Jesus the Liturgist

Throughout our study of the Church at worship, the Sacraments of grace which all flow from the one Sacrament which is the Bride of Christ, his body on earth between his first and second comings, whose life and grace which she offers to the world she has received from the primal Sacrament which is the Incarnate Christ, we have met Jesus. We have met him as the substance of the Sacraments, most particularly in the Eucharist but in more subtle ways in each of the others. We have met him as the primary minister of the Sacraments, who acts in and through his ministers as they celebrate, who acts in and through his people as they celebrate. And we have met him as the founder of the Sacraments, who instituted each of them intentionally, lovingly, and perpetually to continue his presence and power in the world through the Church.

We also met Jesus in the Scriptures as we sought deeper insight into each of the Sacraments, and as we did so it began to dawn on me that Jesus is to be met in the Church’s worship, in her liturgy, in the work she does as the people of God, in yet another way. That way is this: Jesus throughout his ministry before he was taken up was a masterful liturgist, a minister who was able to touch ordinary things during an extraordinary moment and lead those around him in prayer, praise, worship, and sacrifice. Jesus did this certainly as he instituted each sacrament, each founding being (in almost every case) a foundational celebration of that sacrament as well as a definition and bestowal of it. But Jesus was a liturgist in his daily life and in all of his interactions with those he loved. I will try to show this by looking at a few examples from Scripture, and I hope in so doing to show a liturgical dimension in Scripture itself which illumines both God’s intent and the human author’s intent in the text.

I begin with a controversy dialogue between Jesus and the leaders of his day, Matthew 16:1-4: “And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ So he left them and departed.” As so often in these confrontations, there is an attempt on both parts to gain an advantage, and craft is needed on both sides. The Pharisees and Sadducees are testing Jesus on several levels. They would like to catch him in a theological error to bolster their blasphemy case. They would like to pose a question which leaves him speechless, to weaken his authority among the people. They would like him to re-order his priorities to meet their initiatives, that he might be diverted from his primary purpose. The temptation here, to provide a sign on demand, is reminiscent of Satan’s attempt to persuade Jesus to turn stones into loaves or to cast himself down from a height to be borne up by angels. For his part, Jesus would certainly like to win over as many of his opponents as he can to his way of seeing the world; he would like to catch them off guard in a way that enables them to see right before them what they have so far been unable or unwilling to see. So he begins with something they know and will not be disposed to reject, and then seeks to turn simple insight into profound insight by showing an unexpected connection.

To interpret the weather, for a farmer or a fisherman, the sort of daily worker that figures in many of the parables and that surely formed the majority of Jesus’ hearers, is not a matter of idle curiosity, but an essential skill for daily living. The farmer must prioritize his outdoor work based on whether the weather is favorable or threating. The fisherman may decide not to go out at all if the weather is unfavorable. Reading the sky becomes a daily exercise of insight, a seeking of causes behind the effects, of hints of the future in the trends of the recent past. Jesus values such insight, and also seeks to ground in it a second level of insight: insight into the signs of the times. As Jesus is deeply aware, on the basis of his understanding of the Father’s will and the presence of the kingdom, insight into the signs of the times is even more critical for survival: the survival that matters most, the salvation of the soul, escape from final judgment.

Jesus mediates the shift from reading the weather to reading the Father’s will in the events of the day by an unexpected turn, an appeal to the prophet Jonah. For Jonah, the weather both at sea and on land proved to be one of the ways God taught him about duty, salvation, mercy, and repentance. Jonah learned reluctantly; indeed, at the end of the book God is still teaching him, and his response is left to the reader to imagine. But Jonah at least responded to God, virtually acknowledging that the storm, the fish, the plant, and the worm were, in addition to being themselves, also instruments in the hand of God, natural and visible means appointed by God to bring about invisible and spiritual ends. So Jesus would have us all, each day, take the weather, favorable or threatening, as an act of God touching us, body and soul, for our ultimate good. We could, of course, read as much in Psalm 19. But the viewpoint there is general, almost cosmic in scope. For Jonah and for Jesus, the viewpoint achieved on looking at God’s handiwork is personal and immediate: today God will bring me difficulty or ease, and his purposes must be my business.

