Almana Ger Yatom

Widows, Strangers, Orphans: Journeying with the Poor

Our arrogance and our liturgy


In general, no one in the protestant evangelical church knows how to give a homily. The reason is obvious. No one there understands anymore the liturgy. We in the evangelical community evangelizes fervently and constantly but we do not realize that the entire mass is actually an acted out gospel – an evangelism in drama form.

A homily is always part of the liturgy and makes no sense elsewhere. The bible commands all Christians to preach, in season and out of season, but a homily can only be done by ordained people during the mass. The homily is different because it has a unique purpose. Homily is designed to help or facilitate people to engage God or to assist people to enter into His presence. This is very different from highly cognitive sermons we often hear today.

Many have dismissed the liturgy for being useless, meaningless and passé or obsolete. It cannot be remedied simply by discarding or ignoring it. The life of the church is at stake. Since Martin Luther’s reform, we have basically lost the homily and the liturgy. We have been hijacked by the so-called Enlightenment – a very Cartesian world view (scientific, objective, secular and materialistic). Dualism became the biggest problem of spirituality – the separation of soul and body.

To solve the problem of meaning in liturgy and consequently the mass, is not to dismiss or throw it away but it is solved by educating people – educate and educate. It’s the same with the Bible. It soon becomes passé also until and unless we educate and educate so that once more people can enter into it and find its subtle, profound and rich meanings.

Without liturgy, the churches we plant will not live long – at most, they will live ten years according to scholarly research. The question with church planting is how to plant churches that will last a thousand years. I guess no one asks this anymore, in a world that is highly superficial and artificial or consumerist.

It is the liturgy that will make the church survive but of course, not a meaningless liturgy. It should be a liturgy everyone knows and understands. The Old Testament rituals and festivals tended towards the same fate of obsolescence after decades or centuries. The temple became just that, the symbol of things obsolete.

And yet, within our deepest being, we long for liturgy. When 911 left a big devastation and a wide emptiness in New York, where the Twin Towers used to stand, people began to create an icon, a symbol. On it stood eventually a landmark and a liturgy of sort grew that combined the words of people of varying languages, and the combined expression of the emotions of thousands of people. Altars, monuments, and land marks all signal that part of us that wants to speak the voice of eternity, a voice that speaks for all humanity regardless of sex, color, finances, age and citizenship.

Liturgy is about symbols and mysteries. They are not the New Age mysticism about finding meaning within, but simply mysteries that allow people to go beyond their own selves beyond their reason and intellect. There is an arrogance in modern spirituality today that does away with mysteries, an arrogance that claims all knowledge of God is possible with man, especially humankind united. All that we know about God when put together, it claims, comprise most if not all of who God is!!! This is pure arrogance.

The truth is that all that we know about God put together comprise less than 0.00001% of who God is, even less. There are things of God that we can know truly and fully, 100%, such as His grace and His love. We can know fully His forgiveness also. But in most parts, God is unknowable. He is beyond our imagination.

It is liturgy that gives us the venue and the wings to fly into His presence, which guides our imagination. The symbols like the icons and the cross, the candles and the drama of the Eucharist, all present a richness that goes beyond words and reason. Liturgy allows us to embrace God beyond what we can comprehend (what Brueggemann calls a playful imagination as against our proclivity for reductionism).

There is certainly a limit to what we can understand, what we can comprehend and what we can analyze. After that, liturgy takes over. Liturgy carries us through and over our dryness when our emotions have run out, our excitement has died. It is also liturgy or the rituals that disciple us into His presence. Eugene Peterson argues that the best way to engage the Book of Revelations is through our imagination, in a divine playfulness, to unearth and excavate its hidden meanings.

Reading the book of Revelation is to me like entering an ancient temple full of mysterious symbols and with nothing but my imagination to unravel its meaning. Today however, what we mean by being biblical is simply being scientific (our reason alone) with no room for the imagination and our passions. Liturgy tells us that to be biblical we need our whole being and more.

This is important because today’s spirituality is all done wrong. It is premised on independence and individualism, the hallmark of modern consumer society. Many Christians think they are strong because they have just had their quiet time or they have just been to church and they think they can carry this strength with them and let it sustain them for long periods.

The ancient Christians believed the other way around. At that instant we leave the worship hall, at that instant that we leave our quiet time, we begin to lose it, we begin to grow weak and we begin to be shrouded by the darkness around us until we can no longer see Jesus.

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence is both a testament to and a guide on this. Father Henri Nouwen gives a beautiful story to illustrate this. He had been appointed to care for a handful of intellectually challenged people (in the L’Arche, a home for people with CP or are mongoloid, etc.). He would take one or two with him during his preaching activities. At one time, his ward noticed how masungit he was (cranky) and was kindly rebuked, “You are a priest and you say you pray, and yet you behave that way?” Nouwen’s reply is very instructive for us. He said, “Just imagine what I would be if I did not pray.”

Spirituality in the old days was always about constantly coming to His presence with the understanding that once away from that presence, our spirituality begins to deteriorate and weaken. The action of spirituality is to seek always to be in His presence, and this means, always coming to church, always coming to prayer, always being in His presence.

Prayer and worship though have also mutated. Prayer now is simply dak dak ng dak dak, talking to God, yakking and yakking (not listening). In the olden days, prayer was more about being in the presence of God, about solitude and about listening. All the Psalms say so. They are prayers to help us enter into His presence. Worship now is about great sermons and eloquent silver tongued preachers. But back in the old days, worship was about entering into His presence and the climax was the Eucharist.

