Finding faith through liturgy

She set the tray of freshly frosted Santa Claus cookies on the granite countertop and eyed me with solemn concern. “Funny hats make me suspicious of idolatry,” she said.

This was the bluntest of my friends when I came home that Christmas with a sobering admission: I’d been attending an Anglican church during my first semester at college. I didn’t know what to say. I laughed awkwardly, and focused on frosting another cookie.

New to traditional liturgy, I still had a lingering terror she might be right: that I had somehow bought into a cult. So iconoclast was the Evangelical community we had grown up in, the mere hint of robes and recitation was unsettling — and that’s without even mentioning the candles or incense.

It’s a college cliché: freshman rejects (or reclaims) her Christian roots. In my case, the stakes were high. My older brother had taken his own life six weeks before I entered college.

Church, for me, needed to embrace the inexplicable nature of grief.

The search was not for an uplifting verse that would get me through finals; it was about finding a way to keep worshipping a God who had failed my family. Though my life story may be uncommon, the need for a church that can explore doubt and extend solace is universal.

On my Christian campus, at the start of each school year, local churches set up booths and canvass the cafeteria line. I sampled a few of those churches, and then started counting mandatory chapels as church. Then, I started skipping chapel. I couldn’t make myself feel God in the latest worship song or inspirational sermon.

I was raised to be suspicious of high church tradition. Trappings that looked too Roman Catholic were smoke and mirrors that hid hollow lives. To mention saints was to border on paganism. To speak of church ritual was to speak of a law that had passed away, replaced by grace. Apparently, grace was rock music, skinny jeans and an assurance that Jesus was my best friend. 

Contemporary, casual and conversational — evangelicalism offered warmth and familiarity as well as substantive theology. There is truth in the rock music, and Jesus is our comforter.

Yet, mired in bitterness, I was suspicious. Not of these forms, as it turned out, but of God. If Jesus was my best friend, then why was my life so shitty?

One November evening my freshman year, a friend invited me to her Anglican church. The next morning, there I sat on a wooden pew, facing a vast granite altar. I scrambled to my feet, with everyone else, as the acolytes passed by. Here came the bishop, complete with green vestments and funny hat.

Throughout the service I tried to follow the program, mumbling responses several seconds too late. I eventually gave up and mimicked my friend as she sat, stood, and knelt. Every time someone said “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” I wasn’t sure if I ought to cross myself from left to right — or right to left.

I went every week through Advent, even though I still didn’t understand the candles, the dresses, or the chanting.

The very traditions that put off Evangelicals were what drew me in.

The very traditions that put off Evangelicals were what drew me in.

Here, I felt awe. As the choir joined in singing Kyrie, eléison beneath organ pipes and the Cross of Christ, God felt more “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” This God was daunting — not my best friend — but more equipped to make an account for my grief.

Grandeur hooked me, but it wasn’t what made me stay. The initial mystique of traditional churches may enchant or repulse us — but we need to look deeper. The aesthetic of traditional churches appeals to me, but the substance behind it anchors me. It accommodates my doubts and eases my grief.

Technically, all churches have liturgy. Whether the service begins with Hillsong or a hymn, it follows a steady pattern week to week. But The Book of Common Prayer is different. In this liturgy — based on the oldest traditions of the church — are rich words, painstakingly composed from the truth of Scripture, to express the faith. They demand meditation and absorption. They become fuller for being repeated week after week, not depleted. And delightfully: they remain the same.

As my childhood pastor liked to say, “We must preach the gospel to ourselves every day.” Traditional liturgy forces me to do that, at least once a week. But, it’s not dependent on the priest’s clever analogy or the choir leader setting the right emotional tone. The service is rich with the Word of God: a lesson from the Old Testament, a Psalm, the Epistles, and the Gospel — every Sunday. The brief sermon is quickly overshadowed by the recitation of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, the same words Christians have used to affirm their faith for millennia. Liturgy endures not because it is pithy, but because it centres on the Eucharist.

Last Sunday, I knelt to accept the Eucharist. Thus far in the service I had been led through teaching, affirmation, and confession. I was now invited to that wondrous means of redemption. God assures “our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through His most precious blood.”

In this moment I cherish the words the liturgy gives to express the reconciliation I have no words for, in a sacrament I cannot fathom. In this moment I know “Eternal God, heavenly Fatherhas “graciously accepted us as living members of [His] Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.” He has “fed us with the spiritual food.” He “Send[s] us now into the world in peace…to love and serve…through Christ our Lord.”

The conduct of a traditional liturgical service embodies the truth behind its words. The priest raises the bread and breaks it, as the body of Christ is broken for us. I stand to proclaim; I kneel to confess. I cross myself to bless my head, my heart, my whole self. I engage my senses, not with the superficial robes and candles, but the immaterial truths they represent.

Tradition teaches me to look behind words and symbols. It teaches me to suss out their depth, to delight when truth is embodied, to abandon what is empty. It’s not the choir, the altar cloth, or even the feeble human words I love. It’s the God who allows me to glimpse Him through these tools.

I don’t so much have an answer for my grief these days, but I have knowledge of a God who subsumes that grief in His infinite love. The liturgical service doesn’t answer for my sufferings; it draws my attention to the suffering of Christ. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast.”

In that alone, I find peace.

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