This lesson Jesus draws down upon his hearers, the Pharisees and Sadducees, as a warning. They have been deficient in their everyday insight as they look around them. They have seen crowds and miracles and deduced that there is a dangerous scoundrel at work. They might have seen crowds and miracles and at least wondered, is there something here for me? Many of Jesus’ ordinary hearers did just that; they read the signs of the times and found Jesus worth following, and listening to. So the daily act of looking around at the sea, sky, and trees becomes a deep analogue of looking around at my fellow human beings and what they are doing. An insightful judgment, is this person’s act and manner favorable or threatening? can become an immediate occasion of thoughtfulness or comradeship. It was for many of those who met Jesus. It was not so, not yet, for his opponents.

Jesus invites them to look around them, and also to look within. They are members, indeed they are the prime representatives, of an evil and adulterous generation. They are even now unfaithful to God who has been seeking them in faithful love; they are even now hardening their hearts against God’s messenger in their midst. They will be given no sign but the sign of Jonah, the presence of an alien prophet with a message of judgment, because they have deserved no other sign but that. Nonetheless the warning is full of hope; for if the Ninevites, to whom Jonah was so hostile, who had ignored God’s will until the last possible moment, nonetheless were granted repentance, so too might the opponents of Jesus. So each liturgical and sacramental act is both a sign of God’s impending judgment and a way to come to terms with that judgment by accepting the invitation of the Judge himself to receive mercy.

The invitation to look at the weather and to look at the signs of the times, issued here by Jesus, is not itself the institution or celebration of a Sacrament. But it is a sacramental, and it invites the Pharisees and Sadducees to take each morning’s and each evening’s weather watch as a sacramental from this moment forth, taking both difficulty and ease from the hand of God. It also invites them to take each encounter with a fellow human being as a sacramental, as an encounter with a messenger of God’s mercy sent to me as an occasion of repentance, of faith, of a new beginning of love. Jesus makes this invitation by words that speak purposively of familiar things, that draw upon the wealth of Scripture, that challenge the people around him to see who they are as they realize who he is. This is the work of a liturgist.

I take as a second example the parable in Luke 15:8-10, the lost coin, provided for us between the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost son: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Saving and spending, managing a household, was a familiar responsibility that Jesus’ hearers might well have considered so ordinary that it did not bear reflection. Many of us managing such daily affairs consider them boring or even burdensome. Surely Jesus realizes this, and takes the opportunity to show us that even in the apparent setbacks and discouragements of such daily toil we may receive both a challenge from God and an awareness of extraordinary love.

One tenth of one’s life savings is not a trivial amount to suddenly lose. The woman might have responded with irritation, anger, or a kind of fatalism. We know them all. But Jesus shows us a woman who responds to the setback with diligence. Many commentators on the parables of losing and finding observe that the seeker may be the individual seeking salvation or seeking God; and may also be God seeking the lost sinner. Indeed it may be Jesus seeking followers. But simpler than any of these insights, and beneath them all, lies the insight that every moment of our life we are seeking; we are seeking comfort, success, companionship, resolution of our problems, a meaningful role in our world. And Jesus gives an optimistic parable, a parable with a happy ending, partly as a way of encouraging us to continue to seek even ordinary benefits under all circumstances, including discouraging ones. Some interpreters of the New Testament stop here, and give us a message of positive thinking or cheerful optimism in nature and nature’s God. But Jesus as a master liturgist desires that each of us find in such ordinary exercises of seeking and finding an outward sign of the inward grace of seeking and finding that which is extraordinary and beyond all price: seeking and finding God in the events he brings us.

