Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ethical Metaphors

In a previous post, “On Doing ‘Our’ Liturgical Thing,” a commentator responded “Your comments are most appropriate for those who were born within the confines of the circle. But what of those who were excluded by birth, by skin, by national edict?” She ("Desert Mother") raises the issue of oppression relative to liturgical texts and practices born of the hegemony of the privileged. Her comments brought a needed word to this conversation about liturgy around the central things (bath, story, and meal) and justly recalled attention to God’s open doors—the wide horizon of God’s gaze upon the thriving of all life.

I will leave to liturgical historians questions of whether or not what has become in our time the historic, ecumenical liturgy (sometimes referred to as the “ecumenical consensus”) was born of privilege and power, or in what sense it comes to us as a gift of the Spirit working among the least ones in the Greco-Roman world (inclusive of Egypt and North Africa). I just read Maxwell E. Johnson’s Liturgy in Early Christian Egypt (Joint Liturgical Studies 33). It opened my circumscribed knowledge to discover how influential that part of the pre-Constantianian church was in shaping the gift of the saints to our present liturgical practices.

Back to the main issue: Liturgical action and prayer is made up of metaphors and images that point beyond them. Indeed they participate in a reality greater than themselves, whether the God of justice and mercy or the god of nationalism and consumerism. Metaphors do matter, whether they are oral, textual, or embodied gestures. My less than explicit point in writing “On Doing ‘Our’ Liturgical Thing” was to caution all of us who write, plan, and lead liturgy and all of our congregations who enact liturgy is this: Beware lest in changing the liturgical texts and actions provided by our denominations, we subject “the liturgy” to our privileged, self-absorbed, self-preserving and self-protecting shadow side.

This is not to say that these texts and rubrics are perfected. They are not. They are pilgrim resources. They are large metaphors anticipatory of the reign of God that we cannot yet fully see. They are meant to shape those who pray them for the reign of God. They are communally constructed and communally prayed as the church, the community, awaits further illumination.
  • At the font: They initiate us into the coming reign of God (baptism and the rites of initiation) as a “holy people, a royal priesthood” for purposes of God.
  • At the lectern/pulpit: They provide context for proclamation of the Word incarnate that became text to be a place of encounter for us so that the Word may become flesh anew in our time and place (my thanks to my friend Robert Muholland for this move). This proclamation populates our imaginations with symbols, archetypes, and narratives that give us hermeneutical handles for interpreting and engaging daily life in its political and economic dimensions as we seek God’s coming justice and liberation.
  • At the table: They nourish our sense of communal embodiment of the risen Christ living as forgiven and reconciled people, rejoicing and grateful for all that God has done and is doing in creation, covenant and Christ.

These central things are powerful metaphors. And the texts and actions ritualized around them are powerful too. The question is in what direction does the power move? And, whose power is it?

The liturgical texts and their rubrics for initiation (baptism) and the Eucharist are rich with ethical metaphors (not moralistic ones) that are God’s call to the church to herald and heed God’s inclusive reign.

Here are a few of them from the ritual of my tradition (United Methodist).
From baptism:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression

in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races

(Following baptism and laying on of hands)
Through baptism
you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit
into God's new creation
and made to share in Christ's royal priesthood.

From Holy Communion in the Great Thanksgiving:
[from the invitation]
“Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
who earnestly repent of their sin
and seek to live in peace with one another
Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.”
[from the confession]
Merciful God,
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church. [sin understood communally]
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[From the Great Thanksgiving]
“He [Jesus] fed the hungry, healed the sick, and ate with sinners.”
“Make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world…”
Our Father…”

These are just some of the metaphors with ethical torque that shape us for living in this world and not some other; for discipleship following the risen One in his “Galilee” (Mark 16::7), not convening in our spiritual “safe houses.”

In the next blog, I will explore how “wild spaces” open up and give teeth to the metaphors of our liturgical prayer.

Daniel Benedict

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