut the grass. We come into the miraculous presence of Christ not with the casualness of brushing our teeth or buying a Reese’s cup at the Walgreens. We're in heaven, we are in God's Presence, it's a miracle that brushes aside the laws of physics governing space and time! We are given eternal life and intimacy with the Most Holy Trinity in a physical way! If there is any reason at all to not wear the same clothing we wear 95% of the time, listen to the same music that we casually turn on in the car, and use language and gestures that are different than when we get an oil change - the Divine Service, the Holy Mass, would be it.

Unless we don't really believe in all that miracle stuff. Then, who cares? It's not really holy then, is it?

Our confessions also point out that ceremonies teach.

Ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned be taught what they need to know of Christ
— AC 24:3-4

When a child sees people dressed up for a wedding and the usual routine is not being followed, he or she learns that this is a really big deal: something holy and set apart from the usual and the casual.

And the Divine Service is itself a wedding feast!

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
— Rev 19:6-10

“His Bride has made herself ready” by clothing herself in the holiness that is given to her by her Bridegroom! Let the Bride ever adorn herself for her Lord!

Larry Beane10 Comments