Like the other parables of Luke 15, the joy that unfolds from the happy ending is not limited to the joy of the thing found. In each case the finder invites friends and neighbors to celebrate, and the joy is multiplied. The communal celebration provides an opportunity for the success of one to become the joy of all. So the self-seeking that has plagued us since the Fall, since the resentment of Cain, since the mutual alienation of the tower of Babel, is laid aside for a moment as we take time to share a contagious happiness. This too is a sacramental, and ought to be received as a blessing at the hands of those who invite us as well as at the hands of those we invite. It was by such means that the meals Jesus took to stay alive became each a foretaste of the wedding supper of the Lamb, communal meals where tax collectors, sinners, and disciples were bound in a common happiness.

Whenever we have success, we can hoard it or we can share it. By this parable Jesus invites us to adopt a lifestyle of sharing. Every household can become, like the household of the woman in the parable, a meeting place of those who know joy as given by God. As the sinner who repents causes joy among the angels, so the daily manager of household affairs can cause joy among all those God sends her way. The word angel means messenger; when angels were sent in the Old Testament they often were taken to be ordinary human visitors. Why should we not, then, welcome ordinary human visitors as though they might well be angels? The letter to the Hebrews encourages this perspective (Hebrews 13:2). By making this parallel between the joy of an impromptu household celebration and the joy of God’s angels in heaven, Jesus challenges us to see each unexpected turn of events in our daily life, whether setback or success, as an occasion of holy joy. This is his ministry as liturgist, and by leading us to sympathize with and identify with the woman of the parable he gives us a taste of how rich and deep celebration can be.

As a third example I will take the interaction between Jesus and the rich inquirer in Mark 10:17-22: “And as he was setting out on his journey a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” And he said to him, ‘Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.’ And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Jesus, loving the inquirer, gave him the opportunity to reassess the quality and motivation of his lawkeeping. In other words, Jesus led this man in an examination of conscience, beginning with the commandments and moving from those commandments to the One who gives them, to God who asks us to give him ourselves. This is one of the prime purposes of the Sacrament of Confession. Although that Sacrament did not yet exist, and although Jesus does not here initiate or celebrate it, nonetheless he acts as a supremely effective guide to a troubled conscience, and shows us how deep such a relationship can and should go.

It is one thing to remember specific events of our life when we draw near to God. It is as easy to remember events that show us to be righteous as it is to remember our failures; perhaps easier. Jesus does not contradict this man’s perception of his own lawkeeping. Instead he touches on one missing piece: the motivation of the heart. The man came to Jesus with great possessions, desiring yet one more: eternal life, as an inheritance that might fall to him. Jesus leads him to a place where he must choose: there is one possession, well worth having, that will not permit any rivals for our desiring. If we do not desire God with our whole heart we do not really desire him at all, and certainly do not desire him to be God in our life. This the man began to realize as he left. So the liturgy, the work which devolves upon God’s people as both a duty and a great gift, is here left only partially done. Jesus does not run after the man. The grace of a liturgical action need not be fully received at the time of the celebration; it grows roots and bears fruits often long after. So Jesus is content to postpone the resolution of this examination of conscience until the awakening is complete. Often this is the best way to celebrate the Sacrament of Confession: to leave our gift at the altar and work through unresolved issues that cloud our awareness of God’s voice, to return with a clearer and more honest approach.

In each of the three examples I have taken, Jesus uses the events of ordinary human life as a gateway to an extraordinary meeting with God. Checking the weather; picking up a dropped coin; reviewing my conduct against a well-known standard: we do such things nearly continually and often mechanically. We become absorbed in the issue at hand, and begin to craft a narrative to put ourselves at the center. But when we encounter a liturgist, as the people of his day encountered Jesus, we face an invitation and and opportunity to have the narrative reset. The events may be the same; we ourselves may still be deeply involved; but at the center will stand One who shows Himself in each breath of wind, who is the giver and taker of each fragment of wealth we find or lose, who alone can bring the law to our hearts and our hearts to the law. And if we accept the ministry of such a liturgist, we will for a moment feel the touch of a wind which is not of this world; we will forget the account of our wealth in the joy of knowing the giver; we will see ourselves as He sees us, when He looks at us, and loves us. This is why God has given liturgy to his people, and why to be a liturgist, to undertake the work of the people as one of the people and also as a messenger of God, is to be a sharer of joy.

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