The angelus bells are rung twice in some towns and it follows after the practice of the Christians during the reign of Emperor Justinian. When the bells are rung, people stop and pause and some make the sign of the cross and in a way, they become conscious again of God. The lectio divina is done three times a day, which for the Jesuits, was a way to make their activities contemplative (contemplatives in action).

I remember a homily years ago that was kind of imprinted permanently in my heart after the mass. The priest used the text from the end of the gospel of John when Jesus was resurrected and he stood by the side of the lake. He called out to the disciples who by this time had gone back to fishing. He asked, them, do you have any fish or catch? A simple question. When they said no, he challenged them to throw the net of the right side. After they had caught a netful of fish, he invited them to breakfast (he has fire going on already and some newly broiled fish).

The structure of the homily was I. The Question, II. The Challenge, and last, III. The Invitation. It was a very simple message and succeeded in bringing the congregation to enter into His presence, at least I know I did. A dear friend of mine complained one time that she no longer longed for evangelical sermons especially because the preachers always answered all the questions instead of leaving some for the hearers to chew on later.
In homilies, sometimes, or often, a question is offered and no answers are given. It’s a take home for the hearers, like in MacDonald’s (to go).

Homilies too are not heady. It’s like a prayer – Lord, make the Word come alive in us and awaken the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

Liturgy, homily, icons, and altars – these are what makes the church last a thousand years. They are boring repetitive and ordinary. But so are spring, winter, summer and fall, and so are births, deaths, graduations, weddings and birthdays. Maybe, we need to learn to see the spirituality of the ordinary and the boring and the repetitive before we can truly become spiritual. Or sometimes, I suspect, our spirituality without the boring, ordinary and repetitive are just a mask of our hopeless addictions – our addictions to excitement, to highs, to climaxes, etc.

Christmas has some of its own icons and symbols, some very mysterious. The Star of Bethlehem is a big and rich symbol and of all people, it guided gentiles, unbelievers to the new born Christ. The Three Magis (there were more magis probably), presents also a drama like a liturgy, of many unspeakable and unutterable richness, stretching over thousands of miles on camels’ back. We can analyze these things so much and yet, we end up with a mystery still. We don’t worship Mary, we don’t even venerate her but deep inside we know she is a profound mystery – through a woman, through her womb, God entered into our world! The entire gospel story is in fact a full panoramic liturgy of some sort and perhaps, it is the best way to read the Gospels, as a big liturgy. And perhaps, the best way to see the world around us, is to see it as a Liturgy also – a dramatized gospel, full of rich symbols.

Just a hint, in the first century church, the gospels, especially Matthew, was read aloud in the worship. The gospels were written to be read aloud as part of the liturgy.

In short, it is a way for us to see God. Liturgy helps us to see God. When Mary gave birth, three kings came with expensive gifts. Just imagine a poor ordinary girl giving birth in the barrio, in a small kubo and once the baby comes out, Putin, Obama and Xi JinPing arrive and she is completely shocked. But this is the way God tries to open the eyes of Mary and several times, throughout her life, these epiphanies happen (for example, when Simeon at the Temple says, at last, I can now die because I now have seen the Promised One).

The ancient Christians found a way to do this, to open our eyes, to help us to see and it is how liturgy was born. I know that today, seeing Jesus or entering into His presence is not a big thing anymore but I believe the hunger of Christians will not be sated by smart sermons or fancy worship. I know someday they will return to liturgy, to the ancient way and embrace Him with all their being.

Thousands are leaving the church, born again Christians, leaving evangelical churches. They are leaving not because they don’t want Jesus but because they want more. Churches as studies have shown were designed merely to minister to new believers, not to mature ones. Part of Liturgy is also this sense of journey, that we are a work in progress, that God is not yet done with us.

Evangelicals have done away with this journey. We have found Jesus and there is nothing more to be found, says many evangelicals. And yet, this sense of journey forms part of liturgy, that we all are on a journey in this world. It is most aptly described in the story of the Road to Emmaus.

Here, the disciples were walking on the road and suddenly, were side by side Jesus, whom they did not recognize. And after some time walking together, it began to grow dark and Jesus moved away like he was leaving and they begged him to stay have dinner with them. While breaking the bread, suddenly their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus. Almost immediately, Jesus disappeared.

This is our journey and our liturgy – Jesus appearing and disappearing. It is what spirituality is all about – a journey with a Jesus who appears and disappears. It is a journey through life with Jesus as our companion but who is not always visible or present. When he does appear, most trained contemplatives would know what to do. Samuel as a young boy simply said, “Speak Lord, your servant listens.” Our normal response is to bow down and worship. We linger and we savor His presence.

The hard part is when he does not appear, which rarely happens unless you are suffering depression. When he does not appear, our longings must grow. One French poet wrote that being apart from loved ones, like when we travel overseas, kills the small flames but fans the big flames to grow bigger.

When God does not appear, the bigger flame of our longing must burst out and grow. Some of the Psalms speak this way. How long, O Lord, how long will you be silent? How long will you hide from us?

It is not true that if we do things right, liturgy will guarantee His presence, according to Nouwen. Sometimes, when we do it right, when we have done all we could, His presence seem to intentionally become out of our reach. He does not appear.

Psalms 22, echoed on the cross by Jesus, talks of that part of liturgy where God, after we have done all things right, simply does not appear. Jesus cried out, God, why have you forsaken me? Just after he obeyed God by being nailed on the cross. This is the deepest mystery of all; that God seems to abandon us at that moment we are demanding the most that he comes to us. Liturgy is simply not a guarantee he will be there. Liturgy in the end is simply an acknowledgement of that sacred space within us, where from time to time, God would appear. He will appear when he wants to, that is why he is God (and not us). Though we cannot force him, yet, it is He who invites constantly, it is he who calls constantly, “Come.”

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