Rites and Rituals

After the “proper” way to interpret scripture, the second topic most likely to provoke a Christian death match, regardless of the denomination, is the shape of the Sunday service. Whether it is worship so “high” that the choir appears to have been sniffing glue or a service so “low” that oyster crackers and plasticized gluten pass for “bread,” everyone has an opinion about what Christians should do when they gather on Sunday. And sometimes the fights can get so ugly that you’d rather go to Drunk Uncle Joe’s Thanksgiving Extravaganza and Family Feud than show up to church.

If you want a peek into the current hullabaloo in Roman Catholicism over everything from liturgical translations to where to put the altar, to who washes the Communion dishes after worship, you’ll enjoy John Baldovin’s Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics (Liturgical Press, 2009). No matter your tradition, you’ll recognize the church-tearing tension that often accompanies changes to the way we pray. And you’ll learn what “Amish Catholicism” is.

Luckily, Christians of every tradition never stop digging up the historical record of what we’ve done for the past 2,000 years to give us more to argue about. Roman Catholic priest Edward Foley’s updated From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist (Liturgical Press, 2008) gets high marks for leading the reader from the earliest celebrations of the Lord’s Supper through the Middle Ages and Reformation to the liturgical reforms of the 20th century that began at the Catholic Second Vatican Council, but were soon taken up by the reformed churches as well. Further reading could include the third edition of the late Methodist scholar James White’s Introduction to Christian Worship (Abingdon, 2000), along with his Documents of Christian Worship (Westminster John Knox, 1992), both classic resources every student of worship should keep around. Applying the methods of the social sciences and cultural anthropology, Lutheran scholar Frank Senn’s The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy (Fortress, 2006) adds further dimension to the human story of Christian worship.

As to the history of Christianity’s other shared sacrament, baptism, the late Benedictine monk and Yale Divinity School professor Aidan Kavanagh’s 1974 The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Liturgical Press, 1991) remains a classic guide, along with Edward Yarnold’s The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation (Liturgical Press, 1994), which mines the patristic heritage of the foundational Christian sacrament. Lutheran scholar and Notre Dame professor Maxwell Johnson’s updated The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Liturgical Press, 2007) takes the interested reader even deeper into the waters of salvation.

Liturgy is more than its history, of course. Lex orandi, lex credendi, the saying goes—“the law of prayer is the law of belief.” There is no shortage of books about how Christian ritual makes present the paschal mystery of Christian salvation. Jesuit priest and Boston College emeritus professor Robert J. Daly’s Sacrifice Unveiled: The True Meaning of Christian Sacrifice (Continuum, 2009) is among the recent contributions to that effort. By engaging that most difficult term related to our redemption, Daly explores the content and meaning of the “sacrifice” Christians celebrate when they gather for liturgy.

Those with more time on their hands may want to pick up Lutheran scholar Gordon W. Lathrop’s just-completed three-volume work on the liturgy: Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress, 2006), Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Fortress, 1998), and Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Fortress, 2009). On the evangelical side, Mark Galli of Christianity Today has written Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy (Paraclete, 2008), which chronicles his discovery of liturgy through worship in the Anglican tradition. And for extra credit, there is always the timeless classic of the Russian Orthodox Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), without which no study of the liturgy is complete.

For pastors and planners, though, liturgy is less an idea than a weekly reality, and any practitioner’s education must surely begin with the acerbic Aidan Kavanagh’s Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style (Pueblo/Liturgical Press, 1982). Not only is it simply the most useful guide to good liturgy, it is also the only book about worship guaranteed to be laugh-out-loud funny. Lovers of wordy banners, liturgical gimmickry, self-referencing preachers, and pews—yes, pews—beware. You will not survive the sharp end of Kavanagh’s tongue unscathed.

For a gentler and more popular touch, Gabe Huck and Gerald Chinchar’s Liturgy with Style and Grace (Liturgy Training Publications, 1998) has to be among the most accessible and practical guides to preparing good liturgy season to season. Its brief essays on the foundational and practical elements of worship are the perfect entry point for the liturgical beginner. Church decorators should consult from the same publisher the late Peter Mazar’s To Crown the Year: Decorating the Church Through the Seasons (1995). Though the authors are Roman Catholic, their works are profoundly ecumenical in their sensibilities.

Year-by-year aids are also helpful. Living Liturgy: Spirituality, Celebration, and Catechesis for Sundays and Solemnities, by Joyce Ann Zimmerman, Kathleen Harmon, and Christopher Conlon (Liturgical Press, annual), provides scripture commentary, texts, and spiritual reflection based on the Roman Catholic lectionary, as does www.liturgy.com of Oregon Catholic Press. Augsburg Fortress’ www.sun daysandseasons.com does the same for those using the Revised Common Lectionary.

Preachers were long ago crushed by the books, Web sites, magazines, newsletters, and congregant letters of advice on how to preach well and with relevance, so one more tome won’t hurt. Anyone preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary should check out Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Westminster John Knox, 2008). Only the four volumes of year B are currently available, with years C and A coming soon. Though no replacement for doing their own work, preachers couldn’t hurt themselves by reading the collected sermons of homiletic masters such as Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, Jesuit Father Walter J. Burghardt, or the late William Sloane Coffin Jr. For preachers interested in a theology of what they do in the pulpit, the University of Notre Dame’s Mary Catherine Hilkert’s Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (Continuum, 1997) is a good place to start.

Doing all this reading, of course, will likely not avert the next battle of the praise bands in a parish near you or settle the latest “traditional” versus “contemporary” controversy. But it may at least leave you too muddled to get overly excited.

Bryan Cones is managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine in Chicago.

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