I read an interesting article this morning by Mark Galli, an evangelical pastor who uses what sounds like an early 20th c. version of the Anglican liturgy - or perhaps he occasionally attends such a liturgy. His point in the article is that evangelicals are often focused on making their worship services "relevant," so much so that they simply mirror contemporary culture. Some evangelicals are discovering that the worship of God, who transcends time and space, might just rest upon a liturgy that in some significant ways transcends time and space. Good liturgy, according to Eugene Peterson, a Protestant theologian whom Galli quotes, 'takes God seriously and takes the worshippers seriously.' Galli even quotes the then Cardinal Ratzinger
"The grandeur of the liturgy does not rest upon the fact that it offers an interesting entertainment, but in rendering tangible the Totally Other, whom we are not capable of summoning. He comes because He wills."
Two ongoing challenges still face Catholics regarding the liturgy. One is to make sure that it, in fact, takes God seriously, so that everything we do is done well and beautifully. The liturgy really does deserve our best; from our best attempts at music, art, architecture, proclamation, preaching, and even our clothing. Different cultures and churches with different economic means will have different looking "bests." One of the most beautiful liturgies I ever attended was in a squatter camp in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1991. The singing was glorious, the people joyful and dressed in their best (I especially remember women wearing beautiful, bright scarves in their hair in such a way that they looked like birds ready to take wing. Must've been the starch...) The priest clearly loved his congregation, and led them in prayer that was clearly heartfelt. I still remember it because I was deeply moved by the faith of these people who had next to nothing in the way of material goods. Yet they had caught a glimpse that change was coming to their country (a few of the apartheid laws had been repealed), and they saw God's hand at work. Many of them had family and friends who had been imprisoned, tortured, and even killed by the government. Some of them bore the marks of vigorous "questioning" on their own bodies. Yet the liturgy was an expression of their hope in things unseen, and in a power and love that transcended the violence and racism they had suffered.
The other challenge we face as liturgical worshippers, however, is to not get so caught up in the necessarily transcendent nature of liturgy that we forget its many purposes: the worship of God, the participation in Christ's passion, death and resurrection, the renewal of our initiation into Christ, the exodus from a life of sin to a life of grace, and the living of that life in the secular world in such a way that it is changed by Christ's power at work through his Church, to name a few. Galli ends his article:
[Liturgy] has steadfastly refused to let the culture determine its shape or meaning. Liturgical churches know that as profound a reality as is the surrounding culture, there is an even more profound reality waiting to be discovered. The liturgy gently and calmly gets us to open our eyes to the new reality, showing us the "necessary separation" from the old. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we find our gaze directed away from ourselves and toward God and his kingdom. When we return to our homes, we are never the same.
When I am simply caught up in the beauty of the liturgy and am not changed by it, have I truly worshipped well? Have I encountered the Living God? Or have I simply enjoyed an uplifting, beautiful (and culturally irrelevant) aesthetic experience in which my pleasure has once again become the focal point? Can liturgy be beautiful, transcendent, and deeply disturbing all at the same time? After all, we gather to remember and encounter once again Jesus, who was lifted up on a cross that he called "his cup," and invites us to drink from that same cup in the liturgy.