“There is no point in repeating words every week that have no meaning to me.” That’s a sentiment often heard surrounding the use of liturgy in the church service. In a way, the statement is correct. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for using lengthy prayers to somehow gain favor with God, because their heart was not involved in their supplications. However, such a disinterested vein repetition need not accompany the use of the liturgy when we understand the meaning and purpose of what is being said. Martin Luther criticized the use of Latin in the church services of the Middle Ages because the people could not understand what was being said. We do the same thing today if we do not explain the meaning of the words and customs that we use. There are several reasons why the use of liturgy is particularly helpful and important for the church. I will outline three below:
Most of the contents of the worship service are taken directly from Scripture. The worship service opens with the invocation: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Trinitarian address is used in this manner in Matthew 28:19, when Jesus gives the disciples the great commission. When we begin the service in this way, we are confessing that it is God who is bringing us together in the congregation, and that it is God who is working during the service. The next element of the worship service is confession and absolution. This is also a Scriptural practice, as we are called by God to confess our sins (1 John 1:9), and pastors are called to forgive sins (John 20:22-23). The various canticles that are often sung during worship services are taken directly from Scripture, such as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). A liturgical service also has three Scripture readings, and sometimes a Psalm reading. Hearing and reciting liturgy is hearing and reciting the Word of God!
I studied the early church fathers in college, and I will never forget one of the experiences I had reading the third century writer St. Hippolytus. I was looking through one of his books for a paper I was writing, and I came across a section where he discussed what the early Christian worship services looked like. Hippolytus discussed how the Communion service began with the words: “The Lord be with you. And also with you. Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord.” This is exactly what liturgical churches say even today! When we use the liturgy, we come to realize and express that we are part of the same church as those who have lived throughout the centuries. We see ourselves as part of God’s great story in gathering his church together, and leading us by his Spirit!
It Reflects Heavenly Worship.
The book of Revelation gives us a taste of what worship in heaven looks like. John explains how the twenty-four elders surround the throne of God wearing white robes, and they have a song that repeats itself: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8). The congregation of angels and saints also are said to repeat certain words together, such as “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 6:12). The worshipping community also often prostrate themselves, falling to the ground, to express the holiness and greatness of the God they worship (Rev. 6:14). When a liturgical church uses robes, singing, corporate readings of praises to God, and practices kneeling during different parts of the service, she is reflecting the very worship we will all experience in heaven. Worship is not simply a picture of heaven, but when we gather together to praise our Lord, heaven and earth meet! God is with us, and so are all the angels and saints crying: “Holy, holy holy is the Lord God Almighty!”