A few weeks ago, I had an enjoyable discussion on Twitter with Aaron Smith on a question Aaron had posed that went something along the lines of the following: “How would you answer someone who asked how it’s possible to find Jesus in your church services?”
How is Jesus present in our church services? How can we find him in our worship?
My own responses to Aaron’s question focused (as you might expect) on Jesus’ presence in word and sacrament, above all in the Lord’s Supper. It was a good discussion, and I’m glad Aaron initiated it. However, what I didn’t really consider at the time is why Jesus’ presence (or otherwise) in worship should be a source of anxiety and debate in the first place for many Christians.
Then today I was reading an essay by James Alison, Is it ethical to be Catholic?, in which he speaks at one point about the “just there” quality of the church, its “sheer, unsnuffable-out ‘having already happened and being open for us’ quality”. He writes:
I suppose the area we tend to know it from most regularly is the liturgy – the “just there” quality of the presence of Jesus in the Mass. There seems to me to be something quite wonderful about this, the quiet, serene, relaxedness, the lack of self-consciousness about Catholic worship, because we all know that Jesus is “just there”, giving himself for us and inviting us in, and that he’s bigger than the flakiness of so many of our liturgies, and he’s bigger than the idiocy of so many of our homilies and he’s obviously bigger and better than the flawed-ness of our priests and of course of ourselves.
As Alison continues:
On the one hand we can be relaxed about Jesus in the Eucharist, because we know that he is there, and he will show himself to us as he will, in the way he will, in the way that is suitable for us to receive and that will guide us with love. And this means that we don’t have to work ourselves up into knots of appropriate feeling, or self-consciousness, or liturgical perfection in order to “get it right”, because the real “getting it right” is being done by someone else, and the most we can do is to be more or less appropriate in the respectfulness and gratitude of our response.
Fr Alison acknowledges that this “just there” quality can lead to a slapdash approach to worship in which people presume on God’s grace rather than making proper efforts to prepare (whether for the music, liturgy or preaching). I suspect this is what many evangelicals fear from the “catholic” approach to this question: the danger of people “going through the motions” without really meaning it. But as Alison continues:
Yet this casual certainty of the complete dependability of the self-giving of God to us, the knowledge that however much we screw up, it is not our show, but someone else’s, seems to me to be a quite extraordinary gift, and one which I associate with real faith.
One of the things I value about the Lutheran church compared with my time as a non-Lutheran evangelical is the way in which certain questions cease to be quite as pressing as they used to be. “Where’s Jesus?” is one of those questions. But Fr Alison’s words here have still challenged me as to my lack of “casual certainty”, of my continuing anxiety to “get it right”, the fear that Jesus’ presence is a terribly fragile thing that can be lost if we mess things up or think the wrong things about it.
In doing so, I think Alison has untied a few knots for me (again!), and I hope I’ll be more relaxed next time we sing a communion hymn before the prayer of the church or commit some other similarly horrendous liturgical faux pas…