Friday, June 27, 2008

Mixed Messages

I read with dismay this morning a post by LCMS pastor Benjamin Harju about a congregation which consecrates Goldfish crackers at the communion and distributes them to children who, in their tradition, are not old enough to receive communion. I wish I could say that I was shocked by this practice - sadly, I was not. I wish I were. And I'm not going to address the Goldfish thing - it is outside the realm of my experience (thank God!) and there is only so much room in cyberspace ...

But Pr. Harju mentions in the comments that this practice sends a mixed message, just as the Orthodox practice of distributing "friendship bread" (antidoron) "sends a mixed message."

As I contemplate that notion, I am led to suspect that it might seem to the non-Orthodox visitor at liturgy that there are several things we do at liturgy which might seem to "send a mixed message."

The veneration of icons might send a message to the visitor that we worship "graven images" - or even that we worship the saints. We don't.

If a visitor notices the faithful kissing the priest's hand, it might send a message that we worship the priest. We don't.

If a visitor notices that there are no women serving in the altar, it might send a message that the Orthodox hate or disrespect women, or that we dont' feel they are "worthy" of such service. That is not the case.

If a visitor hears "Preserve, O God, the Holy Orthodox faith and Orthodox Christians unto ages of ages..." it might send a message to them that we don't care a whit about anyone else. Not true.

If a non-Orthodox visitor approaches the chalice at communion and is not permitted to receive, it might send a message that we don't think they are a Christian. That's not true either.

And I'm sure that there are other things done within the context of Orthodox worship which might be confusing or which might "send a mixed message" to those who are unfamiliar with it. I name these particular things because they are some which come to mind from my own memory of early visits to Orthodox liturgies. I didn't understand certain practices and traditions and I was actually a little suspicious of them.

The point is that it is not the purpose of the liturgy to send any sort of message to those who visit (though if the visitor pays attention, lots of messages are there!) The purpose of the liturgy is to worship God. And if a visiting worshipper is confused or is receiving "mixed messages," the best thing to do is either to ask questions (totally OK!) or to come back a few times - because sometimes the questions are answered naturally over a bit of time, simply by participation in the liturgy.

In this day and age in this country, many who visit churches expect that the church exists to make us comfortable, to affirm us, to entertain us, to babysit our kids, to provide a weekly emotional high, to help us celebrate ourselves, to give us a sentimental warm fuzzy at Christmas and Easter, and generally to provide us with everything that we like and want - on demand.

And so Orthodox liturgy might look a bit strange to those first time visitors. And if they come to liturgy with any preconceived notion that this is what the church is supposed to be, they will - and should - receive "mixed messages" and generally be disappointed. But if in time a visitor can come to understand the purpose of liturgy, to whom worship is addressed and why, and to find their own work in the work of the people, the messages they receive become less and less mixed.


Dwight P. said...

Some of us only give thanks that there remain Christian communities that don't constantly look over their shoulders to see who's watching and what the effect is: Oh, we're very popular for our youth services, or our drummer, or our Bach and vestments (ouch), so we must be doing things well. (This ties into your Pride commentary, too.)When we begin to worship God and not ourselves-worshiping-God, we find that the "misunderstandings" of others are less a bother than an opportunity to invite.

An imperfect analogy: If an opera singer were to be singing with an eye and ear toward the audience, she'd fall flat (in many senses); it's when she's 100% into the part that she achieves what she's there to do. I remember Leontyne Price's final opera, Aida. She sang "O, Patria Mia," a signature tune of hers, to near perfection and the audience understandably went berserk! She was standing full front to the audience with her hands clasped at her bosom, head held high. And her only acknowledgement of the 3-5 minute standing ovation was to lower her head, in character, to her breast. (Of course that started the ovation all over again!) But it was an experience of being in the moment, of worship in a way. And we would do well to think on that.

The only "understanding" we as Christians need to expect or pine for are those words at the last day, "Well done, good and faithful servant."


-C said...

"When we begin to worship God and not ourselves-worshiping-God, we find that the "misunderstandings" of others are less a bother than an opportunity to invite."

Wow - you've said a mouthful here, Dwight ..

I think those midunderstandings are, more than anything else, an inability (unwillingness?) to look past the notion of what we hope to "get" out of liturgy - and less about what we hope to gain by worshipping.