The best liturgical advice ever

August 11th, 2014

The small gathered host, the collected fragments of probably a dozen congregations, sat before me meeting my gaze. “And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son”, I said, moving my raised right hand in a downward motion on ‘Son’ before crossing the cross, “and Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.”

With those words, signifying the God signified by the cross, the memorial service was ended. There was a lull much longer than I anticipated before anyone started moving. The fact that we were in a senior assisted living facility accounted for this fact. Slowly, some of the residents came forward and spoke a kind word to the bereaved resident, my wife’s grandfather.

One year out of a pastoral appointment, and one year into a Theology Ph.D. program, I am surprised anew by the massive power of these subdued liturgical acts.


The best liturgical advice I have yet received came from the Rev. Dr. Ed Phillips. Phillips was my worship professor at Duke, though now he teaches at Emory. Duke’s loss, to be sure. His advice: “Some pastors are always trying to add little special things to make the liturgy meaningful. You don’t have to do special things to make the liturgy meaningful. The liturgy is meaningful. Just try to do it well.

Phillips, a United Methodist, had been trained at Notre Dame. He has a Catholic sensibility about liturgy which is minimalist rather than gaudy. One of my best friends and I drank in Phillips’ wisdom sitting side by side through his lectures, taking (appropriately) minimalist notes in tiny Moleskine books. A year later I had graduated, and my friend was a groomsman at my wedding. We walked into the sanctuary, surveyed the busily decorated altar, and silently removed everything but the communion elements. We needed no spoken words to agree to this; our eyes met and we knew what Ed Phillips had taught us and we did it.

In the ritual around the bread and cup on an otherwise undecorated table, the whole panoramic pan-historical drama of the Christian faith is communicated. New life blooms on retreat in the desert. The crucifix is always pregnant with an already actualized resurrection. The great freedom of the desert, the great freedom of West Texas or New Mexico, the unbounded freedom of the sparse liturgy in which a liturgist’s benediction brims over with truth and beauty, yearning for the very fullness of the incarnate Son himself: This is the capacious spiritual vision of Christian worship bequeathed us by our teacher.

Phillips’ liturgical sensibility makes me think of LebhShomea, hidden in the tangle of the South Texas coast. The Cavalry of Christ, a band of horse-riding French missionaries, used to carry the Gospel up and down that coast. It takes me to the small rustic chapel with the St. Francis window at Cedarbrake Retreat Center in Belton TX. In that chapel one night, in the middle of the woods, by the light of a single flickering candle, it hit me like a ton of bricks that the person who preached the Sermon on the Mount is really present in the Eucharist. Phillips’ liturgical sensibility recalls my soul to attend to the words of Psalm 63, as they are found in on Sunday Morning Prayer, Week 1 in the Liturgy of the Hours:

O God, you are my God,
for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

One day in class I asked Phillips about how the liturgical worship he was teaching us related to the New Testament records of spiritual gifts in worship, of “charismatic” worship. He said that they naturally went together. The liturgy, rightly practiced, was open to charismatic gifts; the charismatic gifts, rightly exercised, fit right into the Word and Table liturgy. One need not choose between form and power. The Lord whose Spirit kindles a burning love within us is the one who became incarnate in a specific form, the form of Jesus Christ. The liturgy is formed by the shape of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; the movement of the Spirit fits perfectly this form: the Holy Spirit calls it forth in us, passionately eliciting its gentleness in us. The Spirit fills the liturgical form of Christ just as Christ emerged from the desert full of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit wants Christ’s form to echo in our habits, to be refracted throughout all of our lives. The Spirit of the liturgy wants our humanity to assume the form of Jesus Christ, who prayed, healed, and cast out demons.

In Ed Phillips’ liturgical vision, it is an unpretentious liturgical simplicity, the gracious integrity of Word and Table, that best accentuates such Christological maximalism. God once became incarnate in a very humble place; the Church’s every liturgy repeats and recapitulates Mary’s virginal fruitfulness.

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