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"WHEN HE WAS at table with them, he took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight." (Luke 24:30)

The Emmaus story graphically illustrates the thesis of this article that in our worship we gather round the Christ who is already present to us. I contrast with this the theory which assumes that Jesus is in the past and that it is the function of the Church's worship to get in touch with him and make it possible for Christians today to share in the fruits of his life and work.

That theory of worship not only affects the understanding of eucharist but also what function we give to the Calendar of the Church's Year. In practice this theory encourages the idea that worship is a dramatic acting out of the historic events and so makes embellishment of liturgy, both in eucharist and in common prayer, almost a sine qua non of what we are about in worship.

In their writings, some make this point of view a platform for the way liturgical renewal should go.

An example from the standard handbook of liturgy is typical: "In the liturgical mystery we are actualizing the past event, making it present so that the saving power of Christ can be made available to the worshipper in the here and now. The purpose of this view of the liturgy is at once to preserve the realism of the liturgical action (it is not mere remembering) and to give it a depth that goes beyond merely verbal and psychological reactions." (J.D. Crichton, A Theology of Worship, in Study of Liturgy, SPCK, 1978, page 14).

There are nuances in the actualizing theory that make it difficult to give an exact account of the implications for worship. But in the following quotation it seems that we should not be too nervous of imputing quite a radical understanding of what was to be actualized: "When therefore Jesus said, 'Do this in remembrance of me' (1 Cor 11:24f), he was assuredly not planning merely to keep before his disciples' minds that which they could anyhow never forget; it was to be a 'concrete remembering', a bringing back out of the past into the present ..... of the Sacrifice itself, or rather of him, crucified, risen from the dead, victorious through death......The Sacrifice offered once for all and unrepeatable, would be continually renewed and become newly present....." (A.G. Hebert, SSM, article Memory, in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, SCM Press, 1962, page 143).

The same claim is made by a present-day author who quotes Dom Odo Casel with approval: "Casel says that Christian worship has a unique character which operates on the principle of the incarnation. It is sacramental. In it the events of Christ's life, death and rising become truly present."

And, "In the Mystery we are coacting with Christ, reliving the events."(George Guiver, CR, Pursuing the Mystery, SPCK, 1996 pages 56 & 60).

This realism is carried through into the commemorations of the Calendar. The intention is that we should, in some way, relive the events of Jesus' life. So, in the services put out for Holy Week in the Church of England, there is this startling statement that we are to "await the risen Christ" while watching by the tomb on Easter Eve (Lent, Holy Week & Easter Services, SPCK, page 228).

There is a stark sort of realism in these statements and it is hard to believe that the authors actually think that what they propose is something that happens in the worship. Logically, what they propose is, of course, impossible. Whatever these claims can mean - and what do they mean? -I do not think that the early Christian communities would recognize them. As ideas, they are more akin to some of the strange cults of the second century, or to magic.

CHRISTIAN WORSHIP, in my view, must be based on the presuppositions of the New Testament writers.

Let us first of all recapitulate the core of the gospel which lay at the heart of the early Christian communities' worship. There was great diversity already within the New Testament but one fact stands out as the unique and revolutionary claim of Jesus - as Messiah he would bring about the kingdom of God.

He did this in his teaching and the gathering of disciples and his interactive work with all who were in need, in mind and body. In Jesus' view, God was indeed going to become King, as the Jews of his time hoped. But it would not be by violence and the overthrow of their enemies but only through the seal of God placed on his ministry and his will to follow it through to what would be seen as a tragic end.

The death of Jesus was the climax of the inauguration of the rule of God and, despite the malice of his enemies, became the gateway to life for all who later believed in Jesus' vindication at Easter.

Although the old order was still in place in Jerusalem after Easter, the post-Easter disciples really believed that God had become King. Part of the evidence for this and for Jesus' vindication through death, was their experience of the Supper.

Just as Jesus in his life made his meals a focus for the forgiveness and reconciliation that God was offering through him to all who were rejected, so the early Christian disciples knew Jesus and his power of new life in 'the breaking of the bread'. As previously they had shared with Jesus the meals he hosted in Galilee, so now they were making a response not only of 'remembrance', as he had wished at the Last Supper, but of worship.

From Paul, through the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, there is the constant understanding that the Jesus who was crucified and raised was now present to them in a transcendent presence. The writers of the New Testament believed that God had, in Jesus, brought into the present the 'end time', the new age, in fulfilment of the covenant.

Precisely because that is true the final banquet of the completed kingdom of God could be anticipated now in the worship of the new communities who acknowledged Christ as Lord. To have that faith is to believe in the gospel.

For 'religion' God has substituted this real relationship of persons in Christ, which, as Paul fervently states, nothing can destroy.

HOW DID the early Christian communities worship? In fact we know very few details of their form of worship. They went, for a time, to synagogue and temple and on the first day of the week they celebrated the 'breaking of the bread'.

But my concern is not to find a model for worship, either in the New Testament or in the catholic or protestant traditions. In the renewal of liturgy today, it is vital to return to the presuppositions of the New Testament writers and see worship from their point of view. That is where our roots lie. Jesus is Lord and he is present to us as he was to them.

A brief look at common prayer, eucharist and Calendar can show how this approach of faith is worked out today.

Services of the word, both in the synaxis of the eucharist and in the daily common prayer, have a very simple rationale. Together we listen to the story of the covenant made by God with Abraham and fulfilled finally in Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and then respond in song and prayer. It is a dialogue in the Spirit. The simplicity of outline enables everyone to become very familiar with the words of Scripture and with the response.

In this dialogue the real work of prayer takes place which provides the basis for our own personal times of prayer when we are on our own.

In the eucharist, having already responded in the Spirit to Christ, we come and place ourselves, as it were, in his hands. Together with him we then give thanks to the Father over the gifts of bread and wine so that we may share in the Supper of the Kingdom - anticipating the final banquet when God shall be all in all. We receive again that renewal of life in relationship with Christ, being joined to him in the sacramental gifts of his risen life.

Finally, to go out from the eucharist or from a service of the word is to enter once more into the emerging kingdom of the Father in the lives of men and women and children in the homes and workplaces around us. As disciples we take responsibility for extending the truth of the gospel and affirm by our lives the reality of our worship to others.

The Calendar is a useful structure for our worship as by it we mark the events of Christ's life with thanksgiving. Easter is the single focus and burning glass so that whatever the season, whether it is Christmas, Lent or Easter or any other season, each day is the same in regard to our relationship with Jesus the risen Lord.

CHRISTIAN WORSHIP, then, is not a sort of time machine by which we get in touch with the past. Nor is it a dramatic reliving of the events of his life and death. In the strong light of the gospel all attempts at such manipulation are dispersed as a mist driven away by the sun.

As Alexander Schmemann writes, opposing the theory of Dom Odo Casel mentioned above, "Christianity was preached as a saving faith and not as a saving cult." (Introduction to Liturgical Theology)

Faith that Jesus is Lord, and that he is alive and present to his world, and invites us to worship, is surely the only basis for the response we make to him in worship. Faith leads also to an essential simplification of our forms of worship so that common prayer and eucharist can permeate our lives and inspire us to continue throughout each day, and in our special times of silence, to pray in the Spirit.

Christian worship is, in its simplicity, the response of the faithful community to the living Christ.

Aelred Arnesen

From the Church Times, February 6th, 1998

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