Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Worship as a tragic sense of life

"Fr. Friendly, you have a call ..." reads the subject line of our liturgical correspondent's email, sending the linked article below.

Carl R. Trueman, in "Tragic Worship" (First Things, June/July, 2013), writes:
The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world, Catholic and Protestant alike, is not that it is too entertaining but that it is not entertaining enough. Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that “in the midst of life we are in death.”

It neglects tragedy. Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship....

Christian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator, and it should thereby sharpen our longing for the only answer to the one great challenge we must all face sooner or later. Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.
I remember in my Protestant days discussing with some friends the purpose of the Sunday sermon. Was it education, exhortation, entertainment, inspiration? What was it? Whatever was said, I remember the sinking feeling I would get when anyone would suggest that sermons, like our Sunday worship generally, ought to be "more joyful." What that usually meant, among other things, was that people ought to be smiling. Which often reminded me of being scolded by our elementary school teachers during class pictures for looking too glum.

After my reception into the Church twenty years ago, I also remember more than one occasion on which either (a) a Protestant visiting a Catholic Mass would comment that the worship didn't seem sufficiently "joyful," because the people didn't look "happy" and weren't "smiling"; or (b) Catholic individuals would express similar views, suggesting that Mass was a "celebration," and should therefore be more "expressive," "happy," and "joyful." Again, that sinking feeling.

There is a place for smiling, laughter, and joy. I'm not sure the foot of the cross of our crucified Lord is that place. This is what we have forgotten in our new, contemporary liturgies. This is what the traditional liturgy, with its atmosphere of severe mercy, has never forgotten.

[Hat tip to J.M.]


Ruth Lapeyre


So back in the day when I sang for the Protestants for pay I remember seeing a poster that was popular among the happy clappy crowd posted on the choir room wall. It said something like "A day without a smile is a day without Jesus" or something similar. I remember being totally stunned as Our Lord's Sacrifice on Good Friday immediately sprang to mind.

Pertinacious Papist


Hi Ruth,

Which reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw on the door of a missionary in Japan, in the colors and design of a Coca-Cola ad: "Things go better with Jesus!"



It's not only a question of "happy clappy" vs. "tragic," but also a question of worship as "construct" vs. "tradition."

In other words, when worship is understood as "passed-down-to-us" ("tradition"), then it's not something we endlessly tinker with. It's not something we have to "enliven" with "entertaining" music, "engaging" audience participation, etc. Instead, it's something we receive and are transformed by, because we are carried along by it. We don't "carry" it. It "carries" us.

This hardly exhausts the difference, but there's a fundamentally different attitude behind these views of worship or liturgy.